An open letter – Week 35 as a PhD student

Dear Weblogger X,

I had a visit from my parents yesterday. Whenever my parents are in town we go out for dinner, yesterday was no exception, and I booked our favourite restaurant. They asked me all the usual questions, but when they asked: ‘how is it all going?’ And I replied with ‘ Well, it is just work now. I am fully adapted to my situation’. They did not bat an eyelid, and there it was, everyone in my life is now blasé about me doing a PhD. It is now the new normal; where do you go from here?

The older I get, the more I believe that ignorance is bliss. If the idea never came into my head that I should do something that is helpful society, I may be much happier with a happy go lucky attitude to life. I could drift through without doing anything challenging and be perfectly happy; instead, I have a delusion that I should be doing something grander. Ideas are dangerous!

This past week was a bog standard one; Lots of lab work, with me trying to sneak some writing in. The standout day was Tuesday where I was In Dorset on a picturesque farm. We were there to plant over 9000 plants by hand. It was relatively easy going as the weather was kind. However, everyone was sore and stiff the next day, and there was no way any of us could have done another day. I genuinely do not understand how people do this sort of work every day. Either they do not work as long and hard as we did, or It doesn’t take that long to get adapted to it, or they push through the pain. Either way, I now have a much greater appreciation for the people that do it and genuinely worry what is going to happen when Brexit takes full hold. I am not a highly political person, and I believe that you do not nay cannot have an opinion of everything, so I shall leave it there.

Next week, I am hoping that the current block of lab work will be over and I can do a lot more writing. I might just end up analysing all the data collected over the past couple of months, but I am not going to think about that now as it is depressing. One thing I should make sure I do next week is learn how to use my camera. I’m too used to the clever algorithms that autofocus and white-balance my images that using a camera with manual settings is like learning to walk again. I need a guide that shows me the simple aspects of using a camera. There are so many things I need to do that will keep getting pushed back as only the most important tasks get completed. In spite of this I have ended the week feeling quite content; now of to the gym for a leg session. You cannot neglect your body as much as your to-do list!

Your friend,

Weblogger X.

You reap what you sow- week 34 as a PhD student

Writing this is a welcome distraction from the monotonous grind of PhD life this week. I have even resurrected an old time-destroying habit that is competitive gaming to distract myself.

It is not that is bad or soul-destroying work, but if you do anything for a long enough period, it becomes boring. I have been harvesting and processing rocket for what feels like three months. I would really like a week of no lab work to concentrate on a few others things I need to get done.

I need to make some ground on my paper and learn a few data analysis techniques. You know how it is; you get home from a day a work and all you have the strength to do is the easy items on your to-do list.

I think the lack of energy for any substantial activity after a day in the lab is the cause of why I have relapsed and started to play video games again. They help to distract from the constant murmurings in my mind about variables I should measure and experiments I should re-run.

The forces of distraction are pulling me towards them as the minimum level of energy required to avoid them is not available. This weekend I am going to allow distractions!

This week brings with it a marker that I have had staked out for a few months; the marker is a three-month countdown timer to my transfer viva. This is essentially the only barrier between me and the next few years of continuation as a PhD student. Therefore, it is quite an important thing for me. To complete the process, I have to complete a report similar to that of a masters thesis and then have a viva, which is a grilling from two academics on your work. Of course, it won’t be anywhere as hard as the final viva, but to someone in my position, it feels as important.

The reality is that it is scarce for anyone to fail, and one should not worry too much, but in a more physical reality, it feels as if it is fifty-fifty: pass or fail.

Coming up next week is a day where I have to leave at 5:30 AM. This is something that would sound like hell, but I am looking forward to the change of pace. We are going to plant 9000 plants for a field trial; I have not been involved in the planting stage before, only the harvesting stage. It is going to hard, gruelling work, but I like to try everything once, and it will be a nice break from my day-to-day activities.

I hope next week will bring about the end of all the long days in the lab for a few weeks, so I can do some planning and get on track. Mostly, I hope I can make a decent start on my 1st-year report as this would help relieve some of the anxiety I have towards it. I woke up thinking about it during the week; this is one of my sure signs that I am not quite altogether mentally.

Welcome home procrastination – Week 34 as a PhD student.

