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Ho Ho Ho Merry GRS Christmas

The Graduate Research School will close on Thursday the 24th of December and open again on Tuesday the 5th of January. That means that no one will be here to receive submissions, answer the phone, reply to your emails, or even be aware of your existence. So what are all the GRS staff going to be doing if they’re not at work?

SarahSarah is going to be eating too much, drinking too much, and soaking up the sun around the South Island


Mel will be reeeelaxing, having family visiting from overseas, and trying to stop Atlas eating all the strawberries in the garden.

PeterPeter is looking forward to being lazy at home with the family, and lying on the deck drinking Emersons.

LisaLisa will be doing what she’s been doing for every spare minute outside of work-time since March – building a house.

RobinRobin has a wedding to attend on Boxing Day, then she’s heading to a crib (she says “bach”) on Lake Hawea, before jetting off to Tokoroa and Rarotonga in January.

KatherineKatherine says she’ll be eating, drinking (orange juice), and being merry, but she’s also hoping to get around to painting the house and doing some gardening.

LeaneLeane will be looking after her two kids at home while her husband’s at work, as well as being Santa Claus, and entertaining extended family.

BelindaBelinda has chosen to forgo any relaxation and instead will be tramping through mud and swearing at sandflies on Stewart Island for ten days.

JemmaJemma plans to enjoy her first Christmas in Dunedin in three years with (she hopes) lots of sun and barbecues.

SusanSusan is off to Moeraki for a week of reading and walking and more reading and walking, and looking at penguins


Claire will be mostly stalking George Clooney. After meeting Claire, George will realise he doesn’t need some poxy Human Rights lawyer in his life but would prefer a partner from the oldest profession (middle management). Claire is planning to live happily ever after in Italy and wants to wish you a very Merry Christmas and so long suckers.

BrianBrian I shall be spending Christmas day with my partner and my New Zealand adopted whanau. Being away from Scotland, my country of birth, Christmas and new year is a very challenging time for me. I am very much looking forward to spending Christmas where we will share food and drink, enjoy each other’s’ company  and be appreciative of how fortunate we are.

rachelRachel Over the festive season I plan to actually have a month off – cannot remember when I last did that! I hope to spend time visiting friends in Christchurch, chill out at the lovely seaside community of Shag Point, get some warmth and good walks and bike rides in Wanaka and Queenstown and generally eat too much!

The Dean Moonlights as a Movie Reviewer


We let the Dean out from under a pile of paperwork to chomp some pizza and to catch up on the ‘PhD Movie 2: Still in Grad School’.  Here’s what Rachel made of the movie.

Recently we screened the ‘PhD Movie 2: Still in Grad School’. It is fair to say the audience of mainly PhD and Master’s candidates and a few supervisors laughed all the way through.

The script writers really have got the nuances of academia down pat! In this movie the main character – Cecilia – is still in grad school trying to finish her PhD thesis. She faces typical issues of writer’s block and the difficulty of trying to get her supervisors together for a meeting. And of course the different views between supervisors on how ready the thesis is to submit….

In parallel to this story is ‘Winston’ who is attending a biochemistry conference with his lab group. Here we see academic behaviour at its best and worst!  Thrown into the mix are rival laboratories competing for funding, inept use of IT in  presentations, and the inevitable poster session (should text boxes have square or rounded corners?).

We could all relate to the events portrayed, but I do need to put a more positive and realistic spin on a few snippets throughout the film.  As candidates were struggling to complete  their theses some statistics were thrown in about only 50% of candidates completing.  That is true for many disciplines in the USA (and indeed some are even worse), but here at the University of Otago we have a far better record – about 82% complete – and do so in a median time of under four years.

Of course the tight job market was also mentioned, with only about 15% going into academic jobs.  Again, a recent survey of PhD graduates at Otago shows a brighter picture.  Of the 134 respondents to a question about current employment, 72% were in full-time employment and 17% were in part-time employment. For the 112 who specified their jobs, approximately 71% were in academic positions including 21% in lecturing (i.e. tenure track) positions and 29% in postdoctoral positions. About 12% were employed as advisors, analysts or managers, and another 12% had positions as consultants or specialists. Ninety-two percent said their employment was at least somewhat related to their study.

