When Mike King (Dr, not Comedian) is not researching animal ethics or boring people about pencils, he’s the PhD coordinator at the Bioethics Centre. He took some time to muse about creativity, chairs, and the hard slog of research.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School
Research is a very creative process, although it often doesn’t seem it. You’re sitting at your desk, or in the lab, poring over the dense and complex writing of others, or over your data, or over a piece of equipment, trying to understand what’s in front of you. Doing this analysis you are usually making use of ideas and work of others: theories, statistical tests, machines, methods. It can often seem like you’re merely treading in someone’s footprints, not plotting a bold new path.
If it feels like you’re treading in someone’s footprints, especially in the first years of your research, I think you’re doing it right. But your feelings are a bit misleading. You’re not treading in someone’s footprints, it’s more like putting on someone’s shoes, and walking in them for a while. Your supervisors are there to help you choose the right shoes, and to help point you in the right direction, but the walking is up to you, and as you start to feel comfortable in the shoes, you will find interesting things to look at and will start to direct yourself over to them on the way.
Charles and Ray Eames were a husband and wife couple who were responsible for some of the best design work of the late-middle 20th century. Above is a very cool lounge chair you might recognise, and here is a video clip that shows the relative size of things in the universe. Both are highly creative and the product of immense skill. Yet one of their mottos was:
“Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.”
What Charles and Ray Eames did was to take a simple thing – the lounge chair – and adjusted it to make it a bit better for sitting in, using cheap, existing materials. Or take a simple idea – that things get smaller the further you are away from them – and use it to present a huge amount of scientific information in a beautiful and simple way. Both are hailed as huge contributions to their craft.
By making use of existing ideas (sometimes they’ve existed for a looong time) and taking them a little step further than the last person did, or putting them together with other ideas, and adjusting them carefully to suit the new terrain that research reveals and traverses, you’re doing something very creative. You’re creating knowledge. To quote the Otago PhD Regulations, this will be a “significant contribution to knowledge in the particular field”.
Dr Mike King, Bioethics Centre
Science gets up in Claire Gallop’s grill and she shares the fall out and the lessons.
The last science controversy I was involved in was when I refused to go on the 7th Form (Year 13) Biology Camp on the grounds that I didn’t like the outdoors. Since then I have managed to avoid the difficulties inherent in the sciences by staying indoors, working alone and sticking to non-problematic subjects like politics and philosophy.
My recent science scandal crept up on me, but in hindsight was entirely predictable. It’s been Science Fair time. Or, as it perhaps should be known, take a newly minted teen (NMT) add a science project and watch the family chaos ensue time.
The first issue arose when the NMT decided to do a project with a friend. Coordination problems and disputes over who was going to do the glory experiments meant that collaboration was dissolved in less than ideal circumstances.
These issues paled in comparison to the real difficulties that emerged. Chief among the problems were intellectual property disputes, legitimate authorship and inequitable commercialisation. Given that the mother-child collaboration is not so easily dissolved, these issues have required resolutions focused on mediation and compromise (mostly by me).
A tame academic (Dr X) came up with the idea for the experiment. After considerable negotiation, and the school teacher giving the project the nod, it was deemed acceptable to the NMT.
After consultation between Dr X and me, the hypothesis was honed and the method was devised. The NMT demanded I bought the necessary materials. I then bought the materials. The other half (OH) then built the testing apparatus.
After some energetic negotiation, the NMT performed the necessary experiments. Some further even more vigorous, and ultimately unsuccessful, negotiation took place and I found myself writing the project up. The NMT cast an editorial eye over the work and indicated where I needed to make corrections; the outcome of that interaction is probably best forgotten.
Nevertheless, something was produced and OH got to work on sticking the work on to the Science Fair board. The NMT did some excellent work on decorating the board including the addition of the author’s name (“you forgot to put my name on! How could you???”).
With promises of a cut of any prize money that was won (a cut that instantly got reduced the moment it looked like real money was going to change hands) my brush with science came to an end.
The whole process left me thinking about some of the conflicts I have seen between students and supervisors. Issues around legitimate role in the project; was I the PI because I’d fronted with the cash? Was Dr X the PI because he came up with the idea? Was the NMT the PI because, let’s face it, the rest of us were simply acting as research assistants? Even when it is clear who the PI actually is, disgruntlement can occur when people reflect on their actual levels of involvement as opposed to what they were expecting to happen.
Add a publication to the mix and real issues arise if people perceive they have received inadequate recognition for their contribution. Mid-way through the Science Fair project was not the time to work out the division of labour, authorship order or royalties. By that time, we were all sure of our entitlements in the project and were less able to view the issues with an impartial eye.
All of these things speak to the need to establish guidelines before work begins. We are all hopeful at the beginning of any project that things will pan out without any need to give any real attention to tricky matters of who does what and what that means for how the project will go.
Relying on shared understanding of expectations and norms rarely works out well. Conflicts may occur and without any recognition of rules to deal with them, small niggles can escalate and bitterness and anxiety can easily develop. A lot of energy gets absorbed resolving issues that feel dreadful but were initially quite manageable.
