Statisfaction -79

Here we are another week closer to heat death of the universe. I didn’t really know how to start this piece so I just wrote down the first thing that came to my head that wasn’t complete blogger cliché.

I have spent a lot of time this morning reading blogs about statistics and furiously making notes. You know you’re a geek when you like star-wars, even though 90% of it is garbage, but the true nerd spends their weekends learning the intricacies of some obscure realm of mathematics.

The motivation for pre-occupation with statistics this weekend is because of a course I attended on Thursday. At my university, students on the PhD program have to attended a certain amount of ‘development courses’. In the 1st year I had to attend five courses – I actually attended ten because who doesn’t like free education. In the second year, which I am now in, you have to attend four. I tend to gravitate to anything technical when it comes to these courses, rather than courses such as ‘improve your communication skills.

The course I was on was about using the R-language to produce graphics; it was a full-day course, which is unusual. It was one of those times where the passion for the subject from the statistician running the course forced itself upon you. I was certainly inspired; hence my morning, and most of Friday, learning more about the subject.

Statistics, at least for me, is one of those topics where the information does not stick around in the brain very easily, so each time I come to analyse some data I have to spend a decent amount of time re-learning some of the concepts. I have produced a large document for myself of the main principles, so that I don’t have to start from square one each time. I imagine that this document will be close to my final thesis in terms of usefulness!

I had a bit of a transport related drama this week. My bike broke. I was given the bike so I did not have much concern for the bike itself; my bigger concern was how I was going to get to the university. I got a quote of £75 pounds to repair the bike, and they said that they couldn’t do it for two weeks – this would be very inconvenient. I decided to buy a new bike rather than fixing up, what I can only describe as the, worst bike I have ever owned.

After days of looking at reviews of bikes online I could not decide how much I should spend for what is essentially my commuting vehicle. Ideally I would find something dirt cheap online, but to my surprise I couldn’t find anything. “Where is a stolen bike when you need one” is what I thought to myself.

Luckily, after a long and sweaty walk to campus a serendipitous moment occurred. A cycling charity happened to be on campus offering free services of peoples bikes. They also had bikes for sale that they had refurbished. After £45 had been handed over I now am in possession of an equally terrible, but functional new bike. The utilitarian wins again!

Back to it – 78

Back after the Easter break with a new low in motivation.

A few weeks ago I booked a machine for this week without paying any attention to the fact that I would not be able to come in and use it on Monday as it is a holiday. Because of this lack of foresight, I have had to extend my booking over the weekend so that I can fit all my samples in.

I am analysing sugars derived from Iceberg-lettuce over a time period of one month. In theory, as the leaves continue to metabolise, the sugars will decrease. From a scientific point of view, this might be a potential marker for senescence and degradation which is why I am monitoring it. For the number of samples I have I am expecting it to take around four days to run them all. To clean the machine and various components a day either side is required. Providing the machine doesn’t breakdown, which is relatively common with expensive scientific equipment in my experience; I should be done by Sunday.

This is how a PhD differs from a conventional job. There is no consistency in the hours of which you will work. It is one of those “when it’s done kind of an occupation”. It is a positive or negative depending on your perspective, and it is lifestyle factors such as this as to why many people drop-out. All the people I know who have dropped out of their studies have done it for reasons related to the lifestyle of the studentship rather than the difficulty of the subject matter. When I started, I had wrongly presumed that the complexity of the study would be the main reason for someone to stop their studies.

One task that I have thrown myself at this week is clearing out my “to read” folder. It is a folder full of papers that I think might be useful, but not helpful enough to read at the time of discovery. In the past, I would only read papers when I needed them for a reference, or if I did read them for general knowledge, I would not make notes.
About six months ago I got my act together on this and started taking and saving notes from papers I have read while archiving them in a reference generator.

I assume writers also have this problem when you’re gathering research for your piece.

How do you collect and organise your notes?

