Perspective

It’s 1998

In a large, sloping theatre in the west of Scotland (that no longer exists), a teacher brings in their VHS tape of ‘Friends’.

There was always a vote – after half a dozen classes were assembled in theatre: “Should we watch ‘Friends’ or should we do our assigned class?” I wasn’t a fan, so I always voted for the assigned class, and inevitably, our teachers showed our year group episodes Season 3 Episode 10 (The One Where Rachel Quits) to Season 3 Episode 14 (The One With Phoebe’s Ex Partner) to distract us from . . . staff shortages? I’m not sure why we all had to watch Friends . . .

It’s 2007

In between shifts at an RSPCA wildlife hospital, I catch the first episode of Friends on E4. Over the next eight months I watch all 236 episodes of Friends. I had been vaguely aware of ‘Ross and Rachel’  as a concept, but watching from the start, knowing vague outcomes like “Monica proposes”, “it all ends”, “Rachel gets Ross at the airport”, my first honest experience of the legendary show ‘Friends’ was uniquely insular. My internet access was a weekly sojourn to the pub with my laptop, and I never thought to mention that I was watching a show that had finished three years ago.

In this virgin state I think that Ross is a manipulative arse, that Joey and Phoebe are feeble, that Rachel is spoiled, that Chandler is cute, and that Monica’s ethos echoes my own entirely.

It’s 2018 . . . just.

‘Friends’ is on Netflix. Since moving to Edinburgh and fulling assuming the mantle of ‘scientist’, a lot has changed. ‘Friends’ left UK television in 2011. For one, I now understand why my teachers thought a single hours of ‘Friends’ was preferable to teaching on a Friday at the end of term.

Ross seems sweet. Phoebe is an independent spirit. Monica is representative of my darkest impulses. Chandler, a manifestation of my fears. Joey needs protected and Rachel is just beautiful. Millenials find ‘Friends’ problematic says the Independent. Generation Z, I think, primly.

My time with the RSPCA is over ten years ago, my time in that auditorium in the early naughties is over fifteen years ago. It’s almost half my lifetime. I have a couple of GAP shirts that I wear over t-shirts when I can’t be arsed, but ‘Friends’ makes me think that I might be able to rock that as a ‘look’. Maybe when I’m publishing my book, I can hustle my friends out the door in black tie garb. I want a ‘Rachel’ haircut but I’m afraid of what my stylist will say.

Perspective is an interesting thing. ‘Friends’ has followed me throughout a career where I have conducted research and educated. But more crucially, while explaining to my cat why the ‘Marcel‘ storyline is no longer appropriate, I realised that Athena has been with me for 39 months. My PhD lasted a total of 39 months. Come the end of this month, I will have lived with Athena longer than I lived with my PhD.

Right now, Athena is telling me it is ‘bed time’. Her whole life is the same amount of time as one of the most stressful periods of my life. She is barely aware of the blog post that’s  been brewing in my mind about the importance of a teacher’s opinion to their student’s. She knows, vaguely, that I have been ‘busy’ recently. She dislikes my work laptop.

Over half my life ago, I did not know I’d be here, but I would watch ‘Friends’ and think these people were so cool. Today, I have no idea what the next fifteen years will bring, but I am quietly amused, wondering how ‘Friends’ will be shown to us then, and how I will remember those 40 short months of my PhD. Perspective is a fleeting thing, but right now, perspective is a memory of what was, and still laughing when Ross tried to explain the theory evolution to his friends.

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Renewal Season

It’s February, and what I have come to think of as contract renewal season. I’m reasonably confident of continuing the work I’m doing, which is split between coordinating the online MSc (mostly student wrangling, as I think of it), teaching and coordinating my two undergrad modules, miscellaneous knowledge transfer activities, and any bits of research I can stick my fingers into.

