Booking some time off – Week Seven as PhD student

Almost without fail, I plan to write these on a Friday and then forget about it until Sunday. So here I am on Sunday writing this to fulfil an obligation I have long lost sight of. At first, I thought I would do it to improve my writing skills, I am not sure if there is any difference so far, I guess I would have to take the plunge and make them public for that to happen. I also committed to writing six posts/articles/diary-entries? I’m not sure what to call this exactly, but I have now exceeded that goal. I write with Libre office and then use Grammarly to check my grammar (the free version only so far). I do really like the program and I think I will invest in the full version as I progress through my PhD and have to produce higher quality content. I set out to write around 500 words, as I can’t really be bothered to write for too long and it should keep me concise. We are currently 172 words In, if you count 172 as a word, which I did.

This week I veered widely off my path in terms of reading, I have picked up a book called ‘Look homeward, angel’ by Tom Woolfe. I thought I would start with a classic and couldn’t find anything else I recognised. To be honest I am not enjoying it and long to get back to non-fiction. To me, the book feels like it was written as an art piece with a thesaurus used extensively. It is very diverse with its wordage and doesn’t connect with me that much. I can’t really pursue the nomadic narrative, In all its forthcoming glory. I did read an amazing article this week though, called ‘an interview with the man’ found on raptitude.com. In my opinion, it is required reading. In other news, I have not really done much this week, in terms of variety anyway. I had a course on Monday, which was about making and designing posters for conferences. It was actually quite useful, I can now spot a sub-optimal poster a mile off. Also with that course, I have completed my compulsory five courses for this year!

In other news, this week I upped my investments to twice my previous monthly amount; I am still half of the monthly amount I can theoretically invest each month, but I am unsure how much doing a PhD will cost so I am starting off more cautiously. Still, a big improvement and I am feeling better. My flexibility has also improved massively, I can now stand with straight legs and very nearly put my hands flat on the ground, a few more months and I will be there. I also booked off 4 days in December for a quick ski-trip to Slovakia, which will be the first time I have been skiing in two years; that is the longest I have not skied for since I was ten or eleven. I do not think I will be able to backflip like I used to, not because of skill, but because of nerve, I have none any more. The more educated I become the fewer risks I want to take, make of that what you will.

With regards to my work this week, I have spent most of my time at home. I am running an experiment from home, using ImageJ to track the development of discolouration in lettuce. I thought a software solution would be quicker, but it still takes me two to three hours a day to analyse. I need to write a script to save me a lot of time. There are still a few issues I need to iron out though; at the moment I am only capturing around thirty percent of the leaf in my data. Tune in next week to see if I resolve the issue!

P.S Grammarly is telling me I have 20 advanced issues, see if you can solve them!

Stumbling towards productivity – Week six as PhD student.

This week, I feel that I am finding my feet a little bit. I am still unsure what I am doing, but I have been doing something, which is progress in some sense. I have one training course this week that was about creative thinking and problem solving, as expected I felt about average in the group with my problem-solving skills. The creativity part was easily the most fun, as we just played games essentially. I noticed that the main effect of the creative activities was the awakening of my competitive side. For anyone else out there that has a highly competitive personality, you will know that is the best and worst of you at times. I feel that creativity is more fun in many ways, but often feels devoid of meaning, so I will not be donning my kimono and silk trousers anytime soon (I don’t know).

I Learnt how to use a new program (ImageJ) which made me feel productive for the first time in a while. However, I also tried to learn how to use scikit-image, the python module for image analysis and had a nightmare installing the module. If anyone has tried to switch to Linux from the ‘other two’ you will be well aware of the time-sink that can occur trying to get stuff to work, that you know would take minutes on the ‘other two’. I installed Linux as I wanted to learn a bit more about the technology I had been ignorantly using for the majority of my life. The massive positive is that my patience has drastically increased. There are so many problems you have to solve using Linux, such as getting the spellchecker to work in Libre Office, which was a good half-day. There have been many instances similar to that, however, i have not yet come across a problem that I could not solve eventually. I would recommend switching only from a hobbyist point of view or in professional circumstances, you would certainly be more productive in the ‘other two’ operating systems. But, having said that, most of the best things in life are due to their difficulty; there are also privacy and ethical issues to consider, but I will not get into that. Wow, that was very rambly, I do apologize.

In summary, it is coming along slowly, I still feel lost. The consolation is that everyone I speak to is feeling the same, and thankfully misery loves company.

My view on life – week 5 as PhD student

This week I learnt about the expensive underbelly of science. You have to pay to exhibit at a conference? I am unsure as to why I did not expect to have to pay to present research at conferences, but I recently submitted an abstract to the tune of £90. That was to submit the abstract (300 words), and if am to be accepted, it is in the £1000’s to go and present. This will give you an indication of how naive I am; I don’t understand why people do it! Other than to stay in a potentially exotic location doing a lot less work than usual, I don’t understand it. Secretly, I will not be annoyed if I don’t get accepted. Along with this I only had a weekend to produce the abstract, and as I have only just started, I have no data to write about. This made me very stressed for the first time since the start of the PhD, which goes against my current life philosophy.

