Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Post 26: Awesome Office Spaces

Okay. Just today I arrived on campus and walked to my workplace near Mystic Vale, and hear the keening of two hawks that live near my partner's workplace. Who knows what they were up to, but they seemed to be having a time of it.

Next, it's lunchtime, and I usually pull out a chair to sit in the sunshine in front of my building, taking in a good bit of fresh air and sunshine (I usually sit behind a computer for most of the day, looking out at the lush maple trees right in front of my window). I look right, in response to the strange scrabbling sounds, and see a squirrel making it's way up a tree trunk, it's tail helping it climb, though it also looks like the squirrel has a giant inchworm attached to its butt.

I look left, and see a barred owl in the maple tree by the office corner, lazily turning its head and looking around, swivelling in that 360 viewpoint that only owls can manage. I point it out to my colleague who joins me with his soup, moments later. He also just missed the leaping and bounding wiener dog that was chasing a red bouncing ball down the hill in front of our workplace. Pretty darn cute.

                                       Our office barred owl! Just down the way, on the path.

Just before my partner comes by for our brief walk (we do this once a day for our breaks, to counter the detriments of sedentary lifestyles), I fill up my bird feeder. I regularly get house finches, brown-backed chickadees, nuthatches, and even have some towhees and junkies that seem to have learned about the rewards of leaving the ground to find a roof-top high snack!

Twice last week, and for 4 days this week, I have been and will share my office space with a colleague who doesn't have her own. Her admiration of this old house, and the phenomenons of having push button light switches and latch-windows and all sorts of other neat features in this house, reminded me of how fantastical it was to move into this space, almost a year ago now. And, it also makes me more grateful for a wonderful office space, that is a treat to have a space to get to, relax, throw down my books, or get away from the construction noises that have been taking place outside my apartment for over a year now (I keep forgetting about that, until I spend a short few hours in my apartment when I would usually already be on campus).

My laptop is my main and only computer, and I have a big monitor that I connect it to, set to be the right height and distance from me when I'm sitting, working at my desk. I also removed the arms on my chair to promote better posture, and also in the vein, have a keyboard and mouse that I connect to my laptop, so I don't slouch down to type. As I wrote earlier on my blog, it's good to have the ergonomics set up properly, and stick to using your equipment well so that you don't end up with repetition-injuries like the one I had with my shoulder.

Having a great office space is wonderful, but having it set up for productive work is necessary. I will admit I sometimes get distracted by the birds that visit the bird feeder suctioned to my office window. :) And, of course, watering all the plants is a must.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Post 25: The Impostor Syndrome

Okay, so I just wrote my last post mentioning the Impostor Syndrome, but realized that I haven't actually written about it before.

The Impostor Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon (not an illness or disease), whereby "people are unable to internalize their accomplishments" (thank you, Wikipedia.) It's oftentimes linked to the Dunning-Kroeger Effect, which I've posted about a little bit, here, right at the beginning of my blog. I've now convinced myself that the Dunning-Kroeger Effect is the positive, wonder-full closely-related flip-side-of-the-coin to the Impostor Syndrome, because when I'm feeling positive, and on top of my game, I really feel inspired and excited by recognizing that there is so much out there to read and learn and be exposed to, and so much that I don't know. Hundreds of years of other people's ideas and expressions and arguments and lessons and wisdom. It truly is an amazing time to live in, with the internet and interlibrary loans and blogs and journals, and being a part of academia. And then, when I'm feeling the full brunt of the Impostor Syndrome, all of that wonder kind of falls away, and instead those people or ideas who I admire, become unreachable, and become objects of terror and interrogation, because I might not be fully understanding them, or might be getting them wrong, and those are skivs that can be dug into my identity, my sense of being, and can be used as objects to prove that I don't belong where I am: that I am a fraud who doesn't deserve to be at this institution.

That is the Impostor Syndrome: that cycle of thoughts that tells you: You don't deserve to be in the program that you are, to have the position that you got, to earn as much as you do, to get the funding that you did, etc. And you feel like somewhere, someone is going to call you out for it, is going to embarrass you, is going to show the world that you really don't belong, and didn't, the entire time.
While discussing the sometime crippling tendencies for perfectionism in her awesome workbook for grad students, Laurie Waye employs the useful metaphor of the Cinderella Syndrome: "where you're at the ball (i.e. graduate school) but you don't really belong there. You're worried about being found out for who you really are..."

