Am I doing it right? week 26 as a PhD student

Twenty-six weeks of blog posts! I have a suspicion that I am among a small percentage of people who have kept a blog going for this long. To all those who have joined me and kept me motivated, I thank you.

Easter aftermath. This week In the meanderings of me, I only spent four days working as for Monday I Was travelling back from my parent’s house in Oxfordshire. I walked into the University on Tuesday to find that it deserted. I should pay attention to term-dates; for some reason, I have been thinking as a PhD student I don’t have the same timetabling as everyone else. The reality of the situation is that the undergraduate students get the most time off and the staff get ever so slightly less. I am somewhere in between staff and student; if the University is closed, I work from home. I may indulge in some holidays occasionally, but for the most part, I march to the beat of my own drum; I consider this the best part of doing a PhD.

Out of the three possible days I could spend in the lab I spent Wednesday working on the ammonia assay; I am not getting the numbers that I should so there is something wrong somewhere, and I need to start the debugging procedure. I think the problem comes down to one of the variables I have to plug into the equation but I haven’t done the work to confirm what it is so that fun little puzzle is yet to come maybe next week. On Thursday I was doing some work with volatile compounds and trap retention; the gist is this, add compound onto a trap and measure the compound, store some of the traps for a week and see how much of the compound has disappeared. From this work, I will know how many samples I can take on a given day and how long I can store them for. Generally with flavour work, sample storage is not an issue; however, I need to extract my samples within a specific time frame. It takes an hour to do one extraction, so on a good day, I could do twelve samples. Twelve, if you know anything about statistics, is a relatively small sample size, and I need to take them on twelve consecutive days so I can see how the compounds extracted change over time. For anyone who has worked in a lab you will know that getting access to machinery is spotty at best; as I need to measure samples over a twelve day period, the ability to store samples will save much of my sanity. As you will be reading this four months after I am writing it, the problem will either be solved or proclaimed too challenging for me! Let us see what happens.
Speaking of sanity, when you’re in the lab with a cold for twelve hours, alone, with nothing but the whirring of various machines, sanity does not compute.

I have spent the rest of my time preparing for a meeting with my supervisor I have on Monday; which will also help to prepare me for my six-month review I have on Friday. To prepare I have been writing down all my thoughts on my project so far and trying to pre-empt questions. Most of my questions boil down to whether or not I am doing the right things, and the ideal outcome of the meetings will be the phrase ‘keep calm and carry on’.

I am going to stop writing now and head to the gym as I have eaten five Easter eggs in as many days!


Yes this was written quite a while ago see this for more information

Ghost town – week 25 as a PhD student

Easter weekend has turned the university into a ghost town; I walked into the university on Thursday morning only to find myself felling Cillian Murphy in the opening scenes of 28 days later.

Yes, this was written many months ago.

I can tell that there is a public holiday here in the UK by the relative inactivity of my inbox. In academia, downtime is a strange thing as under normal circumstances there is someone insularly working at all hours of the day. You will never be the first or last person in or out of the building. This is because of the flexibility you have in academia, and why it is so attractive to some people.

I did not plan on taking any time off over Easter; however, I have reached a point where all I can do is write. Since I have been doing a lot of this lately, I am going to take a break. I have also been feeling a little burnt out and to be frank, bored. I am going to go and spend some time with my parents over the Easter break and forget about my work obligations, and hopefully recharge. The initial burst of motivation I had at the start of my PhD has dwindled, and I am glad of a short break.

I have been working on two different experiments this week, trying to determine the ammonia concentration in different salad leaves and extracting Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from the packaging of leafy salads. There is a tiny literature looking at ammonia in plant tissue over time, so this is something I am going to investigate. The problem with a tiny literature is that there are very few methods that can be used to analyse ammonia. At the moment I am using a modifying an ammonia testing kit for blood plasma, and it is looking semi-promising at this stage, I will continue along this line of enquiry after Easter. With the collection of VOCs I was testing a new technique where I pumped the headspace of the salad bag out of the pack through a trap; I then measured the VOCs on a GC-MS system with an attached thermal desorber – I realise a lot of people reading this will not understand the specifics, but I am writing for a scientific audience and realise I have been fairly scant on scientific detail recently. If you’re new or haven’t pieced together from my rambling what I am actually doing… I am primarily doing the chemical and biological groundwork for future technologies that will increase the usable life of food – specifically leafy salads – and reduce food waste.