There’s a part of me that’s afraid of losing out on the research forever, and wants to get a postdoc. But it’s time for a confession: I hate the postdoc lifestyle. The uncertainty and enforced nomadicity wreaks havoc on my anxiety. So on balance, I’m happier to take on student wrangling and get to foster other peoples’ research in the best way that I can.

But the big news being circulated among my colleagues this week has been the news of Bristol University veterinary lecturer who was fired for not bringing in enough research money. Now if there’s anything guaranteed to send chills down the spine of an academic, its actually being judged on the merit of your work.

I’m being facetious. I feel very sorry for the lecturer in question, and the Epigram (Bristol Uni’s student paper) has a more detailed account of the disciplinary process brought against this lecturer. It must be deeply unpleasant going through several rounds of being told you must get more money or else.

We were asked, on our MOOC, how animal behaviour and welfare research happens – it’s a constant fight for funding and the numbers of graduates wanting to go into academia far outstrips the monies available. It is a hard, hard place to be in.

Of the five animal behaviour PhD students who were around when I started, three of us are teaching, one of us supporting academic innovation and business, and the fifth has a postdoc further from her home than she would like. I think we all enjoy what we do, and I don’t know that any of us would do anything different, but there are eight behaviour PhD students I can name in our office. There are probably more I can’t name.

There is always the work, there just isn’t always the money.

I don’t know how universities are supposed to do this, but I wish they’d figure it out.

Fluffy Friday – Personality and Trait Theory

Oh, hey, Crash Course have done a video about measuring personality

 

That’s kind of my thing.  Although the video talks more about trait theory and self than concepts behind how we measure it, which is what I’m interested in, it’s pretty cool. It notes that traits are used to ‘predict behaviour and attitude’ but it doesn’t really get into the idea that we’re only using models and hence the models are infinitely variable. The simpler your model (e.g. the big five personality traits) you have less power to predict specific behaviours, but it’s general enough to apply to most humans and even some other animal species. That’s why we tend to go for the two-trait model for animals (also known as active/passive coping).

Anyway, I’m just bitter because my massive paper on the subject hasn’t been published yet.

And it would be really cool if we could try floating imaginary scenarios past animals . . .

Retrospectively

I’ve been doing a lot of navel gazing lately, professionally speaking of course, because June is a month of anniversaries for me. Most recently, June marks one year since walking out of my PhD viva and being called Doctor. It marks five years since finishing my undergraduate program. It marks ten years since my last day in high school. And it marks my twenty eighth birthday. Navel gazing has been rife. I have a mounting concern that I will never be a real adult.

With that being said, I feel like it’s a good time to take stock of my career, particularly as I was recently reminded of how hard it is for final year PhD students to see anything other than the doom and gloom that surrounds you in that period of your life. So this is my attempt to show you that one day you’ll feel good again.

Earlier this month I was supposed to be converting  some slides for our MOOC when I was sucked into the ThesisWhisperer blog, taken there by a link and then unable to keep clicking through the stories. It reminded me just how awful I felt when I was finishing up. I felt defeated, utterly, and handing over the thesis was nothing like the victory I thought it would be when I started.

I was sick. I handed in my PhD thesis covered in chicken pox blisters (unbelievably, the third time I’d had the infection). In the six months that ran up to my submission date I had been constantly ill with sore throats, migraines and repeated colds. My insomnia had never been so bad, I cried in our work’s canteen, and I was so ready to walk away from the office and never return.

Except I was back the next week because I’d scored a three week contract. Despite my conviction that I was out, I couldn’t turn down the money. That led to a month’s contract. Then a three month contract, then a six month contract, and now I have guaranteed paycheques up until the end of March.

 

 

The Valley of Shit

The ThesisWhisperer blog talks about the Valley of Shit, and I can remember my valley vividly. It lasted from roughly December 2012 – May 2013 when I handed in.

I’m a competitive person. I like to be the best, and I’d work for nothing if people told me I was wonderful (please don’t tell my HR department). My PhD was the first time I’d ever had to confront the fact I wasn’t the best. My PhD made me confront the fact that not only was I not the best, I wasn’t even in the top percentiles. That was a hard, hard lesson to learn.

