The University is closed for the foreseeable future

We are in unprecedented times – I really mean it this time! The university has been closed; as a PhD researcher, this presents somewhat of a challenge. Many of you will be in a similar or worse situation, and I hope all works out well for you – I am confident it will.

Due to the way the finances work for my studentship, the money was paid upfront, and therefore my wages are ‘guaranteed’ until the end of the studentship, which happens to be almost one year from now. Consequently, I am luckier than most in that although I have lost my primary place of work for the foreseeable future, I can still work from home and not have to worry about money in the short-term.

But how will an academic cope with social isolation? Well, fortunately, I have been doing my part for social isolation since I decided to do a PhD. Ninety-percent of my time is spent alone, writing, analysing-data, or working in the lab. Being an introvert is helpful in a situation like this, and my mother has always said that ‘I enjoy my own company’.

So, for me, the pandemic has changed very little about my life. The most significant change is that the gym is closed, and the kick-boxing society is on hiatus. I suspect I will get extremely proficient at press-ups over the coming few months! Also, it might be the time to get into yoga – my shoulders will thank me.

How long will it last?

I was speaking to my supervisor as she drove me home from the university for what could be the last time? She said that they are starting to think about re-opening the university in September or even January 2021! Because of the large volume of people that congregate at universities, I suspect it will be one of the last places to return to normality. Therefore, I am in this for the long run!

When I asked her how she thinks the shut-down will affect her students (me and three others) who will graduate in ~ a year, she said we would get extensions. My first reaction was, please no! I like the student lifestyle, and it is a privileged position, but I need to do something else. I am someone who gets bored with anything after several years, which is why I will never master anything.

My life for the foreseeable future will involve lots of writing. Academic writing to be precise. Maybe the silver lining to this pandemic is that I will be forced to improve my writing. Either I will improve my writing, or my ability to procrastinate.

The mid-term future has become much more cloudy than ever before, with no one having any idea of how society will change. We will be talking about this time for decades to come.

I wish everyone who reads this the best of luck, and I have been pleasantly surprised out how we have all acted in this crisis – apart from you panic buyers!

What does it feel like to be published for the first time?

Yesterday, I found out that the paper that I am a co-author on has been accepted for publication. This is my reflection on what it is like to be published in the world of academia.

Sent to production‘. Those were the words that signified the paper we had submitted had was accepted. As someone who has not experienced this before, I was very underwhelmed by the phrasing.

‘Your contribution to science, and therefore, humanity has been moved to the production line where, in an increasingly automated and mass-produced world, it will be packaged in a format that will extract maximum value from the consumer’.

Is there anything we humans can’t turn into a commodity?

I am still one of those naive, ‘young’, ‘scientists’ who is bewildered by the world of scientific publishing. Why are we putting a pay-wall between the results, that took considerable financial resources to obtain, and the consumer, who may get value from it?

I sense that in the near future everything will be open and available for all, not only because it is the right thing to do and the technology exists for it to be possible, but because open access articles get three times more views.

Does it feel good to be published?

In this case, it feels relatively neutral. Here is why.

Firstly, the paper was rejected from the first journal to which it was submitted. From following academics on Twitter over the past few years, this did not surprise me. It was reviewed by a couple of ‘peers’ at a particular journal. We, the symbolic ‘we’, changed a couple of things and submitted it to a different journal and were again judged by some ‘peers’ and it was accepted.

So, it does feel somewhat random as to whether or not you get published. I have developed an attitude that likens peer review and publishing process to that of the weather.

Being annoyed that your paper has not been accepted is a bit like being annoyed at the weather for raining on you and feeling as if the weather had decided to single you out. I am rather even-handed about the whole thing – if it gets published, fine, if not, also fine.