Writing this is a welcome distraction from the monotonous grind of PhD life this week. I have even resurrected an old time-destroying habit that is competitive gaming to distract myself.

It is not that is bad or soul-destroying work, but if you do anything for a long enough period, it becomes boring. I have been harvesting and processing rocket for what feels like three months. I would really like a week of no lab work to concentrate on a few others things I need to get done.

I need to make some ground on my paper and learn a few data analysis techniques. You know how it is; you get home from a day a work and all you have the strength to do is the easy items on your to-do list.

I think the lack of energy for any substantial activity after a day in the lab is the cause of why I have relapsed and started to play video games again. They help to distract from the constant murmurings in my mind about variables I should measure and experiments I should re-run.

The forces of distraction are pulling me towards them as the minimum level of energy required to avoid them is not available. This weekend I am going to allow distractions!

This week brings with it a marker that I have had staked out for a few months; the marker is a three-month countdown timer to my transfer viva. This is essentially the only barrier between me and the next few years of continuation as a PhD student. Therefore, it is quite an important thing for me.

To complete the process, I have to complete a report similar to that of a masters thesis and then have a viva, which is a grilling from two academics on your work. Of course, it won’t be anywhere as hard as the final viva, but to someone in my position, it feels as important. The reality is that it is scarce for anyone to fail, and one should not worry too much, but in a more physical reality, it feels as if it is fifty-fifty: pass or fail.

Coming up next week is a day where I have to leave at 5:30 AM. This is something that would sound like hell, but I am looking forward to the change of pace.

We are going to plant 9000 plants for a field trial; I have not been involved in the planting stage before, only the harvesting stage. It is going to hard, gruelling work, but I like to try everything once, and it will be a nice break from my day-to-day activities.

I hope next week will bring about the end of all the long days in the lab for a few weeks, so I can do some planning and get on track.

Mostly, I hope I can make a decent start on my 1st-year report as this would help relieve some of the anxiety I have towards it. I woke up thinking about it during the week; this is one of my sure signs that I am not quite altogether mentally.

Ennui in the lab – week 33

On goes the YouTube mix playlist and the writing commences. In the latest instalment of being a PhD student, I did some reading, I did some writing, and had a packed schedule of monotonous lab work that is fast becoming my least favourite part of my existence.

On goes the YouTube mix playlist and the writing commences. In the latest instalment of being a PhD student, I did some reading, I did some writing, and had a packed schedule of monotonous lab work that is fast becoming my least favourite part of my existence.

Close the YouTube mix playlist as I’m not in the mood for random songs this morning. Instead, open up Spotify and put on my Conor Oberst playlist. Now the music matches my melancholic mood. For those of you that are not, or have not been a PhD student or researcher of any kind, I am going to talk about something you will probably relate to. Several months ago, sat at my desk, trying to busy myself I was dreaming of getting into the lab and doing some ‘actual work’.

Lab work was fun for the first few weeks when you’re figuring everything out, and there is a problem-solving element to it. However, after this comes the work-phase, this is where you rinse and repeat the method you have been working on to collect data, this is where it is as monotonous as any task; I could be back in the warehouse moving around car parts as the stimulation is the same! The one bonus is that I don’t have set hours. This can also be a curse as I don’t finish at 5:30 like everyone else, I finish when I have finished.

This ennui created from repetitive tasks is, I am sure, a universal experience. Doing a PhD does not make it any more glamorous or enjoyable it is work. This is why I am starting to fall out of love with lab work and move towards a greater appreciation of the data analysis phase of research as this is where you see the results of all the work you have put in.

In other ‘news’, I have become a contributor to a software package called PlantCV which is focused on developing tools for plant phenotyping. This will firstly, look great on my CV and secondly help improve my coding. Coding has become my favourite new skill, I enjoy my time working on it, and if I had my time over, I would undoubtedly have started learning earlier as it would have helped me in numerous situations. I had thought that I should do an extracurricular activity that would boost my PhD and now I have two. Blogging (writing) and collaboration on an international opensource project. I will now promise myself to take on no more projects! I don’t have enough time to eat all of the things that are on my plate.