Reading on the Wikipedia page, I am not surprised to see that it was women (Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes) who first began to do research on this phenomenon (their article was published in 1978), and showed that high-profile, successful women exhibited this phenomenon, believing that they were over-evaluated by others, and were not intelligent (Wikipedia).

Since then, a number of high profile people—not only women—have admitted to struggling with this phenomenon, including an actress and humanitarian who I highly admire: Emma Watson, who was recently named to be the UN Women's Goodwill Ambassador, and others like the formidable US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the writer Neil Gaimon. Other common demographics of people affected by it include (surprise!) graduate students, the beneficiaries of affirmative action (who think that they are chosen because of these 'exceptions', instead of their skills or abilities), and generally, successful folks.

Now, the tough part is that there is no 'cure' or solution for the phenomenon. The best thing to do is to talk about it, and be aware of it. To identify it. I know that I am grateful that it was discussed and mentioned by the staff person from Counselling Services for the graduate student orientation that took place right before the official start of my program here at UVic. I had never otherwise heard of it before, and certainly never felt it as strongly as I have over the past few months, during undergrad. One suggestion was to write actively about one's achievements, and while I don't think of it that way, one of my motivations (when I was writing excitedly about the Dunning-Kroeger Effect) was to keep track of all the wonderful things I get to do, experience, be a part of, during this graduate degree. Some of that includes marvellous things that are celebration worthy, like receiving great funding, and attending amazing conferences, and getting to spend time with brilliant colleagues and professors and ideas.

So, we need to be gentle with ourselves, and supportive of others. We need to take the positive side of competition, which is to help us become better people, and in this case, budding academics. Cheers to positive learning!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Post 24: And then there are days...

... when it seems like you can't get anything done, and truly are your worst enemy. The logic goes something like this: "Well, I can't start writing this, because I'm not done with that part of it; where do I start then? But oh, can I do that? What if I can't do that? Is this the next best thing to do? I don't know if it is, so maybe I won't start there. Okay, so because (I think) I don't know what to do here, I'll just skip to the internet and poke around there..." And after an hour or so of reading news articles, and beating myself up for doing so, instead of "getting work done," I start to feel like I'm a fraud and a cheat, and like I don't deserve to be here, and I'm a fake, because surely this can't mean 'doing research.' And someone's going to call me out on it. Well, the reading articles on the internet sure isn't, unless they're vaguely linked to your thesis, but frequently they aren't. But thinking about novel ecosystems and the social construction of nature and how scientists study the mountain pine beetle, in my case, very much is! So much of doing qualitative research is iterative, with learning happening at various points and stages, some unpredictable, and there's always a gradual, almost imperceptible set of changes around the ideas that I'm forming, that my biggest job, sometimes, is keeping track of those changing ideas.

So, we all have bad days where we psych ourselves out of being able to get things done. I woke up with a headache this morning (which on its own, doesn't happen often), and that certainly doesn't help.

                                                   It might as well be raining indoors...

I think when we get into these ruts, I go back to making really simple goals, small tasks, starting from somewhere, because it's definitely better that getting stuck nowhere, with the Impostor Syndrome and the cycling, downward spiral of the psychological game that that is.

And, it's not easy to deal with at the best of times. I've been having a lousy work week, and finally yesterday I had a brief blip of light: I received a letter in the mail (an unexpected form for the message I was waiting for), that I had been appointed to the Environmental Advisory Committee of my local municipality. I had applied for this position via email over a month ago, and was waiting to hear. It was great news. I certainly think there are limits (and perhaps dangers) to depending on outside reassurance that I am capable and competent, but for now, it certainly is helpful. But a personal, ongoing project will need to be learning how to internalize my successes and achievements, so that I don't need to start from square one all over again. I am competent, and can achieve things, and be a part of something bigger than myself, along with other people who care about and share similar goals as me. Recognizing this doesn't mean that I can't be wrong, or can't make mistakes; all of those places are opportunities to learn something. With enough evidence and good arguments, we should always be open to changing our minds.

                                       Could definitely use one of these and a cup of tea....

So. Here's to heading back to my follow-up interviews and having a good go at them.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Post 23: Manuscript or Monograph Style Theses?

