PhD Blog Posts

Why I don’t think I will be a successful scientist

I have been comparing myself to established scientists within my field, and without exception, the result of my comparison leaves me thinking that I do not want to be like any of those people. I suspect this is mostly my naivety clouding my opinion, but there is a vital component to being a scientist which I currently do not care for. The essential component is producing papers and hustling to get noticed by the relative popularity of these papers. A lot of what you read in a paper is not crucial and usually is only there because publishers want a specific style to differentiate their journal from the others – classic business behaviour. I have extremely low motivation to try and get good at producing papers, and this is why I do not think I will be a good scientist. I have been pondering this for a while, and when I was re-reading Thinking Fast and Slow, I spotted these few sentences which, of course, resonated.

I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures are rare successes, the fate of most researchers”.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow, page 264.

Ninety-percent of the time when I talk to my colleagues, they will be the one talking about their project. It is not that I do not enjoy my project, because I do, it is because I rarely feel the need to tell people what I am doing. I would rather talk to them about non-work related stuff; I found this lack of wanting to show-off about my project even more pronounced when I went on a residential course with lots of other students. I was a shoulder to cry/climb on for people to moan and brag about their projects. I preferred to talk about them and get to know them. I love the problem-solving part of my project, the rest of it I could easily delegate to someone else if the option was available. I suspect if I had a big ego, or I had been damaged in some way so that I had this burning desire to prove the demons in my head wrong; I would be on a mad crusade to reach the top. Luckily for me, or maybe unluckily I do not have the ego or desire.

Reflecting on what I have said so far, I assume my thoughts will be a lot different in five years. I think this as my goals have changed drastically over the years, and I have no inclination that this trend won’t continue. I also realise that you could probably apply my particular dilemma to a lot of different disciplines, so I hope it has not been too narrow!

 

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

World class procrastination – FIFA world cup

A sporting event has got in the way of me writing a post this week, and it was for a sport I don’t usually care about. However, this world cup has felt different, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it did feel different. Looking through social media, it seems everyone other English-man/woman seems to feel the same.

A sporting event has got in the way of me writing a post this week, and it was for a sport I don’t usually care about. However, this world cup has felt different, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it did feel different. Looking through social media, it seems everyone other English-man/woman seems to feel the same.

Usually, I have little respect for football, amongst many things, the player’s attitudes towards fair play have been a problem for me. I guess this a side effect of the ridiculous salaries and pressure; however, it might be the culture. I used to be very keen on the game until rugby came into my life around age twelve, since that day I have been a rugby fan – as an aside we found out today that we did not get tickets to the rugby world cup in Japan, it has been a sad day for English sport, and my spectating of it.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the atmosphere that has been hanging in the air around the country this year and based on history; It will not happen again until I am in my mid-50s. I have seen one world cup victory for rugby, but I am uncertain as to whether I will witness a win in football, I indeed won’t hold my breath, but you will want to be in England if it does happen as I imagine it will be the biggest party the country has ever seen no exaggeration.

I hope you all had an enjoyable evening and good luck to France and Croatia in the final.

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.

Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.

I feel as if I have to give some pre-amble to this post as I think it will trigger quite a few people. Please try and have an open mind about the following subject as I find people will defend their positions very strongly without the use of facts.

The reason, I have felt the need to have a warning, is that once upon a time on a Humanist forum, marriage was being debated. I asked why people want to get married, and one guy was very angry, I must have triggered him, and even though I was very respectable, he did not relent. I do not want that to happen here.

If you want to learn about humanist views on marriage go here.

The delicate subject is marriage. My position is quite contrary, but I believe people should do what they want, so without further ado.

To set the scene, I am a 27-year-old male, that has been in a relationship for seven years almost to the week. My parents have been married for around 29 years, and are still going strong, and both my grandparents have been married 50+ years. So I do not have any close negative experiences of marriage. Up until I started to educate myself, around the age of 20, I had assumed that I would end up getting married, because that is what you do, right?

Currently, in the UK, anyone can get married to anyone, providing you’re over 16, not already married, and not closely related. If you’re under 18, you have to have your parents permission. Only same-sex couples can form a civil partnership, which I find the most strange of all the laws. For more information go here.

Now that I have set the scene, I can state my opinion on the subject. I personally do not see the appeal of marriage or civil partnerships – for the remainder of this article, I will just refer to marriage. I am not religious; this has been the case since I found about the big bang. No one could provide me with an answer to the question ‘where did God come from’, and since then, it was not a satisfactory worldview for me. Seeing as I am not religious there is no doctrine telling me whom and how I should love, in short, I can think for myself. This rules out one of the main reasons to marry. I am not aware of any religions that do not have some sort of marriage ceremony.

The second reason as to why I do not wish to be married is that I do not need to bind our houses for the security of the realm for centuries to come. Okay, that was a bit flippant, but it contains some truth in it. Until recently, the abstract concept of love had nothing to do with marriage. It was simply a way of making alliances and increasing labour forces. ‘How can I attack you now you’re family. It has been known that in some cultures that parents married one child to the spirit of a deceased child in order to strengthen family bonds! I am sure that system wasn’t abused…
So, there is no pressure for me and my partner to join families, as I imagine is the case for the vast majority of the western world, and there is another reason as to why I don’t need it.

