Tuesday, June 12, 2012

September 2010 Newsletter for Research Professionals


The Newsletter for Research Professionals       September 2010
For researchers undertaking a PhD, deciding on a topic and choosing a committee are two significant choices a student must make.  In this month’s newsletter, we offer advice and experiences around these choices.  The issues that confront post-doctorate researchers are a whole different ballgame and may include concerns about overwork, pay and the desire for a lifestyle balance.  These concerns are often combined with the stress of having a tenuous postdoctoral research position without tenure.

Post Doc Research – when is it too much?

Many postdoctoral researchers work more than they want to; either because they feel they have no choice or because someone else is determining how much is required based upon expectations of productivity for their career stage and trajectory. These researchers are often funded by grants paid to a professor, who is in turn paying the postdoctoral researchers salary, and while the timing of the position is often discussed, most professors have no experience with human resources and fail to discuss working hours, milestones and accountability. To add to that there is often reporting required from the researcher to various other departments, and a lack of communication between the professor and these departments. This situation can lead to a place where the researcher is struggling to achieve all required results and feels stressed and overworked.

If this is the situation you find yourself in it is critical to the health of you, and the research project, that you discuss the matter with the professor. Ask him or her to clarify their expectations, identify for them the factors they may not be considering in terms of the other aspects of your job and work toward an agreement that you can both live with.

Amazing initiative!

It is a continually astounding fact that some students amid all of their responsibilities and stresses, manage to do some truly wonderful and amazing things. An example of an incredibly resourceful student in Britain really epitomizes what is possible. This particular student was able to take what she had learnt in her science lessons and create a truly unique invention which no-one else (no big corporate or doctoral student or research lab) had thought of before. Kudos to Emily Cummins in the U.K., this is what she did.

She invented a solar powered, portable, eco-fridge using bits and pieces in the family shed. The fridge is now being used extensively in poverty stricken countries where the simplicity of its construction makes it viable even amongst the poor. In addition to providing chillers to poor hot countries, the use of the solar powered fridge has expanded to include a portable model for transporting chilled goods in a fresh state. This includes medical supplies and bio chemicals.
The fridge wasn’t Emily’s first invention. She is also credited with inventing a toothpaste squeezer for people with arthritis and a water carrying device.  She says she came up with the idea for the fridge by considering how humans cool through sweating, or the process of evaporation. Of her own invention Emily says, "My time in Namibia made me wonder how often we miss the simplest solutions to problems." Wise words!

Here’s the most ironic part of this story. This woman was refused admittance into an engineering program because she lacked the correct credentials! Instead she is studying Business Management at Leeds. Somehow I don’t think she’ll need that engineering degree anyway.

Choosing a PhD dissertation topic & composing a committee
A dissertation topic should be about something you have a genuine passion for and a degree of knowledge about. It should also be do-able. That means if you are looking at studying the habits of the gorillas of Borneo you know you can arrange logistically and financially to live there. There are also certain subjects which will be harder to research than others, because of a lack of information. While these may be interesting because little has been written in the past, these topics also require a lot more work. Think in advance about how much time and effort you are prepared to expend. Also bear in mind that this may take several years to write. It is important to foresee to an extent the future of your subject so that the work isn’t obsolete by the time you have finished.
Composing your Dissertation Committee
When you start to think seriously about your dissertation topic you will also need to start thinking about choosing a dissertation chair and other members of the committee. While your Chair will be your main point of contact throughout your dissertation, other committees will be involved and it pays to choose them wisely.
All members of your committee will participate actively in shaping the dissertation proposal, although the chair is usually the most interventionist, and all will write recommendations for you when requested. All will read and comment on the final dissertation and attend the defense or send comments, or participate by videoconferencing or speakerphone, if they are unable to attend. During the years between the proposal and the defense, however, the different members of the committee generally play different roles with the Chair being the most important and relevant of these so when choosing a person for this position it is important to consider a few factors. Is the professor someone with whom you find it helpful and easy to brainstorm? Have you found the feedback on earlier work with that faculty member helpful? Is her or his intellectual and professional approach one you find compatible? Is his or her style of advising dissertations – this you can easily find out from other students – one that suits you?
Amazing research!

Researchers at MIT are learning from the animal kingdom. The robotic clam project mirrors the activity of a real razor clam, which can dig through underwater sand and implant itself more securely than an anchor for an ocean liner.

The razor clam turns the surrounding sand into a more liquid form to help with digging. Amos Winter, an MIT student who developed the project, created the robot clam with similar attributes, although it's about half the size of a real razor clam.

"The RoboClam can push with about 50 times the force of a real clam, and can move about twice as fast and open up twice as wide," said Winter. “A razor clam embeds itself much
more efficiently than any existing anchor. This is attractive in applications
where energy is at a premium, such as underwater robots, remote ocean
sensors and space applications.

There's also interest in using this technology where weight is an issue, such as seaplanes. Furthermore, the oil industry is interested in ultra-deepwater applications, where human interaction with the ocean bottom is difficult."

It isn't only creatures buried beneath the seabed that are attracting the interest of MIT scientists. Winter says that the robotics field may start examining animals for other projects that mirror unique abilities - not just for digging anchors, but mimicking the speed, motion and force of living creatures, such as a whale or tiger. A robotic tiger? Now that we want to see.

tHIS month’s NUMERO UNO job interview TIP:

What to do before the interview; preparation is the key to success so here are some great pre-interview tips. To begin with ensure you have a detailed understanding of the position description and if possible the team environment and the organization. If you can, conduct additional research regarding the organization on the net or through available company reports. Spend some time before the interview going over your own résumé and the job description. Identify the specific examples in your background that are directly relevant to the job.

Prepare answers to questions and maybe do a mock interview with a willing friend. Be prepared to answer questions about how you work and how you cope with different situations. The interviewer will often want to know how you deal with stress. Convey to the interviewer why this role appeals to you, why you are the best person for the job and what makes you different or special.

Dress conservatively and know the name and title of the person doing the interview. And of course don’t be late! As part of your pre-interview planning find out where the interview is a map a route there. Give yourself an extra half hour to account for traffic or parking issues.

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To all of our members and guests, we welcome you and thank you for your ongoing interest. We hope you have enjoyed the information provided here. We would love to hear your thoughts on this and any other aspect of our site, please contact us anytime.

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“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
Zora Neale Hurston

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