Speednetworking

On the 10th of October 2017 the Cambridge PhD Clinic organised an academic speed’dating’ event inviting early career researchers to stretch their networking muscles, make friends, meet future colleagues and ask all the burning questions about Cambridge academia that have given them sleepless nights.
Our funding partners, Professor Ianthi Maria Tsimpli, Head of Cambridge Language Sciences, and Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe, Director of the ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership for Social Sciences, started the meeting with two short welcome speeches stressing the importance of initiatives promoting interdisciplinary work.
In the spirit of fostering collaborative thinking we then proceeded to the speednetworking part of the event and after about 60 minutes of intense 4-minute conversations everyone gladly used the informal buffet to follow up some of the interesting discussions. Despite – or maybe because of – the huge variety of disciplines (Language Sciences, Genetics, Criminology, Computer Science and many more) and years of research experience represented by the attendees a lot of interesting links were forged. For example, in one instance a geneticist working on mitochondria in egg cells met a social scientist investigating the legislation of egg donations and someone from the language sciences teamed up with a computer scientist to work on a joint project of language processing. Others while not embarking on collaborative projects still extended invitations to lab meetings and relevant seminars.

At the end of the day 75% of participants replied that they were extremely satisfied and 10% were “quite satisfied”. People said they would be taking home “new friends and contacts”, had “nice conversations, new contacts, worth the time”, met “people I would have otherwise most certainly not come across”, and that they liked “the diversity of the group” and the “interdisciplinarity”, the fact that “next to PhDs, there were also some PostDocs who could share some information about funding applications”. 3 people suggested having future workshops on the topics “Publishing articles and book chapters”, “Combining academia and family life” and “presentation skills”.

All in all it was a very successful event and we look forward to hearing from you about the projects that have their origin at this PhD Clinic meeting of minds!

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Fake News

“…nothing has to be true for ever.  Just for long enough, to tell you the truth.” (Terry Pratchett, The Truth)

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Until recently ‘fake news’ was something restricted to April Fools Day in the public perception, however the lead-up to the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump have popularised a new connotation of the term. Various dictionaries picked ‘post-truth’, ‘post-factual’ and ‘fake news’ as their phrases of the year 2016 reflecting a rise in the concern over the intentional spreading of misinformation in highly-charged political or social matters. Furthermore the growing distrust of objective facts has been linked to anti-intellectualism and anti-science sentiments. So where do we as academics stand in this brave new world of alternative facts, truthful hyperboles, hoaxes and circular reporting? Were the events of last year a watershed moment in the history of journalism and science or a manifestation of a long-term trend? And what are we to play in the discourse about objective versus subjective reality?

Professor John Naughton and Dr Ella McPherson kicked off our workshop by providing some food for thought from their unique perspectives in and outside of academia.

It was pointed out that while the current climate is perceived as a negative development by most scientists, ‘fake news’ also challenge the traditional truth claim professions and in new ways and raise a (long needed?) question about the Anglo-American hegemony of truth which in turn forces the elites to find new ways of engaging with the public in order to maintain power and defend their credibility.
Dismissing and discrediting all non-mainstream information as ‘fake news’ could also close doors to legitimate criticism and restrict the democratisation of news and yet we must be wary of ill-intentioned or careless spread of harmful misinformation.

Another central discussion revolved around the change brought on by the digital revolution and the speed and volume of today’s data proliferation. Social media, digital photography and easily manipulated metadata have certainly played a role in greasing the wheels for charlatanism in its various incarnations and has become increasingly difficult to distinguish fake from fact.  Particularly striking in this regard were the examples purporting to support human rights, such as the app I Sea and the fake NGO Voiceless Victims.
Attempts to tackle the issue of online dissemination of fake news through automated verifications have so far yielded poor results or are subject to hardwired biases and assumptions that a true democratisation of information needs to avoid: One project for example aims to assign a credibility rating to newsfeeds and yet it downrates items with multiple exclamation marks or poor spelling thus discrediting items from less educated individuals or countries with a different social media culture and communication.
Furthermore our well-intentioned actions to debunk fakes and hoaxes will often only reinforce beliefs which are epistemologically sealed. For more information on cognitive biases and their role in fake news proliferation we recommend True Enough by Farhad Manjoo and  Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

We concluded that truth and norms of truth may be impossible to establish and that it is not only difficult to distinguish truth from non-truth, but also fake news from propaganda and satire. So maybe it is time to stop discussing what the problem is and start discussing solutions?