Approximately a month before I submitted, my PhD’s key paper was rejected from a journal because of one reviewer’s comments (the worst paper they’d ever read, they couldn’t believe my coauthors had deigned to put their name on it). I cried in the cafeteria in front of my bemused supervisor. She told me I’d need to develop thicker skin, which seemed absolutely impossible.

This month another paper of mine was rejected from a journal (although the comments I admit were much more positive and it was rejected from a very well respected journal that was a bit of a long shot). It barely registered on my radar.

I think this is a big part of the Valley of Shit. Everything feels like the end of the world. I remember being on the phone to my mother and asking her if she would still love me when I failed. Which is ludicrous, of course, but still something I felt I needed to ask. So, yes, the Valley of Shit exists. I clearly lost all perspective in this period of my life.

 

 

The Plateaus of Okay

My viva was a long and arduous one that resulted in remarkably few corrections, at least from my point of view. A few months after I’d submitted my corrections and the University’s Senate agreed I could be awarded the degree of PhD, I got my six month contract extension.

One morning I was in the shower, washing my hair, and I felt a distinct sense of unease. It took a moment but I realised what was unnerving me: I had nothing to worry about. For so long I’d been thinking of the PhD and finally there was nothing to be fretting over. What could I think about instead?

I think I ended up reading the shampoo bottle. It took a while to relearn the art of the shower daydream.

It takes a long time to adjust to being on the Plateau of Okay. There are little things, like not wanting to take all your holiday days because you want to be invaluable. There are big things, like fretting over the fact I still don’t have a postdoc and I’m moving further away from research and into education instead. The thing about the Plateau is that you have the space to remember how to cope with these challenges.

Just before Christmas I was offered an interview for a job that I didn’t really want. The interview was at an inconvenient time and in an inconvenient place. But it was a full time, permanent position and with a higher salary than I’m on right now. After some deliberation I declined the interview, and felt sick for the rest of the day.

In the Plateau you start to make your choices based on what you want, rather than what you’re frightened of. And that in itself is terrifying. I’ve turned down a few jobs and interviews because they’re not quite what I want, and I still wonder if that was the right thing to do. I’ve also been turned down for jobs I thought were perfect for me, and that is what the pub and your friends are for. In the Plateau, it’s not about losing the fear, but recognising you have choices again. You’re no longer trudging endlessly, you can go in any direction.

It’s pretty intoxicating.

 

 

The Peaks of Happiness

This month I won some project money (a small amount, certainly no postdoc, but still). I have enjoyed what I’ve been doing thoroughly. I’ve booked a holiday with all those holiday days I didn’t use last year. And I got my longest contract extension yet.

When I was reading the ThesisWhisperer I realised I was at the Peak of Happiness. All the things that upset me about academia are obstacles to deal with in a few months time (like the next contract extension, my lack of paper output this year, how I’m supposed to do grown up things like buy a house or a pet when I don’t know where I’ll be next year . . .) I was feeling truly elated.

This time last year I could not have believed that I would be this happy.

A peak means there must be another valley further on. The very fact that I know I’ll need another contract extension, that there are still grants that need to be won, and that if I want to leave those parts of my life behind I’ll have to sacrifice the parts of academia I love. You can’t just stay on the peaks of life, but you can hope the plateaus keep climbing, which is what I have decided to do. I’m not afraid of the deep dark valleys right now, because they inevitably end. As the poet said, this too shall pass.

 

 

But most importantly of all, in a few months time I’ll be going to my high school class’s ten year reunion. I guess I could introduce myself as a pet psychiatrist.

Fluffy Friday – WolfQuest Part Two

Welcome to FluffyScience’s ‘Fluffy Friday’! This will be a semi-regular slot on the blog reserved for silly pieces such as talking about educational gaming, personal stories, etc. I figure that by having a regular slot for it, we can keep a good balance between the fun stuff and the serious work.

