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.

Physically shaking – week 19 as a PhD student

Once again, a skill that I thought was overhyped in its importance has had a significant impact on me this week. I am talking about networking; as an introvert, this is a not a skill I enjoy nurturing. I mentioned last week that I had to give a presentation this week, it went okay. It was a three-minute thesis competition that I did not have a choice about my participation. I felt okay giving the speech as I had practised it around 50 times in the mirror; however, my legs were physically shaking behind the lectern. I did my talk, got off the stage and that was that, or so it thought. At the lunch break, to my shock, I had many people coming up to me and saying that they found my talk interesting. I accepted the compliments and just assumed they were being nice, and perhaps they were. The next day I ran into someone whom I had never met, and again, to my surprise, they said they liked my talk. I started talking back to this person, and asking her about her work; we had a good conversation about measuring sugars! The most exciting impact from my talk was yet to come; I received an email from someone in the audience who worked for the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), and she said that she enjoyed my talk and wanted me to write a guest post for their website(1). Of course, I will jump at the opportunity, and post a link to it on here once it is live; the only issue is that it will remove my anonymity, maybe it is time to own my work. So, what did I learn from this experience? Giving talks, no matter how terrifying and seemingly irrelevant looks as if it is an excellent way of increasing your opportunities.

The conference that I had to give my talk at occupied most of my time this week. However, I did manage to run two different experiments; making this week one of the busiest so far. I measured the volatile compounds given off from rocket leaves, and the microorganisms that reside on them. I also got close to finding out what compounds I have seen that are not in the standard library’s.  I also extracted glucosinolates from rocket leaves and will review those next week. This weekend, I have spent almost all of it trying to make a poster for a conference I have next week; I am looking forward to the conference but do not relish making this poster. February has consisted of two presentations and a poster presentation; I hope I do not have any more for a long while as I need to get my head down and write.

I did not win any of the prizes on offer for the three-minute-thesis competition; normally, I would probably just ignore this. I have kept the book of abstracts, and intend on going through it and looking at the writing to try and figure out where I can improve. The younger me would not do this, I believe in learning from your mistakes and intend to get around to reading the abstract booklet later today! Maybe I will do a teardown of what I wrote and how I could improve it, and compare it to some of the other entries.

On a more personal note, we – my partner and I – have had a friend staying with us, as she split with her partner and needed somewhere to stay while she finds a new property. She is occupying the room where I keep my gaming PC, and as a result, I have not been playing games all week. This might be the solution I needed to the time suck, that is video games. It has been quite refreshing to have a flatmate; I have not shared accommodation with anyone other than my partner before – except holidays – so this should be an exciting experience, and might stop us becoming too comfortable and predictable with our lifestyle.

The most significant lesson I learnt, or re-learnt this week is how important networking is. I shall ensure that I keep it at the forefront of my mind when considering what I should be doing with my time. I hope you all had a great week, please let me know what you’re up to, maybe link your blog?

(1) – I ended up going through with that guest blog post which you can see here

The meeting – Week 18 as a PhD student

I will start this week with a quick update on my experience of publishing these posts. I posted two posts on the first day of making my site; It has become clear to me how important a headline is. One of my posts is titled ‘An unexpected PhD student’, the other is titled ‘ Week 1 – mediocre expectations’. I will let you be the judge of which one got 100% of the views that day. I don’t know why I expected the fact that being a PhD student would be more interesting than the run-of-the-mill fitness or lifestyle blogs. Oh, how I was wrong. This adds another dimension to this experience; previously, I thought people would click on my posts and give me feedback on my writing. My current belief is that I will have to become a lot more savvy with self-promotion and become the corporate-waster I despise. Although, It will probably look good on a CV…

This week1 I had my first supervisor meeting, I had to give a presentation about all the work I have been doing, and mostly justify my funding to my industrial sponsors. At my university, this occurs every 3-4 months, with larger formal reviews at the 6six month and one year mark. I am glad to say it went well, and that my supervisor’s – all four of them – are very supportive. I had been looking forward to this meeting as I have not had any feedback as to how I am doing; this is worrying as you feel as if you could potentially be wasting your time – and their money. I saw this meeting as more of an opportunity than an interrogation, as I needed the feedback. I am glad I do not have to prepare for it anymore though as I am bored of preparing presentations for the meantime. On that note, I have been asked to present a poster at the end of the month; another couple of weeks not working on my actual work is upon me. I should reframe my thinking, and see it as an opportunity to improve my communication skills; at the moment I see it as a chore.

