PhD Blog Posts

Pitching to investors – 81

Despite my best efforts to create balance in my life, it has been a slightly rough week. It has been a week where I spent a lot of the time worrying; however, as is the way, the balance was restored at the end of the week when I had a couple of good meetings and phone calls.

Last week I wrote about how I was going to be going to a networking/training event, and I wondered aloud what my feelings were with regards to the point of the event. If I recall correctly, I said something like: ‘It is just an opportunity for students to complain about their studies and for the company to justify their funding’.

I was pleasantly and thoroughly wrong on this count. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. This could not be more apt for my experience with this training event. Last year it did seem pointless, and this jaded my opinion of the event; this year there was a new approach from the company that was running it, and it was excellent.

We were divided into teams of around six people, and the ultimate goal was to put a presentation together and pitch to a panel of investors so that we could secure grant money – kind of like Dragons Den (I think it is called shark tank in the US?).

For those that don’t know, applying for funding is a significant part of an established scientists job – I assume other industries have the same sort of issue.

We had three instructors helping us put together the presentation; one of the presenters was someone who already had their PhD and had also started their own biochem company. The other two were highly knowledgeable business people that were the ones who give out the grants.

We had to make a business case for conducting some research into ways to reduce water consumption in our imaginary farm. It was based on a real problem that is a major concern in the salad industry. Global warming.

Overall it was a significant improvement over the last time, and to top it off, our group won! It may surprise you, but this is the first time I have ever won anything in academia – that I can remember.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to arrange samples to be sent out to me. Of all the things I do, arranging samples to be delivered is the most anxiety-inducing. Logistics is something I never want to be involved with. It is probably because it is mostly out of my control, and the only way to prepare for potential slip-ups is by assigning a wide margin of error, which is inefficient.

I have been calling my contact for two weeks, and they would not pick up their phone. This was anxiety-inducing as I have a strict window of time to run this trial. The trial takes four-weeks, and I have four weeks until I leave for the Czech-republic for a holiday/conference. So, if it arrives a week late, I will not be able to run the trial and will have five weeks of downtime. This is why I have been a bit more on edge than usual.

However, unbeknownst to me, the supplier I had been calling hadn’t ignored my calls he just didn’t bother responding. So the preparations were being made to deliver my samples, I just wasn’t informed.

One of the most significant differences between academia and Industry is how people communicate. In academia, everyone uses email; the phones remain silent! Whereas, in my experience, those in Industry will only speak to you if you give them a phone call.

When I finally managed to speak to my supplier and he told me it was all taken care of it was a huge relief. Furthermore, I managed to find out the correct statistical technique for some data I have been sitting on and not knowing what to do with. This gave me immense satisfaction because it meant that I could progress quite a bit of work. So, after a tense few days at the start of the week, it all came good, and the mean state of well-being was restored.

Everything seems to work out fine in the end, but thanks to the complexities of evolution we are left over with these unnecessary hormonal triggers.

Cycle complete – 80

I have been writing about my adventures long enough now for events to come around again. On Monday I will be travelling to Birmingham to attend an event for PhD students. It is run by a company called the Knowledge Transfer Network whose motivation for holding this event I cannot quite grasp.

I think the Government has set up a fund for the translation of research to profit; businesses have tendered for a portion of this fund to provide a service where academia and Industry come together. Presumably, as part of acquiring funding for my project, the people who put it together stipulated that the students who receive funding would attend these two-day workshops every year.

From experience, the training at these events is relatively weak, and the primary outcome seems to be students getting drunk and complaining about their studies. As someone who still remembers what it was like to work in a warehouse, I am not one for complaining. These events, for me, tend to be a bit of a distraction as I spend most of the time listening to people complaining about their projects whilst trying to hold back saying something sanctimonious like “poor you, are your diamond shoes too tight?”

Don’t get me wrong; I will still try and get the most from this opportunity, but I have low expectations going in.

I ventured out of my house last night as I was invited to a wine and cheese evening. My immediate reaction upon being invited was one of apathy. However, I spent some time thinking about it and decided to go anyway; I am not yet ready to set aside my ego and become the hermit I am destined to be. It’s not that I am bad in social situations, evidenced by the fact that I do get invited to things, its just that I have no natural urge to want to attend.
This has been a constant throughout my life, to be honest; I can take or leave social-interactions. I much prefer listening to other peoples stories than telling my own – verbally at least.