So what have you got this week? First – we have the continuing adventures of Fluffy and her mate Diet Coke as they try to fulfil their genetic imperative on the slopes of Amethyst Mountain in Part Two of WolfQuest!

 

 

Secondly, Wednesday’s post on anthropology reminded me of something I’d written a few years ago. I’ve kept a diary throughout my PhD and my first experiment involved me spending 12 hours a day with a group of cows over a three week period. Much of this was because I wanted the cows to habituate to me before I started my behavioural observations. As a result you get to know the individuals very well indeed.

Somewhat facetiously, I must admit, I started recording my day-to-day interactions as if I was living with a tribe. A parody of the 19th Century Anthropologist. Based on this week’s discussion I’m amazed at how pertinent this four year old piece of writing is! I present the whole thing for your reading pleasure:

I had been lobbying for some months to visit the native cow tribes of the countryside. Visas took time, the locals were not willing to invite another documenter that will fall afoul of their own personal Everest – the Cow Tribe.

Still, after much negotiating, and agreeing that I would not bring a camera, I was able to gain access for three weeks. All I brought with me was a small, slim notebook, a palm computer and a selection of gifts for the Tribe if I was lucky enough to gain access.

Day One

I’m met by a friendly local. Like most of the villagers around here their language is almost incomprehensible to those raised in cities and I am thankful for my many years in other countrysides. I need no translator and with a small amount of effort at first I can make myself understood. The locals are wary, they know I will create more work for them, and they insist I stay with them and not in the Tribe. Previous researchers have been lost. I assure them this won’t happen to me and my guide leads me to the Tribe. My initial meeting with them is a dizzying blur of their peculiar naming system and splodgy faces. There’s evidently a strict hierarchy and communication that I am clueless of. The locals are sympathetic but they seem to expect this. I leave the Tribe with some relief that evening and return to my humble dwelling. It’s not perfect, but it is away from the Tribe, and gives me some time to collect my thoughts.

Day Two
I rise earlier than I would usually in order to be present for the Tribe’s morning rituals. Their milking is evidently an important routine, but they greet it with a strange mixture of impatience and irritation that I do not expect. I attempt to immerse myself in their culture, in their worship of Feed Truck. Feed Truck is displeased today and they are not allowed to reach their feed face. This displeases the matriarch 1019. She is a large, old cow with a grey face. She is almost dinosaur like in her physical appearance, with a large arching back and powerful shoulders. She is from another era, and she completely intimidates me.

Day Three
The Feed Truck is pleased with whatever penance the Tribe had paid and they are fed in time. However, the penance appears to be that one of the youngest members of the Tribe lost her sacred collar over night. These tokens appear to have religious symbology for the Tribe. I find the collar in one of their beds and return it to the young member, allowing her to once again approach the holy feed face. Although she reacts with annoyance, I feel as though I have done something for her that no one else could have. I hope her gods are happy with her now.

Day Four
Today is a day of celebration for the Tribe, one of their members is fertile. She is chasing all of the others, even the Matriarch at times. The Tribe tolerate this for a while, but will see her off when she becomes too persistent. I wonder at their behaviour. In her position, they are just as eager to show their amorous intentions. The Tribe appear to place great significance on their fertility, painting themselves differently when they are in-calf. I try to remember this.

The locals assign me an assistant, another traveller like myself. Girl and I are allowed access to the Tribe, although she must return to the locals more often, whereas I am allowed to be isolated with my Tribe.

I realise I begin to think of the Tribe as my own and know that I must curtail this line of thinking. I do not want to become one of those others . . .

Day Five
I am beginning to understand the Tribe. 1019 is the undisputed leader, deferred to in all manners relating to the Feed Truck God and feed face temple. Her ‘muscle’ as it were is 1405, an older Tribe Member who is quite simply massive. I expect some kind of power struggle between them, but 1405 is content in her place. The Tribe members then decrease in number to the youngest ones who are small and still slightly long haired. They are wariest of me and have no desire to communicate, whereas the older Tribe members have begun to approach me, and discuss the Feed Truck God, as well as the importance of their beds and the irritation that is the sludge scraper. I am honoured by their attention.

