PhD Blog Posts

The new and the old – week 65

I am sitting here waiting on one of those recent phenomena; I am waiting for a new keyboard and mouse to be delivered by Amazon’s prime service. Once this delivery has arrived I can engage in one of the oldest and greatest phenomena that humanity has ever created; I can return my library books.

I find myself ordering my day around the delivery of packages more often than I would like to admit, and I would not be surprised if there was a term for the phenomenon. But, I should stop complaining as it was in my lifetime that you had to go somewhere to acquire goods. In my case, growing up in a small village, it involved begging my parents to take me to town, or waiting until I could drive and then do it myself. It indeed wasn’t a simpler time.

But enough rambling and pre-amble, it is time to try and twist and contort my thoughts of what I did this week into something more interesting than it actually is.

It has been a slow week in PhDs-Ville, I am waiting on some consumables, mainly filters so that I can continue analysing samples. I am still not that proficient at time-tabling; if I were better I would be a bit more efficient, but also, a lot more fatigued as I would have less downtime. So, I have just justified my lack of organisation as a device for rest and recovery – winging it is one of the best skills one can learn.

The first two days of the week were as boring as you can get, I weighed out hundreds of samples at 0.01 gram per go, which is quite tricky sometimes. From my PhD, I would say that roughly 40% of the time I am doing something utterly mundane that requires no thought whatsoever, it’s not all chalkboards and equations. The beakers don’t wash themselves!

The remainder of the week was spent doing data analysis and writing abstracts for a couple of conferences I would like to go to this year. Oh, and I had a couple of meetings.

Hopefully, if all goes well, I shall be going to Berlin and Prague this year on-the-house. I will have to give a presentation, but that is but a minor act in the academic conference – so I have been told. Mostly it’s for networking a.k.a. drinking, dining and talking – as well as getting a free holiday. Who am I to not engage in such activities.

Having mentioned that, I hate almost all the aspects of conferences; I detest writing the abstract and then presenting it, and I am not a big fan of networking either. I am mostly going because it feels like one of those things you ‘have’ to do. Talking to other people I am still none the wiser as to why people go to them; I think it has lots of un-apparent benefits that are hard to quantify. Anyway, I shall give it a go this year and try my best to seem interested.

It will be nice to get out of the house!

Starting at the peak – week 62

It is the first week of 2019 as I am writing this; staying at my parent’s house for the conclusion of 2018 had me gain two kilograms in weight. I am training for a half-marathon at the moment and consider it extra fuel for training. I will soon be back to baseline.

I have started the year on a peak, as far as my weight is concerned.

As this will be posted long after the Christmas/New year break, it doesn’t make sense to ask if you had a good time. Personally, it was great for me, it was my only break of the year, and it was well timed. I was starting to get bored by the end of the break, and for me, that suggests it was around the correct length of time to have off.

However, it seems my colleagues have taken advantage of the fact that New Year’s day fell on a Tuesday and have taken the rest of the week off as well. The usually busy lab building was deserted except for a few people that had things to be getting on with. I was one of those few people.

I spent all of Wednesday extracting nitrites and nitrates from lettuce samples, then spent the following two days analysing the samples. The reason I was doing this is: partially because I can, but also because these compounds are quite contentious as far as health is concerned. They have been implicated with some adverse effects, mostly in infants when there are a particularly large dose and some health benefits regarding the cardiovascular system.

What remains to be seen is how these dietary components change as they degrade. The positive or negative health aspect may exist when the crop is harvested, but are they still in similar quantities when the consumer actually eats them? This is what I am looking at.

I have got all the data from this particular experiment, and all is left to do is the data analysis, which happens to be my favourite part. I shall make some time to do that next week. I have a lot of monotonous lab-based stuff to do next week so it will be nice to do something where I actually have to engage my brain. Unfortunately, doing a PhD isn’t only mentally stimulating work, there is still a lot of the mindless grinding in there.

I have mostly fallen back into the routing I had before the Christmas break; however, I have been watching slightly more television than I did before and this has taken up some of the time I used to use for self-improvement. The time in the evenings from about 8pm onwards needs to come back under my control. I need to get back to using this time to practice coding.

I haven’t set any new goals for this year, resolutions are not something I usually do; I am one of those people who will set new goals on the spur of the moment rather than waiting for a certain date. I feel as if I am in the middle of a four-year grind and I am living a kind of hermetically sealed life. After I have completed my PhD, I suspect there will be a large void that I will have to fill with lots of smaller goals.

But until then, the grind continues.

blogging on auto-pilot – week 61

It’s now December*, and I have just realised I have been writing these posts for almost a year and three months with only one week missed.

It has been long enough now that I have forgotten where I got the motivation to start a blog from. I know why I am doing it, but I cannot remember where the initial spark of motivation came from. I was probably reading someone else’s blog and thought I should do it.

Anyway, here we are 62 weeks later, and the compulsion to write a blog post is equivalent to my desire to go to the gym. Desire is not the right word, It is more routine than that, and I often write or go to the gym when I have no desire to.

It is a discipline that I can’t see my self breaking free from; this is good news as far as consistency goes, but it certainly enriches my day as much as it used to.

