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.

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!

The difficult second year – week 56

I have sensed a change in my approach and attitude towards writing these pieces. A year ago, almost everything I was doing was fresh, and therefore, interesting for me to write about. Now, an equilibrium has been reached where my PhD work feels normal and normal is not interesting to me.

I believe that I have gone through some sort of writers phase change. The period in which it was fairly easy to get the motivation to write has passed, and now it is a matter of discipline. I am not quite sure how things will change, but I sense they will.

Perhaps this is something everyone goes through with their projects. The transition from the easily motivated to the wilful discipline stage probably has some sort of academic field of study that I am not aware of, and you will be screaming at me in the comment section about the name of this phenomenon.

So, while I try and figure out what I can do next, I will try and talk about what is actually going on now. Next week, Thursday to be precise, I have my confirmation viva. I am not scared yet, but knowing my track record with exams, the day before will be interesting. As I have spoken about this ad infinitum, I shall move on.

On Friday, we had a department night out. Sixty-nine of us went for a game of bowling where I came second, and for a game of laser quest where I came fifth. Both times I was on the winning team. Now, I do not necessarily care about winning, but it just so happens that I used to be quite good at bowling, so I was being quite competitive with this. The laser Quest was much more light-hearted and fun, something that when it comes to competitive people is quite often hard to achieve.

From the night the biggest thing I took away from it was how amazing the person who organised it was. She did it all herself, for no reason other than bringing the department together. This is something I would never want the responsibility of.

Organisation is one of the things I hate the most about doing a PhD and just generally in life. Having to rely on other people Is scary and something I try and avoid. It also can breed a lot of frustration as more often than not, the people you’re relying on do not care about the objective as much as you.

I have a lot of respect for people that enjoy organising events, big or small, and my girlfriend is one of those people. However, I am not one of those people, and I am quite sure I never will be. I assume most people are not the type to organise these kinds of events; otherwise, they would happen with a much greater frequency, rather than just around holidays.

Anyway, I’m off I need to go and meet with my new bowling coach, and prepare for next year, as 2nd is not good enough!*


*This is a joke

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.

Too much writing – week 22 as a PhD student

In the latest chapter of me doing a PhD is more of a filler chapter; the story has had a brief interlude where all I do is sit at my desk and write. If only all I did was write, that would have been a much better week; instead, I wrote for about 20 minutes and then proceeded to spend 10 minutes browsing the internet. I then repeated this for 8-10 hours a day, five days a week. I do actually enjoy writing; it is just very difficult to do it for days on end without getting burnt out; it is for me anyway. I am sure all my fellow students will have sympathy with this, and all those who are in a job that they are not 100% happy with; this is where relying on discipline is essential, as motivation is fickle and can often leave you alone for long periods of time.

I have been working on three different bits of work, my 6-month report, a paper I am writing, and a guest blog post I am writing for the British Nutrition Foundation. All of which, I am bored of looking at, this tends to happen to me with writing. I start out highly motivated; then there is a perfect negative linear trend in the interest in my work – we are talking a correlation of 0.999. I am unsure if there is a cure for this particular ailment, If you have one, please send it my way. One good thing about only doing writing this week is that I got to spend all my time at home, which is my preferred location, I am very hobbit-like in that sense. As for you dear readers:

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

As a side note, if there is a better work of fiction than the fellowship of the ring, I don’t want to know about it.

If you consider my time outside of my day-job, I did have an exciting week. On Tuesday I was in London attending a concert by Post Modern Jukebox, they are a group that became popular on YouTube for doing covers of songs on different musical styles. If you want to see Lady Gaga’s Bad romance performed in a Gatsby style, I suggest you check them out! They were perfectly enjoyable, and they did an excellent take on the main Harry Potter theme song, however, and this is true for any artist when they don’t play your favourite song you can only give them a seven out if ten max.


By far the most bizarre and comfort-zone-smashing thing I did this week was attend an American rock-and-roll dance class with my partner. We were both the worst dancers by far, I had never danced before, and my partner only had danced as a child. If there is one thing scarier than giving a presentation in front of many people – especially for an introvert – it is dancing, in public. It was one of those things we signed up to whilst slightly inebriated, but instead of just writing it off as drunken nonsense, actually going through with it. My partner and I were the youngest there by a good 20 years; she was only slightly less nervous than I was. However, as is normally the case when doing scary things, it was much more fun than scary. It was much harder than I thought it would be but this only spurred me on to get better, I will definitely continue with this. This is by far the biggest surprise of my life; I enjoyed dancing: sober! One of the problems with this, however, is now I have many extracurricular activities, I am starting to become a Jack of all trades and the master of…

 

You should judge a book by its cover

You shouldn’t Judge a book by its cover.

This is a phrase to which I take exception, and I do not know why this phrase has become so renowned as it seems so false to me. I am not talking about this phrase in its literal sense with regard to books; however, I still think it is false when talking about literal books. I have a degree in nutrition and food science, and there are thousands of books that I can judge by the cover and know they are trash and not worth my time. Time is a resource I do not wish to waste, so I will judge some books by their cover to save it.

Onto the more philosophical application of the phrase. The cover is all the information you have about someone whom you’ve never seen before. If you have already seen someone or something, you have already judged them/it at least once. One extreme example I have to evaluate this involves children or vulnerable people. Should you allow a child to interact with any random person as you should not judge them by their cover, or should you judge them and base your decision on all the visual cues you have?

As an adult I judge people, rightly or wrongly – here I am arguing that it is rightly– by their cover. If I am walking down the street and see some drunk men quarrelling, you can safely assume that cover will be judged harder than an autobiography by a reality TV star.

Why I think this phrase still has some credibility is that invariably whenever you meet someone, they are a good person. Should you judge a person as good before you’ve gotten to know someone? And is It even possible to not judge someone? I doubt it.

In fact, I would go further than saying you should judge a book by its cover; you continually judge by the cover. As you gain information, you should continually re-adjust your judgement as people can and do change.

There are a number of reasons as to why I do not understand this phrase and therefore, do not take it seriously. I imagine this could be a contentious issue and my opinion may be somewhat naive, so please educate me.

Apparently the phrase was first published in the mid 18th century, and frankly, that’s where it should have stayed.

 

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