Somewhere in this process of undertaking a master's, this conversation starter came up: to do a manuscript or monograph style thesis? What's are they, what's the difference, what are the pros and cons of doing either (as I've encountered them so far...).

Well, to some extent, your thesis supervisor will have a lot of input into which one you write. Your specific topic and research questions will also influence the form that the thesis should take. Do you have two very specific and different research questions? It might be most suitable to tackle both in an article each. Or, if you have a bigger, over-arching research questions with a few subsidiary questions, it might be easier to tackle as a monograph. OR, it might just be the legacy of your supervisor's research group that manuscript or monograph styles are preferred.

In general terms, here are the differences between the two, and good things to consider:

Monograph style: 

For this thesis, the chapters are styled similarly to a book. Chapter 1 will be an Introduction, Chapter 2 the Literature Review, Chapter 3 will cover your Methodology, Chapter 4 will cover your Results/Findings, Chapter 5 will be the Discussion/Conclusion of your findings. (Or something to that effect; the chapter numbers and contents can be shifted around with some flexibility. For example, Chapter 1 may be a combination of the introduction and literature review, and chapters 5 and 6 may take on the discussion and conclusions separately.)

The idea behind a monograph style thesis is that it's a chance for developing a long, fully fleshed out argument that provides an answer to the research questions that motivated the undertaking. As my supervisor promoted the form, he pointed out that we don't see this kind of long-form argumentation very much any more.

Benefits: This form is relatively easier to write than the manuscript style. It's also easier to transform research written in this form into a longer book-length publication.
Drawbacks: This form means that there is a bit more footwork to be done if you're turning your research into a journal article or two. More rewriting and restyling later down the road.

                              Quick break for flowers - these live on campus by the UVic Bookstore.

Manuscript style:

For a manuscript style thesis, the format will take shape something like this: Introduction, Methodology/Methods, Article 1 (with it's own Introduction, Methods, Findings, and Discussion), Article 2 (with it's own Introduction, Methods, Findings, and Discussion), and Conclusion. Each of the articles is styled like a journal article or pretty close to it, each beginning with an internal introduction, content, and conclusion.

As is covered in a different post, there are a few different kinds of journal articles, which my colleague Dr. Garrett Richards illustrated here. From what I've heard from a colleague, it's become trendier to write original research into a manuscript style thesis because this increases the chance of publication. Some of the 'chapters' in this thesis may be labelled with the monograph style headers, but the content can be quite different. So, Chapter 1 will be the general introduction, Chapter 2 will be article 1, Chapter 3, article 2, Chapter 4, the conclusion. The introduction and conclusion in this thesis style need to speak to both of the article chapters, and generally, the Introduction, Methods, and Conclusion will pull together the whole document.

Benefits: This form will relatively quickly line you up for publishing journal articles.
Drawbacks: Sometimes it can be difficult for new graduate students to translate their research into journal articles right away (hence the comment re: monograph style thesis above). Ultimately, these things seem to me to come down to time, and things you want to learn before you get out of the door.

The School of Environmental Studies, being a broad and interdisciplinary department (political ecology, ethnoecology, and ecological restoration being this department's three main pillars of research), certainly has students producing both styles of theses.

There also seems to be some departmental difference between the preference of thesis styles. In some, like biology (from what I understand) and other hard sciences, it is most common to write a manuscript style thesis. Sometimes the monograph style is said to be 'out of fashion', (and I've heard of a few stories where supervisors disparage the form that way) but again, keeping in mind what can be achieved with both styles is important, and will be helpful for deciding which will be more suitable for your work. Again, your supervisor will undoubtedly weigh in on this discussion. The goal for both forms of theses is to report your research findings; from there, it's choosing the best form. I think this is a good perspective to have: you will learn slightly different skills with either form, both of which will be valuable.

(PS: This post is not meant to be overly prescriptive: there will be differences among forms. A monograph style thesis may turn out with the results section being almost cut-and-past ready to drop into a journal article. Or, a manuscript style thesis still needs re-shifting, editing, cutting, to make the articles a better length for a target journal; depending on the journal, you may have a manuscript style thesis with two article chapters, each 10,000-12,000 words in length, but the target journals for each article have a maximum word count of 6,000-8,000 words. So, editing is still needed.)