Day Six
The Matriarch has evidently passed some kind of judgement on me for her acolytes have accepted my presence in every facet of their lives. I am allowed to be present whenever I choose and I find their company soothing. When I return to the locals I am compelled to tell them of the Tribe’s activity. They are interested, but seem concerned at the amount of time I spend with the Tribe and continuously ask if ‘everything is going well?’ I reply that it is. My Tribe is fine. The Tribe members have started to groom me if I wait long enough with them. Their tongues are rough.

Day Seven
The Tribe were greatly disturbed today by a festival that the locals put on. This involved some kind of appearance by someone the locals worship, but who the Tribe regards as a devil. The Foot Trimmer Daemon selected six of the Tribe and I was complicit in this, wishing to observe every aspect of their lives. The Tribe were not pleased with me and I was forced to sacrifice my left index finger by having it jammed between a steel bar and one of the Tribe’s horn butt. The pain is intense but I cannot react as I would normally for the local children are there, and the Tribe know this. I nurse my wounds and retreat, I feel this festival has set my entire study back.

Day Eight
The Matriarch has announced that I may stay an extra day, a reprieve for my sins yesterday. I get the sense that the Tribe has some affection for me as 1825, one of the youngest, starts to eat my sleeve. I record of this in my palm computer which they have taken to calling my little demon. The Tribe accept me and my strange ways as I accept they and theirs. It is a comforting relationship and when I leave in the evening, I am somehow . . . tense.

Day Nine
One of the Tribe’s sister groups roams in a pen near to my Tribe. One of the locals discovered that one of the sisters had trapped her head in a pen. I go to assist, and though she frees herself, I get the feeling the Matriarch is pleased with me. I enjoy my time with the Tribe more than with the locals, and I feel they even enjoy spending time with Girl.

Day Ten
It strikes me today that I misjudged many of the Tribe when I first arrived. I wonder now why I ever thought 1405 was only the ‘muscle’. She is second in command, constantly at 1019’s side and pushing the smaller Tribe members aside. Today she initiates a grooming session with me. I can barely move for excitement, although her strong licks almost send me flying.

Day Eleven
Disaster strikes. The Feed Truck God makes a delay before his morning appearance. 1586, the best singer in the Tribe, raises her voices to the heavens in order to inform them they have forgotten to send their blessed angel. I try to reassure the Tribe that their Feed Truck God will come soon, he has just been delayed, but they disagree. One of them, 1541, who is small and strange looking, suggests we must sacrifice Girl to appease him. I discourage this firmly, and sure enough Feed Truck God appears. 1541 subsides, but she does not go to the feed face temple for some time. I am concerned. Later that evening I realise she is not as young as I first thought, in fact she is one of the older Tribe members, though small. She is also wearing the paint of an in-calf Tribe member, and I am surprised for some reason. She then disappears under my nose and reappears on the wrong side of the gates I promised to man for the locals. I fetch her with little difficulty, but I am informed by the others that she is their shaman.

I return to my dwelling and wonder about this.

Day Twelve
Today my ‘demon’, my palm computer that so fascinates the Tribe breaks. 1541 is watching me from her bed, saying nothing. I spend some time fixing it but I have lost precious notes. I am concerned that the Tribe are saying 1541 caused my demon to flee. I observe their rituals, but I do not believe. If I believed I would be in danger of losing myself. When Girl comes in, 1541 says nothing, but merely turns away.

Day Thirteen
Yet again my ‘demon’ breaks. I replace it with another that the locals have gifted me and it breaks also. I am terrified, and 1541 is watching everything I do. She wants the Girl. I cannot give her that, but I can wake Girl early for an emergency as I try to fix the demons frantically. My demons work suddenly and I sense that 1541 is appeased by Girl’s missed sleep, although I am later told she would have preferred spilled blood.