The only other thing that worried me about this film was the notion that the thesis could be written up in a few months.  Technically this is possible but the stress caused would be considerable, and such a course of action is unwise.  It is far better to write little and often throughout the PhD – indeed writing should begin from day 1!

Rachel-Spronken-Smith, Dean, Graduate Research School

Postcard (scratch that)….. Progress report from Toronto

Many of you know Andy.  Over the years she has helped many a PhD student earn their chocolate fish.  Anyway she has escaped from the clutches of GRS (only for a year, mind you) and has very kindly provided us with a progress report.  Thanks Andy  – we miss you!!!

Yes, I’ve been in Canada for just on six months now, so it looks like my first progress report is due, in the form of a GRS blog entry.

I was lucky enough to have been granted twelve months away from work for good behaviour – I think GRS secretly just wanted to get rid of me for a year to give someone else a chance to steal the coveted title of Best Female Ten-Pin Bowler – to indulge in that time-honoured Kiwi pursuit known as the Big OE. Better late than never, right?

Destination: Canada and the United States. Goal: ostensibly a working holiday, but my focus was always more on the ‘holiday’ part… Sadly there was no travel budget available for sending Panda along with me as chaperone, but I’m keeping an eye out for a giant stuffed raccoon to bring back for Claire though.


One of Toronto’s many fine ‘beaches’; maybe a five metre wide strip of imported sand on a wharf at best…


 A lovely Edward Mucha reproduction street art piece at Kensington Market, a stone’s throw from where we live


 So our photographic efforts didn’t capture this very well, but I was standing in front of Duncan Street in the Entertainment District, the name of the street I formerly lived on in Dunedin, maybe without quite the same ‘entertainment’ designation

As much as I love doctorally administering to you all, part of my self-imposed ‘rules for making the most of the Year of Adventure’ included not being allowed to get an office job. Trying new things and all that… This is probably just as well, given that many such jobs over here seem to require you to be both bilingual and able to drive (yes, my parents were right, a driver’s licence and continuing with high school French would actually have come in handy after all).

Despite an offer to work in an axe-throwing business (this is a thing! People come and drink beer and throw axes for fun. I have no idea why the relative stranger I’d just met thought I would be a perfect hostess for this), I went with the slightly-less-bizarre-but-still-out-of-left-field job as a production assistant at the Lush factory. Dunedin has its own Lush store in the Wall Street Mall, so I’m sure many of you are already familiar with the glorious, fragrant and – most importantly, ethical – bath and cosmetic products they sell. On the other hand, for every ‘Lushie’ I know, there is another person who can’t walk within a hundred metres of the store without gagging….

I’ve long been a fan though, and this may be the closest thing to being a real-life oompa loompa as I’ll get. I work in the Bubbles room, where I shape and mould solid bubble bars with names like ‘Rainbow Fun,’ ‘Candy Mountain’ and the seasonal – if somewhat creepy – ‘Peeping Santa’ (which on internal-only labelling I’ve seen changed to both ‘Peeing Santa’ and ‘Perving Santa’). I’m constantly covered in glitter, and have had strangers approach me on two separate occasions to ask if I work at Lush because I smell so good. Perhaps the biggest downside is that they’ve already made noises about bringing in Christmas music to play, and it’s still November. In addition to my oompa-loopa-ing, I’ve been keeping myself out of trouble by getting some art done, and have already had two paintings in a group show, with another one coming up next week. Disappointingly, beer at art openings over here is not free like it is back home though…

I haven’t managed to keep away from universities entirely; I’ve found myself living in the heart of the University of Toronto campus on Spadina Avenue, although I can assure you all that it’s a lot quieter than Castle Street, and I haven’t seen a single couch fire. Come winter I may resort to lighting one myself; Torontonians love regaling with me tales of the four feet of snow and temperatures of -40 degrees that are supposedly just around the corner. On my way to the subway each day I walk past Graduate House, the equivalent of Otago’s Abbey College, and our local dive bar has a regular weekly spot featuring U of T music student bands.