A Student-Supervisor Agreement and an honest assessment of expectations at the beginning of any thesis journey will not rule out conflict, but a willingness to engage with the possibility that the ride won’t always be rainbows and unicorns certainly helps to set the right tone for a productive collaboration between student and supervisor.
And what did I learn from all this? Well I’ve started drafting a Supervisor-Student agreement for next year when Science Fair comes around again. I’ve also learned to have a bit more faith in group projects. When it came time for the NMT to explain and defend the topic, I was slightly concerned; beyond effective project management, what on earth had they actually learned? I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had a clear overview of the methods, results, and conclusions of the project. Moreover, there was a new found enthusiasm for and confidence about science.
Who knew? It seems Science does have a few things to teach the Humanities after all.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School
Diana Ross had the Supremes, Tina Turner had the Ikettes, Britney Spears has her voice synthesiser, every great artist has to have back up and Claire Gallop is no different. Today we talk with Sarah McGregor and Mel Adams, Claire’s backup for the blog:
So why are you doing a blog and why now?
Sarah: GRS wants to reach the graduate research community far and wide. With the ever-increasing interest in, and use of, social media what better way than to start up a blog network where we can provide that community with all sorts of relevant information and entertaining ramblings!
Mel: We are wanting to build more of a community spirit within the graduate student community and using social media is one of the ways we can do this.
What is the purpose of the blog?
Sarah: To provide another avenue of heads-up for those who aren’t privy to the Facebook or Twitter worlds. Disseminating information to the graduate research community about what’s going on both in this little corner of the Clocktower and every other corner of the Uni that might be of relevance! Events, workshops, ideas, experiences, people of interest – you name it, we’ll blog it (probably).
Mel: We have Facebook, Twitter, a newsletter and view the blog as a space to share slightly more in-depth stories about folk involved in different aspects of the postgrad life.
Who contributes to the blog?
Sarah: The team in GRS will play a big role in providing posts for the blog. We’re also hoping for input from sources around the Uni, so hit us up!
Mel: We do! We are lining up an awesome collection of stories but are happy to hear from folk who have a story to share. If you are keen drop Claire, Sarah or myself an email and we will see if it is a good one.
What is your involvement in the blog?
Mel: I am a wrangler of the blog. Wrangle folk to write some stuff for the blog and try to keep Claire under her word limit (No Chance: Claire).
Sarah: Ditto! Deputy Wrangler.
What is your theme tune or what do you think the theme tune for the blog should be?
Sarah: Full House theme tune… the milkman, the paperboy, the evening TV! (Lame alert: it’s all about coming together as one big happy postgraduate family!)
Mel: I would have to go with the Muppets theme tune!
Mel Adams and Sarah McGregor
Welcome to the Graduate Research School’s Blog-With-No-Name. This blog is an opportunity for the University of Otago graduate research community and the people supporting that community to share insights and information about the thesis journey.
I am the Manager of the Graduate Research School and the School’s Chief Bloggerating Officer. I am ably supported by my Blog-of-Directors, Sarah McGregor from the Doctoral Office and Mel Adams from the Scholarships Office. Our mission is to share the ups and downs and the ins and outs of writing a thesis.
There is loads of support available across the University for thesis candidates but it isn’t always easy to find it at the exact moment you need it. This blog is a place where we can share resources and initiate new responses to the challenges thrown up by writing a thesis in our current environment. Check out our weekly post to see if there is something going on in your community that would help support you. If you have an idea for an amazing graduate research initiative, give us the word; you may be just one blog post away from glory.
Graduate Research should involve more than just slaving over books and Bunsen burners. We want to hear from thesis candidates not simply about their research, but also about their passions, and projects. If you are managing some amazing work-life balance, let us know and share how you managed it in our Life Beyond posts.
If you are barely managing a work-work balance, then look out for our posts on managing your greedy thesis. We will grab experts and pin them down about how to have the best possible thesis experience. Amongst other things, tips for dealing with writing woes, managing your supervisor, finding work in the current economic climate, and overcoming our own psychological foibles will be shared and discussed in our Conquer Your Thesis posts.
In our Behind Departmental Doors posts we will explore how various areas of the University support and develop graduate research. Ever wondered what a Postgraduate Coordinator does? Interested in what resources a thesis candidate can reasonably expect during candidature? We are here to blow those mysteries wide open. Want to know why there are goat noises coming from the department down the hall? Keen to know where to buy those instant-intellectual-look leather (or pleather) arm patches for your jerseys? Wonder no more! We are here to ask our departments the hard questions, the good questions, and the very-silly-indeed questions.
If you would like to write a post for the Blog-With-No-Name, then contact Claire Gallop. We have a few guidelines to prevent Blogageddon; we prefer not to slander people, be disrespectful, become the next WikiLeaks, or get embroiled in intellectual property disputes. We like our contributors to focus on positive solutions to issues rather than simply having a bleat and in the age of the sound-bite, short is good too, so aim for no more than 500 words. But beyond these rules, we want this to be your voice as well as ours.
Finally, do you know how many blogs there are that are called a Blog-With-No-Name? If you can come up with a great name for our blog there is a $50 supermarket voucher and a chocolate fish with your name on it; so get your thinking caps on and either email me or leave us a comment.
Claire Gallop, Manager, Graduate Research School