Tag: advice

Address to Tauranga Girls’ College Academic Prizegiving

I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Tauranga Girls’ College 2016 Academic Prizegiving (2/11/16), which celebrates the achievements of girls in years 11-13. I learned that the school continues to punch above its weight with our Māori students achieving at the national average (a big issue in New Zealand education).

What follows is the text of my talk. This will not be exactly the same as the talk given as I went off-book a few times, but it is as close as I can make it!


It’s honestly such an honour to be here, speaking to you – I’ve wanted to do this since my first academic prizegiving in 2007, largely because I’m a massive dork. But if I’m being honest, I didn’t have a good time at high school; I realised I was queer and came out to one of my best friends, who was Catholic, and that went about as well as you’d expect, I’ve since been diagnosed with autism which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew me at high school, my depression first started presenting and was mostly unmanaged, and of course being a teenager is weird. The contrast is turned right up on your life which means the highs are super high and the lows absolutely suck.

But before I continue to dispense wisdom – which I am going to do – a brief history of where I’m at. I grew up mostly in Tauranga with a two-year jaunt to Beirut as a child. In year 13 I represented New Zealand in Biology and the only paper I failed in NCEA 3 was biology, a juxtaposition I have quietly enjoyed since then.

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Yes, I was a very cute child.

I then went as far away from Tauranga as I could and completed a degree in Genetics at the University of Otago. During my honours year – a final year focussing on research with a major written component – I founded the science students association at Otago, presented at a poetry conference in Los Angeles, and was part of the debating squad that went to Kuala Lumpur, because when people say “now, you really need to focus this year” my response tends to be “wATCH ME”.

I worked for ACC for five months and then left Sunny Dunedin to start my PhD at the University of Melbourne. For my PhD, I investigate disorders where your body can’t generate all the energy it needs. I’m trying to develop new treatments and ways of testing treatments, because the particular set of diseases I look at don’t have any treatment. I’ve also I’ve helped run the Women in Science and Engineering group, science festivals, research students associations and generally been over-committed, which my supervisors, uh, might not be totally into.

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Photo by Yao-Li Wang.

I feel like I flail effectively, resulting in a lot of cool things like being flown around Australia, being on TV, and getting published in books. So I’m going to give you a few Hot Tips about how to live your best life, because the future is terrifying and we all need all the help we can get.

Tip number one: Say yes.

Last year I got to go to a youth leaders conference in Australia. My initial inclination was to say no, because I didn’t feel like a leader or an Australian or a capable human being. One of the hardest things to do is to say yes when you don’t think you belong or that you deserve something. I started down this path by responding to requests as if I’m joking, which is literally how I ended up with multiple radio interviews and a podcast!

It took maybe six months before I was confident of saying yes to things – and from there it was a short distance to the nerve-wracking experience of being on national television less than 24 hours after going to hospital with horrible gastro. Confidence is genuinely something you can fake until you have it.

Say yes to things, even if you’re scared, even if you’re still a bit sweaty from being sick, and even if you’re not sure if you’re deserving.

Tip number two: Accept yourself

Accepting yourself isn’t just about body image, it’s about being unashamed of who you are and your passions. I am an angry feminist and I listen to Hamilton and Alainis Morisette to pump myself up and sometimes I spend eight hours playing computer games and once I rapped about bioethics to a room full of hippies.

And I’m depressed – and accepting myself isn’t just chilling on that but understanding that I might need to have ongoing medical intervention for the rest of my life to not want to die 24/7, and knowing that that’s okay, my brain’s just a bit messy but medical research has got my back.

Everyone is a giant dork about something, and it’s weirdly difficult to accept that and have a good time. Don’t feel guilty for liking or wanting or doing things. They’ll inform what you’re good at and help you enjoy and appreciate your life.

Tip number three: ask the question

Adulthood isn’t like, you leave high school and suddenly it all makes sense. From my experience it’s mostly being confused, having a sore back, and wishing you were fitter. You’ve probably heard from your teachers that the only silly question is the question you don’t ask but quite genuinely, that is such truth. I still don’t know if I’m meant to add salt or oil when I make pasta, or how a top-loader washing machine works, or how to make pancakes but thankfully all my high school teachers are here so they’re going to save me right after this.