This week was much more enjoyable than last week as instead of sitting at home alone writing; I was working in the lab with other people, with whom I could talk. The increase in happiness just from being around other people has put me in a reflective, philosophical mood. One of my fundamental issues is that after six-months of any, job, hobby or other goal-oriented pursuits, is that I get bored and disinterested. Thinking specifically about jobs, the best jobs I have ever had were not necessarily the most interesting, they were the ones where I got on really well with other colleagues, and at times it felt as if I was just going to work to talk to friends. In the worst job I ever had, warehouse operative, there was a period of a few months were I was working with a few good people and I did not mind the depressing job so much; inevitable they left to go on to bigger and better things, which isn’t difficult when you work in a warehouse, and the job was miserable again, soon after that I decided I should go to university…Basically what I am trying to say is that who you work with may be more important than the job itself, and I must remember that in future.

Blogging overload – Week 24 as a PhD student

Repetitive, monotonous, tedious, is how a feel about writing blog posts at the moment. I have been writing blog posts all weekend, and my motivation for writing this one is undoubtedly lower than average. My guest post for the British Nutrition Foundation has been sent back to me with some suggestions and corrections. At first glance, this seems like a bad thing, however, they told me that they definitely want it, after the changes have been made to make it more relevant to their audience. I have never seen so many comments on a word document before It is all a valuable learning experience especially as they phoned me up and went through it with me! I did not expect this to happen, I was waiting for it to be accepted or rejected. Instead, I am getting a mentor on how to write blog posts. A few of the many things I have learnt are:

  1. Be inclusive of everyone. I was using words and sentence that would be specific to people similar to me. An example would be that not everyone understands what the word heuristics means, so I changed it to rules-of-thumb.

  2. Don’t use the same keyword two sentences in a row. For example, Consumers have different levels of sensory perception. Varying levels of perception among individuals lead to different results. Doesn’t read as good as: Consumers have different levels of sensory perception. Individuals sense things to different levels which leads to varying results. This may be a poor example, but hey, what do you want from a noob like me!

I will do a detailed blog of the development of my guest post at some point in the future.

I have got back in the lab this week, which has lifted my spirits a bit; I have been trying to use an ammonia assay kit to determine the quantity of ammonia in plant tissue. Day one of testing with this kit was mixed; I need to find a sample of plant tissue with ammonia in it to confirm if my method is okay. I have also had confirmation that I can go and use the GC-MS equipment next week, so I can do more practical stuff and get out of this writing rut that I am in. I have discovered that I like practical problem solving much more than writing. Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate writing, I have just become a bit tired of it with the amount of it I have been doing lately: I need to find balance in my work.

I have also sent off my 6-month report, which was a document that talked about everything that I have done in the past six months and everything I will do in the next six months. One piece of doubt that is starting to creep into my mind is that I am good at the practical elements and am sure I can meet the end goal of the PhD. However, I am not so confident I can do the writing aspect of the PhD, it is something I am going to have to talk to my supervisors about. I have been thinking about it for a while without acting on it. I shall add it to my diary to make sure I do it!

I spent about £200 of my research budget this week on the ammonia assay kit and a NoIR camera to play with. I am going to try and assess plant health with it. I had a bit of retail therapy, with the house’s money!

Too much writing – week twenty-three as a PhD student

I find myself much less enthusiastic about writing this week; I think it is because I have spent the last two weeks sat in this chair writing. One thing I have realised from this extended period of writing is that without being in the lab I feel as if I am standing still. For me, I think I will need to plan my project better so that I am mixing up writing and practical work; I theorise that I will enjoy my time much more and feel more momentum if I can plan practical work and writing side-by-side.

I have completed my guest blog post for The British Nutrition Foundation; I had to cut the word count down to 650 words from 1200. I might write a separate blog post on the experience of writing a guest post in the future. I had been reading other posts on their site, just to get an idea of the style of writing, and on a few articles I copied them into a document to check the word count. Not to my surprise, the word counts were all above the limit I was given. Seeing as this is my first guest post I am very keen to please the editor, but I am not sure how comfortable I was cutting words from my post to fit an arbitrary word count. I am sure experienced writers would have a few things to say about this. Anyway, it is likely to be posted or axed by this point, so I shall add the appropriate link here.

