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Dr Nathalie L'Huillier takes a look at some of the stranger PhD projects on offer.
I was reading an old thread of the Postgrad Forum http://www.postgraduateforum.com/thread-12288 which asked who had the weirdest PhD project. This was meant as a bit of light banter and as a trivia discussion but interestingly the discussion quickly turned into the philosophical question “Can a PhD project ever be weird?” Those who asked the question were keen to demonstrate that every project is unique and while it may seem odd to some, it is generally of interest to someone (in some cases really just the one person though!).
I thought I’d be brave on this rainy afternoon (I do live in Scotland after all!) and reopen the Weird PhD debate by listing just a few of the research projects which at first sight seemed unusual. With the caveat that I was once a molecular biologist (and, of course being unbiased, I can safely say that there are only perfectly reasonable molecular biology projects), here is my selection from the weird and wonderful world of the Internet (although the first ones were taken from the FindAPhD database). But as you read, ask yourself, would YOU find the following bizarre?
Avian Communication in Anthropogenic Noise (http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=45170) - Actually, human influences on animal behaviour are an area of increasing interest, from applied conservation & biodiversity, to fundamental questions of adaptation.
Attention and eye movements (http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=44825) - Yes, it is possible to spend three years on this subject. If you think about it, each time the eyes move, your brain receives a huge amount of information from a new location in space. This represents an enormous change in the visual array. How we perceive and differentiate sensory input is therefore especially important to detect and correct errors in the execution of eye movements.
Individual variation in age-specific reproductive success and survival in wild yellow-bellied marmots (http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=44920&LID=12) - It is easy to see why understanding the causes and consequences of senescence (also called ageing) is important for ecological reasons but why choose marmots (if you are a French speaker like myself, this could be even more lost in translation!). Sometimes you have to select one species to study with the hope that your results will be such that they are applicable to others more widely. That’s just the way research works.
Dynamics of Nanopillar Lasers (http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=45075) - What on Earth are nanopillar lasers? Well, I discovered that they are the next generation of tools for the creation of semi-conductors. Pretty important then? Considering that semiconductors can be found in all electronic devices such as mobile phones or computers, I’d be inclined to say YES!
Understanding the underlying mechanisms and the role that pre-harvest horticultural maturity has on postharvest discoloration in celery (http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=43216) - I definitely thought this was unusual but if I am honest, do I pay attention to what vegetables look like when I buy them? Of course I do and I wouldn’t generally go for blackened or bruised-looking produce. Imagine you are a commercial celery grower, how much of your income will depend on the appearance of your produce? How do you plan your harvest and storage activities to get the best produce?
People, Products, Pests and Pets: the discursive representation of animals (http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=45180) - I love that one! And believe it or not it is important to understand the boundary and relationship between humans and animals. Language choices can tell you quite a lot about specific stances towards animals. The research will, for example, contribute to understanding public debates on the balance between economy and conservation (Think of the ethics of industrial farming, or genetic modification). What do the proponents of debates actually tell you?
As I write, I am actually realising that it is not the science that is weird but often the title. My own PhD title was a long-winded one relating pretty much what I did (a bit like those movie trailers that give up the ending!) but I wanted to called it “Of Mice and Ren”, as a tribute to John Steinbeck’s novel. It’s not a typo, the enzyme I studied was called Ren (short for renin). My supervisor wouldn’t have let me and I wouldn’t have been brave enough anyway! A title doesn’t necessarily tell you much and most of the projects above are actually not unusual, I just didn’t understand them.
Having said all that, some research looks like it suits the researcher’s personal agenda (Impact of Wet Underwear on Thermoregulatory Responses and Thermal Comfort in the Cold - http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140139408964916?journalCode=terg20&#.UaeBjUAQZ8G)! Others are just damn right bizarre. Virpets (virtual puppets), the Rope Manipulation Planning project which involves teaching robots how to tie knots (if you can’t teach an old dog new tricks….) or the Microsoft study on modelling how celebrities behave on Twitter have definitely left me scratching my head. How about The Effect of Country Music on Suicide (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2579974?uid=3738032&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21102288030747); Was Frankenstein a Scotsman? (http://www.rsm.ac.uk/media/pr105.php); Love and Sex with Robots (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_and_Sex_with_Robots) or Chickens prefer beautiful humans (http://cogprints.org/5272/1/ghirlanda_jansson_enquist2002.pdf) for journal article titles?
The one project, however, that has made me think the most has been one on the PhD thesis examination. This PhD researcher is actually looking at the traditional UK viva voce and what the criteria for assessing PhDs are and should be. For example, how do you define originality or are external overseas examiners fully aware of the requirements for the award of a PhD in the candidate’s institution? All I can say is that it is going to be a weird one to defend and an even weirder one to examine!
Dr Nathalie L'Huillier from Universities Scotland (www.universities-scotland.ac.uk) reviews the latest discussions on the future of doctoral training.
