If you are studying biology maybe you are thinking to continue working in a doctor’s degree. Is it worth it? How much time and effort will you have to dedicate? Know firsthand the experience of writing a thesis and getting a doctor’s degree with this interview with primatologist Mireia Olivé.
THE INTEREST IN PRIMATOLOGY
- Mireia, thanks to dedicate your time to All You Need Is Biology to share your experience. Let’s start from the beginning: when did you know you wanted to study biology? Why did you choose this degree and not another?
The thing is that the choice was not easy because I have always liked a lot of things and it was difficult to decide. To choose the degree, one of the criteria I took into account was that the field should open doors for a future projects (in a professional way), enabling me to be more interdisciplinary. What finally did tip the scales was the emotional part: it was really motivating to know that, someday, I might know things that I always wondered (in the field of primates, especially).
- Why did you do a PhD? Did you have a professional future in mind, the opportunity arose without thinking about it..?
It’s funny that I really undertook a doctoral thesis because I had never thought about it. While some friends of mine had no doubts about conducting research, I was involved in other projects that weren’t related to research and I didn’t have in mind taking a PhD. Actually, it was a proposal of my academic mentor from the Master’s degree in Cognition and Evolution of Primates I had already done. After considering it (and knowing that I could continue working in my other projects), I accepted.
- On what topic was your thesis? What research did you carry out?
My thesis studied the relationship between hierarchy and grooming in a group of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus). To integrate these two concepts and see how interrelated, the research was focused on several aspects:
- First; bibliographic, regarding the hierarchy and grooming.
- Second; on computer models and simulation (I belong to GCAI –Group of Adaptive Behaviour and Interaction-, which studies adaptive behaviour and computational psychology).
- Third; empirical, observing individuals in a group of macaques.
WORKING IN THE FIELD
- Let’s talk about the empirical aspects: in what area did you take out your observations?
The empirical part was a bit difficult to start because we struggled to find a group that was representative enough, since it had to have a minimum of individuals of each gender and age class, and from a particular family of primates. Finally, after several failed attempts (we had already begun observing a group but we had to stop because there were problems with the animals), we chose a group of a French park near Poitiers called La Vallée des Singes, where the Barbary macaques group met all the requirements we had set. In addition, it was a semi-captivity group, which provided many advantages over other options we had already considered.
- So you had to do some research abroad. How do you evaluate the experience?
It was a very interesting experience that allowed me to meet students, technicians and professionals of the “animalier” sector and in the primatology field, to expand the circle of friends and to improve my level of foreign languages
- Working in the field was very hard?
The fieldwork was very intense, because I wanted to take advantage of my time collecting as much data as I could (even considering further research to develop at the end of the PhD). Going out to observe animals is a task that requires a lot of perseverance and dedication: once the dynamics is established, observations must be maintained in all conditions. This means it had to be done even if it rains; the temperature is below 4° C; on weekdays and on weekends, and at any time of day. The empirical part, however, was the best of the PhD.
- Did you experienced fear at some time?
Usually the sessions were quiet, but twice went pretty scary. The place where the observations were made was directly on the territory of macaques, an extension of 3.3 hectares of forest where the animals were circulating freely. At peak times park staff checked that everything was in order, but I could be on the other side of the territory and I often did not see anyone all day. In the group there were several juvenile females, eager to play and challenging me.
Once, I was surrounded by the group of the four youngest females. They approached me and stretched my clothes. I was a bit scared (it was an aggressive way to play). The situation was complex, because at that time I had already been more or less accepted by the group as an observer and I could be quite close to animal. I frightened them to let me go, not only I risked to lose that confidence, and consequently the ability to observe their behavior closely, but at the same time, the group would have attacked me to help the youngest without hesitating (adults are very strong and have very long fangs).
TIPS ON PhD
- Dedication is very big, is it possible to combine the PhD with a job? Can you give an idea to future students how much is the workload?
The workload is heavy, either combining the PhD with a job (which was my case) or doing the thesis exclusively, and perseverance to move forward is necessary. For me it was important not to stop working and continue participating in other projects that were not related to research, so I assumed it would take longer to finish my PhD. Being focused was important to continue working on all fronts
In that time I got home from work between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and then I began to work (either reading articles, studying, writing or doing calculations) until 9-10 p.m. and at weekends I spent between 4 and 6 hours a day. Friends, who worked doing exclusively the thesis at the University, spent about 8 hours every day, Monday through Friday, but this schedules also depended on the stage where they were (the final stage of drafting is far more intense).
- But it also has its positive side, right?
Of course you have good times! First, you research a topic you are passionate about and you do some discoveries. In addition, you learn, firsthand, what it means to do research, what involves (organization, hypotheses, results).
You also know a lot of people who share the same interests and motivation, and you’re aware of everything happening in your field. You are so up to date and discovering so much about the subject that it ends up being you the one who knows the most: it’s your topic!
- Did you ever think about quitting? Why?
Yes. As I said before, it is a long and intense process. In addition, research often do not turn out the results you expect, and you have to go redirecting the situation, raising new hypotheses or approaching it from different points of view. At that moment you have to be able to look a little further: either to the beginning and see where you were and where you are at the time, or trying to see where you go, what you want to end up discovering.
So this is why it is important that you like what you investigate, because it is easy not to get involved and giving up.
- What encouraged you to go on?
I want to add that beyond this personal motivation, support from family and friends is very important: they are who cheer you up, who encourage you again and again and will continue to encourage you, and when you have hard times, they convince you that your work worths it, and that you must continue working to go on.
- Would you repeat the experience?
Yes, I think I would do a PhD again. However, thanks to the experience, I would look at the issue differently, both the thesis content and the personal approach.
- Finally, can you give some tips to people who want to do a PhD?
I would suggest them to change to another University (different from the one where they have studied the Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree) because it is very interesting to know other ways to work and focus research.
In addition, it is important to choose a topic that really motivates you. During the thesis there are moments of discouragement, when you want to throw it all away (it is inevitable, because it is a task of continuous effort and quite long) but if the subject excites you, it is easier to find energy to continue.
- Your thesis seems very interesting, can you give us a link to the publication?
One of the conclusions of my thesis has been the development of indicators that provide insight into the status of a group of Barbary macaques, which may facilitate possible interventions (reintroduction in the natural habitat, migration of individuals).
In this link you can read the summary of the thesis and download it.
Mireia, thank you very much for your time and experience, which will be for sure a good guidance for future researchers.
Thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to publicize the importance of scientific research.