I have also been writing and editing my six-month review documents, I need to produce a report where I explain what I have been doing and what I plan to do. Alongside that document I have to report all the presentations, outreach activities, courses, and pieces of writing I have completed. It helps to set goals, but I can’t help thinking that I should spread these sorts of activities out so that I have something to put in the box at each six.-month report. I realise this is an expedient view of things, but I don’t want to work harder than is strictly necessary if only to avoid the mental health issues that are more than likely to come my way.

Bundled in with a week of writing, is a hell of a lot of reading. In my case, reading is the reading of scientific papers, which is tiring and time-consuming. If the paper is one where the ideas are new to me, it can take at least an hour to read through the paper. I have a folder of papers ‘to read’, and it grows each week. One of the good things about science, albeit time-consuming, is that every point you make you have to back up with ‘evidence’. The time-consuming part comes when you know that the point is valid because you have read it before, but cannot remember where and in what paper the point was evidenced. This means reading through a bunch of papers to find it unless you’re much more organised than me. Normally when I am writing I spend around 50% of the time reading, this is another reason as to why I find writing very tiring.

This is what happens after I type for too long!

Image result for too much typing

Next week I hope to order some chemicals that I need for an experiment, however, I need to speak to the health and safety manager as the chemicals have an explosive tendency… Also next week I am attending a Liquid nitrogen course, so I expect it will be much more interesting!

Too much writing – week 22 as a PhD student

In the latest chapter of me doing a PhD is more of a filler chapter; the story has had a brief interlude where all I do is sit at my desk and write. If only all I did was write, that would have been a much better week; instead, I wrote for about 20 minutes and then proceeded to spend 10 minutes browsing the internet. I then repeated this for 8-10 hours a day, five days a week. I do actually enjoy writing; it is just very difficult to do it for days on end without getting burnt out; it is for me anyway. I am sure all my fellow students will have sympathy with this, and all those who are in a job that they are not 100% happy with; this is where relying on discipline is essential, as motivation is fickle and can often leave you alone for long periods of time.

I have been working on three different bits of work, my 6-month report, a paper I am writing, and a guest blog post I am writing for the British Nutrition Foundation. All of which, I am bored of looking at, this tends to happen to me with writing. I start out highly motivated; then there is a perfect negative linear trend in the interest in my work – we are talking a correlation of 0.999. I am unsure if there is a cure for this particular ailment, If you have one, please send it my way. One good thing about only doing writing this week is that I got to spend all my time at home, which is my preferred location, I am very hobbit-like in that sense. As for you dear readers:

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

As a side note, if there is a better work of fiction than the fellowship of the ring, I don’t want to know about it.

If you consider my time outside of my day-job, I did have an exciting week. On Tuesday I was in London attending a concert by Post Modern Jukebox, they are a group that became popular on YouTube for doing covers of songs on different musical styles. If you want to see Lady Gaga’s Bad romance performed in a Gatsby style, I suggest you check them out! They were perfectly enjoyable, and they did an excellent take on the main Harry Potter theme song, however, and this is true for any artist when they don’t play your favourite song you can only give them a seven out if ten max.

By far the most bizarre and comfort-zone-smashing thing I did this week was attend an American rock-and-roll dance class with my partner. We were both the worst dancers by far, I had never danced before, and my partner only had danced as a child. If there is one thing scarier than giving a presentation in front of many people – especially for an introvert – it is dancing, in public. It was one of those things we signed up to whilst slightly inebriated, but instead of just writing it off as drunken nonsense, actually going through with it. My partner and I were the youngest there by a good 20 years; she was only slightly less nervous than I was. However, as is normally the case when doing scary things, it was much more fun than scary. It was much harder than I thought it would be but this only spurred me on to get better, I will definitely continue with this. This is by far the biggest surprise of my life; I enjoyed dancing: sober! One of the problems with this, however, is now I have many extracurricular activities, I am starting to become a Jack of all trades and the master of…


Alcohol and blogging – week 21 as a PhD student

This is my first time writing early on a Saturday morning after an evening which involved more drinks than I am used to. I feel as if my mind is only 60% in attendance so this might be an interesting one. One of the key questions that one who is financially sensitive has to ask themselves is: ‘ Does the feeling I have this morning, and the £-41 from my bank, balance with the enjoyment I had last night?’. My answer is maybe. We were out on the town as it was the last night that our friend would be staying with us before moving out. The real question is whether or not we could have achieved the same experience for less money. My guess is that, yes, yes we could have had the same experience for less money. However, that would require thinking and effort, which as a human, does not always come easy. Preamble over.