If you have read some, or all, of my previous posts. Firstly, Thank you! Secondly, you will see that I have been complaining about not knowing what to do, and wondering if I am doing enough work. Well, ladies and gentleman, I now have too much to do; it took 18 weeks for this to occur, what a joyous 18 weeks. If experience is anything to go by, the time will start to pass a lot quicker! I have been preparing for another presentation that I have coming up next week, so my week has been quite boring. However, I did manage to do something other than prep presentations; I have started work on my first academic paper, mostly just the research but I did manage to write my first line, which as we know, is a start. A lot of the research involved looking for journals I could publish in; it looks as if anyone can start a journal as many journals had websites I would describe as home-brewed. There were not many that I will consider for publishing; I think that sticking to the big players – those owned by Elsevier etc. – is the best strategy for me at this point. Writing this paper will be a massive undertaking, and I expect it will take a year.

I have finally finished Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, to be honest, I don’t recommend it. Unless you want an endurance challenge, I don’t think it was interesting enough for me to recommend it over other books. I will be running back to non-fiction for a while; I am unconvinced that reading fiction is a good use of my time. I have mentioned in the past that I have been writing code as part of my PhD; I have come across a few barriers recently regarding the installation of python packages. I have had a little bit of luck, but I am still stuck, however, I will continue to work on the problem as it is deep-rooted now, and I want the satisfaction of solving the problem. A less mature version of myself would have given up, and gone with another, a lesser method of achieving the same goal – measuring the colour of leaves objectively. I think this resilient mindset is something that is worth cultivating. It may be a cliché, but I believe that the work is much more important than the result. It is just important to take time to appreciate what you’re doing and enjoy the ride, as the happiness from the result is very short acting.

1. I need to find some more opening phrases.

Note

As with all these posts, they are roughly 4 months behind the present. Interesting how all the problems I had at this point are the least of my problems 4 months down the line.

A profound title – Week seventeen as a PhD student

Well, I did it, I have made a website where all of these posts will be open to comment. Of course, you already know this, as you would not be reading this if I hadn’t already done so. My experience so far is that there is a large number of people that have fitness-related blogs. I know this because as soon as I posted my ramblings, many fitness bloggers clicked ‘like’ on my post without even reading the post. I am excited to see what comes from this little online experiment.

In PhD student news, this week, I had to stop with one of my experiments as it was not working as intended. I measured the ion leakage from membranes of spinach leaves as a potential marker for shelf life; the problem was, that it took a long time after the best before date – two weeks until there was any useful difference. What I mean by this, is that I could distinguish day fourteen from day one, but not day seven from day one; as the date on the pack ended at day four, this is not ideal. From this experiment, I believe that the shelf life of spinach – from this season (Italian winter), is far too conservative. My take home from this is that you should use your judgement when assessing if your product is good for eating.

One big thing I have learnt this week is that networking, and actually talking to people are very close to the top of the skill tree. At the beginning of last week, I did not know where I was going with my next experiments. I got talking with one of the postdocs1, and he suggested I ran the same experiment he was running on my samples. This is great for me for many reasons: firstly I will learn a new technique; secondly I have something to do, thirdly I have made a new contact, and hopefully, he can be an ongoing resource for me. So, there we go, the power of networking.

It feels as if I have been preparing and presentations for two different events I have coming up exclusively this week. If you think my writing is weak, you should see my speaking. I am hoping that if I become a better writer, my speaking will improve along with it. After the next two weeks, my speaking engagements will be over for a while, and I can concentrate on my research more. One thing you should know about being a PhD student is that you will almost certainly have to give a presentation every few months, so you may as well get good, that is my thought on the matter anyway.

I had a lab-group meeting this week; I am getting much more confident speaking within the group. I think I am starting to relax into being in the position I am: progress! I am desperate to not be in the seventy-percent of people who experience mental health issues during a PhD. My approach to this is to try and balance my life as much as possible: no all-nighters. This should be an enjoyable time, and I will optimise my life for happiness and not ‘being successful’. I think this is the only logical way to live.

I have a question with regards to my writing. Do you like this style of post? Or, should I do less of this bloggy stuff and more informative articles related to my field?