Secondly, I did not write the paper. Although I did an equal share of the work, I did none of the writing, and as a consequence, I do not feel that connected to it. Furthermore, the work was completed in 2018 and subsequently has not occupied my mind for quite a while. It is ‘nice’ to see that the work has reached its logical conclusion, but at the time of doing the work, I did not care about publishing I just liked the idea of doing something I had never done before. So now that is has been ‘approved for production,’ the feeling is relatively neutral.

Thirdly, the work was not directly related to my PhD; it was more of a side project. Because of this, I am not sure that it will go in my thesis and therefore may not help me in obtaining a PhD. Although, I will try my hardest to shoe-horn it in and use it. As, technically, I am a published author, and that shows that I have done something of merit. I would be ecstatic if this paper meant that the PhD is ‘in the bag’, but that is not the same as being happy about being published.

I cannot yet link the paper as it has only just entered production, but when it rolls off the production line and enters the showroom, I will be sure to attach it here.

I have since learnt that ‘production’ is where it gets edited and formatted in the particular style of the journal, which makes sense I suppose.

I wonder if writers of fiction get the same notifications from publishers.

‘Thanks, Mrs Rowling your submission ‘Harry Potter and the ….’ has been moved to production and the product will be within all major retail outlets by the next holiday period’.

Before writing this, I thought it would be relatively rare to publish a paper, but according to this article , there is more than 20 million of us in history. Also, with literally millions of papers being published each year, and many more left in draws and filing cabinets, it is not that interesting.

So, how does it feel to be a published author?

For me, it feels okay.

Two years of blogging – part 2

This is a follow-up to the post I made last week a couple of weeks ago, which was about my experience of blogging over the last two-years.

In this post, I hope to collect my thoughts on how I would like to improve going forward.

My overall aim is still as it was when I set out – to get better at writing. This goal is not as all-encompassing as I thought it was when I set-out. It is not specific enough, and I need to define my goals a little more precisely. 

I am interested in the technical details, such as whether or not word ‘x’ is a conjunctive, determiner or just a plain old adverb. These are things that I look-up, understand, and then forget what category a word qualifies for. I don’t think I will become a better writer for this. Still, I do believe that breaking the rules while understanding them provides more opportunities.

I would like to write less about me and what I do and more about my thoughts on life, and its intricacies. In doing so, I hope that I will spend more time on the writing and ultimately learning more from it – both the writing and the subject of the writing. 

I noticed that with my limited time, writing about my week had become the path of least resistance, as all it required was me to have a working memory. At the start of my PhD, this was okay as I was quite interested in my field. However, as most people do, I am now bored with it and have caught myself going through the motions, waiting for the day I can move onto something else. 

In terms of content, I intend to write about whatever I want to explore in more detail. I will only talk about my studies when I feel as if I have something interesting to talk about. I will be the arbiter of interesting. 

In short, I will:

  • Keep trying to understand the fundamentals.
  • Spend more time writing, which may reduce the frequency of posting.
  • Write about more varied subjects.

Where do I see the blog going, and do I have any goals for it?

I have no goals or expectations for this blog.

For a while, I have been thinking about moving to be self-hosted on WordPress.org. Not because I believe there are any specific benefits. I think the technical know-how that may be learnt will be valuable. 

I want to experiment with audio. In moments, I have caught myself reading someone’s piece and wondering what the voice of the person who wrote it sounds like. Did the voice in their head transfer to the page?

Do you have any thoughts or guesses as to what my voice sounds like?

Two years of blogging – part 1

It has now, well almost, been two years since I started publishing my ramblings on this blog, and on this occasion, I would like to engage in some reflection.

I started writing short articles in an attempt to improve my writing. After several months of doing so, I thought it would be a good idea to get some peer review by posting them online.

I thought that it would also help to fill some space on my CV if it was to become successful. Therefore, when I started this blog, my vision of success was to get better at writing to meet a standard that would be worthy of scientific publishing. And build a skill for my CV.