As a graduate student, it is well worth the time to find theses from previous grads in your program. They can offer a guide and example of the kind that you'll be working towards. I've also found it extremely valuable and am grateful to the colleagues that have had long conversations with me about their process, tips, and advice. SO GOOD! :)

Monday, 7 July 2014

Post 22: Parkinson's Law of Procrastination and Pomodoros

Okay, so the law isn't necessarily directly tied to procrastination, but one of my colleagues pointed out that was a natural consequence of the law.

Parkinson's law (according to Wikipedia) is the phenomenon where work expands to fill the time available for its completion. People, who know that their deadline for a given project is in a week, will take the whole week to finish said project, even if it should have (and could have) taken less time. It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson, British naval historian and writer, identified the phenomenon that carries his name in an essay he penned in 1955 for The Economist. Originally the essay that discussed the effect pointed out to the consequences for the efficiency of work, and since then, a number of further elucidated points arise, including this one, which more directly speaks to the point above: "The amount of time one that one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete a task."
And further: "If one waits to the last minute, it will only take a minute to do" (Pannett, Dines, & Day, 2013, p. 65).

This is what I feel I deal with as a graduate student all the time! Where, if I don't structure my day, or set myself small goals throughout the day, the amount of work and time spent being productive drastically decreases, because, Hey, I have the whole day to do it, right? (Without defining what 'it' is...) It's a trap!

                                  And then there are summer pine cones, looking pretty great.

In one of my recent attendances at the Thesis Completion Group, the organizer brought up the Pomodoro Technique, which are 25 minute blocks of uninterrupted, dedicated working time, split by 5 minute breaks (short) or ten minute breaks (long); or, a food break as you need it. The idea was developed by Italian Francesco Cirillo, who believed that taking frequent breaks led to better mental functioning and agility. Breaking up big blocks of time into these little patches of really concrete work time can be an awesome way to break up the day, and get lots done! (For example, writing a short blog post!) I've been thinking a lot more about how I structure my time and day since learning about Pomodoros, and I've found them to be quite effective, especially when I build them around bigger breaks or markers in my day, such as when I leave work, or take lunch.

So, if you, like me, struggle with Parkinson's Law, try a Pomodoro, or two, or three, and get to using your time to your advantage. After all, theses don't write themselves, and as a graduate student, you are your main deadline setter!

AND -- if you want to become a Pomodoro master, have a short look at this short video. There is also a book for the technique, but I don't think it's necessary to purchase. The technique as described above and in the video, are more than enough to start thinking about, and changing the structure of your time.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Post 20: Being Young, and Asking for a Better Future

One of the resounding messages that I feel I've been left with after the Impact! 2014 Youth Leadership in Sustainability Conference is that we need more stories that make sustainability come alive. And then I have a whole host of questions to accompany that: what does sustainability look like? How does it translate to someone doing something in the world? What possibilities exist for me in my position? How do I make sustainability and environmental issues generally, more visible for other people?

Since retiring from being a professional astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield has been making the best of the skills and experiences he built in his career as an astronaut. And he is an amazing storyteller. I think griping people—as he did me—with stories about his lessons learned and unique perspectives because of looking at our planet from the International Space Station, which essentially embodies the 'pale blue dot' idea that Carl Sagan first wrote about, he has a lot of really valid things to say when it comes to sustainability, addressing climate change, and using human agency as a force for good in the world.
Gorgeous arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) on my walk down to Cadboro Bay.
I appreciate his storytelling. The talk he gave at the conference was immensely engrossing. All of this makes me wonder about the imagination that we currently have about the future of environmental and climate issues. Where do we see positive and useful examples of a different future? Who do we have changing our imaginations about what's possible? What do humans' actions on the planet and towards our ecosystems indicate for our values, and our general impact on the planet? What do we do if we find we're stuck in paradigms that don't work any more? How will people respond to "novel ecosystems," or assemblages of new plant and animal species that challenge traditional management techniques and ask us to examine our values when we look at the species that fill our waterways, backyards, and roadside ditches?

I think that we live in an exciting time. I am really intrigued by what the future holds: engineered ecosystems, novel ecosystems, adaptive cities. Dear world, please bring me the better future I'm looking for, where people and other species, animal and plant alike, get along a little bit better, share resources and thrive alongside each other. And in the meantime, I suppose I'll keep writing my letters, signing petitions, and asking for the better world that in glimpses, I sometimes see.