The view from our front porch. Streetcars and autumn leaves…


Graduate House. It may look a little austere from this angle, but they have a very nice cafe in the left-hand bottom corner…

I’ve ticked the requisite number of tourist boxes – the CN Tower, Graffiti Alley, Toronto Islands, Casa Loma, Niagara Falls – and have stopped viewing riding the subway as a remarkable event, but I still get unreasonably excited every time I spot a squirrel. Some days the temptations of Canadian big city living are enough to make me consider staying (everything is open all hours! Oh the number of gigs! And poutine! Where is your poutine, Dunedin?!) but then I remember how much I miss my cat, and I look at my ever-dwindling bank account in dismay. Toronto may have a lot going for it, but cheap living is not one of those things.


Tourist box tick one: Graffiti Alley on Queen Street West. Someone needed to step in between Tom and Jerry……


Tourist box tick two, Niagara Falls. It impressed me more than I thought it would. My only regret is not getting around to taking photos until it was dark…

On that note, I’ll be back at GRS from mid-May, getting to grips with the new eVision system and reacquainting myself with staff happy hour. Apologies in advance if I mistake your freshly submitted thesis for some kind of bath product and attempt to sprinkle it with glitter…

2 Funerals, a Christmas Party and a sinus infection


Sorry folks, due to one thing or another we are unable to provide a blog post today.

Instead enjoy the novel concept of dance you PhD.

Only 8 weeks to Christmas!

Santa BrianChristmas is a few weeks away.  Brian’s post highlights the stresses associated with Christmas and gives advice on how you can get everything done stress free!

Preparations for the holiday season seem to come around earlier and earlier each year. Some merchandisers start their advertising campaign as early as September, for goodness sake!

For many of us in the lead up to Christmas we become distracted by the frenetic demands of shopping for gifts for family and friends. The holiday season can be a stressful time and the pressures to ‘buy, buy, buy’, can take its’ toll on our finances and energies. We convince ourselves it’s time to ease off focusing on our studies or work commitments. Our priorities shift and some of us may ‘take a wee holiday’ from progressing thesis writing.But wait! We can achieve a lot in eight weeks and shop!

Weekly Planner2

I encourage students and staff I work with, to create a healthy balance between ‘business and pleasure’. If you haven’t already used a weekly planner to structure your week, do it today! Include thesis writing, exercise, healthy eating and sleeping habits and doing some things you enjoy.

Or perhaps, like me, you could adopt a “Scrooge” approach and let Christmas consumerism pass you by. Or choose to focus on being grateful for what we’ve got, appreciate our family and friends and donate to our favourite charity – to those who really need.


Whatever you choose to do over the coming weeks, remember at any given moment you have the opportunity to choose to focus on what’s most important to you.


Brian Johnston, Graduate Research

Spooooooky Home Truths About the PhD

It’s Halloween tomorrow, and I for one am polishing my talons and getting ready to release the hounds on the local children. In honour of the spookiest of celebrations, Dr Ichabod “Cyclops” Bluebeard* has taken some time to reflect on the ghoulish lessons he took from his PhD.  

*Probably not his real name.

alient house


1. You realise your supervisor is actually an alien for whom the normal expressions of human nature and sociability are interesting empirical claims, but little more.

(This at least means you know much better how to handle them and what to expect! )

2. You discover that writing a bid for funding is actually a slightly more academic form of trick or treating.

(Everything in life is basically a form of trick or treating. Go watch the movie Trick’r’Treat to deepen this life lesson.)

3. One chapter of your thesis is like that run-down house in your street. The paint is peeling and the lawns overgrown. It’s unclear where the owner is and whether it’s inhabited, but the curtains seem to shift occasionally. When you have to walk past it you increase your speed, but you know one day you’ll venture inside. Or at least knock on the door and run away.

(You’ll go inside one day and solve the mystery of the house. In preparation, go watch the movie Monster House.)

Haunted house

4. Your flatmates discover that they are dealing with a potential Jeckyll and Hyde situation immediately before, after (and sometimes during) deadlines, progress reviews, important data gathering periods, statistical analysis, and anytime a new paper or book comes out on your topic.

