How to finish a PhD ‚Äď part two: keep calm and exercise

This post should definitely come with a disclaimer: I AM NOT AN EXERCISER. I am the opposite of exercise. I occasionally do it (infrequently enough that when I told my boyfriend yesterday I had a new running technique, he replied “What? Not running?”), but here’s the lowdown on that situation:

How I *think I look while exercising:

*not even really

How I actually look:

But the sense of serendipity was not lost on me when one morning I¬†was out running and my favourite podcast had a really interesting piece about how detrimental¬†long periods of sitting can be to our health. Here’s the piece.¬†(And if you don’t already listen to Quirks and Quarks, why the hell not??)

People who spend a lot of their day sitting are at a much higher risk of diabetes¬†and¬†cardiovascular disease.¬†The study also found that even people who do quite a lot of exercise are still at risk¬†if they then go and sit in an office all day – so imagine the rest of us shmucks, who barely exercise at all? PhD students, especially those in your write-up year – think critically about how much time you spend on your butt. I’m not even a field-based biologist but the transition into full-time office worker was really striking for me as I entered my final year. So how’s that for a motivator?

And you know the rest: exercise improves your mood, reduces rates of depression, and all those things the PE teacher yelled at you while you were dragging yourself across the sports pitch (or trying to sack off with “cramps”). But seriously – I started running on and off about six months ago, and though I’m still the worst runner in the world, the days when I do drag my butt out of bed and round Midsummer Common, I feel more energetic, more motivated – and, at this uncertain crazy time of my PhD, like I’m taking control of at least one aspect of my life. That’s a powerful feeling.¬†So¬†–¬†prioritize exercise. Catch up with other scientists who have embraced the same ethos at #rundouchery. Like me, be proud of your rubbish exercise achievements!

How to finish a PhD ‚Äď part two: talk to people!

When I began my PhD, I¬†seemed to quickly develop a compulsion to keep what I was working on¬†close to my chest. Looking back, I think I’ve shaken off at least the fear that I don’t know enough to be able to justify why I’m doing things, but there is still a¬†whisper of unease that I have to suppress when someone says “Hey, what are you working on these days?” Maybe it’s a result of working in Cambridge where, if you feel like everyone else is better than you, chances are they actually are, because this is where people come when they’re top of their game. Maybe it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome. Regardless, something I have to keep reminding myself is that the excellent scientists I’m surrounded by aren’t competitors – they’re potential collaborators!

Now, I should define what I mean when I say “collaborate”. Your PhD should be your own work, and you can’t parcel bits off for other people to do. But your PhD is also about learning new skills, new ways of analysing data, new ways of looking at a question. Your supervisor, who is after all basically a long-term collaborator, will cover a lot of that. But there are many ways of doing science, and the best way to learn them is – to talk!

The department of Zoology in Cambridge has many things that make it great, but in my books one of the greatest is morning tea. At tea I have resolved crises. I have stumbled into collaborations with people who had great ideas. I have come across new ways of doing analyses that led to working with people who taught me new statistical methods. I’ve given, and received advice – both of which are great ways to feel better about your work and capabilities – as well as hobnobbed with visiting speakers and the great people we have here. And these¬†great, thesis-defining¬†moments have come when people have said “So Kirsty, what are you working on?”, I’ve taken a deep breath – and talked.