The life philosophy. Going back 6 years I was working in a gym and just getting started in self-development. I fell into all the pitfalls, the bullshit motivational speakers (Tony Robbins et al.) who are selling you the dream one bestseller at a time. My mantra was essentially once I get x I will be happy, time after time I achieved my goals and was happy for approximately 1 day, no matter how big the achievement. It took me a long time to figure out that achievement hunting wasn’t the key to happiness. So now, my guiding principle is just to enjoy where I am at the moment and not just grind for future happiness.

 

P.S. I must have not done much this week as this is by far my shortest post. However, I can already start to see improvements in my writing.

Where are the beakers? Week four as a PhD student.

The clocks were rolled back at the end of this week; in theory giving us all an extra hour in bed, or in my case, another hour laying awake thinking about my PhD. This was written on the 29th of October 2017. Efforts have been doubled this week, and there is a much more noticeable increase in pressure. Pressure to get work done. I learnt what was expected of me in this 1st year was to essentially try as many different experiments as possible to try and find something suitable for taking forward. So, I have spent a lot of timing planning experiments this week. I’m trying to do the most basic experiments first, so I can get used to the lab and find where equipment is, as that Is genuinely the hardest, most daunting part of my PhD thus far. One of the main benefits to doing a PhD is also one of the most difficult things in the beginning. What I am talking about is how independent your work is. Of course, this depends on your lab group and your project, sometimes you will join an ongoing project and get help with your work. In my case, I am not joining an ongoing project, and all the work will be my own, therefore there is nothing set up for me, and I have to figure everything out for myself from the first instance. Where are the beakers! What do you mean I might have to buy them?

Other than dealing with logistics and busy work; I have been writing an abstract for a conference. Since I have no data, or experience in writing an abstract for conference submission, writing 300 words has been quite the challenge. But the challenge is why I wanted to do a PhD, so despite the pressure, I felt this week I am still happy! Going back to the difficulty of orienting myself in the lab, I organised a meeting with one of the post-docs in the lab for me and my fellow fresh PhD students, so we could ask questions like dude where’s my beaker. It turns out you have to either, order them yourself, or ask someone if you can borrow them. The same is true for almost all equipment, from spatulas to GC-MS systems. So, one of the key skills I think I will develop is the art of beg, borrow and, well, hopefully, I won’t need to complete that triad of skills.

The only other thing of note this week was the fact that, I am the only male 1st year PhD student in the Food Science and Nutrition department (this was the same in undergrad). I am yet unsure if this a good thing or not, it will certainly be easier for me to stand-out.

P.S. Looking back on this is a useful exercise in itself, I can clearly see 4 errors in the punctuation, and it is generally quite poor. This was written 16 weeks ago, it is nice to see how far I have come in such a short time. Although, you will not see this improvement for many weeks to come. I was very tempted to edit this piece, however, I think it is important to show the process.

Life is good – Week three as a PhD student

This week was more interesting; the work was the same, but there was more diversity. A society meeting, and two training courses! One of the training courses was health and safety related, so I’m not too enthusiastic about it, but it was a welcome break from searching through the scientific literature. The second course, which was on Thursday, was about data management. One of the key revelations from the course was that my sponsors could ask for my data at any point, which has certainly re-evaluated my approach to note taking and data storage. My usual approach is as basic as possible, i.e. no comments, minimalist headers, optimised to be imported into stats packages. Knowing that it could be requested from me has changed my view drastically.

Socially in my academic life, I have always been a bit of a mutt. I went to University when I was 24, too old to care about going to clubs anymore, too young to consider myself mature and join the mature society. When you’re 24, 18-year-old people seem like they are decades younger in many ways. Visually not so much, and that is why the older students 30+-year-old are also a vast departure. Anyway, why I am telling you this, is I have always felt a bit out of place, and therefore, did not attend any society stuff. This time around, I have decided to say yes to much more. Which is why I attended a mature society lunch. Bear in mind that you’re technically a mature student after the age of 24 in the UK, I was by far the youngest person at lunch, it felt like going to lunch with my parents, they were nice enough, but it was still slightly odd.

As an aside – I have recently bought a kindle; it is better reading on this device than conventional books, controversial I know. But I was annoyed with having most of my shelf space taken up by books; I had gotten over the fact that it looks good to have a large collection of books, to show how well read you’re to everyone that visits. So, I got rid of most of my books and bought a kindle, now my issue is that books are more expensive than the ones I used to buy from Oxfam. The solution… join the library. So I did. If anyone is considering buying a kindle paper-white. Don’t, as you cant get library ebook’s on there. Which means you’re going to have to pay for almost everything, which is highly sub-optimal.

One of the best things about doing a PhD is the amount of training you receive, I have signed up for 5 courses this year. All free and all expensive if you would have to pay. Also the number of emails I get for different schemes to take part in with different scientific bodies. It is very odd that once you get to the stage In higher education where you’re finally getting paid everything becomes free. I have heard millionaires state this to, obviously slightly differently in the sense that if they have some following they get given stuff for promotion e.g. a fancy car. As an undergraduate everything cost more than I could ever afford, hence the £50K plus debt. It is an observation I have just come to in my life that maybe it should be the bottom 90% that benefit from this rather than the top. I fear I am now chatting bollocks and am far from my remit.