1. Post-doctoral researcher.

Thinking about starting a blog – Week sixteen as a PhD student

Early this week I had a strong urge to publish my journaling of the PhD experience; I thought I would make a WordPress site and just publish them on a weekly basis anonymously.

How would you know whether it happened or not? If you stumbled across this before this post, in your timeline, I would have made the site earlier. If you stumbled across it today, then you would assume I made the site a while back as there are some posts before this one. Well, I planned to make it on the weekend, and of course, I didn’t. Maybe next weekend? As I don’t have anything to lose, I will commit to getting it done by next weekend. The worst that can happen is that no one reads it and I don’t get any better at writing than I would have, had I not published this stuff. I assume that I would improve much better if other people were critiquing the writing.

What have I been working on this week? Well, I have to give a three-minute thesis at an internal conference. So I have started to write and make the slides for that. I attended a course on ‘presenting your research in three minutes’ presented by a very high-quality presenter; she is a science communicator and a stand-up comedian so you can guess she was comfortable with public speaking. It did help give some structure to my presentation, and it brings me up to seven out of five of the courses I need to take this year. Next week I have my eighth, which is about writing a literature review; I will probably register for more of them in the summer as I can’t turn down free education it would seem.

Most of this week was work, as usual, hedonic adaptation deeply rooted in at this point. A grinding situation has started to develop. I have been thinking that I need to create another stream of income as I want to increase my savings rate, and hopefully pad out my C.V. with respectable commendations. Ideally, it will be something I can do with flexi-time as I don’t want to detract from my primary objective. Another income stream will be another goal of mine added to the ‘Life.txt’ document I have. The reason I have been thinking about this is that I calculated how much money I could theoretically have by the end of my PhD; If I could increase that by roughly ten-thousand, I will be in a much more stable position. I noticed that a lot of my peers are doing some form of part-time work while doing their PhDs; I am sure they need the money more than I do as most of them are living in the typical student fashion, however, if they can do it…

My two biggest time sinks this week has been random Twitch browsing and playing video games, combined, they probably took twelve hours from me. I am unsure what I am going to do about this.

P.S This was written on the 28-1-18, and it looks like I did make a blog.

Compulsory conference – week fifteen as a PhD student

I made a rookie error this morning; I took a peek inside my investment account, although it was up 7.4%, I still have the depressing feeling of knowing it will be many many years until I am financially independent of the system. Oh, how I wish a had become financially savvy and invested in the period before academia; when I was working and spending like an idiot. Never mind, I suspect I have caught onto the idea much earlier than most of my contemporaries. This week was much more relaxed concerning my schedule; I only had one deadline, which was the submission of an abstract for an in-school conference. The interesting thing about this conference is that it is compulsory and, they are giving awards for best abstract. To me, giving out awards for mandatory activities seems off. It has a sinister: ‘not only are we going to force you to do this, but we are also going to rank you on it’ vibe. It is surprising how many hours I put into writing the 300-word abstract; If it were a piece of work for my undergraduate degree, I would spend the same amount of time on a 2000 word piece. Although there is only pass or fail in a PhD, it seems as if the pass mark is close to 100%.

I feel as if I am learning the way of the scientist. Previously, my biggest issue was writing in the general sense (punctuation, grammar etcetera); now my issues is writing academically, the types of words I use. It seems as if publications only want papers that read how a scientist would write if viewed by a member of the public. Now it seems there are two ways in which scientists communicate; the standard way like how I am writing now, and the publication way where all prose is derived from the axiomatic evidence from experimentation. I am still in the early phase of this and feel quite irreverent (winks at camera) towards it. I suppose I will become another homogeneous bot in the world of science, just as I would be in any other field.

I did get a free pair of running shoes this week! My girlfriend bought me some for Christmas, but they did not arrive in time. She complained, and purchased some other shoes from somewhere else; the first pair were refunded, but still arrived a couple of weeks later. On the one hand I do feel bad for the company that sent the first pair, but on the other hand, they are a faceless corporation, so I am in a moral bind about this one. I think it would be best to have them as a spare pair for when my current ones break.

The biggest struggle I have had this week has been installing packages for Python, at my current level experience it would seem as if overcoming of the difficulty of installing packages is the price of entry to the club. Installing packages does seem unnecessarily difficult. Anyway, like all other issues I have encountered, spend enough time trying to solve it and nine times out of ten you normally do.

See you next week.