Although I have not published anything yet, I have been informed by my supervisors that the writing is now acceptable, and I need to get it finished, so in a way, I have been successful on that count. What I didn’t expect when I started was that I care so little about actually doing the scientific writing that the skill I set out to sharpen is diminished. 

So, that Is why I started to the blog what have I learnt along the way?

At the start, I was obsessed with details that I no longer concern myself with. 

  • A logo and branding. I don’t think this is something anyone should be too concerned about, it is a distraction.
  • Statistics. How many people are reading the things I have made, and how can I improve this?
  • What shall I write about? I still think about this a lot.
  • Meta-blogging.  SEO, guest posts etc.

Addressing all of the above points in a couple of sentences to someone new to blogging. 

My advice is, focus on making the posts as easy to read as possible. I don’t mean the writing, I mean the entire blog. Make sure, when you look at the page, there is as little clutter as possible. 

Keep it simple concerning branding and images – less is more.

Other than that it is a matter of producing content that has value to someone. Tutorials are great. 

For increasing your view count, you should consider increasing your post count. My record views in one day were when I accidentally posted two posts on the same day (~550). 

Above all, though, I have to say that you need to go out and get your readers. It is rare unless prompted that someone will find themselves looking and your content.

Going past the first 3-6 months of writing where everything was new and exciting. Blogging became a routine, just like exercise, it was a necessary part of my week that needed to be completed, and that is pretty much the way it has been for the last 18 months.

I write my piece, schedule it and then got on with all the other things I do. Fortunately, because of the fact, I had written around three months worth of posts before I started putting them online. It was easy for me to be consistent with uploads. However, especially in the last six-months, the buffer I had built up has been slowly eroded, so much so that I am now writing in real-time. So everything you see from now on that is written by me, will be hand to mouth, or hand to webpage?

I think the successes I have had so far has been down to my consistency, I genuinely believe that if you last more than a few months with your blog, you’re in the upper echelons. Because of the minimal barrier to entry, it is easy to start up a blog on a whim, and soon after, when you realise it is hard to attract viewership, easy to quit. 

I do not have much motivation to keep this blog going as it does not do much for me, but for some reason, I do feel compelled to keep at it. I think the prospect of some unknown additional benefit turning up at somepoint, hangs in the back of my mind like an embarrassing memory. So I continue. 

For those of you that have been going longer than me, why do you persist?

For those of you that are interested in statistics, probably the newer bloggers, as I know, I was. This site has a total of ~10,000 followers, 85,000 views from 124 posts over two years. Each of these posts has an average of 600 words. I have also gained 100 twitter followers from this blog. 

The traffic is definitely increasing year on year. However, these are still rookie numbers that would make literally double figures in terms of income. I do not know how these stats relate to other blogs as I have not really spoken to any other bloggers about this. Seeing as I put maybe three hours a week into this blog, I suspect that if you were dedicated, you could certainly do a lot better than I have.

I would guess that like me, this is something you do on the side of your side project. And I certainly could not commit much more time to it than I do at the moment – well it’s not that I couldn’t, I choose not to.

C O N T E N T

I thought the idea of writing about my studies would be interesting when I was a person who knew nothing about my PhD. But I do not find it that interesting, to be honest. 

I will speak about where I want to go with my blog in the future, but as a primer, it involves less about what I do and more about things I am interested in. 

I think I will post about what I do on a fortnightly basis and to fill in the gaps I will write about things that interest me. I may even dabble with some audio! It would be interesting to hear what you guess my voice is like as most of the people who read this are from the USA.

Overall, I thought I would have more to say after two years of blogging, but I to my surprise, this is it.

Anyway, if you have any questions or concerns, please leave a comment down below. Or, if you would like to contribute, go here.

Otherwise, see you soon (figuratively speaking).

Digital cleaning – 95

For the last three months, my computer has been performing very poorly, and I have been spending many a weekend trying to figure out why. Well, I have finally fixed the problem, it turns out there was an issue with my cooling, after several minutes of the computer being on it had reached 100°C – which is better than my kettle. To avoid completely burning itself out the computer, it saves itself and reduces its performance.