In summary, life is good.

Orientation and training – Week two as a PhD student.

Scholar has jumped to the front of my tiles on the google dashboard, like a new acquaintance jumping straight in at number one on my Myspace top ten friends. Before I continue, I feel obliged to let you know that the most interesting thing I did this week was fire safety training.

The week started with ‘Health and safety introduction’ which, despite its captivating title, wasn’t in the top three of training courses I attended this week. If you were to put a gun to my head I would say that ‘Lab awareness training, was number two, and that ‘Fire awareness and the use of fire-extinguishers for lab-based staff’ was number one. It took the number one spot purely because it involved putting out fires, in a lavish waste of perfectly good fire extinguishers.

Next week I have two courses and a chocolate tasting session to look forward to. The main bulk of my work this week has been searching through the literature trying to find papers that match the research I want to carry out. I am not sure how many hours a day it is possible to read scientific papers for, and still take in information, but from this weeks experience, I would say it is about 3.5 hours, dispersed over 7 hours with procrastination included. One thing about reading all day is that it is very tiring for minimal kcal expenditure. I am unsure if this will improve like a muscle being trained, or I will develop into someone that doesn’t need to read journal articles all day.

There were lots of other menial tasks that had to be done this week such as: changing my email to a post-graduate email address, getting forms for a locker, getting access to certain areas of the building etc. It seems I have sorted all the little things that come with being a new-starter, and now all I have to do is a PhD. I feel I should be less hard on my self for procrastination in the early stages as the work will build up. If I had started a new job the feeling would be the same, and it has been in previous employment. ‘Hi, sign this, then read this, and now shadow this person etc.’ If all the people in my department are anything to go by, I will soon be too busy, and will have to let down at least one person a week. Stress levels will also be ten levels higher, whilst feeling completely normal, so that is something to look forward to.

Being a post-graduate has so far, for me, been more lonely than under-grad. So when I am saying yes to almost every social event, so I don’t become the hermit I’m perfectly capable of becoming. I still need to take up a hobby; solving a Rubix cube in under two minutes does not satisfy me.

 

P.S. I know the writing is fairly poor here; see ‘About this blog’.

 

Week one – Mediocre expectations

First of all, I think it is important for to me to explain the position I am in, and how it came to be. Just this year I graduated with a 1st class honours degree from the University of Reading. My degree was in Nutrition and Food science and I had a year in industry between my 2nd and 3rd years. My expectation was to go into industry after my degree and nine-to-five-it until I had accumulated just enough resources to not have to do that anymore and sit around all day doing ‘whatever I wanted’, being perfectly mediocre, all the while imagining being rich and successful.
During my final year, I did my dissertation with (someone anonymous, we shall call C), looking at discolouration of lettuce. This was essentially a continuation of the work I had been doing on my placement. Towards the end of the project, C asked me what I was going to do when I left university, and if I wanted to do a PhD. My reaction was essentially ‘me?, but aren’t PhDs just for geniuses?’. Luckily for me, they are not just for ‘geniuses’, and a plethora of skills are required. Anyway, I’m not rich how could I afford it? I think I need to work.
Later in the year the idea of doing a PhD had been grinding on me and perhaps I could do it, otherwise, why would she ask? To speed up along the story, which I am getting bored of typing when I finished my degree I had two choices, a PhD fully funded and with a £17k a year salary or a job I liked paying £30k. I was quite conflicted myself, so I asked my family and friends, which had a 100% response rate of ‘PhD’. It was the best of times and the worst of times, I had miraculously got a win-win situation and it became a source of misery, in the end, I know you feel very bad for me, but it was a very strange situation.
When the time came that I had to decide, my mind was fully made up, maybe I should not go the mediocre route, and avoid becoming anonymous desk flesh for at least three more years. In the end, it was very easy to choose the PhD.
It was July, I had accepted the PhD, and was due to start in October. A new ultimatum, to job or not to job, the latter won out and I went into retirement. I have never been much of a good-little-consumer eating all the market has to offer, so I had enough saving to bridge the gap. So that is what I did, and to my surprise, didn’t really get bored. I filled my days doing all the things I didn’t feel I could do during my degree, as it would be procrastination, and I learnt loads of useful things, like how to solve a Rubix cube. I would recommend retirement as soon as possible, or at least financial freedom which is now one of my main goals, more on that at another time.
The bit where I actually start my PhD. Week one has mainly consisted of figuring how to structure my calendar and email, Microsoft’s new clutter feature hasn’t helped. Everything is now in sync, and I have a relatively large amount of training and inductions to attend. This is good news as I do not have any lab work planned; it breaks up the reading that has become my life, as does writing this.
What is my PhD in you ask? Food science, understanding freshness and quality etc. The end goal of the project is to have packaging that will better predict when the food is about to go off, and thus reduce waste. In the interest of reducing waste, I am going to end this now, I shall try and write one of these each week. I have left out pages and pages; the trip to Rome for example. I hope there are many mediocre free moments to come over the next 3-4 years.

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