More information:

John Naughton’s recent article about Wikitribunes – Wikipedia’s attempt to fight fake news

A conference early next year on the ‘Post-Truth Phenomenon’ organised by Ella McPherson

Written by Johanna Finnemann

 

Perfectionism: Is there such a thing as a “healthy dose”?

What associations come to mind when you hear the phrase “good enough”? – Mediocre? Could be better? Not actually good enough? For a perfectionist, good enough is not .. well, good enough. Perfectionists are people who set very high standards for themselves in one or several areas of their lives (some examples: work, eating, tidiness, punctuality, social life, grades, sports .. etc, etc.). OK, you might say, so what is the problem here? Well, first of all, no-one is able to be perfect all the time. Sure, you might get an A for a test, and you might in fact get As most of the time, but what happens if you get a B? How would you respond to that situation? This is where we will start exploring perfectionism. We will also look at why perfectionism can lead to procrastination and loss of motivation, and what we can do to change things if we think we are being perfectionist about one or more aspects of our lives.

So let’s start with getting that B on a test. For our perfectionist (let’s call her Annie), a B instead of an A is failure. In fact, implicitly, Annie has made a rule for herself that says that she has to get As on all her tests. When this rule is broken, she gets really angry and frustrated – not with the teacher who graded her test, but with herself for being such a lousy student. OK, let’s pause here for a second. Find a pen and something to scribble on. Now ask yourself: Which, if any, rules do I have for myself about how I should do things? Write down anything that comes to mind, big or small. Then carry on reading – you will need your notes at the end.

Right, back to Annie. She feels awful about getting a B. Why? Because this B tells her she’s not good enough – her identity as an A student is threatened by it. Unless she is a “perfect student”, she is not Annie. Therefore, she criticises herself and is determined to get an A on her next test to keep the threat of “not being an A student/a failure” at bay. The fear of another B drives her to study even harder, and she starts spending less time doing things that are good for her, like meeting friends and playing football, in order to make sure she gets a perfect score on all her tests for the rest of the year. This leaves her feeling stressed, tired and lonely.

What is going on here? According to the cognitive behavioral model of perfectionism, which Vanessa Skinner from the University Counselling Service presented to us at the workshop, Annie’s identity and self-worth are tied to and dependent on striving and academic performance. She sets sky high standards for herself: “Either I get an A or it doesn’t matter”, “I  must work as hard as I can”, “I can’t enjoy myself until I’ve finished all my work”.. Perfectionist rules like these are characterized by being very harsh, general, absolute and inflexible. What is the danger of having a lot of very general, extreme rules like these? Well, for one thing they are easily broken. Having rules like these can therefore lead to a lot of self-criticism and pushing oneself even harder to meet the standards. And even if the standards are met the perfectionist will be much less likely to feel good about her work: after all, she’s only done what was expected, nothing more.

Furthermore,  these rules can be said to have a threatening tone to them, which is an important clue as to why the perfectionist might eventually “burn out” and lose her motivation altogether. Annie’s rules definitely have a threatening tone: “Either I get an A, or else …”. What does this mean for Annie? Basically, she ends up studying so hard because she is afraid of not being good enough – she feels threatened by the prospect of a B. Why? Because her identity is “the A student”, and a B is a threat to that. Hence, we see that a perfectionist ends up being in “threat mode” a lot of the time. For our brain, a threat is a threat no matter whether we’re being chased by a lion or mentally chased by an imperfect grade. Activation of the threat system (also known as the “fight-or-flight” system), leads to increased levels of stress hormones in the blood, preparing us to respond to the dangerous situation. Except in Annie’s case, the situation is not that a lion is coming after her, but that she might get a B on her next test, too..

So what does being in threat mode have to do with loss of motivation? One explanation comes from applying Paul Gilbert’s emotional regulation theory to perfectionism. Here is a schematic overview of the theory:

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Annie used to love studying because she found it so interesting to learn new things and to explore. In other words, her academic achievements used to be fuelled by her drive (blue) system. But gradually, the threat (red) system began to take over, as she started to become increasingly dependent on being a good student in order to feel good about herself. Thus, schoolwork started to become an exercise in not failing to meet her high standards (red) rather than about enjoying herself while doing the work (blue). Do you see how this could lead her to lose her motivation and “drive”?