I wonder how many of you out there are also in this state, drifting through the blogging process on auto-pilot?

Perhaps, much like my day job, I need a break so that I can come back more motivated – hopefully.

Taking a break from something you do as a ‘hobby’ seems like a strange concept to me, and I haven’t really thought about it before. I think taking a break from the normal life is the important part. If I have a break where I stay at home for a week, I think I will not get the reset that is required to reset.

Getting away and doing something completely different seems like the correct way to have a holiday for me. Going skiing for example, where I am busy all day doing something else, and I can’t do any work! The only problem I can see if that is wherever I go on holiday, I will always be there.

I think I have just completed my final week of 2018; things have been winding now for a while, and absolutely everyone is on their last legs. Most people in the lab are rushing to finish things so that they can have some time off over the Christmas period and I am no exception. I endeavor to stop doing any work after the 21st of December.

I am going to write a post in January about my year in review. I have lots of different places I can draw data, from such as my health, my finances and blogging statistics. I am looking forward to producing this data-driven blog post. I think it will be as good as my most popular post about my three-month blogging experience.

So look forward to that if you want!

*Yes this was written a few months ago.

The day after the night before – week 60

As I have mentioned before, my writing is a a few months behind present day.

It is the day of the Christmas party, so I will write half of this before the party and then finish it tomorrow.

It is noon on Saturday, and I have been into the university to get some work done. The reason I have had to go in on a Saturday is that we all got kicked out of the labs yesterday as there was a campus-wide water shortage. There was maintenance going on in the town, and the water had to be shut-off.

I thought it was strange that a lack of water could cause a campus-wide shutdown, but when you can no longer wash your hands, or clean up any chemical spills, I suppose there is no other choice. This is the kind of situation, I would guess, has no plan in place, as no one expects the water to be shut-off. I hate to think how many experiments have been ruined because they have been kicked out mid-experiment.

Luckily I was just about to start an experiment when we got asked to leave, so it wasn’t a complete disaster. I just put my stuff in the fridge and finished it off this morning.

I have heard some disaster stories of people not finishing their PhDs due to losing their laptops or hard-drives; I heard a story of someone who had left their thesis on a bus and couldn’t get it back and consequently never passed – this was in the days before computers. I can Imagine someone getting to the end of a crucial experiment and then getting told to stop due there being no water; there must be some sort of study insurance for that.

Last year, the Christmas party was surprisingly fun, and I wrote about it here. I think I have had approximately ten-units of alcohol since – I know, I don’t drink a lot. Hopefully, I will still be functional tomorrow, and I can tell you what it is like to party with academics. Maybe I should write while I am there gonzo-style.

One-day and much junk food later…

Well, I don’t feel great; I have definitely felt worse, and I am expecting to make it to the gym later. The night was quite uneventful, we started off at a slightly above an average Italian restaurant in the center of town. From there, the more experienced students led us to a club that reminded me a lot of a set from Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. It looked as if its business strategy was to purchase a property in the 70’s and never do any renovation or marketing.

The result of this was that we had the entire place to our selves. There was about 25 of us, and what I found interesting was that it was the older people that made it to closing time. The professors and the more experienced researchers were all the last ones to leave the dance floor. Work hard play hard I guess.

I had a few people coming to me and moaning about some other person in the department, which you only really get when people are inebriated, but apart from that, it was completely drama free. I almost wish something did happen so I could have some interesting stories; alas I was in bed by 3 am and awake again around 10.

Self-inflicted illness (not alcohol related) – week 59

I have missed a week for the first time in my blogging career. I missed week fifty-nine. Although, since I have been ahead of the game by three months, no one will ever notice.

The reason I did not write anything last week was that I was sick. I had a fever for about a week, and to top it off I have a blocked ear. Because I don’t have a normal job, I couldn’t have any days off and had to go in and keep my experiments running. Although, I did manage to watch the entirety of series 7 of Game of Thrones in my downtime.

This was my first illness of 2018, and I am pretty sure I did it to myself. Basically, I was culturing some bacteria in the lab and was quite careless of how I disposed of them It was either that, or I caught it from a colleague.

Another reason as to why I could not take time off was that I had to give a talk to the entire department about my research.

One of the ways I deal with nerves for presentations is to over prepare. Where most of my colleagues would spend maybe a few hours preparing for a presentation, I spent a couple of days. In the end, when I gave the speech, to maybe 100 or so people, I wasn’t that nervous, because I was well prepared.

Normally I like to practice my talks until I know exactly what I am going to say, but this time I decided to practice it only a couple of times. Mainly, because I was ill and it was roughly thirty-minutes long, but also because it is not an efficient use of your time to rehearse talks until you can do it word-for-word each time. Perhaps if you have a ten-minute speech or less it is worth it, but anything longer I think it is best to just partially wing it.

Interestingly the size of the audience didn’t affect me, it was of a size where it was large enough to fill my vision. The audience just blended into one and I couldn’t really tell who was who, so I was kind of detached from them, it was a strange experience. I wonder if others out there have had this? I would have thought my nerves would have scaled with the size of the audience, but this did not seem to be the case.

