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.

Learning the hard way – 71

I have done it again; these words are coming from the mind of an un-caffeinated coffee addict. Once again I have failed to inform my partner, who handles our online shopping delivery, that we are low.

I feel quite absent-minded and uber susceptible to distraction, but I will get through this post even if I have to run to the closest coffee shop.

This week, I had a meeting with one of my funders which is the head of the agronomy section of a major premium retailer here in the UK. As with all things we consider with high importance, they are usually far less of a moment than we had imagined, and this meeting was no exception.

We had lunch in the senior common room, and then I gave a presentation about all of the work I had done over the past year. Contrary to the persona my subconscious had given to this person; they were not a corporate dragon whose sole purpose was to ridicule and take away my funding. They were an ordinary functioning member of society who was a nice, encouraging person like many of us.

So, another week has passed, and it was relatively drama free. It has just occurred to me that I should have hyped up the details of this week’s events for storytelling purposes. But that just wouldn’t be me, I am trying to give a more honest and accurate account of what is happening, plus it is easier to write like this.

I did have one legitimate drama this week. For one part of my experiments, I measure colour changes in crops over time. I do this as it can be useful in assessing disorders with the crop. I do this by taking images and then analysing them with software.

For the first time in my life, I had a drive fail on me. When I went to load my images onto the computer, the images were not on the SD card. This is a disaster as I cant just re-take the images as time is essential with this experiment, so the conditions have changed since imaging. Re-taking the images is not an option.

When I put the card into the computer, I can see that the amount of space available is consistent with the amount of space that there would be given my images were still on there. So I know that they are still on there I just have no way on accessing them.

I ended up on google trying to find a solution. After a few hours, I found a program called photorec, and my mind has been blown. Not only did I recover 80% of the files, but I have also learned a valuable lesson as to how computer memory works.

When you delete something, it is not actually removed…

What actually happens is that it becomes un-allocated and therefore it can be written over by new information, but until this happens all the information is still there. This allows us to recover some files if they are deleted by accident, but if the drive got into the hands of someone with malicious intent, the things we though we had deleted might well be accessible.

I have since learned that to be really secure when you’re getting rid of a data drive you should run a program that writes junk data over the entire drive to ensure the deleted data is no longer accessible. There are many programs that will do this for you with the most recommended being called ‘boot and nuke’ which I quite like the name of.
That was my drama. A potentially catastrophic event, with respect to my experiment, was avoided and I learnt a valuable lesson. I am always wondering why I have to learn things the hard way, but I will be slightly less harsh on myself this time as I am not sure how I could have prevented an SD card failing.

All the best,

See you next week.

Mental resilience through increased stress – week 70

My to-do list is peaking at the moment. I have come to the beginning of what is potentially going to be a couple of unusually busy weeks.

But first, I need to tell you something about my state of being. I had my first ‘proper’ boxing class yesterday afternoon, and I am still feeling the effects of it I think. I am very lethargic today and quite spaced out mentally.

We were partnered up and were practicing the blocking of very light shots to the head; after a hundred or so punches, even with light punches, you still feel a little dizzy. It was very good fun though, so I shall be continuing with it; however, I do not wish for the level to rise more than light punches as I need my brain cells!

I am off to play a round of crazy golf in Oxford shortly; I hope the boxing won’t affect my game!

The primary reason as to my upsurge in busyness is that I have to start a new trial on Monday, which involves me driving to pick up the samples. When I moved to the city in which I currently reside, I got rid of my car as it was an unnecessary expense. So when I do need to travel, I have to organise a hire car, and as organisation is my enemy, it can get quite stressful.

It is not stressful in itself, but when you combine it with having to speak to suppliers etcetera to arrange delivery, the stress adds up. Another added factor is that I don’t know exactly what time my samples will be ready for collection – this adds extra tension as I have a time limit in which I have to return the car. This whole process hinges on several people that are not me which causes more stress than I would like.

I do feel that the more times I have done this, the more relaxed I am becoming about the situation, so there is a kind of progress I suppose.

On Tuesday, I have an even more stressful day as I need to take measurements from the samples all day. At lunchtime, I have my Industrial sponsors coming for a meeting, where we have to discuss the project. It is going okay in my opinion, but it is always nerve-racking having to present to someone that is giving you money! Even though it is an excellent learning opportunity, it is always to difficult to see it like that. What it actually feels like is an interrogation.

So, if I can through the first few days of this week without any dramas I will be much more relaxed! So far, nothing has gone catastrophically wrong with the project. I am aware of the gambler’s fallacy, but I still have that sense that a catastrophic event is due.

In the end, I expect it to be quite a normal week; I expect it will more enjoyable than normal, but all the possibilities of how events could deviate toward the negative are hard to control!

See you on the other side!

How do I do this? – 67

Sixty-seven weeks in a row and I still feel as if I don’t know how to do this. What the hell should I write here?

The problem that is incumbent on the blogger is that the format is for relatively small bits of writing to be churned out in relatively short order. Most of us, I imagine, are doing this as a side project and therefore, cannot commit the time required to produce high-quality writing.

Furthermore, if you’re anything like me, you have far too many hobbies and interests that compete for your time. For me, blogging is but one hobby of many; I would say that blogging is approximately 5th on my priorities.

My current method of writing is to sit down in the after-lunch, pre-gym slot and write from the top of my head. I occasionally make notes throughout the week if I have anything I want to include, but that hasn’t happened in a while. I am waiting for that breakthrough where I finally figure out how to write these posts.

Today is the 2nd of February in my timeline, and you will see this in a few months. My plan for the rest of the day is to do a 15k run and then watch the most important rugby match before the world cup. England vs Ireland in the six nations. Come on England!

I have just realised that this is supposed to be a blog about my PhD and I have just been rambling on like a generic lifestyle blogger.

So, at the start of this week, I spent two-days extracting sugars from lyophilised (dried) Rocket. This has become somewhat of a routine measurement, but it does not tell you that much about the quality status of the plant. Generally, after the plant is harvested, metabolism in the plant continues, and sugars are used up for fuel.

By-products from sugar metabolism are used to form various other compounds, such as those involved in defence. As plants cannot defend themselves physically, they often expend a lot of energy doing it chemically – mainly by producing compounds that don’t taste nice to deter predators.

But as I mentioned previously, it is almost useless when assessing the quality of a crop. What it does allow is for comparisons between crops grown during different seasons. Crops that are grown during the summer, generally have more sugar content and are usually of higher quality.

After I had extracted the sugars, I spent the rest of the week dong data-analysis and planning. Unusually, I have found myself in a position where I don’t have any short-term plans. By short-term, I mean to say that I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my week. This is highly unusual for me.

I ended up writing a list of all the events I had coming up, and this included two conferences at the end of the month. Now I have things to focus on and can fill my time. One of the skills I have not yet mastered is the ability to plan for the long term. I have got through life so far, by being what I can only describe as ‘micro-ambitious’. I decide what I want to happen in the next couple of years and try my hardest to achieve that. Most of the time I don’t plan any further than that.

For example, I had no plans as to what I was going to do after my bachelor’s degree. I got offered a job and PhD, neither of which I sought out. I chose the option I liked the idea of the most, and here I am.