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Peer blog: Embracing change in a new, virtual world and a new PhD program

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1

Happy September everyone! At the beginning of the month I successfully defended my Master’s thesis and am now officially beginning my PhD! Last time, I spoke of my enthusiasm to begin my research proposal, but my supervisor has put a hold on that for now. We have agreed that oxytocin, a hormone related to social bonding, will continue to be a main focus. I am genuinely excited about this because it was my favourite aspect of my research project. There’s some work to do before I can start my formal proposal.

My supervisor suggested I use the next few weeks and months to really flesh out my understanding of the oxytocin system in the brain. Thus for the fall semester I will be in the “gathering information” stage of the writing process. During my Master’s, I was much more focused on the neural circuitry of oxytocin rather than its neuropharmacology. As such, my supervisor and I believe the next logical step is to learn more about the latter. This may sound quite nuanced, but I promise you that behavioural neuroscientists are a distinct breed from neuropharmacologists! That being said, I am excited to round out my knowledge of oxytocin as it will hopefully give me some ideas about what I could do for my first set of experiments. Since I’m in this information-gathering phase, I’m embarking on a lot of reading and notetaking. There’s a lot to read through, but the APA has some great advice on tackling a huge reading list.

I don’t have too much coursework right now: “Biological Bases of Behaviour” is the only course I am enrolled in this term. Being registered in only one course definitely has its advantages:

  1. I only have to worry about one set of course deadlines,
  2. I have lots of time to dedicate to my research and scholarship applications, and
  3. I am engaging in more volunteering opportunities to offset the surge in free time.

But there are some disadvantages too. I am concerned that all of this free time will cause my focus and concentration to suffer and, I will thus get distracted and procrastinate like never before. Luckily, the SASS Academic Resources page has tips on how to prevent these things from happening—and SASS has teamed up with the School of Graduate Studies for a workshop on 23 September on time management just for grad students (register here).

I’m also trying three things to improve my focus by altering my working environment. One permanent change I made a few years ago was muting all of my notifications on my laptop in between the hours of 8:00 AM and 8:30 PM. This time range may seem a little extreme, but it drastically decreased the number of distractions I was being presented with every day. Another small change I plan on making is to remove the “Messages” icon from my taskbar on my laptop. Without seeing the icon, I believe this will curb my tendency to mindlessly check my text messages. The third change is something that I used to implement (and found very useful), but I have since let it fade from practice. I used to keep a small notebook on my desk and whenever I thought of something off-task, I took a few seconds to write it down. It could be anything: a chore I had been meaning to do, an email I wanted to send, something I wanted to look up, etc. and instead of breaking my concentration to do said task, I would write it down. Then, during a break, I would address all the things I had written down. I remember this practice being very effective when working from home because it is all too easy to stand up and start to do something else when in the comfort of one’s own living quarters. However, now that most, if not all, of us graduate students are working from home, I highly recommend making some changes to make your environment as work-friendly as possible.

All in all, I have had a very productive September thus far: I passed my Master’s defense, I got assigned fantastic courses to TA, I have some interesting assignments to work on (more on that next time!), and I am going to introduce some new techniques to help keep my productivity high as I work from home. As we begin a new school year, I hope this transition to a “new, virtual normal” goes smoothly for everyone. Although we have had to make some pretty large adjustments in order to continue our programs, just remember that change itself is not the beast. The beast is in how we choose to handle the change (hopefully with a smile and a “heck, yeah!”)

That’s all for now, folks!

SASS Peer: Kate

Kate with her Queen’s acceptance letter for the Psychology PhD program!