According to Vanessa’s explanation, Annie’s red mode has started to dominate as she gets increasingly scared of failing, which also upregulates her blue mode initially – she starts working harder, but at the expense of doing fun and relaxing things. This means she rarely finds herself in the soothing (green) mode, where she is able to restore her energy and relax. If she goes on like this, she will become more and more tired and unhappy, eventually becoming exhausted and overwhelmed. At this point, the blue mode shrinks down, whereas the green mode is upregulated in the form of procrastination (Netflix/alcohol/chocolate/etc.) and starts “overlapping” with the red mode as these things are essentially behaviours whose function are to avoid doing work because it feels too overwhelming (i.e. threatening). This explains why perfectionists can end up losing their motivation and fall into the procrastination trap.

So what’s the alternative, then? After all, studying hard and getting As is not necessarily a bad thing.. Indeed, that is probably how you got into Cambridge! But wouldn’t it be nice if you could do well academically without the constant fear of failing as your driving force? According to Vanessa, this means that you will have to let go of your rigid rule system and replace it with something more flexible and less threatening. Basically, you need to 1) train yourself to talk to yourself with more compassion in order to activate your green mode (like you would talk to a good friend) and 2) try to modify the strict rules you have set for yourself so that they sound more flexible and positive in order to activate your blue mode. The idea is to break the vicious cycle of strict rule –> breaking of rule –> self-criticism by working from “both ends”: changing the rules and changing how you talk to yourself if you break them. This is where you’ll need to have a look at the rules you (hopefully) wrote down when you started reading this. (Alternatively, you could pause here for a second to jot something down.)

First, let’s see how we could change Annie’s rule about always having to get As. How could we make it sound less harsh/threatening, and more positive and drive-oriented? How could we make it less absolute and more flexible?

“I’d like to do get perfect grades.” (This is less threatening, but still quite general and has the word “perfect” in it!)

“It would be great to get a good grade when I’ve worked hard for it.” (This is more drive-based – it is still about achieving, but in a positive and rewarding way.)

“I love to learn, and a good grade is one of the signs that I’ve learned a lot of new things.” (This shifts the focus from the grade to the learning process, and the “one of” is a sign of flexibility.)

Right, now it’s your turn to have a go. When modifying a rule, here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • It’s good if your new “rule” sounds more like a principle or a preference than a command – something you aspire to do, but not something that you have to, should or must always do. In fact, the less it sounds like a rule, the better!
  • Try to use “vitality-inspired language” to phrase your rules: “It would be great to..”, “I’d love it if I..”, “I’d like to..”, etc.
  • Instead of making another general and absolute rule that is easily broken, it is more useful and sustainable to make a rule that is flexible/can be adapted depending on context.

And finally, as Vanessa said, making a new “rule” is like buying a new pair of shoes – you might want to try them on for fit and, if they don’t feel comfortable enough then you should probably change them for a different pair. Old and well-worn shoes are often the best ones, though, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to replace an old, well-worn rule with a shiny new one! It is definitely easier said than done, but it is possible to make changes. And while you are on your journey towards a less threat-based and more vital way of approaching work and life in general, please remember to try and be your own best friend and to try not to criticise yourself. Say it to yourself: You can do it, but you’re not a bad person if you can’t.

Written by Heidi Solberg Økland

Time Management, Or How To Build A Good Life

Time management is ultimately related to the big question: “How do I want to live my life?” This means that learning to manage your time better has the potential of you becoming more satisfied with your life. Sounds good, right? Our PhD Clinic on May 24th was about time management. We had Polly Brown from the University Couselling Service come and lead the workshop, and below is our summary of what we learned from it. We hope you find some of it useful! Grab your notebook/a pen and paper, and start taking some steps towards better time management.

Step 1: Find out how you are spending your time at the moment.

Before you can start to address your time management issues, you need to do a small “time management analysis” to find out how you’re spending your time at the moment.

First, ask yourself: which difficulties am I currently facing in terms of managing my time? Write down a few bullet points.

Next, draw a table of a typical week, a bit like this one (but with all the 24 hours of the day). Fill in all the fixed activities you do during the week (sleep, meals, meetings, lectures, etc.). Now look at what’s left – this is the time you have for doing your work. Did anything surprise you about the result?

Step 2: Make some changes.

