A PhD is not just about the science: why I organised everything
Written by: Tiffany Armstrong, PhD candidate at the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow
When I first came to Glasgow in September of 2014, I was terrified to talk to anyone. I have always found approaching people or having conversations with strangers difficult. Social situations, for me, were sometimes so stressful that if I didn’t have a buddy, I would choose to not go. So, when I came to Glasgow as an international student and didn’t know anyone, I knew I’d have to actively work to overcome my fears. It took me a long time to be brave enough to go to social events. But the more I pushed myself, the more I learned that the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health, and Comparative Medicine (IBAHCM) was a pretty ideal place for me to work on this part of myself. Every time I went to Friday Pub (a weekly IBAHCM social event), there was someone wanting to know how I was doing, how my work was going or just to have a friendly chat. After being offered a Ph.D. position, my desire to overcome the socially-fearful part of myself was even stronger. I started going to Friday Pub every week and actively tried to start conversations with people, even if it was extremely difficult to fight my feelings of panic.
The more I talked to people in the Institute, I discovered that a number of people felt the same way I did. It was such a relief to learn that others had felt similar panic at some point in their lives and had worked, or were working, to overcome it. This revelation became the main reason I got involved in the Institute’s social culture: to try to make things easier for other people that felt the same way I did, and to make sure that the feeling of community and support in the Institute continued. By Autumn of 2016, I was starting to not recognise myself. I was still very much an introvert, but on Fridays I was “social Tiff”. My conversations with people at the pub led to me being “volunteered” to be a Ph.D. representative, which came with the tasks of starting the “Friday Fox” (the weekly social event held in our Zoology Museum), organising both the Ph.D. overnight and social events, as well as planning Darwin Day. I also took on the task of organising the Glasgow Fish Biology Special Interest Group Away Day, and in 2017 took over the Postdoc/PI Seminar Series and started a post-graduate statistics help group. All these roles led me to be part of the team organising the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference. Each of these tasks required that I work with different groups of people to plan, organise and solve problems, as well as create relationships with students, technicians, postdocs and senior researchers. These different roles also allowed me to meet people in the Institute that have helped me to grow in confidence in my social skills and increase my ability to talk to people and network.
For me, these tasks were not just a line on my CV or a way to overcome my fear of socialising and networking. Every organisational role I took on was something I could be productive on when I felt burnt out on working on science. Too overwhelmed to do stats? Ok, let’s work on a schedule for the Fish Away Day. Writing not coming easy today? Alright, how about making some flyers for Darwin Day. Tired of sitting at the desk? Cool, take a walk to do a product order. Each of these other tasks could be spread out during the week into small 20 min breaks from research, but all worked towards completing a project. One of my biggest stresses with my Ph.D. was that it seemed like nothing was ever finalised, but each of these organisational roles came with something to complete – a sense of gratification. I could satisfy my need for productivity during periods of mild burnout by changing focus to a new task and coming back to research later.
Over the years, my involvement has been pointed out and I’ve often been accused of “organising everything”. Though that is an exaggeration and there are many other people in the department who do just as much as I do (if not more), I have thrown myself in as much as time has allowed. In my case, I have been able to change my ability to socialise enough that people are now surprised when I bring up how hard it was for me. I’ve learned how to network by taking advantage of a welcoming environment, and I’ve gained support within and outside of the Institute. I also firmly believe that part of why I survived my Ph.D. was by giving myself another outlet for productivity, which meant so much to me because it benefited others as well. Being part of a community is just as important to a Ph.D. as the science.
Ph.D. student Tiffany Armstrong. Image courtesy of T. Armstrong.
Tiffany (or Tiff) is a Ph.D. student in IBAHCM and has just submitted her thesis. In the last few years she has been involved in many facets of the Institute. Tiff is from Washington state (United States), but she has lived in Scotland since 2014. In her spare time she is an amateur artist, who enjoys playing video games and staying up-to-date on US politics.
Feature image courtesy of Tiffany Armstrong.