When asked, some people cite the fact that you get tax breaks as a reason to get married. My response to this is: ‘How many years do you have to be married to gain back the money you spent on the wedding?’ My guess is that you do not get the money back. The average length of a marriage is 11 years, and the average wedding costs ~ £27,000, and the maximum you can save due to tax breaks is £238. Therefore, you will be, on average, £2000 a year worse off for the length of your marriage. Don’t get me started on the ring. So, there goes the economic argument. I have not even factored in the cost of divorce…

This last argument is the most convincing to me, and I suspect it is for most people. Marry someone because you love them. Well, sure, I have seen the adverts and the propaganda from the industry that is marriage. An absolutely massive industry by the way. And I do ‘Love’ my girlfriend, whatever that word means, but I do not feel the need to apply to the exam board, that is the government to validate this ‘love’. I would not feel any different towards my partner if I were to marry her. This has been corroborated by all the people I have asked about this, which is a large number of people as I am fascinated by why people get married. Mostly the response is: ‘it is just what you do’. When I ask my partner, her response is always: ‘ I just think it is nice’. My response is normally related to the return on investment as any increases in happiness will regress to baseline over time. I know my happiness with her will not increase as I am already happy with her; if I have learnt anything from my education it is that hedonic adaptation comes for us all. After a period of time, this new level of happiness becomes the new normal, and marriage becomes as mundane as any other certificate you have received throughout your life. The joy from achieving a first class honours degree in the sciences wore off within a week. This regression toward the mean with respect to happiness Is never mentioned before you get married, all you hear are the jokes about the old ball and chain. For these reasons I do not think it is ‘worth’ the money; After all, you can’t shelter from the elements in a marriage.
My guess as to what people will say about this is that you will probably think that ‘I got married because I wanted to and didn’t really think about it’. I hope, dear reader, that you can convince me that marriage is a good idea. I do not believe you can do it, and you will have to use logic as I won’t listen to any hedonistic nonsense on the subject.

I will cover my views on Love in another post, but I suspect it will come from a utilitarian, biological, educated point of view.

Please, let me know why you got married, and If it was for a reason, I have not covered. Please do not, just give a negative comment unrelated to what I have been writing about in this post.

 

Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution – Mae West

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!

On time or of time, or simply, time?

Of all the ideas and concepts that I have encountered, nothing confused and enthuses me more than time. It is a concept I have trouble understanding, so explaining my views will be difficult. I will try anyway.

For the day-to-day experience of life, it seems that time is an Inherent force like gravity or electromagnetism. For me at least it was somewhat unintuitive to find out that it is not. It is a man-made system to keep track of things that are important such as how long until it gets dark, and how long until it is winter, so we can stockpile a sufficient amount of food. I wonder what a world would look like where clocks or time were not invented?  If clocks were not invented or any other measure to standardise the processes that occur in the expanding universe, you would still age as ageing is just the sum of all the processes that occur within your body, but there would be nothing to compare it against.

It just so happens that these processes occur over a period which we have standardised as time, in the UK it is 30,660 rotations of the earth on average (84 years). The thing is, if the universe stopped moving and therefore, the standard by which we measure time stopped, we would still age, and ‘time’ would still tick by. If you’re anything like me, time is one of those subjects that you find hard to grasp. If you’re unlike me you’re either an expert when it comes to physics, or you do not think about time at all, and due to common sense, most people are in the latter group.

We, humans, change our standards of time depending on the seasons. We do not age a negative hour when the turn the clocks back, the results if that were true, would be very interesting. So the concept of time is quite fluid as it stands.

There are many phrases and quotes related to time, here are a few I like.

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend – Theophrastus.

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is – C.S. Lewis.

Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them – Dion Boucicault.

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once – Albert Einstein.

 

Here is a thought of my own. If time = distance / speed. If you have no reference points to measure speed or distance by – say you’re in a void – does time pass? My answer would be that time doesn’t exist in this question, but you will still age…over ti…

It is this last quote by Einstein that both disturbs and enthrals me. I know from reading, not from understanding, that time is relative; meaning that it changes at different rates depending on the observer. Once you divorce the idea of time being absolute, which I find difficult, it is easier to understand how clocks travelling at different speeds can tick at different times relative to the observer; just as a ball will have different relative speeds when thrown at two different starting speeds. Imagine you’re standing next to a road you see a car drive past, and the kid sat in the back throws a ball to the front of the car and you measure the speed. The speed will be whatever the boy can throw it at, say five mph plus the speed of the car say 70 mph, so the speed of the ball will be 75 mph relative to you the outside observer. Whereas, inside the car, the boy will only see the ball travel at five mph as he and the ball are already travelling at 70 mph, so the ball will travel at five mph relative to the boy, which is much slower than you see it. Time works the same way in a relativistic universe, and therefore, two people can have different views of time.

 

Here is a cool video of an interesting time-related paradox.