I use Zotero which is a free reference / archiving software. I chose this program because it runs on Linux, but I know many programs fulfil the same function, such as Mendeley, EndNote (which is the one my University recommends) and citethisforme.

Anyway, I have gone through and read about half of this folder, and feel quite good about it. I have finally got around to a chore I have been putting off all year, like throwing out all those clothes I no longer wear.

This advancement in the management of my notes and references is an example of advice I got at the start, which I then ignored and ended up enacting myself months later to my detriment. This happens a lot and is one of the main problems with advice. I remember someone who had just completed their PhD telling me to “write up papers as you go along, you won’t, but I recommend you do”. They were correct: I haven’t.

Advice is difficult to take and very easy to give. This is the main problem with advice as I see it. What other people should do is always crystal clear; it seems to be very easy to analyse anything other than your situation.

Perhaps this is the basis for Richard Feynman quote ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool’.

A cabin in the woods – 76

I have a lot to talk about this week! It is one of those occasions where the thoughts about what I am going to write about have been whirring around my mind for the last few hours. The majority of the time this is not the case, and I don’t know what I am going to write about until I sit down. Does anyone else write like this?

The reason I have something to talk about this week is that I have been on holiday! I have spent a week in a cabin in the woods in Snowdonia national park with my family and partners. We were very fortunate with our break in that the tourist season had not started yet and the weather was perfect – for me, not too hot, but sunny. Also, we had a hot-tub; which is a vital piece of equipment after a long day hiking.

Snowdon… with snow. Image by RuthLeonardWilliams from Pixabay


I want to continue on last weeks idea of holidays/vacations and their importance in preventing burn-out. There was one important idea that I overlooked when I wrote that piece; I overlooked the possibility of me not wanting to return!

Motivationally speaking, not wanting to return from holiday is probably a sign that the thing you’re going back to isn’t at the top of the list of things you want to do. I would much rather be climbing mountains and exploring the beautiful landscape in Snowdonia than doing lab-work in a repetitively dull, but convenient, minor-metropolis.

Snowdonia national park. Image by Roman Grac from Pixabay

Given what I have just said, I pose the following question: Can a holiday/vacation be a bad thing?

Before this week I would have thought that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives; however, if you’re unconsciously taking a break to get away from the toil of your daily life, then there may be an argument to be made that a break is not what you need. ‘Papering over the cracks’ is a phrase that comes to mind.

I remember that last week I was talking about how I had organised things so that when I come back, I can hit the ground running. I had filled my diary so that I would jump straight back into my work as if nothing had happened. This seemed, at the time, like the optimal thing to do; however, on reflection, it just made feel as if I wanted to return even less as I had a mountain of work to return to. Maybe it would have been better to have a much gentler return to work. I could have given myself a nice light workload to return to, but I have set things up so that I am jumping in mid-flow.

What we have here folks is the classic illustration of the yin and yang, the up and down, positive and negative, swings and roundabouts etcetera.

Upon arriving home, I have spent a considerable amount of time on ‘general blog maintenance’. I have been updating broken links and correcting any errors that have been pointed out by you lovely people. I have also spent some time seeking out new blogs that I can take inspiration from. It has been a relatively long time since I gave my blog some TLC, so I am going to dedicate this weekend to improve my blog.

I want to improve my site from a visual perspective, so if you have any tips, please comment below!

I am going for a minimalist look with a site that is as easy to navigate as possible.

How much time do you spend on improving your product blog?

Preventing burnout with a holiday – 75

Last year I did not have any holiday; I was too focused on my study to think about taking any time off. Last time I spoke of a holiday was because I had not had any and had made the resolution to take more time off in future as to not get burnt out.

I am going away on a family holiday next week to Snowdonia National Park. Unlike last time, I do not feel as if I need, or have earned the break. This is one of the significant problems with preventative strategies – in this case, I am trying to prevent burn-out. The problem is that often it is not until the actual event, getting burned out for example, that you feel as if you need to do something. You’re not addicted until your addicted etcetera.