Before I entered academia, I had a very warped view of how academics interacted. I assumed that at a wine and cheese evening that only contained academics the conversation would be high brow. It is probably television that has given me that opinion.

The reality is academics are people, and people tend to talk about the same type of things; crazy stories from their younger years, bitching about someone who isn’t present (and therefore can’t defend themselves), and all sorts of ‘normal’ subjects. I am sure if I spent the night in prison the same conversation patterns would appear.

I was naive to think that this specific group of people would somehow be different from the rest of humanity. There are differences, and it is not hard to see them, but the overarching themes of the conversation were generic.

In other news, LinkedIn came through for me for the first time since I signed up. I needed to find out some information about a piece of equipment we used in a study. I had previously worked with someone who works for the company that the equipment belonged to, and we are connected on LinkedIn. I gave her a call and not only found the information I was looking for, but she also said that I should contact her when I finish my studies as she would have a job for me!

Of all the aspects of life I like to ignore, networking seems to have the best return on investment.

If you had a secondary skill that you could immediately be better at what would it be?

Statisfaction -79

Here we are another week closer to heat death of the universe. I didn’t really know how to start this piece so I just wrote down the first thing that came to my head that wasn’t complete blogger cliché.

I have spent a lot of time this morning reading blogs about statistics and furiously making notes. You know you’re a geek when you like star-wars, even though 90% of it is garbage, but the true nerd spends their weekends learning the intricacies of some obscure realm of mathematics.

The motivation for pre-occupation with statistics this weekend is because of a course I attended on Thursday. At my university, students on the PhD program have to attended a certain amount of ‘development courses’. In the 1st year I had to attend five courses – I actually attended ten because who doesn’t like free education. In the second year, which I am now in, you have to attend four. I tend to gravitate to anything technical when it comes to these courses, rather than courses such as ‘improve your communication skills.

The course I was on was about using the R-language to produce graphics; it was a full-day course, which is unusual. It was one of those times where the passion for the subject from the statistician running the course forced itself upon you. I was certainly inspired; hence my morning, and most of Friday, learning more about the subject.

Statistics, at least for me, is one of those topics where the information does not stick around in the brain very easily, so each time I come to analyse some data I have to spend a decent amount of time re-learning some of the concepts. I have produced a large document for myself of the main principles, so that I don’t have to start from square one each time. I imagine that this document will be close to my final thesis in terms of usefulness!

I had a bit of a transport related drama this week. My bike broke. I was given the bike so I did not have much concern for the bike itself; my bigger concern was how I was going to get to the university. I got a quote of £75 pounds to repair the bike, and they said that they couldn’t do it for two weeks – this would be very inconvenient. I decided to buy a new bike rather than fixing up, what I can only describe as the, worst bike I have ever owned.

After days of looking at reviews of bikes online I could not decide how much I should spend for what is essentially my commuting vehicle. Ideally I would find something dirt cheap online, but to my surprise I couldn’t find anything. “Where is a stolen bike when you need one” is what I thought to myself.

Luckily, after a long and sweaty walk to campus a serendipitous moment occurred. A cycling charity happened to be on campus offering free services of peoples bikes. They also had bikes for sale that they had refurbished. After £45 had been handed over I now am in possession of an equally terrible, but functional new bike. The utilitarian wins again!

Back to it – 78

Back after the Easter break with a new low in motivation.

A few weeks ago I booked a machine for this week without paying any attention to the fact that I would not be able to come in and use it on Monday as it is a holiday. Because of this lack of foresight, I have had to extend my booking over the weekend so that I can fit all my samples in.

I am analysing sugars derived from Iceberg-lettuce over a time period of one month. In theory, as the leaves continue to metabolise, the sugars will decrease. From a scientific point of view, this might be a potential marker for senescence and degradation which is why I am monitoring it. For the number of samples I have I am expecting it to take around four days to run them all. To clean the machine and various components a day either side is required. Providing the machine doesn’t breakdown, which is relatively common with expensive scientific equipment in my experience; I should be done by Sunday.