On another note, I’ve been keeping track of things I’ve googled during my PhD, which has included my favourite, written in a moment of weakness: “how does chemistry even work”.

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Seriously though – if you’re not sure about something, or you’re confused, or need help, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking about it. I’ve noticed that as I collect qualifications, the more that people know, the more willing they are to admit they don’t know things. And people that know a lot love sharing everything they know. Get ahead of the curve and start asking now.

Final tip: Don’t worry, it’s okay

There are many ways to get to where you want to be. It’s incredibly important that you know that no exam, no test, no class is worth your mental and physical health. I had a nervous breakdown during year 12 exams – so as long as you don’t do that, you’re doing better than me. And if you have a nervous breakdown, well, I’m doing a PhD now, so you’ll probably be okay.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned since high school is how well Tauranga Girls’ College set me up for life. The great things about girls’ schools is that they allow you to explore and develop your personality, interests, and leadership capacity in a space somewhat isolated from the pressures of society. The unique thing about TGC is that it does it well. You – and all the girls who aren’t here tonight – are being provided opportunities that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

You’re lucky. You’re brilliant. And I look forward to you changing the world.

Language and Leadership

Throughout my life as a female human, I’ve been counselled to be less emotive. It’s been suggested I moderate my tone, show less emotion, and generally never act like I care that much. The reasoning was that people would take me more seriously, I would seem more professional, and I would get listened to more.

I have a vibrant, occasionally overbearing, personality. I’m a demanding presence in a room, and one of my favourite skills is I can make people feel things. This is achieved  partly through honesty and partly through an emotive and empathetic nature.

I don’t have temper tantrums or meltdowns. I’m just comfortable using emotive language and expressing passion.

Being counselled not to do so rubs me the wrong way for a few reasons.

It suggests that emotionality precludes logical thought or facts

Often the advice comes after I’ve monologued a bit on an issue I’m passionate about. Now let’s be clear: I take care to back up what I say with statistics and logical chains. If I drop a few words like ‘abhorrent’ or have a cadence to my voice that indicates passionate feelings, that doesn’t immediately negate my statistics – they’re still true.

If I say something like “when you ignore queer people they don’t like it and might feel disenfranchised” that’s true regardless of whether I sound like I care (or indeed, flag the fact that am personally affected by it).

The idea that emotions and logic are necessarily mutually exclusive is historic and should be confined to  history. It can also be lowkey sexist. Typically women are seen as being “more emotional” – for worse or for worse or for worse – and advice to minimize emotions is likely to be disproportionately given to women.

Barack Obama crying
More emotions please. They make a difference.

It suggests that we shouldn’t be passionate

I am a passionate person. I’m passionate about my research, about equality, about eventually being ruler of the world because currently the people in charge are hecking it up big time. That passion drives much of what I do.

If someone sounds passionate when they talk, that’s not a bad thing.

Being emotive is how I get things done

A key part of leadership is empathy. As a leader, I ensure that things happen and people are happy by being empathetic, reading situations, and bringing people along for the ride. A lot of people are on the empathetic leadership bus, and it’s a good time.

By shutting down the expression of emotions or labeling them as unprofessional, you prevent the development and growth of empathy and other emotive skills of people in the interaction, and punish those who already have those skills.

It delegitimizes anger

Often when a marginalized group is angry it’s because they’ve tried being nice and you’ve ignored them. Asking why someone is angry is much more productive than criticizing the decision to express it.


 

I’m not saying I’ll always be this passionate. I genuinely don’t think I can promise that.

My emotions are a key part of how I express myself and navigate working relationships – and they facilitate that. I’ve gotten incredibly positive feedback about my emotionality; I’m not inclined to listen to outdated ideas of what a leader “should” sound like, or that an advocate should present statistics and ideas dispassionately.

I’m going to keep feeling, and I’m going to keep sounding like it.

Priorities, the PhD Way

I often get asked how to balance a lot of commitments, especially when studying. I suppose I seem capable on some level. Personally, I don’t think I am that good at balancing a lot of things – normally I just ignore how busy I am and hope it all works out.