Now that you have a better idea of how you are spending your time, it’s time to make some changes. Don’t set yourself the goal of “fixing everything” – prioritise one or two problem areas, and take it from there.

Take care of yourself.

Make sure to prioritise your basic needs! Get enough sleep, eat at least 3 meals per day, get some exercise/fresh air, socialise, and have some quiet time just for you.

Make it clear to yourself what’s important/where you want to go.

First, take a few minutes to think about what you value in life – this may help to motivate you to make the changes that matter the most to you! Next, ask yourself: what do I want to work towards in the next 3 months/6 months/year/3 years/beyond? Write your goals down. Keep these values and goals in mind when you make choices about how to manage your time – you will feel much better about spending time on something if it’s in line with these!

Free up some time.

Ask yourself: are there any of my activities I could give up or do less of? (NB: don’t start by thinking you should sleep less!)

If you find that you’re working quite a few hours (more than 7-8 per day), then ask yourself: would I be more efficient if I worked a bit less and spent more time on a hobby or with friends?

If you find that a lot of your time is taken up by extracurricular activities: Say no! Ask yourself: do I really want to spend so much time on that society/supervisions/voluntary work? It’s healthy to engage in other activities apart from your PhD project, but watch out – it can get too much. Be selective, and try not to spread yourself out too thinly.

Align what you do with your values and goals.

First, look at your most important values and try to link them to your current activity pattern. Then do the same for the goals you wrote down. How does what you are doing with your time now line up with your values and goals? Are there activities that don’t fit at all/fit very well? Can you think of activities that would be better aligned with your values and goals than the ones you’re currently undertaking?

Plan your day according to your own “rhythm”.

Some people are night owls, others are wide awake at 5am.. Basically, everyone has a different rhythm to their life. Ask yourself: how can I plan my day so that I spend my most productive hours on important tasks?

Manage your procrastination.

Try to notice when and how you procrastinate. Are there specific tasks you always end up postponing or avoiding? The University Counselling Service has a good self-help guide that may help – have a look at it!

Some concrete suggestions:

  • Make daily to-do lists, no longer than 4 items. One of these should be something that contributes to your well-being, like a yoga class or dinner with a friend.
  • Break your work day into 3×3 hour blocks, and aim to get 2 hours of work done in each block. If the first block doesn’t go according to plan, you still have 2 more attempts to make it right!
  • Take small breaks: stop whatever you’re doing approximately every half hour. Go and make a cup of tea, talk to a friend or colleague, sit in the sun (or the rain), listen to some music… NB: it’s especially important to train yourself to take breaks when work is going well. This will get you into the habit of leaving work with a good feeling!
  • Keep a notebook with you at all times to write things down when they pop into your head. This will take it off your mind for now and help you maintain your focus.
  • Allocate a timeslot for checking your email every day (you can even let people know by putting something like this in your automatic signature: “Please note that I check my email at 3pm during the week.”).
  • Sort your emails into three folders: 1) Needs action, 2) Interesting/look at later/etc., 3) Archive. Once you’re done with the emails in category 1 and 2, simply delete them or move them to the archive.
  • Set aside some time at the end of each work day to take stock, and to decide what you want to do tomorrow.

Don’t expect everything you do to be perfect.

Is perfectionism and/or being very self-critical is getting in your way? Then you may wish to have a look at this short self-help guide to managing perfectionism from the University Counselling Service. In short, though, perfectionism can be detrimental when you avoid doing work for instance because you’re afraid of failing. The first step is to identify the unhelpful thoughts that crop up (“I won’t produce a great piece of work, so I’ll just …”/”I’m not well prepared”/”The conditions aren’t right”, etc.) and write them down when they do. The second step is to “just do it”!

Make your inner voice(s) work for you, not against you.

The nag: “You MUST do this..” –> The encourager: “You’re doing fine!” 🙂

The critic: “This won’t go well – you’ll mess up!” –> The supporter: “You can do it!” 🙂

The child: “I don’t want to!” –> The adult: “I want/choose to …”

Make use of an existing technique/tool.

 

Step 3: Get some more inspiration.

If you really want to make a change, make a habit of it!

Check out the self-help section on the UCS website.

Stephen Covey’s books “First things first” and “The 7 habits of highly effective people”

TED talks:

James Clear has written numerous articles, all related to the question: “How can we live better?”

Written by Heidi Solberg Økland