Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy Healthy

Happy Healthy New Year to all of you!
As usual we've been one of the first ones to jump over into the new year and in case you haven't yet: it's awesome over here!
I wish you all a sparkling year, where you meet interesting people, achieve what your heart desires, have good and deep thoughts and move your life in a direction you've chosen yourself. Have good adventures, times to take a break and heaps of fun and joy!

Friday, December 28, 2012

environmental guilt

A while ago I had a short conversation with a student, which made me thinking about my job from a different perspective. The student studies environmental engineering and did some internships with companies to improve their environmental standards. He seemed to be pretty enthusiastic about his studies. But after a couple of beers he mentioned how tired he is to live and work in this constant atmosphere of guilt and that he is grown-up and smart enough to estimate the impact on the world climate if he once in a while drives a crazy fast car. And sometimes that's just what he wants to do without feeling guilty.
Talking, reading and thinking about environmental impact and "how to save the planet" has become an everyday topic. It comes and goes in the major news but it's always present and I'm sure a lot of people have it in their heads - even if just for complaining about a bunch of politicians flying around the world to meet in Doha for the Climate Change Conference and there doesn't seem to be much change afterwards. Still I don't have the impression that the majority of the people actually cares very much about the footprint they leave in their everyday life. So I was surprised about this outburst of "feeling guilty". I'm not sure if feeling guilty is the best starting point for planet saving activities, but it's certainly better than not caring at all.
When reading through blogs of scientists, the topic about the importance of attending conferences pops up frequently. Being present and visible, meeting people, starting new collaborations, presenting your work, pushing your career and with this your science. The science we do is meant to be for the greater good of our society. We do research to expand knowledge and develop a better world for everybody, so everything (within certain ethical frameworks) that is necessary to achieve these goals is well invested. Right?
I usually attend two international conferences each year. My boss is more in the region of 6 or more. From Australia these travels can only be done by long-distance flights, but no matter where your home university is: conferences involve flying most of the time. So even if my private me takes great care of her carbon footprint to keep it small, my professional me just smashes all efforts. And estimating from the amount of time my boss spends in planes, it will get worse.
This is a part of my job that actually makes me feel guilty and I'm thinking a lot about if it’s really necessary to attend conferences. Are the outcomes of a conference for my research high enough to justify the travel? Or was it just nice to meet the science crowd again? Are there alternatives to keep and get in contact with other researchers and be part of the community - we live in such a well connected world! Or would my chances to have a career in the research world just vanish quickly if I'd reduce my attendance rate on conferences?
Are there people seriously thinking about this problem, which not only affects researchers but a lot of employees of international operating companies? Besides fossil fuels a lot of money and time could be saved... Are there possible solutions proposed or already in use? And can we really justify to drive a crazy fast car?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tweed or speed...

This article here describes a normal working day of Andrew Whitehouse, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia. He barely seems to catch a breath in between all his different appointments - but still finds time to write his own publications. *thumbsup* And of course there is always time to sneak in some coffee!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

being a student? - being a professional?

Recently I have been thinking about the pros and cons of the PhD student system here in Australia and I sometimes find it a bit odd. 
Here are my thoughts - I'd like to hear yours about this.
Doing a PhD is considered to be part of ones education, which is finalized by getting a degree. Therefore people doing a PhD are considered as students. On the other hand, to get a PhD degree one has to contribute to the knowledge in a certain field in a substantial and unique way. The work needed to get a PhD degree is very different to the work that is needed to get a Bachelor or Master degree. No lectures, no exams, no clear time table, no crowd of other students doing exactly the same homework, quiz, assignment. Instead the opportunity to work on a project that does not have a defined end product, to solve questions without the solutions already written down in a text book. The possibility to find amazing new stuff, publish in great journals, present on conferences. And the possibility to have the most frustrating time of your life, when nothing works and you don't understand your results at all.
These two situations are very different and the expectations from the people who finally grade the student are very different as well depending on if we talk about a Bachelor or PhD degree. But still one is called a student in both situations - "title-wise" no progress has been made when one enters a PhD program.
And as the future PhD is still a student, he still has to pay fees on his way to a degree. At the same time he is maybe contributing to the success of his advisor's projects - professional projects, which were rated so important, that the ARC or the NHMRC or whoever funds them. A student who is doing work on a professional level. Something is odd about this.
But not only the academics / the supervisors see their future PhDs mainly as students. The PhD students themselves do that as well. The "common" student life style comes with a bunch of advantages and esp. with a lot of flexibility in how to arrange ones day (I'm not talking here about the students who have full-time jobs additional to their studies). Skipping the class early in the morning? Postpone studying for just one more day? The decision on how much time students spend on their studies (additional to compulsory lectures) is their decision alone and besides studying for their exams, they learn a lot about time management, stress handling, learning styles and efficiency "on-the-go". However, for a "common" student it all comes down to his or her degree alone. If they fail it's maybe not good for the universities statistics, but in principle it's not affecting anybody else than the student.
For a PhD student the framework in which they work often doesn't change much compared to a "common" student. Their working times are still kept very flexible and they might have the impression, that their work/studies are still "just about themselves". Usually they work on quite confined projects and not all of them get the opportunity to see the larger impacts their work has in the context of their supervisors grant, the faculties' success, the long term achievements of the university. Their projects might not seem to be significant in a bigger context. But in reality their everyday work is embedded in larger projects, more people are involved and might depend on the outcomes of the PhD students work. Certainly the future funding situation of their group is determined by the outcomes and quality of their projects - but still they are "only" students.
How much PhD students see themselves as students or as professionals certainly depends a lot on the culture of the supervisor with his/her group. But the general university culture of referring to them as students with everything that is involved in that - from student fees to total freedom in their time management - does not fit with the high expectations their supervisors and the universities (and in principle the funding agencies) have when it come to the outcomes of their projects.
To be successful with ones projects, a researcher often needs a bunch of highly motivated and curious PhD students. And it's not always clear on what the motivation of a PhD student for his/her PhD project is based on. So, one can be lucky (or talented) and only pick those student who are curious about the science, who see themselves already more as a professional and who are committed to their projects. Or one has to find ways to change the view (and the motivation?) of those PhD students, who still see themselves mostly as students. And maybe a general change in university culture that somehow "upgrades" the PhD student would help as well...?

Our PhD students have already left or are about to leave for their long Christmas breaks. Most of them are traveling to their home countries for family re-union. They take about 4-6 weeks breaks - at a stretch. That's more than my whole annual leave! 
One of the nice perks of being a grad student....

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pre-Christmas vibes

I just love the campus in the weeks before Christmas. It's very quiet. The few students who haven't already left are mostly sunbathing on the lawns. The lines at the coffee places are short. Some of my colleagues are in Pre-Christmas mood already, so they come in late and leave early, which makes the whole building pretty quiet as well. A good time to round up stuff, get my head around all the paper ideas, that are on my list since forever and enjoy reading papers in the sun. Love it!