That doesn’t work long-term – sure, I busted honours year with a ludicrous amount of commitments, but that was never going to work for my PhD. This year I finally made a list of commitments and prioritized them.

Writing a list is one of those things like goal-setting – my dad told me it would make my life a lot easier, and he is probably right. I have never consciously set goals, but if you have trouble envisioning how to get where you want to go, it is a good thing and you should do it. Don’t be like me, be better than me.

The pyramid below is (to my mind) a manageable amount, but I know that not everyone suffers from my total lack of a social life.

pyramid of commitments ranging from PhD to Free Debate
“Ma’am, do you think you do too much?” “I plead the fifth.” “Ma’am, we’re in Australia.”

The important thing to note here is that in the interest of aesthetics, I put one card underneath the PhD card – the “self-care” card.

I’ve learned that self-care can never fall below any other commitments. If you fail at self-care, you will start to fail at everything else.

Sometimes I forget this, and forget to eat, or don’t give myself space or time. I’m trying to get back into yoga (using Yoga with Adriene) to help regularly clear the cobwebs out. It’s important to remember that while undergrad might be a sprint, the rest of life is a marathon, and we need to make sure to take breaks and drink enough water.

I’ve also signed up for Adopt a Grad Student, a wonderful enterprise started by Jess Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus), a disabled astrophysics grad student in the US. The idea is that being a grad student is suffering; you work long hours, have regular stress, and are underpaid. You deserve a Fairy GradParent. It’s wonderful, and I hope other grad students get on board – if you’re in NZ, YouShop is a good way to help get around the “million dollars plus your soul” international shipping fees.

 

screen capture of a purchase showing item costing $0.01 and shipping costing #23.45
This is why I have trust issues.

 

Looking back at my list of priorities is a good way to reset the whirring to-do list in my head and remember what’s important – health, relationships, and currently, study. It’s also good to remember that this focus on my studies isn’t going to last forever and one day I won’t have Thesis Fear because I will have Thesis Satisfaction.

No matter what you’re doing, remember to take care of you.

Higher Degrees are Broken

I’m in the middle of my PhD. About two months ago, I cried inconsolably for two hours because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I would never finish my degree, disappoint everyone around me, and bring shame on my family.

Many of my friends are currently pursuing or have recently completed higher degrees. Some have quit PhDs because of mental illness, taken months or years off, developed insomnia or night terrors, and almost all of us have had a meltdown. Most have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. Many are medicated.  We’re one failed experiment or bad meeting away from a total nervous breakdown.

All of this is expected and accepted as part of a higher degree.

It was reassuring to tell people I had my first PhD meltdown and hear that it was due about now. Isolation is terrible. But we need to take a step back and realize that if this is typical, accepted, and part of the process, there is a systemic problem.

There is a lot of discussion about what a higher degree is, what it should be, and how to educate for future jobs. The academic and training discussion is an important one to have. So too is the fact that mental illness shouldn’t be an accepted part of a higher degree.

There was a great interview on The Atlantic with William Deresiewicz, who wrote a book about Ivy League schools, elitism, and depression. A lot of the discussion surrounding high achievers can be seamlessly transferred to higher degree students because unsurprisingly, the kind of people that choose to go back to school for a pittance for three to seven years tend to be high achievers.

Basically there are two types of graduate students: the ones who powered through and the ones who got a real job. Neither is cut out for a higher degree.

Powered Through

If you powered through, you probably got straight As, or a few papers out, or did something else pretty great. You might be doing a PhD because you don’t know what else to do (bad idea, get out!), but more likely you genuinely love your work and your topic. You’ve always pushed yourself – a couple of all nighters each year, at least – but it’s always paid off. And besides, with the regular affirmation that comes in the form of being published, or getting another A, or just coming out of an exam knowing you tried your hardest, you know you’re doing okay.

Enter the higher degree. Suddenly you don’t have regular affirmation you’re on the right track. There’s no metric to measure you against your cohort because you don’t have a cohort. You might have just moved countries. You might not speak the language well. You’re good at sprinting, you’re good at semesters. You have no idea how to run a marathon, but you’re terrified of disappointing people around you, so you push yourself until you crash, recover, rinse, repeat. The end isn’t in sight. There might as well not be an end. This is terrifying.