I had a bizarre problem this week, which was the search for a camera that can save as TIFF or RAW files. I can do it on my iPhone 5s! But I can’t find a camera for less than £400 that will do this. I think I will have to use my iPhone for scientific purposes, which could be interesting! If anyone has any camera recommendations for working with plants, please comment below!

Regret? – week 32 as a PhD student

I have been fending for myself this week which is just as well as it has been an anxiety-ridden week for one reason or another.

My partner has been away for seven days at this point. She is on holiday in the Nashville, and I could not go with her due to a few reasons that are some of the downsides of doing a PhD. She booked this holiday last year and had wanted me to go with her, but I had anxiety about taking ten days off when I did not know what I was going to be doing at that point in my PhD.

Image result for nashville
Basically why I’m not upset I didn’t go.

With the clarity of hindsight, it would have probably been okay. However, I would not have been able to collaborate on the project I am working on now. This project involves growing different varieties of rocket leaves at different temperatures to see how the chemistry is affected, and therefore, flavour.

I am learning a lot doing this collaboration, so it has been worthwhile, and I don’t know how good it will be until after the data analysis phase. It has taken a lot of my budget and I am not sure how beneficial to my project will be at this stage. This is creating quite a bit of anxiety; I am on the ride now so have to see it to the end.

This is the longest I have been away from my partner in seven years, I am coping okay, and I don’t wish I was in Nashville. I do wish I was with her though as most of my life is built around stuff I do with her and I can’t really relax when she is not around. Whilst she has not been here I have spent almost all hours working on my PhD; good for progress, bad for general enjoyment of life.

Because I have been working so much, I have lost 1 kg in weight, and have started to drink more coffee as my sleep has degraded a bit. Also, I have been listening to a lot of Metallica; I wonder if there is a correlation? Your life burns faster, obey your master.

When I have had some time outside of the lab this week, I have been continuing my quest to learn more about machine learning. This has its challenges as does anything that you’re learning. You see a concept that you can use, but you know you need to learn a lot more before you can actually use it. I am at that stage; I need it now, but alas I cannot have it. More is all I need.

As soon as I finish writing this, I will be back at the learning process trying to train my machine to recognise plants from the scene. It is possible, and I will complete this task if it kills me, even If I have to work on it while I am chopping my breakfast in the mirror.

I am booking a meeting with my supervisor for as soon as possible, and hopefully, she will pull the strings and get me back on track; at least mentally anyway. The interesting thing about this is that I can only see the workload getting thicker, rather than winding down. I think what will happen is that I get used to the high workload and it becomes normal. After all, I assume that is one of the skills that makes someone with a PhD employable. The ability to work hard.

Can you guess the song I was referencing throughout?

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Fear and loathing in Glasvegas – week 31 as a PhD student

Fear and loathing in a Glasgow hotel

If you have read a lot of blogs by PhD students or even mainstream media articles, you will know that mental health issues are a problem.

I am not going to tell you that I have mental health issues because I don’t. However, this week has been the worst, and I have spent all weekend recovering from stress-related illness.

I have been harvesting and sampling all day Monday, Thursday and Friday which is not mentally draining, but it is physically draining. On Tuesday morning at 5:30 I had to catch a seven-hour train to Glasgow, I arrived at 12:30 and immediately had a maths related training course until five o’clock. After the course ended, I went out for dinner and drinks with the other students, which is a large part of the training course.

There are three parts to these training courses that I can distinguish: the training, the socialising and the therapy. The therapy is where the students unload all their grievances on each other. I think it is one of the most critical aspects, and I guess it is very cathartic. I didn’t have any issues this time; I will get them next time.

So, with very little sleep, Wednesday delivered another day of training. It included marketing and social science, which were exciting but not too useful. The course finished at three, and my train was at five.

The train that would get me back home at midnight. I should have flown, but I didn’t think I could get that reimbursed, it turns out I could, and most other people flew. Oh well, at least I learnt something. To kill time, I went to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens that happened to be right next to the hotel. If you’re ever in Glasgow, I definitely recommend it. Here are some beautiful pictures I took.