As part of my job, I often attend conferences like the ones organised by the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE). The UKCGE “is the leading independent representative body for Postgraduate Education in the UK. Its mission is to be the authoritative voice for postgraduate education in the UK, providing high quality leadership and support to its members to promote a strong and sustainable postgraduate education sector”. Their most recent conference focussed on the international developments of doctoral education. While the UKCGE conferences are not primarily aimed at PhD students (but rather professionals in higher education), they certainly have the PhD students in mind (if not, what’s the point!).
This particular conference had 125 delegates, 25% of which were from outside the UK, and included speakers from all over the world, including Europe and other so called “PhD-intensive” countries, like USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, keen to share best practice related to training doctoral students. The main topics were therefore, as you would expect: personal and professional training, collaborative approaches to training doctoral students, assessment of PhDs, the supervisor-supervisee relationship, supervisors’ training and supporting students to complete their PhD successfully. This is actually what people who work tirelessly in universities to make sure you, PhD students, do well and that you receive a quality education, do talk about. And in a way this is reassuring: these are all topics that should be discussed with the students in mind.
The opening address was overwhelmingly in tune with this: “We are here because we care about researchers and it is our duty to make sure that they are trained and prepared for the future, not necessarily as replica of ourselves. Today, students’ experiences are unlikely to be the same as their supervisors’ and it must be taken into account.”
The topics discussed at the conference were not new topics but they are evolving topics. As the value of doctoral qualifications is increasing in modern society, in and out of academia, the nature of the PhD is changing. Over the years, we have seen the implementation of professional doctorates in the UK, the burgeoning of jointly-awarded PhDs (including Erasmus Mundus) and the development of more and more elaborate skills development programmes. In training PhD students, universities are training researchers but also… well, all sorts of professionals in non-academic careers: R&D, private sector, public sector, multinationals, the next generation of influencers and entrepreneurs.
There were some really interesting discussions which I will try to summarise here. Professional and personal skills training, a subject close to my heart, is seeing a trend towards more structured curricula. One senior academic who was presenting a new joint-PhD scheme which includes a structured skills training programme put it really nicely: the output of a PhD project is the doctoral researchers him or herself. Conversely, universities are being more and more creative to try to enhance engagement of researchers in skills development, not just PhD students but also more senior researchers. But why it is important that you attend this courses? Yes, a PhD itself will give you skills such as resilience and negotiation but considering that in the UK only one third of PhD holders work in academic research, can you really afford to not take part? There is currently some discrepancy between what employers (academic and non-academic) are looking for and what attributes graduates actually display. The courses institutions offer are much more than just the classic presentation and writing skills which is good because, according to the experts, the core skills that graduates should aim to acquire are:
• Navigating the world of work
• Interacting with others
• Getting the work done
Universities offer opportunities to get experience in business development, event management, public engagement and science communication, all of which are actually really fun and enriching! So, do you know what courses or opportunities your institution has on offer? It is likely that they also have a small fund to support researcher-led initiatives. An interesting thing is that students who attend skills courses are generally more likely to finish their PhDs in time! If you are having to convince your supervisor that skills courses are useful, this is perhaps the best argument!
It is not just PhD students who benefit from skills training. News flash! Senior researchers also have doubt about their competencies and a number of them address it actively by taking part in skills courses. Supervisors’ training is becoming an integral part of doctoral education. A recent study showed that supervisors do not always have confidence in all areas of their work, notably:
• Securing funding
• Outreach/impact activities
• Managing performance and HR
• Giving career advice (!)
And that’s a crucial point, because skills development can only take you so far. Getting the right kind of career advice and planning carefully are the other parts of the equation. Remember, however, the degree of PhD may the springboard into a range of careers but it is not the career itself so make sure you take stock of your skills and attributes whatever you want to do after your PhD. Career planning is not just about having defined goals or knowing for sure what you want to do, it is about recognising opportunities when they present themselves and getting them. Can you?
Dr Nathalie L'Hullier provides some suggestions for any students who aren't returning to their home country for Christmas.
My earliest memories of spending Christmas away from home and in a different country go back to when I was a PhD student. I had decided not to go back to France (mainly because of cost) and was invited to spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family in the very North of Scotland. Everybody was lovely and I had a great time but it was almost as if I was in a Bill Bryson’s novel where everything wasn’t quite strange. First of all, I had been expecting a big meal on Christmas eve (at home, it tends to be 4 starters, 2 main courses and dessert!) so imagine my surprise when my boyfriend asked me if I was ready to go to the local pub. Leaving the cosiness of the house to be in a pub, really!!? I wasn’t starving as we had had nibbles but I still missed the 7-course meal I had grown used to over the years. As it was a small town, it turns out we met loads of people my boyfriend had been at school with and I had a nice stroll to Church around 11 o’clock for midnight mass (I had actually never been to a midnight mass as at home Christmas mass tends to be much earlier). My other cultural awakening was the following morning when we had a hearty Scottish breakfast (if you don’t know what it is, google it!) instead of my beloved croissants. Then Christmas lunch (very tasty) was actually at 4 o’clock. Needless to say that my internal clock was a little confused!