Got a Real Job

You worked for a few years, maybe in research, maybe in industry. You’re self-directed, you’ve got some savings, and you’re ready to knuckle down and get this done. You’re better set up than people who powered through, you spent some time looking over projects, and you know you want to do this.

And now, money is tight, and things aren’t working, and you second-guess your decision. You haven’t written an essay in a while, much less a thesis, and a lot of other people are a lot younger than you. You might be juggling a family with your work and you can’t tell if you’re working too hard or too little. Your relatives, and some of your friends, are probably being a bit critical about your life choices. Some days you agree with them.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves the grad student in a pretty dire position, as they have to be in control of their research, but also the incredible mental toll that research is going to take. They not only need to work hard, but figure out – often for the first time – when ‘too hard’ is. And they need to learn how to ask for help, how to ask for time off, the difference between feeling a bit lazy and being depressed, all of which is a lot to ask of someone who has probably moved countries to do this.

I did the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ANU offered this year called “How to Survive your PhD“. I’ve “managed” my depression for almost my entire life, so a lot of the suggestions, tips, and classes covered knowledge I had. But I knew a lot of the thousands-strong cohort were getting significant value from it. Thesis Whisperer (the blog of the organiser, Dr Inger Mewburn) also has many good posts on similar topics.

But is it good enough to expect graduate students to heal themselves? Is it sufficient to simply provide resources when 47% of PhD students and 37% of masters students suffer from depression? By putting the onus onto the individual student, we ignore the unifying feature – that higher degrees have this effect on people.

Unless we recognize that higher degrees are broken, there is very little we can do to help graduate students. It is an incredible waste of talent, time, energy, and money, to allow brilliant researchers to sink into the pits of despair, to have breakdowns and to not to anything preventative about it.

I don’t know what to do. But I know nothing will change if we keep ignoring the fact that these degrees risk destroying the brightest minds out there. Higher degrees are broken. Let’s start talking about how to fix them.

Conference Organisation Cheat Sheet

I am a chronic event organizer. Those convening student events and conferences may not have the background I somehow obtained, so I wrote this to assist. It will hopefully be useful for student-organised conferences and first-time conveners. Good luck!

Convening

Delegate.

Ask your team what their strengths are. Use those strengths. Follow up with people when you have delegated, but trust them to do their job (until they show they need more active supervision).

Use people who offer to help. Volunteers are an incredibly precious resource.

Ask previous conveners for advice. Make a timeline, ideally with their help. That stops everything from being overwhelming!

You do not have to know how to do everything. You have strengths and weaknesses, and that’s ok. You don’t have to know how to set up a web page, or make a nice poster, or what all the judges look like. You have to run an event. If you’ve got money, it might even be a good idea to outsource.

Venue

Your venue should be big enough. It should be close to public transport. It should not look super empty if half the people who registered don’t show up. Your venue should have wireless internet (sometimes, more than just eduroam!) and a lot of powerpoints.

There needs to be clear signage. You can send as many maps as you like via email – people will forget. Put up balloons, stick up handwritten A4 paper everywhere, but have something.

The room where talks are being given should have recognizable front and back doors, or only back doors, so when people are late you’re not constantly disrupted.

Check out the IT systems and support in your venue before your event. Put the numbers for IT and security into your phone. Be nice to IT and security. You will need them.

Ideally, there won’t be a heap of public thoroughfare. My favourite venues also have readily-available spaces to sneak off and do work in (like if you haven’t quite prepared your talk yet) and good coffee nearby.

Support

One of the first things you should do is secure the support of your affiliated institution. Most conferences will (should) be hosted by a university/institute. Free room hire is key.

Even if you can’t somehow wrangle free room hire, having the support of a larger institution will help your sponsorship attempts. If you can get a nice letter from the Dean or VC saying “these people are doing good things we like them” then you’re more legitimate, particularly if you’re younger or your group isn’t well-known.

Sometimes institutions have in-house catering that they can get on the cheap as well. In most circumstances, you will want to do this.