Day Fourteen
Girl attends the whole of the morning milking ritual, which greatly appeased 1541. I gift the Tribe with the jewellery I have brought and hope they like it. As we are waiting for the afternoon milking ritual to begin, I tentatively begin to groom 1541. The Matriarch is revealed to be in-calf yet again and her paint is changed. This is some celebration for the Tribe, and the Feed Truck God is lenient. I am content to sit among the Tribe that evening, in the sweltering heat, listening to 1584 gently singing as she eats.

Day Fifteen
The jewellery I have provided the Tribe with is now encased with dirt and sawdust, as everything is that the Tribe appreciates. I realise that I am one with the Tribe, that I am Tribe. I lean against 1541 as we wait for the afternoon milking ritual, and one of the younger Tribe members licks the left over feed from my arm.

Day Sixteen
A local invades the Tribe’s territory to provide some essential maintenance. 1599, the Tribe’s best hunter, is assigned to investigate. She once followed a flightless pigeon all the way through the pen, and I watched as she almost caught it before it escape through the fence. The Tribe and I all agreed it was a marvellous feat to even have her nose so close to its tail feathers, though 1599 is a proud individual, and was saddened to lose the bird. Today she investigates the man very slowly, and his power tools. She captures one successfully and he is forced to move.

I have negotiated for extra food from the Food Truck God, and this wins me great approval. With 1599’s success and my own, the Tribe is content this evening.

Day Seventeen
I am supposed to be returning soon, and I barely remember civilisation. I barely remember non-Tribe living. The fumbling of the afternoon milking ritual by the new young local priest irritates the Tribe, and I share their annoyance, share their jubilation when they finally return to the pens. As we wait, I find myself falling asleep against 1541’s flank and she takes me on a dream walk. We are interrupted by a laughing local, but I am oddly touched by 1541’s power.

How will I leave the Tribe when they have so much to teach me?

Day Eighteen
The Tribe do not want me to leave. They are incessantly grooming me, their rough tongues curling around my arms and pulling me into their mouths. I am concerned suddenly about why they were so keen to sacrifice Girl. The Feed Truck God is equally displeased and is late again, the Tribe sing for him and I find myself begging 1541 as my demon begins to play up. I think I will stay.

Day Nineteen
The locals have come for me. They say the Tribe must move on to newer pastures where I may not follow. I notice 1019 has a scratch on her hip that she did not have yesterday and I am suddenly afraid for the old Matriarch. I hope she continues her long and wise life. I hope 1541 remains strong and small. I want to know which of the young Tribe will grow to be as big as 1405, and if 1599 will ever catch her pigeon or if 1586 will ever stop singing. Will 1494 stop kneeling all the time and will 1825 learn that she doesn’t need to perch on the ridge of the feed face temple to get in? All these questions I can not answer because I must leave.

I return to civilisation and it feels odd, strange. I wonder what I will do tomorrow when there is no morning milking ritual for me, and yet for the Tribe it will continue. Their lives will continue as mine does not. I will miss them.

Personalities – Part One

One of my all time favourite topics is that of animal personality. In fact my PhD was centred around animal personality, using some nifty new technology to explore the phenomenon. Most of my papers are about how personality affects the lives of cows.

Don’t laugh. That’s genuinely what my PhD is in.

There are actually plenty of production and welfare reasons to study this in cattle, but today I want to talk to you about one of the basic concepts of personality.

Let’s Talk Science

You’ve heard people talk about personality traits or dimensions (I’ll use traits for the rest of this article), but what do you know about personality traits? I’m going to give you a very complicated sciency sounding sentence here, and by the end of this article, I think you’ll understand it.

Are you ready?

Are you sure?

Personality traits are a statistical construct based on the behavioural variation displayed number of individuals sampled.

Let me explain . . .

Continue reading “Personalities – Part One”