Time is flying at the moment; my six-month review is due at the end of the month. Six months! It feels as if I still have ten months of work left to do in my first year. I need to get ahead on my writing; I am starting to feel as if I need to increase my working hours, or maybe micromanage my schedule better and make sure I do a lot of writing. Actually, I need to do more coding, data analysis, reading, and writing. The workload is starting to pile up; I can barely see over it.

So, what did I do this week? Well, Tuesday and Wednesday, were the long-awaited Waitrose Science days. It was mostly two days of presentations and networking with high-level management and PhD students; this is one of the rare opportunities you get by virtue of being a PhD student. My networking skills leave something to be desired, but fortunately for me, these science days occur yearly, so I will have at least three more opportunities to improve. I had to present a poster for the first time. The first thing I noticed was that you could tell who the supervisor of the student was based on the poster. A colleague and I both have the same supervisor, and you could tell this by the fact that our posters had more than double the words anyone else did. The 2nd thing I noticed was that there are two kinds of response from people looking at your poster. The first of these and the best are the ones who ask you about it and try to understand what your thoughts on the subject are. The second type of person, will listen to what you have to say, ignore it, and then proceed to tell you there opinion on the matter. Often the latter tend to take up the more of your time. Still, in spite of this, I still had nothing but positive feedback. One of the most significant revelations about the world of academia is that 99% of people are very good human beings; I can see why many people choose to stay in this world.

If you were on the fence about choosing academia over the industry, I would urge you to at least try academia.

Week 20 as a PhD student

We have reached a tiny milestone this week, this is my twentieth consecutive week of writing, and the fifth month of my PhD. I have just come to the end of a hectic period; as the light of the tunnel came within a few metres, I received more tunnel. The first piece is in the form of an exam, and I need to do an online course culminating in an exam, to be able to attend a course allowing me to use liquid nitrogen. Of course, this is something I want to do and will help me with many experiments, but the notion that I have to sit an exam still sends shivers down my spine. I have a few weeks to complete the course, so it is not an immediate priority. The second piece of the tunnel is the first of my bi-yearly reports. I have to fill out a form and produce a thousand word document on the work I have done thus far. This gets assessed by my primary supervisor and an external assessor: I have one month to complete this.

I am starting to worry that this recent trend of deadline-after-deadline will continue until I am finished my PhD. The pressure will keep building with each week that goes by, and there is no time for thinking. I am seriously considering blocking out part of my diary for thinking, My project is quite broad, and has some philosophical elements to it. For example, what does ‘fresh’ mean? My conclusion is that ‘fresh’ is a simile for ‘recently’. Shelf life and how to define it is a much more challenging proposition, and for me, requires a lot of thinking.

This week I received more details about my Knowledge Transfer Network course that I have to attend as part of my studentship on a yearly basis. It is a two-day course, which will be held Glasgow’s Hilton hotel, where I have got to attend different workshops. These include things like: maths for biologists, advanced data analysis, managing social media and so on. Again this comes back to the strangeness of higher education, where for an undergraduate degree you have to sell your soul, at PhD level you get paid to do the most fantastic things. For that reason alone I would recommend doing a PhD, especially is your primary joy in life is learning.

This week I have been extracting data from the previous weeks experiments, which were the extraction and quantification of glucosinolates and isothiocyanates from rocket leaves. I am looking at these compounds for potential markers of shelf life; in an ideal world, they would change in a predictable linear fashion over time so that I can use them as makers of shelf life. So far, it looks as if Isothiocyanates do reduce over time; however, I have only used small sample sizes so far, and need a more significant experiment to confirm this. I have not been able to analyse the glucosinolates yet as the damn undergrads are hogging the computer that has the software on it. I will install the software on my laptop next week! Agilent Chemstation for those who are wondering. I may or may not have taken the databases from the lab’s computers so I can use them on my laptop. I have also continued work on my review paper, and this is an arduous task at the moment as I don’t know what I am trying to say. Progress is slow, but it will get easier; I need to keep setting time aside to write, as I have been demoting it to a secondary activity, with experiments being the primary.

I feel like I am at a peak at the moment, as I am looking forward to a lot of things, and the dips (deadlines) are while away. I shall enjoy this time, for I know it is only temporary.


Note –  this was written approximately three months ago.