Sponsorship

How early do you think you should get onto sponsorship? Wrong. You need to get onto it earlier. (10 months for medium-sized events, 4-5 months for small events, over a year for everything else.)

Work out what sponsors you will appeal to, why, and what you can offer. Outline this clearly when you email them. There is literally no point in being coy with sponsors. Keep your sponsorship letters short and to the point. I’ve outlined an example below.

Don’t forget to apply for sponsorship from government branches, relevant community societies, and NFPs that might be interested.

Dear Australia Branch of Multinational Conglomerate,

I’m writing to you on behalf of People Who Just Started Watching DS9 and Actually Quite Like It, and we’re hosting a conference in 7 months time. The purpose of this conference is to discuss future ethics and disruptive technologies, and as a major player in this field we’d love you to be involved in these key discussions. We’re supported by Names of People Who Are Probably Important.

We’d appreciate financial sponsorship, and can offer you a trade stall, invitations to representatives of your Multinational Conglomerate, and branding on our promotional material. If you’d like to discuss this further or have questions, please don’t hesitate to be in contact.

Best wishes,
Sophia Frentz
Director, DS9 Isn’t As Bad As Everyone Told Me It Would Be
Phone Number, Email address.

Finally, if at first you don’t succeed, don’t stop trying! Sponsorship is difficult and can be an uphill battle – take heart from the fact that it’s terrible for everyone.

Room Hire

Do everything within your power to get this for free. Reach out to philanthropic groups who have nice rooms, companies whose values align with your event (or just aren’t literally the worst), and then to companies who want to recruit all of the people that are attending.

Room hire is super expensive, but there are ways to minimize these costs.

Catering

If your space has in-house catering that they can get on the cheap, go for that. If your space has in-house catering that you have to use, you don’t have a choice. Otherwise, get recommendations from people who have hosted events in the same area or for the same sorts of people.

This is how I found Tiger Lily Catering and Romano’s Coffee (University of Melbourne), both of whom have been absolute dreams to work with.

Over-order vegetarian and vegan food. Just trust me on this one.

Make sure non-alcoholic drinks are available (if alcoholic drinks are as well), and make sure they’re not just orange juice. Also, always have water available, even if it’s not a designated break time.

Contact

Don’t over-email! Keep your contact short, sweet, and to the point. The internet is wonderful but it also overloads people. In a similar vein, keep physical hand-outs minimal, and with important information easily accessible.

Having said that, mirror information on your website, your facebook page, your twitter feed, and in emails. Don’t just tell me the schedule will be on the website, send me an email with that because I am doing other things with my life right up until the point I am in your building.

The one important thing to include in emails that everyone forgets is where the good coffee is.

Finally, if you want feedback on your event you could hand out a paper survey or you could email your feedback form to people with your thank-you note. SurveyMonkey, GoogleForms, etcetera all mean less work for you, less work for people filling out the forms, and more fun all around.

On the Day

Something is going to go wrong, and that’s ok. Every problem has a solution.

Nothing is going to run to time, so leave buffers everywhere.

Do your best not to fret when things are running smoothly – just relax! This is all your hard work.

Delegate pack down. You’ve earned a break.

Good luck!

If you’re organizing a conference for the very first time and have a burning question, feel free to comment. I know how hard it can be to be thrown in the deep end!

Start(up) your engines.

A few months ago, I had the wonderful chance to join Startup weekend Dunedin. I cannot encourage people enough to get on board this wonderful series of weekends.

I don’t have a background in business at all; last year Fox Consulting took the business case competitions by storm when we rocked in with our team of science students (and The Fox, mysterious investor extraordinaire) and did really rather well, but that is genuinely all I have ever done. I’m a scientist, not a business human. A love for business wasn’t why I went to the startup weekend, and that’s not really what I got out of it.

Startup weekends are important because they teach you how to work with people you have never met before, who aren’t “your peers” as you have thought of them before. Until you leave university your peers are your age with largely your political leanings, and you will probably have a lot in common with them.

But because startup weekends attract, for want of a better word, grown-ups, because you sort yourself into groups, and because you actually have to step up to the plate in group work, a Startup Weekend is an incredibly beneficial thing to do. You will meet amazing people, with skills and backgrounds diverse from yours, and you might meet less amazing people that you will learn to deal with in an adult and professional manner.

