Friday, May 9, 2014

more structure or less?

After all these years of attending classes and having a pre-structured week there comes the time for each student, when they have to start their thesis work. For many this seems to be a scary thing and I remember that I had no clue what was expected of me when I started with my first thesis. In my undergrad institution there was no structure at all that would have helped to get me on the right track. I worked in my group for several months without having a real topic and during the whole thesis period I saw my professor only twice. Looking back I'd say that the PhD student who supervised me, was quite overstrained with this supervision job - something I can very much understand by hindsight. It's not easy to supervise an undergrad student when you have to keep your PhD thesis going at the same time - with a professor who is not around very often. I wasted a lot of time during my thesis and even though I've showed up every day early and stayed late my progress was slow and I wrote until the very last day possible. I would have loved to have a bit more structure given to me during my thesis.
At my current university the system is different. Still it is a big step from doing solely coursework to suddenly having a thesis project to work on. But the system is set up in a way that it gives as much structure as possible, means a Master thesis is designed as a course. A bunch of thought through topics to choose from, fixed starting date, fixed date to hand in the final thesis, a date to hand in the literature overview, a date to hand in a progress report, to give a test talk, .... . From a students perspective it might seem that doing a thesis is just another course you have to attend. But it's not! And this is the point where the expectations of students and their supervisors usually don't match. If you don't attend a course but you do well in the final exam, you might still get the credit. If you do a thesis, you have to continuously work on it. You can't do all the experiments or simulations in the last few weeks and expect everything to work and expect that your supervisor will be there to help 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, this insight often comes quite late to some of the students. They don't seem to understand that if you start your "Master thesis course" a couple of weeks late that you have to catch up right away if you want to keep your head above the water. And even if you are used to go for travels in the semester break, it might be a good idea to spend this time in the lab instead. A decent literature overview takes more time to prepare and to write than some homework about the content of the last few classes.
Most supervisors (I guess) have a chat with their students about their expectations and about a thesis being so much more complex than a course. But still a lot of them (including myself) complain about students who do not show up for weeks and weeks, who send in terrible drafts seeking advice 24 hours before the deadline and who need several months to complete the safety paperwork to be even allowed to enter the laboratories. How can they not care about their own degree?
How can you make it clear to the students, that with starting a thesis the bar has been set higher? How can you motivate the students, who are not self.motivated enough? Where does this "I don't care" mentality come from? We had a lot of discussions about this but can't come up with a decent answer. Do we need even more structure? Or less? Have we lowered the bar too much and should we fail more students? Do we need to take them by the hand even more or is there something in our way to communicate that the students don't get that we are serious about this?
Are there any strategies out there to get your students on track? I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

it can be a pain

A warning ahead: this will be a post about breastfeeding. Not related to my university work on a first glance but somehow very much related to it.

When you are pregnant in Australia and you choose to join a birth prep course, you'll notice very fast that Australia is the country of the Breastfeeding Association. They have their 50's anniversary this year, so Australia has been very aware of the advantages of breastfeeding early on. In our prep course we heard a lot about the wonderful, wonderful bub-mum-breastfeeding relationship and how we all will love it. And that it is the very easy, nature intended way to feed your child. And how we all will love it so much! There were a few words about mastitis and how to prevent it, but besides that everything sounded like sunshine, happy birds in the sky and unicorns.
This all might be true for a lot of mums, but as you might guess, it's not true for me. Unfortunately! 
During the last few months I've learned a lot about the dark side of breastfeeding and that there can be much more tricky stuff involved than mastitis.
My bub and I had difficulties in the feeding sector pretty much from day 1. He was a very sleepy fellow and it took him quite long to learn that sleeping and feeding does not work concurrently. During our time in hospital I had at least 10 midwives (all very lovely ladies) examining my boobs and the attachment technique and we tried all different sorts of things to keep him awake when finally attached.
Back home we continued practicing, as I was told, it is just all about practice. I can't even tell anymore when the pain started or if it was always there. Pain during feeding and pain in between. Some days better, some days worse. It took a few weeks until I realized that the pain will not go away with more practice. My GP then diagnosed a thrush and we started treating both my son and myself with different types of medication. Additionally, I tried everything that potentially could reduce the risk of re-infection. Sterilizing dummies on a daily basis, washing our clothes with Canestene, changing breast pads after every feed,... . Nothing seemed to work. 5 weeks and about 350 feeds later I stopped the medication. My GP suggested that I should see a dermatologist and the same suggestion came from the lactation consultant, who at least could assure me that we don't have any attachment problems anymore.
However, getting an appointment with a dermatologist is nearly as hard as getting a date for High Tea with the Queen - or at least it felt like that. 8 weeks waiting time is very long if you are in pain on and on again. I seriously thought about the option to fly home to Europe as it would be much easier there to get an appointment. By now I spent a lot of my day with pumping milk, bottle feeding and sterilizing the equipment again. (My deepest respect for all mothers who feed their babies fully with pumped milk. This is an unbelievable commitment.) And I spend a lot of time with crying. Crying because of the pain and crying because it all seemed so hopeless and the happy birds and unicorns seemed like not meant to be for me.
I'm wondering how women, who have to work, can deal with this. Of course from a practical point of view you can always switch to formula. But it is more what it does to you mentally, when your wonderful breastfeeding relationship is just not at all wonderful, but a struggle and a pain. If you have to go to work you can't have a mental melt-down once in a while. And it is not just a few women who experience difficulties with the "most natural thing". Reading through kazillions of internet forums on this topic and joining the breastfeeding support group around here showed me that I'm not alone with my struggle - which in principle is quite sad. A lot of women struggle for months and months to get this breastfeeding stuff on track. Why do we do this to ourselves? For myself I answer that with: I want to see the unicorns, esp. with all the pain I've been through, I grab every option that shows up on the horizon and promises that after the next treatment it will be ok. I want to know what it was supposed to be like from the beginning. Sounds a bit self-destructive, doesn't it? I had planned to continue working on my paper drafts while at home. Instead I've been spending a lot of time in doctors practices and with the sterilization of the pump. Not quite what I had expected from my maternity leave.
A few days ago I had another mental breakdown and I went to the medical center eve though I knew my GP wasn't there. I wanted to see if I could find a way to get an earlier dermatologist appointment, maybe convince the GP in charge to make an appointment for me. The GP in charge was a guy in his early 60's. Not a women as I had hoped for. He looked at my boobs, said that he doesn't think that my problems are of dermatological nature and prescribed some medication against Vasospasm. Since I'm taking the medication I'm nearly pain free, it's such a bliss! I don't know why neither my GP nor my lactation consultant have suggested this treatment, even though they knew of the Vasospasm problem. I'll have to ask next time I see them. And still I don't believe that this is for good now, that we've found the source of the pain and treat it. Still I'm scared everything will start all over again.
Looking back on the last few months there is one thing that strikes me: I've talked to a lot of women about my problems - midwives, my GP, lactation consultants,... and the way they tried to encourage me to keep going was always the same: "your baby is growing so well, you are doing the right thing, hang in there,...". When I talked to the male GP, he was the first to mention that he can imagine that this is all very difficult for me and that he could understand if I'd decide to stop breastfeeding. And it was a relief to for once be seen as a "normal" person, who is in pain since a long time and not as a mother with the duty to feed her baby.
Today I started thinking about the paper drafts on my desk and which one I'd like to tackle first -  for the first time since months. It's a great feeling!