This is how a PhD differs from a conventional job. There is no consistency in the hours of which you will work. It is one of those “when it’s done kind of an occupation”. It is a positive or negative depending on your perspective, and it is lifestyle factors such as this as to why many people drop-out. All the people I know who have dropped out of their studies have done it for reasons related to the lifestyle of the studentship rather than the difficulty of the subject matter. When I started, I had wrongly presumed that the complexity of the study would be the main reason for someone to stop their studies.

One task that I have thrown myself at this week is clearing out my “to read” folder. It is a folder full of papers that I think might be useful, but not helpful enough to read at the time of discovery. In the past, I would only read papers when I needed them for a reference, or if I did read them for general knowledge, I would not make notes.
About six months ago I got my act together on this and started taking and saving notes from papers I have read while archiving them in a reference generator.

I assume writers also have this problem when you’re gathering research for your piece.

How do you collect and organise your notes?

I use Zotero which is a free reference / archiving software. I chose this program because it runs on Linux, but I know many programs fulfil the same function, such as Mendeley, EndNote (which is the one my University recommends) and citethisforme.

Anyway, I have gone through and read about half of this folder, and feel quite good about it. I have finally got around to a chore I have been putting off all year, like throwing out all those clothes I no longer wear.

This advancement in the management of my notes and references is an example of advice I got at the start, which I then ignored and ended up enacting myself months later to my detriment. This happens a lot and is one of the main problems with advice. I remember someone who had just completed their PhD telling me to “write up papers as you go along, you won’t, but I recommend you do”. They were correct: I haven’t.

Advice is difficult to take and very easy to give. This is the main problem with advice as I see it. What other people should do is always crystal clear; it seems to be very easy to analyse anything other than your situation.

Perhaps this is the basis for Richard Feynman quote ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool’.

A cabin in the woods – 76

I have a lot to talk about this week! It is one of those occasions where the thoughts about what I am going to write about have been whirring around my mind for the last few hours. The majority of the time this is not the case, and I don’t know what I am going to write about until I sit down. Does anyone else write like this?

The reason I have something to talk about this week is that I have been on holiday! I have spent a week in a cabin in the woods in Snowdonia national park with my family and partners. We were very fortunate with our break in that the tourist season had not started yet and the weather was perfect – for me, not too hot, but sunny. Also, we had a hot-tub; which is a vital piece of equipment after a long day hiking.

Snowdon… with snow. Image by RuthLeonardWilliams from Pixabay

I want to continue on last weeks idea of holidays/vacations and their importance in preventing burn-out. There was one important idea that I overlooked when I wrote that piece; I overlooked the possibility of me not wanting to return!

Motivationally speaking, not wanting to return from holiday is probably a sign that the thing you’re going back to isn’t at the top of the list of things you want to do. I would much rather be climbing mountains and exploring the beautiful landscape in Snowdonia than doing lab-work in a repetitively dull, but convenient, minor-metropolis.

Snowdonia national park. Image by Roman Grac from Pixabay

Given what I have just said, I pose the following question: Can a holiday/vacation be a bad thing?

Before this week I would have thought that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives; however, if you’re unconsciously taking a break to get away from the toil of your daily life, then there may be an argument to be made that a break is not what you need. ‘Papering over the cracks’ is a phrase that comes to mind.

I remember that last week I was talking about how I had organised things so that when I come back, I can hit the ground running. I had filled my diary so that I would jump straight back into my work as if nothing had happened. This seemed, at the time, like the optimal thing to do; however, on reflection, it just made feel as if I wanted to return even less as I had a mountain of work to return to. Maybe it would have been better to have a much gentler return to work. I could have given myself a nice light workload to return to, but I have set things up so that I am jumping in mid-flow.

What we have here folks is the classic illustration of the yin and yang, the up and down, positive and negative, swings and roundabouts etcetera.

Upon arriving home, I have spent a considerable amount of time on ‘general blog maintenance’. I have been updating broken links and correcting any errors that have been pointed out by you lovely people. I have also spent some time seeking out new blogs that I can take inspiration from. It has been a relatively long time since I gave my blog some TLC, so I am going to dedicate this weekend to improve my blog.

I want to improve my site from a visual perspective, so if you have any tips, please comment below!

I am going for a minimalist look with a site that is as easy to navigate as possible.