So the Christmas break is nearly upon us and while many of us are preparing to spend the holidays (whether or not we celebrate Christmas itself) with family and friends and thinking about my past experience, I was reflecting on what it means for international students who not only have had just a few months to adapt to a new life and may not be able to return home.
Perhaps here the most helpful would be to list some of the top things to do over the Christmas break for those who may be spending this time of the year in a new country for the first time. Whether or not you are a Christian, it is hard to resist holidays. You might want to:
find out how different Christmas celebrations are from what you’re used to,
discover Christmas (if you have never been involved in Christmas celebrations),
show others international and local students how you celebrate Christmas back home,
travel or do something completely different!
Number one (and quite obvious): Celebrate Christmas!
In many European countries and in the US, Christmas is as much a cultural celebration as it is a religious one. The main activities consists of relaxing in front of the telly, exchange gifts and eat too much! Of course, if you are used to spending time with your family, you may feel a little homesick but do not despair, many universities have a host family scheme which allows you to experience Christmas with a local family. The University of Edinburgh (Scotland UK), Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia) and other institutions assist international students with finding host families for Christmas. As I know only too well, Christmas may be very different from what you are used to. In the Netherlands, exchanging gifts happens mostly on Sinter Klaas (December 5th) so Christmas day itself in very much a family gathering. In France, le Réveillon (Christmas eve) is when families have a big meal and may do the gifts that evening. In Scandinavia, singing is very important as is in the UK. In Germany, the most important day is December 24th and families may put up their Christmas tree and light the last candle of their advent wreath. In the US, depending on where you are, it can be any of those. Although Christmas is a public holiday in Malaysia, much of the public celebration is commercial in nature but in Singapore, you may see parades and concerts being hosted.
But remember the Christmas season is not just one day and there will lots of things to do: carolling (a British and American singing tradition), Christmas crafts (in Scandinavia), Christmas lunch with your class or research group, carol services (most often organised by your University’s chaplaincy or local churches), having Glühwein at your local Christmas market and, in the UK on December 26th, shopping (the start of the sales) or watching football!
Number two: Have a party!
There will be other international students who are not going home so it is a good opportunity to have an international party (why not ask everyone to bring a dish from their country?). Culinary delights will include the British Christmas pudding, turkey and chestnuts for the French, gingerbread from Germany, cinnamon rolls from Sweden, Glühwein (including its non-alcoholic version) and buñuelos (a Mexican fried and sweet treat). For some students, December 25th may also be a celebration but for different reasons. For example, on December 25th, it is the birthday of M.A. Jinnah's, founder of Pakistan.
Number 3: Go travelling
If you are studying abroad for your Masters or your PhD, the Christmas break is a good opportunity to go travelling. Most universities close so why not team up with other students (international or not) and go explore the country or further (be aware of visa regulations though). If you’re from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia or somewhere with a warm climate and currently in Northern Europe or North America, then enjoy the beauty of a wintery Christmas or seek out the snow (in Europe, it is never really far!).
Number 4: Study or work on your thesis
Whether this is by necessity or because Christmas is just another day to you, then having some peace and quiet over the holidays may not be a bad thing. Not all universities officially close throughout the Christmas break (check out the library opening hours in advance) but there will no doubt be an exodus of staff and students so the office or lab may be very quiet (make sure you are aware of lone working safety regulations).
For my part, I am going to spend Christmas at home in Scotland (which is now my country of adoption). I’ll be having a Franco-Scottish Christmas, a mixture of traditions, including a big meal for the Réveillon and a homemade Chinese lunch at 4 o’clock the following day! Merry Christmas to all of you!
Please also take note of the funding status of projects when you apply. A "Funding Available Worldwide" symbol does not necessarily mean that full funding is available or that funding is available to all international students, merely that it may be available to some nationalities outside of Europe.
We are always looking at ways in which we can improve our PhD listings, please email us with any projects you find to be out of date.
As jouri points out, when universities pay to post their ads on the site they also agree to keep them up to date. We hide project entries that we find to be out of date until the university concerned has made changes.
When supervisors receive an enquiry from the site, the email they receive contains details of how they can log in and edit or remove their listing if it is no longer relevant.
There are currently over 1800 projects live on the site. Phoning each supervisor on a monthly basis to check if their information is still current is impractical.
Aloha - Pless don't use offensive language on the forum i.e. 'Delia'.
Of course its Nigella. No question.
This is a written warning
Now now children, we're sure you didn't mean any of that, so why not give each other a hug and make up?
Changes will happen soon, we're just working on getting it right as well as everything else we do here. so have patience, good things come to those who wait!
Jouri, I think Mango censored it but missed that one! Anyway, there you go. (see what I've done?) ;)
just found this, looks like others are picking up on the growing trend too!
hope work is going well for you all.
Come on chrisrolinski, we all know its a 'Sausage Sandwiches only' forum.
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