What they don’t tell you about doing a PhD: Finishing stuff is hard

What they don’t tell you about doing a PhD: Finishing stuff is hard

Written by: Emmanuelle Chrétien, M.Sc., PhD Candidate, Department of biological sciences, Université de Montréal

There are many good (or bad) reasons to do a PhD, but I think a key driver for most of us is that we are just genuinely curious. We are interested in understanding patterns and getting answers to questions. When we get data, we do analyses to interpret them and to make sense of them. But this can lead to more patterns to understand, more questions than answers, and more ways to analyze our data… and sometimes even more data collection! Thus the infinite cycle starts again. Finishing stuff is hard.

I was in this “more patterns to understand” phase when I contacted Dr. Shaun Killen from the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine (IBAHCM) at the University of Glasgow for a lab visit in August, 2018. I was just finishing up my last data collection/field season for my PhD thesis (I am a PhD student at Université de Montréal in Montreal, Canada) and was looking for an opportunity to spend some time abroad to get experience working with a new research group and to make connections with other researchers in my field. I study the relationships between freshwater fish and their natural habitats – from behavioural and ecophysiological perspectives – to better understand the determinants of habitat selection, so my research interests were well aligned with the Killen lab’s. Shaun was open to the idea and asked me if I wanted to do a project while visiting.

At first I wasn’t sure. But as I thought about all the “more patterns to understand” that I had observed during my data collection, I started to come up with a few ideas (very vague, very unstructured)… and a potential project emerged. With financial support from my research group (GRIL: Groupe de recherche interuniversitaire en limnologie) and moral/intellectual support from my current PhD supervisors (Dr. Daniel Boisclair at Université de Montréal and Dr. Steven J. Cooke at Carleton University), I spent 3 months in Glasgow this past spring.

From March to May 2019, I was supposed to do a project on common minnows (Phoxinus phoxinus) looking at the effects of the social and physical environment in holding (different numbers of fish per tank, and presence or absence of plants that can be used as shelters) on future experiment outcomes. In other words, can holding conditions affect the different animal responses one wants to measure in an experiment? Specifically, I wanted to do a respirometry experiment to measure metabolic rates, then put these fish in different holding conditions for 3 weeks. During these 3 weeks, I would study their behaviour in the tank, and record which fish were the winners or losers of aggressive interactions and other behavioural observations. Finally, after these 3 weeks I would do another respirometry experiment to measure metabolic rates. This design would allow me to answer different questions: Can metabolic rates predict aggressive behaviour? Can holding conditions affect different metabolic traits? Or is metabolism repeatable no matter the holding conditions? That was the idea…

Respirometry experiment on common minnows (Phoxinus phoxinus). Photo by Emmanuelle Chrétien

I could not start right away though as some equipment required for this project was already in use by other students. So Shaun said that if I was interested, in the meantime, I could start another project on Corydoras catfish. These fish have the cool capacity to air-breathe. They swim to the surface to gulp air, which can be very handy when oxygen levels are really low in the water. He was interested in seeing if these Corydoras were air-breathing more while digesting food, which is an activity that costs lots of energy (and as a consequence requires lots of oxygen). I could have said no, but I was already there, I was curious, I wanted to learn new stuff, and those fish are soooo cute… So I thought ‘why not?’

What they don’t tell you about doing a PhD: starting new stuff is easy and exciting. Finishing stuff is hard.

There I was, in Glasgow, with already enough data for my PhD thesis, set to do a project on minnows that could be integrated into my thesis, and willing to do another project on Corydoras catfish just for fun. In a three-month visit. Maybe a bit too much?

One thing we’re not told about doing a PhD is that sometimes, a change in environment is beneficial. While in Glasgow, aside from doing experiments, writing was easy for me and I was able to draft a manuscript. Away from home and my habitual routine, I did not have the same procrastination reflexes or the same distractions. I guess this change in environment sort of refueled my inner batteries. I have to say that the Institute is also a very welcoming environment for a visiting student/academic. It may not have been as productive had I visited another place. The many seminars and just as many social events (probably even more!) for people to get together made me feel like part of the group from the beginning. I met many interesting people doing amazing research. It was a very stimulating environment. Plus, I got lots of support and help from Shaun’s team. And in the end it all worked out.

I have been back in Montreal for almost two months now, with more than enough data for my PhD thesis and a side project. I’m thinking about the deadline I set for myself to submit my thesis: before the end of 2020. So I’m trying to prioritize, slowly getting work done (it’s summertime for everybody!), and I’m thinking it’s doable. But then I look at all the data I collected while in Glasgow on the minnow project and there could be way more than only one story to tell. And I want to tell them all!

Starting new stuff is easy. Finishing stuff is hard. And for a while, all the PhD is about is starting new things. But what I’m learning is that starting something sort of gives me energy and motivation to attack my whole workload. Looking for interesting conferences to present at, going to visit a lab abroad, getting involved in research groups, these are some strategies I have used to get work done… This may not work for everybody, but I found out it works for me. So even close to the end, I feel like I have to continue to start new stuff. Or to think of new questions to investigate. That’s science. That’s what makes it so amazing.

I’ll put an alarm on my calendar to look back at this post a year from now. I hope I will be closer to the end, and that my strategies to get work done still work for me. I really hope so. Because starting new stuff is easy, finishing stuff is hard.

Emmanuelle Chrétien. Photo by Louis Asselin

Emmanuelle is a PhD candidate in biological sciences at Université de Montréal, Canada. She spent three months at the IBAHCM during Spring 2019 working with Dr. Shaun Killen. She studies freshwater fish ecophysiology and habitat selection both in the field and in the lab. While she is mostly interested in fish, she is a strong advocate for science outreach, and values exchanging knowledge broadly, spanning everything from #fishsci to #phdlife. In this post, she shares her experience visiting the University of Glasgow, and her thoughts about balancing new experiences with working towards finishing her thesis.

Feature image courtesy of Emmanuelle Chrétien

Edited by Ana Costa and Taya Forde

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