Oh also you might start a business and win prizes and discover a passion for entrepreneurship and network – less important. There are a lot of benefits, but doing things like this will set you up for going into the real world, looking for jobs, and dealing with people that you don’t agree with on every level.

Before you join the next Startup Weekend, though, think about what you have to offer. Personally, I am good at finding efficiency and also numbers, but cannot code very much. Know your strengths and weaknesses, because being cognizant of your own abilities helps you to form the most functional group that will then go and win everything. I don’t care what your major is, if you want to grow and stretch yourself in a fun way that gives you coffee and croissants, seriously consider joining a Startup weekend (or, as of 2015, a “hackathon”)

Tips for Best Travel, Probably

I have attended a lot of tournaments and conferences now, and learned a lot by making a lot of mistakes. Here are some indispensable tips for any kind of tournament, learned the hard way by yours truly.

1. Always take emergency chocolate.

You think it’ll be fine. You think there will be places to buy candy if you get cravings. You think you won’t really want it.

Well let me tell you right now, you are dead wrong. Have you ever been trapped in Kuala Lumpur about to cry because you want 70% Whittaker’s? No. You haven’t. And if you follow my advice, you will never have to.

2. Eat breakfast.

Even with the (insane) (terrifying) breakfasts we got in Japan) eating breakfast each day was a must. In KL, we had to get up before 7 in order to eat breakfast. Done.

If you’re at a tournament or conference, you’re representing your locality. It’s your duty to be on top of your game. And you’re not going to be on top of your game if you don’t eat breakfast.

Even if you’re not at a tournament or conference – not being on top of your game makes you sad, eat breakfast.

3. Choose your roommate wisely.

If you’re going to be sleeping in the same space as/sharing a shower with/stinking up a room with someone, you better make sure they are a true friend. Thankfully, I’ve always managed to hit the jackpot with my roommates, mostly entirely randomly. Don’t take this risk, some people are bad with personal space.

The flipside of this point is to be a good roommate. Stay chill, don’t clip your toenails on their bed, and just generally be a nice human.

4. Be friends with people you’re travelling with.

No matter how big or small your group, be friends with them. They’re really cool people and probably have a lot of the same interests as you. An optional sub-point here is Do Not Start Dating Or Otherwise Have Relations With The People You’re Travelling With While Travelling I Do Not Care If You Think You Are Both Adults It Gets Weird For You and Everyone.

5. Think Before You Kiss

All right now I recognize that not everyone else is as into the sweet make-outs as I am, and also that other people probably have standards, but this still needs to be said because oh man being sick is the worst:

IF THE PERSON YOU WANT TO KISS HAS A NASTY COUGH OR OTHER ILLNESS, DO NOT KISS THEM.

YOU WILL GET SICK. IT WILL SUCK.

KISS SOMEONE ELSE, OR JUST HOLD HANDS A LOT AND USE A LOT OF HAND SANITIZER AFTERWARDS.

YOUR HEALTH IS NOT WORTH MAKE-OUTS.

Also just like, be sensible. I had the most awkward sex talk of my life at the IBO (age 16), because me and this australian boy were sweet on each other so our respective team coaches told us to Not Do Anything We Would Regret which literally took me like 15 minutes to get that they were telling us to not have unprotected sex.

(also ideally be aware of any professional effects this might have, I’d enjoy it if we lived in a sex-positive utopia, but we don’t, so keep an eye on that)

6. Take work, but be okay with not getting any of it done.

If get sick, it’s the best way to distract yourself from just lying in your hotel room going OH GOD I FEEL SO GROSS THIS IS THE WORST.

Take a trashy novel as well to cheer you up if you get sad.

7. Have fun.

It seems self-evident, but when you’re travelling (tournament/conferences especially) it’s really easy to forget that you need to chill out. Try your hardest, do your country/region/parents proud, but also remember that you’ve done pretty well and that you are allowed to not be stressed the entire time.

Relax. Don’t get wound up. Try to not get to the point where you want to stab someone. You’ll get back home to your bed and shower soon.