How much time do you spend on improving your product blog?

Passive activism

Finally, a form of activism that works for me! From running this blog, the largest benefit for me by far is getting to interact with experienced writers. It is one thing to read a book, and it is another to have tailored lessons! One of the core concepts I am yet to wrap my head around is the active and passive voice. I get flagged for writing in the passive quite a lot, so I decided it was time to do something about it!
Grammatic Irony takes some time out from analysing fantasy worlds (LoTR next?) and offers us me a lesson in writing.Louis

If, like me, you learnt to type in the 1990s or early 2000s, you probably have memories of this bastard tapping on your screen and underlining all your sentences with red and green squiggles.

‘It looks like you’re repressing the urge to reach into the screen and throttle me.’

For those of you spared this terrible knowledge, this is Clippy, one of the virtual assistants who came with Microsoft Office as a way to encourage perplexed users to ask for help when they needed it. Once a question was asked, the assistant would search millions of lines of code searching for an answer, and then return a negative or useless result, before getting back to making unhelpful commentary on sentence length or fragments.

What a time to be alive!

Nowadays, if one’s cookies contain so much as a smidgeon of grammatical enquiry, the unfortunate browser is likely to be bombarded by adverts for proofreading services or Grammarly, the reincarnation of Clippy, proving that no idea is so bad that human beings can be dissuaded from trying it again and charging extra.

Now, I know some people (like the owner of this blog!) rely on Grammarly and, as one who has never used it, I cannot honestly claim to know whether it is worth what it claims to be worth. I can, however, remember one advert which, just like Clippy, underlined a sentence in the passive voice to show how very clever it was and forced the poor soul, who was just trying to send an e-mail, to rearrange the entire passage so that it was in the active voice. Why does everyone hate the passive voice?

Well, firstly, it is not, in fact, everyone. This is a particular bugbear for speakers of American English who have been told that the passive voice is bad and wrong and makes people go blind, or something. The attentive reader may have noticed that I am the slightest bit unconvinced by this assertion and, moreover, that same reader may have noticed that I have used the passive voice multiple times in this post and I am only just getting started.

‘Choo choo! All aboard for Grammarsville! Next station: FUN!’

American audiences have been trained to fear the passive in much the same way that some people claim to have an aversion to words like moist. There is no testable reason behind this aversion, it is simply a peculiar, modern social reality. After all, the words hoist and oyster still seem to be acceptable in general conversation. Moreover, the passive is a valuable linguistic tool, useful not only for academic but also narrative prose. Perversely, so extreme is the rejection of the passive that some people see the passive voice in completely different grammatical constructions, such as the subjunctive.

So who is to blame for this active discrimination of the passive? Why, none other than our old friends, Strunk and White and their book The Elements of Style; a gripping read and one of the finest works of fiction of the 1920s.

A visual representation of tone-deafness.

At this stage, some may be asking themselves, ‘When is he going to get around to telling us what these ambiguous constructions actually are?’ and to them I say, ‘You had your chance to do this your way, now strap yourself in and prepare to be thoroughly disambiguated’.

An English sentence, as a general and therefore frequently broken rule, has three core components: the subject, the verb, and the object, and they generally occur in that order. This pattern is called SVO by linguists.

In the sentence, ‘I ate the jam’, I is the subject, ate is the verb, and the jam is the object. See this pattern in the three sentences below.

Jane makes jam.

John has hidden the jam.

I will eat the jam.

In the second and third examples, the verb is comprised of two parts (an auxiliary and a participle) but they still occupy the single verb slot in the sentence. Even more complicated sentences, with adverbs and relative clauses lying around, will generally follow this pattern. For example, here are the three parts of speech in the main clause underlined, and in SVO order.

Even more complicated sentences, […] will generally followthis pattern.

The subject is generally the most important part of a sentence because everything within the sentence relates to the subject somehow. Objects can sometimes be omitted, and when they are omitted or change, although they change the meaning of the sentence, they only do so in relation to the subject.

I feed.

I feed myself.

I feed the dog.

I feed myself to the dog.

All of these sentences are examples of active sentences. They show a subject doing something, often to an object, and sometimes to a direct and indirect object. Most sentences are active sentences, and in them, the subject is said to be the agent, the one doing or eating or stealing or generally being involved with verbs.

