What is it like doing Honours? 2.0

Keit is an Honours student studying immunology at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the Peter Doherty Institute. He has also completed a Bachelor of Biomedicine. He loves meeting new people, volunteering, and being a general goof. He can often be found anywhere with free food, or in the labs.

It’s been a good four months since my last post and I should really be adding words to my thesis (WHICH IS DUE IN TWO MONTHS! HELP!), but I’m back to give you an update on how the year has progressed. Let me review a few different points with you.

1. TIME

The Good – Lack of “Hours” 

This may vary with supervisors but I’ve been lucky with mine in that I don’t have to show up for hours at time. Typically my day starts at 9am, but there have been multiple instances (especially when the weather got super cold) that I have started at 9:30, or on some occasions even later. Yes, I know sometimes you don’t have to be at uni before 12 in undergrad, but there really is a lot of flexibility with Honours. You can plan your experiments around your other commitments/coffee catch-ups.

k2
Image: Author’s own

The Bad – Longer Hours 

Alongside the lack of “you must be here for this time” comes the “you WILL be here until this time” clause set by your experiments. I’ve stayed in the lab till stupid o’clock on a few occasions, with the longest being from 8am-2am. There have also been a few times where I’ve been pretty engrossed in getting something to work and haven’t had lunch until about 4pm.

2. THE LITERATURE

The Good – Those AHA! Moments 

You may remember me saying I was kerfuffling my way through research papers a few months ago. I still struggle with reading and understanding them but I’ve definitely picked up some nifty tricks to make the process easier. Best of all, I’ve started making connections between different papers and drawing things together which is a really good feeling. It’s so easy to keep asking “Why?” and looking up a reference in a paper over and over again. Eventually it becomes a vicious cycle with lots of open tabs, but you do earn a sense of accomplishment in piecing it all together.

Photo: phdcomics
Image: phdcomics

The Bad – TOO MANY PAPERS 

I don’t print out my papers since I have about 150 saved in my library, so all my notes are typed rather than things I’ve annotated. The annoying thing about this is that when I was making my notes, I didn’t organise them well enough. After two months of full on experiments, going back over my notes and the literature resulted in moments of “Hang on… what was this about again???”

Some people are able to quote papers as if they were written on the back of their hand but I have not yet managed such a feat, and so now I’ve got a lot of papers to wade through in order to piece everything together again.

3. THE EXPERIMENTS 

The Good – Lots of Cool Stuff 

I can’t even begin to describe how many cool moments I’ve had doing lab work this year. From learning a range of techniques to getting some cool results, it’s really something you don’t get to experience in undergrad. Doing experiments involving live cell imaging or staining histology slides and getting pretty pictures (see below) has been an amazing experience for me. When you do get results, trawling through the literature to give weight to them leads to those coveted “AHA!” moments.

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Image: Author’s own

The Bad – All the Cool Stuff Not Working

As you would hear from many researchers, experiments (especially in Biology) never quite work the way you want them to. These rebel experiments are one of the main reasons as to why I have had to extend my working hours. I’ve had times where an experiment would consistently not work because of one thing or another going wrong. I honestly do not have time for this nonsense so close to writing up my results.

“You listen to me, experiment, this is just a phase – SNAP OUT OF IT”

“IT’S NOT A PHASE KEIT GOSH”

4. SOCIAL LIFE 

The Good – Lab Mates and Fellow Students 

It’s a long day. Things aren’t working. You look across the lab and see a fellow lab mate working away late in the day as well. You make eye contact and both shrug as you try to optimise your experiment.

Really though, I’ve been lucky to have some really good lab mates to show me the ropes and be patient with all of my questions. There have been many laughs about a lot of things that go on in the lab and the impact lab work has had on our lives. Going out with everyone on a Friday night is also cool, especially when a few lab heads and/or supervisors join in.

I’ve also had an amazing group of fellow Honours/Masters students here in the department. We have a group chat where we whinge about our experiments and everyone gives you a supportive pat on the back through the Internet. It’s very nice.

Photo: quickmeme
Photo: quickmeme

The Bad – You’re a Flake 

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to cancel plans because of experiments running overtime, spontaneous experiments or data analysis. Again, this will vary between projects and individuals but for me, I didn’t choose the flake life; the flake life chose me.

When I do manage to sneak in a rest day, I usually end up with a guilty conscience telling me to at least do some data analysis while my body/mind just collapses and refuses to do anything productive at all. If leaving the bed was difficult for me, dragging myself out of the house is going to be much, much worse.

To wrap things up, this year has been a glass case of emotions and it’s bound to get even more exciting as it inches towards the finish line. I have days where I wallow in self-pity and question all my life choices, but I also have days where things are just downright cool.

– Keit

2 Comments

  1. Hey Keit, I remember from my honors year (many years ago) that awful guilt feeling whenever I grabbed a rest day. “You should be reading, analysing, writing etc” sounding in your brain. Try and remember in this important build up to the end that you are actually usually at least 50% more effective after taking a break. Suddenly conclusions leap out at you from the page that previously were lost amongst all the detail you had immersed yourself in for so long. Good luck and thanks for the honest posts.

    1. Hi Ruth,

      Thanks for reading and giving your advice! I’ve definitely chucked in a couple of rest days in the past few weeks and most certainly intend to take multiple breaks from the literature when I am starting to write up in the coming month.

      It’s one heck of a ride but things are starting to come together in terms of what’s left to do and the end is so close so it’s exciting times!

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