(If you know this going in, you can deal with it so that your flatmates don’t have to. Read the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to see what to avoid.)

5. You meet your research doppleganger at a conference, and engage them in discussion, keeping a smile fixed on your face while desperately trying to find anything that makes your research different from theirs.

(There will be differences. But there is also value in people making the same findings! And Dopplegangers are cool.)

6. Two years into your PhD on the neuroendocrine stress response you realise that the best stimulator of the hypothalamic-pitutary-adrenal axis is your thesis and disappear into a recursive spiral.

(Incorporate “writing a thesis” as a treatment in your experiments. Or apply your research to the stress that often accompanies research. Stress may have positive effects too, if responded to correctly.)

Holloween number 1

7. Completion of your PhD is like killing Pamela or Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Chucky, or the Bride in Black: every time you think it’s down and out, you need to do it again, in a different way.

(There are multiple “endings” to the PhD (submission, viva, amendments, publication…). Each of these is valuable progress, even if more work. It should also mean multiple opportunities for celebration!)

8. You watch the entire Final Destination, Saw, Child’s Play and Hellraiser franchises just to take a calming break from that chapter you’re revising.

(For some people doing scary things like watching horror movies can be therapeutic! You can find out more about this in the latest episode of the Hidden Brain podcast “The Science of Fear”.)

9. You think you know the thoughts of long-dead academics and scholars better than you know your own, and consider a side-line writing fanfiction with Aristotle, Hypatia, Marx, and Wollstonecraft in what you pitch as a “Friends-style sitcom”.

(You will have at least one reader of your fanfiction (me).)

Halloween 2

10. You feel like a stalker when you meet your academic idol having read all their work, seen & heard their lectures and interviews online, and reveal your encyclopaedic knowledge by correcting them with a quote from one of their minor papers within five minutes of meeting them.

(Chances are they will be impressed, not embarrassed. And sometimes academics may not be the best interpreters of their own work, so it’s a good opportunity for them to learn from you!)

Dr Ichabod “Cyclops” Bluebeard, Department of the Long Dead, University of OOOOOOOOOtago

Sleep …..Part II

Atlas with the catsSo this week sees part two of the helpful sleep pointers Brian our awesome personal performance coach has suggested to encourage a better nights sleep.  Last week, Atlas, King of the World, was invited to comment and give a dogs perspective on these, namely cause Atlas’s human has a lot of photos of him asleep (it is her favourite time of day, he is a full on pup after all).  This weeks was to see how helpful these tips are from a cats point of view – we are after all both pro cat and dog round here.  However, in true cat fashion, off doing who knows what, no sleeping cat has been located in time for this post to go live.  Just as well Atlas’s human has lots of photos of him sleeping.

Drink herbal tea Settling down with a mug of non-caffeinated tea can help you relax before bedtime. Up the sleep-inducing power by opting for herbs that have their own relaxing properties, like chamomile, mint, and valerian. (Herbal tea, you say?  I see my humans drinking that chamomile stuff.  They do get awfully cross when I try to take a sip of the dregs at the bottom of the cup – Atlas)

Stay active Exercise isn’t the only way to expend energy; being active throughout the day, whether it’s running errands or talking on the phone while you take a walk, helps ensure that you’re sleepy when your head hits the pillow. (I love a good run (naturally cause I am a dog).  Best sleeps ever are after a hard day chasing my BFF at day care – yes I go to day care, you got a problem with dat? – Atlas)

comfy atlas

Try a natural supplement Many people swear by the supplements melatonin and valerian for helping you get sleep naturally. (mmm, interesting idea.  Although when I am in the herb garden and nibbling on some of the plants it results in a lot of yelling from one of my humans in particular.  Obviously she is unaware of how natural supplements are important to a good nights sleep – Atlas)

Have an exercise routine Expend your energy for the day with exercise, and you’ll be ready to drift off to sleep as soon as you hit the hay. Make an exercise plan so you stick with your fitness goals and sleep better in the process.  (See comments for stay active – Atlas)

