Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Marine Science, University of Otago MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year, 2008
It’s not the fact that you have ups and downs in your PhD that took Rebecca McLeod by surprise. It’s that the swings can happen so quickly. “You can wake up in the morning thinking, ‘My PhD is rubbish’, decide you’re a genius at lunchtime and be ready to quit by evening.”
Rebecca’s peaks and troughs involved more than her rugged boat trips from Bluff to Milford, during which she collected data on energy flux in Fiordland’s marine communities.
Rather it included issues like “coming to grips with criticism”, which Rebecca found one of the hardest aspects of moving among the higher echelons of academia, compared with her undergraduate years.
“As an academic, you have to put yourself out there. And it’s hard not to take it personally when people are criticising the work that you’re investing so much of your life in. But I came to realise that they’re usually right. And if you do take the feedback on board, your work definitely improves.”
It doesn’t help that the process of “putting yourself out there” can occur in quite daunting settings. One conference in Canada involved over 2000 scientists, with 16 simultaneous session streams. “It was pretty hard,” she recalls, “there were so many people there that most stuck with the few that they knew.” However, Rebecca approached two of the leading academics in her field, who then attended her presentation, and gave great feedback that ultimately led to her having a paper accepted for publication.
The experience contrasts with a smaller, “much friendlier” and, she believes, more rewarding Australian conference.
These international experiences were all part of the “amazing adventure” of doing a PhD – which for Rebecca also included detours to the Canadian Rockies and Antarctica, and saw her spend a week per month in Fiordland.
“It needs to be fun. If you’re not passionate about it, I can’t see how you would keep going.”
Passion, and a healthy dose of perspective. Rebecca took a calculated approach to deciding how long her thesis should be. “I just figured, this project is supposed to be three years full-time. So the scale of the project is something that can be achieved in that timeframe. If it’s going to take longer, it may mean it’s too big.”
What’s more, continues Rebecca, “The thesis is really a working document. It’s what you use to generate papers and further research. If you obsess about it being a perfect endpoint, you’ll never hand it in.”
Rebecca’s thesis has been formally recognised by the Division of Sciences as being of exceptional quality.