If you don’t know this is happening and have never seen the consequences before it can be quite hard to diagnose. I reinstalled windows, changed the GPU, and doubled the amount of ram all to no avail. If only the computer would tell me it was limiting to performance due to it being too hot it would have cost me a lot less time and money. I am not worried about Skynet taking when my computer can’t even tell me it’s overheating.

Anyway, it is always satisfying when you have been working on a problem for a long period, and eventually, you solve it. One of the good things about doing a PhD is that my resilience when it comes to problem-solving. I haven’t yet developed a robust system for problem-solving, which may help in adaptability for different types of problem. Still, it does mean it is slower than it perhaps could be. Concerning pc repair, my new favourite tool is ‘openhardwaremonitor‘. It tells you what every single piece of hardware is doing and is great for diagnosing problems.

At the university, things are starting to wind down for the holidays. In practical terms, it means that I only have two weeks left of the year (Yes, this was written in December) in which to complete the experiments I planned to. I am confident I won’t get them all done, but I will get into a position where everything will be completed by the end of January.

If I had it my way I would work a little longer this year as I am in a flow state where everything is going well at the moment, but the equipment at the university is very expensive and temperamental, and it isn’t as easy as just switching it off. It is a big operation to shut down all the machinery, and a coordinated effort is required. Because of this, we can’t just work when we want, when our machines switch off, so do we.

Wishing you all a happy New Year!

It is the end of the year by date, and I thought I would wish everyone a belated Merry Christmas and a happy New-Year.

I have been spending some time away at the parent’s house, and purposefully ignoring everything that is part of my ‘usual-life’ which includes this blog.

For me, 2019 has been a year in which there have been a few significant events in my life, one of which being the purchase of a property, and yet it feels as if it has been a year of ‘getting on with it’.

I am in the middle of my studies, and my life is locked in its current state for another year and a half. Then the familiar turbulent lifestyle where one must attend interviews for work, that in all honesty, we would rather not.

‘Money can be exchanged for goods and services’ is no longer a valid answer to, ‘so why do you want this job?’

I am looking forward to the next year, although I am expecting more of the same. It is 2021 where things will get interesting!

Anyway, I wish you all the best, and thanks for reading.

Democracy and bending the rules – 96

We had an election here in the UK yesterday (yes this was written in December). Because of this, I have been reflecting on why we, as a society, tend to vote against our best interests. I used to believe that it was because people were ignorant and therefore easily tricked into voting against their interests.

I no longer think this is as significant a factor as I used to; I now believe that it is the aspirations of people that are causing potentially poor decisions to be made.

In the UK we don’t really have an ‘American dream’ to aspire for, or so I thought. Perhaps we do, maybe we want to be those classical Tories who go to Eton college and then to work in the city.

Like our working-class American cousins, most of us are closer to being homeless than we are to being wealthy, and you would think our voting would reflect that. Instead of admitting that we may not be middle class and voting accordingly, we vote for the party we want to be a part of rather than the one that might help to get us there.

I know I am the odd one who bothers to look at the manifestos of each party and then decide who to vote for based on the one that ticks the most of my boxes. I won’t tell you who I voted before. Still, seeing as I am in academia, it might be easy for you to guess if you know the direction academics tend to vote.

Speaking of academia, I am working much more than normal at the moment so that I can meet the relatively arbitrary deadline of finishing all of my experiments by Christmas. This includes working in the lab both days of the weekend, which is not advised. Not for any reason other than there is no one around to help you if there is an accident. A sensible rule that is not always headed.

Technically, you’re not allowed to work alone in a lab alone, although I would imagine not a lot of work would get done if this was enforced. You do have to have to use your initiative and disregard the rules on occasion, there are often people coming in and out of the lab, so the risk is quite low. However, this is not true on the weekends.

Sometimes you have to break the rules?