I shall take some work with me just in case I feel inspired to do some in a moment of downtime, but I doubt that will happen. I am hoping I can fill the week with as much mountain based activities as I can, and even if I do get bored, I always have my kindle.

In a moment of retrospection, this is something that blogging has been useful for, I have noticed that my organisational skills have improved slightly. Because I know I am going to missing a week I have been spending the prior week organising and booking things, so that when I come back, I will hit the ground running.

In the past, I would have wound all my projects up the week before going away and then would have to build back up again when I returned. The result is that there would be several weeks where I was performing sub-optimally. The new, and hopefully not temporary, version of me has managed to plan things so that I should actually be in a net positive in terms of productivity after this break.

Doing a PhD, or any extended period of study for that matter, has its benefits in the non-implicit skills that you develop – organisation and critical thinking are two such examples. In my opinion, this is where most of the value of such a person comes from, and not the specific subject area they are studying.

I now have an answer to the eternal question of ‘what do you want to do, and or, be?’ and that is ‘a life-long learner’.

It has also become clear to me that attempting things that are difficult are usually the most worthwhile as the unintended consequences are often profound. One only has to think of CERN and the attempt to understand the fundamentals of nature which have had profound benefits to humanity – I am thinking of the world wide web here.

The need for better communication between scientists that were trying to understand the universe had inadvertently meant that you are now reading this.

For me, the unintended consequences of doing a PhD have been that I am now a fairly decent programmer, I am a much better writer than I used to be, and I have developed reasonably robust critical thinking skills. The critical thinking skills have been particularly convenient in the Brexit/Trump era.

Running my first half-marathon – 74

The results are in; I completed the half-marathon in two hours and three minutes – tell my knees that.

For the first time in my life, I have entered a physical event, a half marathon, and I have done adequate training. During my training, I took note of how I felt during each run and what meals I had eaten before. Salad sat it my stomach and felt horrible, as did any relatively large meal. Two hours post-meal seemed like the best time to run.

On the day I woke up at 7 am and had 50 grams of oats with a teaspoon of honey; I also had a black coffee.

I felt great for about ten miles, slowly running past all the people that had under-prepared in some aspect of their race, and generally having a pleasant time. One of the biggest surprises to me about the event was the number of people that came out to support the event.

Every few minutes someone would read my name on my running card and give personalised encouragement. There were over 15,000 people running, so the people who were standing at the sides shouting for hours had their own endurance challenge. It was one of those moments where you forget all the strange politics us humans can get caught up in and really appreciate humanity.

I would certainly be tempted to run another one, and if anyone is on the fence about doing something like this I would certainly encourage it. I will certainly be trying my best to complete a half-marathon in under two hours.

Completing such a big challenge at the weekend makes the rest of the week pale in comparison. There were two particularly contrasting days that I had this week.

On Wednesday I attended a training course in a town just outside of London called Stevenage. Most things in the UK are close to London, which is because this is where most people live, and therefore where events are most profitable. The knock on effect of this, for those that do not live in London, there is a relatively early start to the day.

I had to wake up at 5:45! This is not what the former twenty-year-old warehouse worker in me went to University for. In fact, it was to avoid situations like this entirely. And get meaning and purpose in life, but that is more of a side-effect.

The course was about the maintenance of HPLC machines. This is a standard scientific instrument that most people who study a scientific subject will be familiar with . I went on the course to improve my knowledge of how to use these machines, and, consequently, boost my CV.

In contrast to all of this, I spent all of Friday morning weighing out 50 mg amounts of ground Rocket powder and all of the afternoon grinding dried Rocket leaves. By the end of the day, I had powdered Rocket all over me. It is interesting that when you take a shower after doing this all day, the powdered that is trapped in your hair gets wetted and quite pungent.

I am not sure if there is any evidence out there with respect to the hair regenerative prowess of dried Rocket powder, but if I find any I will let you know!

For those of you that are runners, or have run in the past, what would you recommend for increasing speed?

