Easily influenced – Week nine as a PhD student

This was written well over three months ago, and I remember the next morning after writing this and thinking, that I would never publish this as it is quite weird. I think it is essential to show the process of improvement so it will be posted.

Week 9. I mentioned last week that I had a lab meeting this week, surprisingly, It went very well. To explain why I have to take you back to my first year at university. During the 1st summer holiday, I spent my time working as a paid intern at an olive factory. It was closer to my parents home than it was to my home, so during the week I would stay with my parents, and travel home on the weekend. I got bored almost instantly and the fact that I had stopped learning was grinding on me; I decided I should learn a language (One of my friend’s brother learnt mandarin and now is earning a wedge in China). I’m sure, that most people reading this are native English speakers. My thinking was to choose a language by-the-numbers, so Spanish or Chinese. However, I didn’t really want to learn either. Another one of my friends was studying computer science; I ended up choosing to learn a programming language instead. I must skip forward to the present day, as the nostalgia is leading me to become a tourist in my own youth (Sickboy). I am leaving the realms of beginner python programmer and am now touching the bottom of the boot of an intermediate programmer. I have previously mentioned that I have been working with ImageJ to analyse the colour of decaying plant tissue. I showed the group what I had been doing and got a fantastic reception. Now I am mid-development on my own program; it will do what I was doing in ImageJ but in an automated fashion. When I have finished writing this program, I will have something I can use throughout the rest of my PhD which should make things easier in the long-run.

In other news, I finally finished ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ by Tom Wolfe. I did not enjoy reading the book therefore, I will be switching back to non-fiction. With Christmas approaching I am feeling a strong bout of niggardliness coming on (if you have read the book you won’t be surprised by that word) I sensed this would be an issue now that I am more fiscally aware. I will just have to try and re-program my brain, a seasonal patch back to Self 0.5 when consumption was the well-placed hit that kept me on the ride. This week has been one of the better ones, but if you forced me I could not pin down exactly why that is, my guess would be a sense of progress. I earned £5 this week for being a participant in a psychology experiment; the true meaning of the study has eluded me, but the task was related to finding smiling faces among other facial expressions and then hitting the appropriate button upon seeing a smiling face. Half an hour of being a lab rat; £5 tacked on to my net-worth, I’ll take that over a real job all day long.

Next week presents us with a plethora of Christmas parties, my first exposure to partying with academics, into the fray we go! I am also going back to the lab to correct some of the work that was brought up in the lab meeting; the meeting was very productive. Another reason for getting back into the lab is that I am tired of staring at my computer screen. I’m running out of steam for this week’s post and am trying to wrap up. Choose a blog. Choose an error. Choose to work 9-5 as anonymous desk flesh because you’re too scared to do anything else. Choose to be like everyone else. Choose a mortgage. Choose a cat or dog, or both. Choose consumerism and a life filled with debt. Choose to read something else, by someone who can actually write. Don’t choose anything; rise with the tide and have your life be dictated by circumstance, there are no right answers.

P.S. I wasn’t high while writing this: I watched Transpotting2 last night.

Progress and Procrastination – week eight as a PhD student

In contrast to last week, I have managed to start writing this on Friday, Will I finish it? No courses this week, the only time I left the house was to attend the school’s weekly Wednesday seminar. The weekly seminar series is compulsory; students and academics have to give talks at least once a year. First years like me normally have until the summer before they have to do a turn. However, it still gives me fear, knowing I am going to get an email telling me when I have to perform. Anyway, that was the only time I actually went to the place where I work, which is one of the perks of doing a PhD. This week I have felt much less productive, I have been busy but it didn’t feel like I was getting much done. One of those weeks I guess. Also, our washing machine broke and we had our bathroom window break so that it was stuck open, not ideal. I am very distracted whilst writing this, as I am watching DrDisRespect at the same time.

I did not finish this on Friday night… It is now Saturday morning, today I have to un-plumb the washing machine so the new one can be installed, go to the gym, record the data from my experiment and re-evaluate what my short-term goals are for my experiments. I have a lab meeting coming up next week, where I will at the very least have to explain what I am up to. This isn’t really something you can wing and you generally get challenged each time on certain aspects of your thinking. But this Is one way in which one learns. I have a love-hate relationship with It, on one hand, I can’t live without challenge, on the other hand, I don’t enjoy being questioned in front of the group, who does? So I will still be working today but not at as much as I would on a weekday; I do try and keep a 9-5 schedule. I am very cautious of burning out, a phenomenon I encountered every exam period as, I am sure, every student has at some point. To be fair I fully understand the confusing literature on lettuce discolouration from the results of my experiments this week, so that is a big personal win. At least there Is a sign of progress. Although pink and brown are the obvious colours the eye is drawn to, they are not the most significant change. That most changed award goes to yellow, which increases subtly over shelf-life but no-one seems to care about it!

This week I got a personal best solve on the Rubix cube, one minute and twenty seconds. I am getting close to the sub one minute zone, pro’s only. We are going to start watching season two of stranger things this evening which is exciting, we binged-watched the first season last weekend. I think I will leave it here for this week; I am going to try and make this the best piece of writing I have done, in a grammatical sense, so far.

According to Grammarly, there are 19 advanced issues. Can you spot them?

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.