Just inside the entrance of Glasgow's Botanic Gardens
Just inside the entrance

 

One of the rooms in Glasgow's Botanic Gardens
One of the rooms in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens
Purple Pitcher plant
Purple Pitcher plant – do not touch!
Bird of paradise plant
Bird of paradise plant – my favourite plant

I don't remember what this is

 Inside the botanical gardens – can’t remember what this is

 

Coffee
I drink this every day

Back on the train, the views are fantastic, but soon it is night time, and all I have is the unread research papers in my ‘to read’ folder. To my surprise, I managed to read quite a few before losing all sense of reality.

I arrive home at midnight.

Thursday, back to harvesting and sampling, I finished at six, walked home, had a small dinner and straight back out to dancing with my partner, get home 10:30 exhausted.

Friday, exhausted, didn’t sleep well, stress and tiredness levels reaching a peak. I get told on Friday afternoon that I cannot use the machine I need on Monday and possibly Tuesday. This essentially pushes me to the worst mental state I have been in for a long time. I think the tiredness had a major influence on my mental state.

After, having done all this work, for the past month at a significant cost to me, and then having been told I can’t continue it this week was my first big failure since starting my PhD. I knew it was coming as everyone has setbacks, and I had been cruising along enjoying myself waiting for an issue to occur. Well it did occur, and now I have to deal with it, I imagine that this will be a relatively small bump in the road, but it feels like it is a lot more important at the moment. Tune in next week to see if it gets worse, or to see If I have dealt with, or simply accepted the issue.

One of the other things that contributed to the low feeling that descended on me on Friday is surely the lack of exercise (1 run and one weight training session) and the different food I was consuming. All this worry and anxiety that has come to me is part of the learning process and what makes a PhD student stand out. Resilience is a major skill worth developing, so I am trying to be systematic about it.

I think I know what you’re thinking dear reader. ‘Poor guy, he has his education paid for him and gets to live a relatively free and privileged life’. Well yes, this is true, I understand it and think the same when I hear others complain. Even being cognisant of this does not help when you feel down and depressed, that is one of the reasons we know we won’t be happy if we won the lottery and never have to work again. This is one of those deeply philosophical ideas that makes one question life.

What is the meaning and what is happiness?

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Rocket and Trains – week 30 as a PhD student

Rocketeering, this week I have been a nurse to several hundred rocket plants, watering and re-potting them as their need demanded.

Rocketeering, this week I have been a nurse to several hundred rocket plants, watering and re-potting them as their need demanded.

We are running a study to see how the chemical profile of four different varieties of salad rocket. Rather than buying the plants from a supplier we have been growing them indoors so we can control the conditions.

It has been my job to re-pot them from the germination trays into their final growing pots as living things age in their unique way, there is a consistent trickle of plants that need re-potting each day, and thus most of my time has been taken up tending to these needy buggers. After all the care and attention I am giving them they will not do the honourable thing and allow me to eat them as we have only grown enough to do our analysis.

I am ‘running’ this study jointly with one of the post-docs in the group. I jumped at the chance to work with a more experienced scientist, and I am looking forward to seeing what the results will be and if any papers come out of it.

Normally, I prefer to work on my own as I feel like I learn more. When I work alone, I only have to satisfy my standards, and as long as the work gets completed, I am happy. As a completionist, I think I would hate working with a perfectionist as I think it would be limiting with a lot of time wasted on details that are not important but ‘are better’. This is one of the reasons I chose a PhD so that I could work for myself in some small sense. That also happens to be my overall goal in life, autonomy!

Because I have had a lot of my time taken up by gardening, I feel as If I have not accomplished much this week. It is something that comes with the territory; when you’re not doing science, you feel as if you’re stalling or moving backwards. I have had a few of these ups and downs now and am experienced enough to ignore it; there is a lot of variance (ϭ2) in life!

In more personal matters, dancing was cancelled this week as the hall we use was needed for a polling station, yet another instance of politics defecating on the arts. I am surprised that as a male of 27 years who has never had an interest in, or a rhythm for dance, I am really glad my girlfriend signed us up to the classes and we are getting good!

I have also managed to run six kilometres with a pace under 5:10/km twice this week. It is nice to see progress, and for almost the first time in a decade, I prefer my cardio to weight training.

Next week I am going to Glasgow in Scotland for two days, so that should be exciting. I hope it will feel as if I am taking the Hogwarts express when I am on the seven-hour train journey.

Image result for scotland train
Glennfinnan viaduct – note my journey was nowhere near this romantic.