‘I am the noun who verbs!’

A passive sentence, on the other hand, allows the author to relegate the agent to the object’s position or omit an agent entirely, thus focusing on the effect of an action rather than the perpetrator of an action.

The dog is being fed.

The jam was made.

The dog had been fed.

The jam has been stolen by someone.

The dog will be fed by you.

Now, instead of being the objects, jam and dog are the subjects, but not the agents. The agents are less important. Consider sentences like the following:

He is known to lie.

It is said that no-one ever returns from Deep Drop Mine.

The Prime Minister’s motion has been defeated.

The suspects were detained and questioned.

Millions of people were killed in the Second World War.

These are perfectly natural, passive sentences and not all would benefit from being rendered in the active voice.

Backbenchers defeated the Prime Minister’s motion.

Police detained and questioned the suspects.

Soldiers killed millions of people in the Second World War.

This last example is particularly egregious: in the Second World War, death came from many quarters, not least the concentration camps. To make soldiers the subject and agent implies that there were no, or few, deaths caused by other factors. A writer who wishes to draw out the tragic waste of life therefore has two immediate options:

  1. Millions of people died in the Second World War.
  2. Millions of people were killed in the Second World War.

The first sentence is active, the second sentence is passive. The first sentence is potentially misleading; the second sentence is not.

Forming the passive voice is complicated but, in brief, requires a form of the verb to be as an auxiliary and, optionally, the conjunction by followed by the object and agent.

‘The police detained the suspects’ is a fine active sentence but the passive construction allows the mind’s eye to remain with the suspects, rather than the police. This is a natural part of telling a story or reporting an event.

‘I don’t know how it happened but I was soaked with water!’

‘No, I can come out tonight: the children are being looked after.’

‘Have you never been taken to dinner?’

‘Don’t get yourself hurt.’

And so on. The passive voice not only allows the writer to keep attention on certain elements, but also to omit and even obscure information, for whatever reason.

Note that not every sentence with to be in it is in the passive voice and not every form of the passive has to be in it. Some examples can be ambiguous: ‘I am happy’ is simply a statement with a subject, a verb, and an adjective. ‘I am excited’ could also be such a statement, but it could be that someone or something is exciting me: ‘I am excited by this grammatical discussion’.

Calm down, ladies

This form of passive is very rare nowadays and would probably only appear for dramatic or humorous effect, such as in phrases like, ‘I am undone!’ as Doctor Deplorable’s plans are ruined yet again, and presumably accompanied by much shaking of fists (jet-pack escape optional).

So, the active and passive are both useful constructions with different nuances and applications. Why did Strunk and White think they were bad? Well, in truth, they did not. Strunk cautioned against using the passive too much, especially when its active counterpart would have been a better fit. Fowler and Orwell were, arguably, more hostile towards the passive but still did not abominate it entirely.

There are two main criticisms of the passive which have led to its lack of favour in contemporary writing. Firstly, unlike the active voice, it very quickly becomes tiresome to read. If too many clauses and sentences in quick succession are rendered in the passive voice, paragraphs become cumbersome and meaning is obscured. This leads us to the second point: the passive voice, because it does not require an agent, can be used in such a way that agency is hidden and thus responsibility and accountability abrogated by the author. The former problem is the purview of academic writing and is not usually deliberate, or so I am led to believe. The latter problem is a deliberate tactic of obfuscation favoured by politicians: ‘Mistakes were made,’ and so on. However, it is also true that some people do fall into a pattern of passive sentences when put on the spot.

The satirical sitcom Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister delights in playing with these two personalities and occasionally setting them against each other in the forms of the conniving Sir Humphrey Appleby and the bright but anxious Bernard Wooley.

By now, some of you may still be mystified by the passive. If so, fear not; there are many online resources which can help the would-be writer to form and use the passive. Do not fear the passive or twist your writing into knots to avoid using it; simply be discerning and cautious. And, to those who remain convinced that the passive is ruining English, I extend the following invitation: read this article again and check for all the passive constructions; I guarantee you will find some that, on the first reading, went completely unnoticed, and others which were active sentences all along.

If you would like to read more from the mind of Grammatic Irony, click the link bellow!

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.