Eat an earlier, lighter dinner Eating a heavy, greasy, and late dinner can cause discomfort when you’re trying to go to sleep, so go with an earlier, or lighter dinner to ensure your digestive system isn’t causing you to stay awake. (Food, Food, I love to eat any time anywhere.  I am a little frustrated with my humans, they never give me enough! – Atlas)

De-stress Constant worrying keeps you up at night, so learn to take time out to de-stress – both during the day and before bed – to clear your mind. (I am a dog I have no worries – good way to be, WWAD- Atlas)

meaning of life

Stop the afternoon coffee break Caffeine affects people differently, but if you’re finding that tossing and turning correlates to your afternoon coffee run, now’s the time to switch. If you’re looking for ways to reenergise in the afternoon, take a walk, gulp water, or trade your coffee for an herbal tea. (This dog is caffeine free, although I have tried to sneak the dregs from the Mister Human’s cup – again he was not best pleased – Atlas)

Find the right temperature Did you know that the best temperature for helping you get proper sleep is between 18-22 degrees Celsius? (oh, so important, especially if you are a double coated hairydale – I get so hot easily and I need my space to cool down – Atlas)

Check out your mattress If you’re tired all the time and are waking up with aches and pains, then your mattress may be the thing that’s keeping you from much-needed rest. (no aches and pains for me, got me a dog gon good mattress – tee hee  – Atlas)


Atlas nigh night

Make a routine Taking time to wind down in the night can help you prep your body and mind for a good night’s sleep. A pre-bedtime ritual is so important; whatever you choose, make it a routine so you get used to the idea of “winding down.” (My bed time ritual is to stare down my humans until they get off my space on the couch, then I throw the cushions off and snuggle into the blanket nest I make – night night, Atlas)

In conclusion, hopefully one or two of these pointers encourage a good night sleep.  Atlas also takes this opportunity to invite Monster Truck to have right of reply.

Brian Johnston, Graduate Research School and Atlas, King of the World

Sleep…….. Part I

Atalas asleep on couchSleep.  It is a wonderful thing and so important to being productive the next day.  Sometimes with one thing and another a good night’s rest just doesn’t happen.  Brian, our awesome personal performance coach, has some tips to help with getting a good nights sleep.  Atlas, when not sleeping on the job, also provided some dog inspired comments.

Eat sleep-inducing foods – A night time snack of Greek yoghurt drizzled with honey may just help you get a better night’s rest: both honey and dairy contain compounds that may induce sleep. (Food before bed, man, I am in.  I eat any time, anywhere and I never have problems sleeping – Atlas)

Stretch before bed – Stretching your limbs relieves aches, but it can also calm you and prep you for sleep. (I love a good stretch, and a walk, and playing fetch, and chasing cats, and chasing my tail – Atlas)

Wake up at the same time every day – Sleeping in on the weekends can make it that much harder to feel well-rested during the week, so stop the Sunday morning lie-ins and stick to your normal wake-up time. You’ll have an easier time getting to sleep and won’t feel as groggy the next morning. (I agree this is very important.  I do my best to wake at the same time everyday regardless of what day of the week it is.  For some reason my humans don’t appreciate this on a Sunday morning.  I see nothing wrong at waking at 6.30 on a Sunday – Atlas).

Atals stretching

Put away the electronics –The blue light from tech devices tricks your mind into thinking it’s day, so have a cut-off time for watching movies and catching up on email that’s at least 20 to 30 minutes before you need to get to sleep. (I am old school – This dog is techno free  – Atlas)

Don’t nap – Even if restless sleep makes you want to nap during the day, don’t. That nap may be just what’s keeping you from catching nightly Zs. Instead, take a walk or get some fresh air to reenergise until it’s bedtime. (I am sorry but I disagree with you Brian, I love a nap, especially when my humans are being boring.  A quick nap passes the time until something more exciting happens – Atlas)

Read a book – Set aside a few minutes each night to meander your way through a favourite book to help power down from a hectic day. (Reading is for humans, blah – Atlas)

Atlas on the floor

Don’t drink – Alcohol in your system can lead to a disruptive night of sleep, so if you usually enjoy a glass of wine every night, go without and see if it helps your slumber. (Water is the best.  Always drink lots of water – Atlas)