Running a half-marathon – 73

I am going to be running my first half-marathon tomorrow. Before this year, the farthest I have run is eight miles, and that was six years ago. In training I have run ten miles; I am hoping that the adrenaline of the occasion will carry me to the finish line. It may well be the case that I tell you a tale of cramping up in front of a relatively large crowd next week.

With respect to work this week I have finished running several different experiments which means that next week I can relax a little. I even have a little trip on Wednesday; I am going to a town that has no value other than being close enough to London for easy transport links, but a much lower cost of residence – which is true for most towns the world over including the one I originate from.

I am going on a course for the maintenance of HPLC systems. I decided to sign myself up to this course for personal development. Typically, at least in my university, all the knowledge of how to operate scientific equipment comes from finding someone who knows how to use it and then persuading them to teach you.

There are relatively few opportunities for ‘structured’ training on equipment which I find rather annoying. If you want to become a better communicator, there are hundreds of opportunities for you in academia. If, however, like me, you enjoy learning how things work you have to fend for yourself. I am hoping that because there are relatively few opportunities for gaining this technology specific training, I will be more employable.

From the universities point to view, I do understand why this type of training is less prevalent, and that is because it is all too possible that you pay someone to train and then they never end up using the equipment. Often when you don’t use a new skill, you lose it. If I were in charge of training, I would implement the same policy.

Hopefully, it will be worth the early start!

Unusually, for partaking in such a big challenge tomorrow, I am not that nervous; I am quite confident that I will finish the race, but most of all I am excited to have it over with. I have enjoyed most of the training, but after 10 km it has been a struggle. I think going forward my longest distance will be 10 km it is long enough for a good workout, but not so long that I am hurting the next day.

To those of you that have completed marathons I now have greater respect for you; like Gimli, I am more of a natural sprinter. Back to the weights and shorter distance running for me!

Gimli sprinter

Do you know what you want to do with your life? – 72

Well, for those of you that have been following my recent posts, I have relatively exciting news for you: I remembered to order coffee this week.

I certainly needed the exogenous boost this week as it has been physically exhausting. It was a combination of long days working in the lab and extra training runs. I have added in an additional 5 km a week in my training as I have a half marathon next Sunday.

I have been accustomed to not having any breaks when I am working in the lab. Most of the time I don’t need them as I am only working for a few hours at a time, and then I go home and do some office work. This week, however, I have been running a few experiments at the same time which means I am working all day, and as I do not normally work all day in the lab, I am relatively unfit. This is my guess as to my tiredness; it could be something completely different of course.

I was so tired that last night I did not go out for drinks with my colleagues, I binge watched Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix series ‘Afterlife’. It was definitely worth a watch, and I felt as if there were lots of subplots I was missing – something that might be picked up with a second viewing.

Periodically, whenever I have a study going on – which is six months of the year – I have to go into the lab on a Sunday. I have to do this because the timings on one of my experiments mean I have to evaluate the results 48 hours after I set it up. As one of the days where I take samples is a Friday, I have to go in on a Sunday.

All I have to do is record the results, and it only takes a couple of hours, but It still means I cannot go away for a weekend during these six months. This is something that probably would not happen If I had a regular job; however, the fact that I occasionally have to come in on the weekend is a price I am willing to pay for a relatively free life. Every time I think being a PhD student is tough I remember the days where I worked in a warehouse, and am instantly reminded that my life is far better than it was, and where I could end up if I stop trying.

The reflection on where I could still be, the warehouse, is something that was brought up in a recent phone conversation with an old friend – yes, remember talking to people by voice? He has a 1st class degree from a good university, but is still struggling with that universal problem ‘ what shall I do with my life?’ I am becoming more and more convinced that for most people there is no answer to this question. Most of us drift through life choosing the best path we have available at the time, or at most trying to stack the odds toward a path we might like.

To those lucky few that genuinely know what they want to with there life from a young age and actively pursue it, I am envious. Although, I imagine there are negatives that I cannot see.