I think I am going to allow myself two-weeks off at Christmas, one week of doing absolutely nothing and one week of working from home. Hopefully, it will renew my enthusiasm for the project as it has been fleeting for the last couple of months.

If you view certain phenomena in life as a graph, as I do, I am currently on a downward trend. This isn’t a problem, we expect ups and downs. It only becomes a problem when the new lower level of whatever phenomena becomes the new normal. I sometimes wonder this when I am ill, have I got better, or have I just accepted a new lower standard of living.

Of course, it is absurd, and I am sure 99% of the time the answer is, I have got better. But there is always that bit of doubt. Otherwise, as we age, we should surely get more and more unhappy due to the accumulation of illness that It is all downhill from the age of twenty. This does not seem to be the case.

Back to basics – week 58

The idea, from the start of this blog, was to get better at writing; In my mind, it was to get better at the technical side of writing – the punctuation and grammar.

I have been somewhat successful in learning the craft, and I make a lower range of mistakes than I used to. However, overall I am still making quite a few mistakes, especially when I am writing fast and not concentrating.

I make a lot of errors with commas, most of the time it is a missing comma after the introductory clause or a missing comma in a compound sentence. Admittedly, the ‘rules’ for commas are the most complicated, even at 100% concentration. I don’t think I could write with flawless grammar and punctuation, mostly because of commas.

Back when I started, I used to practice using this website. It helped me improve, but one of the most significant problems is that the exercises don’t change and, therefore, you can remember what the answers are. I am going to run through it again after I have written this post, but if anyone has any similar resources, please post them below!

Well, I have done it again, wholly gone off-topic for the first portion of the post. Maybe it’s the equivalent of a warm-up? Perhaps I start writing about PhD stuff now and remove all of the prior chat.

I have become a permanent fixture of this desk this week, and the keyboard has become an extension of my arm. I have not been in the lab once as I have been working from home. The reason being is that I am still waiting for filters to arrive. I cannot continue without these, and because my planning is relatively weak, I have come to a situation where these filters are bottlenecking me.

Every once in a while it is nice to have a period of working from home, so my disorganisation is often serendipitous as it allows me to catch up with some writing. Well, I am using the term ‘writing’ very loosely as I was putting together a poster. This involves some writing, but the most significant time sink, for me, comes from making figures (pictures).

One of the reasons as to why it takes me so long to write and produce anything is that I don’t want to do it. As I am progressing through my PhD, I am figuring out what I want to do after it is done. My feeling at the moment is that I like problem-solving and I don’t necessarily care about the result. Most of the successful academics I know are good at publicising their achievements and enjoy talking to people about their work and the importance of it.

I do not feel this way at all and rarely talk to people about the results without someone asking, but I love talking about the process. Maybe this is me being naive, but I don’t think this will change in me. However, as I keep saying, I never even thought I would go to University, so I should never trust my own judgement of how I am going to be in the future.

Maybe in two years, I will be using the blog to tell you how important my work is and how much I enjoy writing about it; I might even be talking about how much I now hate working in the lab.

Passed – week 57

That’s how it goes, you spend three months worrying about something, and then about five minutes enjoying the completion of that thing. That is how it is for me at least.

The above sentiment is the reason why I no longer get too excited or depressed about anything. Let me explain.

I have spoken about this idea before; It originated during my undergraduate life. I worked very hard at my studies, with the notion in my head that ‘I will be happy when I graduate’. You could replace this with anything. The idea that you will be happy when x is complete/over, in my experience, is always a red-herring. Happy ever after does not exist. Your experience may vary.

This is one of those perennial ideas that has certainly kept me on my toes, I still haven’t quite figured out what I am going to do about this. Although, I believe that I have started to settle on a nice average, where I don’t get too depressed when things do not go my way, neither am I ecstatic when I am winning.

So, what was the viva like?

Well, I had handed in a poorly written report, as is my signature, but the science was all watertight. And where it wasn’t so solid, I had answers as to why. My two examiners where both well-established scientists, and friendly people, which helps. They both made notes on my document and gave advice on how I should improve.

I sat in one of their offices on the other side of the table, very much like a job interview, and did my best to answer the questions they had. To be honest, I was expecting it to be much harder, and I had done my preparation on the scientific principles behind my work and didn’t put any effort into trying to explain the deficiencies in my writing.

This exam was comparable to a job interview where the outcome was based on me convincing my two examiners if I made the grade or not. The reality of this is that it may come down to the examiners you have as to whether or not you progress. This is not perfect, but it is one of the least bad systems we have, just like job interviews.

I was in the ‘exam’ for an hour and a half, where I was then asked to leave the room and wait outside until they called me in. They called me in two minutes later and said I had passed. That was it.

I realise I have been talking about this event for the last three months, so this must be an anticlimax. But this isn’t Hollywood.

So, now I have let you in on a secret. For the last year I have been lying to you, I was never a PhD student, I was a PhD candidate. I am now a fully fledged PhD student, and the only thing stopping me getting my PhD is my work ethic and my tolerance for anxiety. Both of these will be pushed, hopefully to and not exceeding, the limit.

On to the next one!