Take a warm bath or shower – A warm bath or shower can further soothe your muscles; it’s also great if you’re suffering from a cold or allergies, since the hot steam can help open up your sinuses to help you breathe better while you sleep. (Hate baths and showers, I prefer to go dig a hole in the garden- Atlas)

Go dark – Electronics, alarm clocks, street lamps – all of these can prevent deep sleep. Turn off your TV before you drift off to sleep, get blackout curtains to keep outside light away, and cover anything else that’s contributing to light pollution in your bedroom. (ohhh, I need to talk my humans about the laptop lights, the clock on the oven,  – man they have no consideration for a dog and his sleep – Atlas)

Atlas and a pillow

Change your pillow – Your pillow may be hindering, not helping, your sleep, so make sure you’re sleeping on the right one for you. (Love me a good pillow, especially if it is someone elses, night, night – Atlas)

If none of these points, or pictures of cute sleeping dogs don’t help you, then do not fear, this was part one of two.  Part two with photos of sleeping cats to follow  – I wonder whose tips will work best!

Brian Johnston, Graduate Research School and Atlas, King of the World


Master-ing the 3MT

If you had been umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether or not to enter the Three Minute Thesis competition this year, maybe those voices in the back of your head were nagging at you “I don’t have time” or “I really should be prioritising other stuff”… well the following post from our Masters Winner, Nicola Beatson, may just help you to realise that taking some time away from your desk could actually be productive for your research – go figure!

3MT NB 2

I entered the 3MT on a bit of a whim but was excited to see what it was all about… I saw it as both an opportunity to get involved in the post grad community and also to work out what on earth I was talking about in my thesis! Having been a part time MCom student for the past (won’t say how many) years, holding down a full time job AND having two babies in that same time period has meant that my thesis has been put on hold numerous times.

My research seemed to always take a back seat, however this year, I put it higher up the priority list and started putting blocks of time aside for research. So a few months ago, I was pretty close to a final draft, but I still felt like my thesis was a bit unfocused. It was through entering the 3MT competition that meant I was able to work out what I believed was really important about my work. As we all know, a thesis has so many moving parts, to find out what the point of your work is, can sometimes be confusing, confronting, or just near on impossible! Through writing a speech that described my work in just 3 minutes, I was able to figure out what my story was. This helped tremendously in terms of shaping all the chapters in my thesis, ensuring everything I wrote told part of my story.

3MT NicolaThe event itself was a great experience to meet other research students, so often we don’t leave our offices! I got to know other commerce postgrads at the heats and then when I got a wildcard place to the finals, I met other students from across the university! Wow, there is some amazing research being done here at Otago, it was fascinating to see what people are up to… It was also a fabulous and rewarding experience in terms of polishing up on those all-important presentation skills. It’s always good to feel the fear and do it anyway! I was lucky enough to win the masters section for the University of Otago which meant a trip to Auckland to compete at the national finals! I also won a research grant (thanks GRS!!!!), but more importantly I won the opportunity (just by competing in the first place) to figure out the essence of my research!

3MT Nicola Beatson

The moral of the story is, have a go next year…its really fun, but more importantly, it is rewarding in terms of progressing your thought processes… so if your supervisor says you don’t have time to enter the 3MT, let them read this blog!! As you will clarify and drill down into what is really important by reducing your many thousands of words into a 3 minute speech!

Six Point Formula for Talks (and Blog Posts)

Justine Rogers from UNSW Law is one of those academics who knows how to communicate well. She’s cracked the formula of giving a great TED talk, but the formula is applicable to academic talks in general.

I figured, if this could work for talks, it could work for blog posts too.  Which reminded me of the time I was four and my brothers encouraged me to scream out a swear word in church.

Moster Sniff

So, always remember, your research is the wind beneath your wings, thesis candidates. Tomorrow is another day, what does not kill you only makes you stronger, and make sure you have sorted your thesis metrics for your stakeholder supervisors.

glacierI’m sure you will all agree, that this post has revolutionized your life, which only leaves me to say, enjoy this TEDx Talk temporary flesh-people and have a great and ghost-free weekend.

Claire Gallop, Womanager, Graduate Research School