An average week – Week 41 as a PhD student

What witty opening line can I come up with this week? I’m drawing a blank; perhaps you could suggest one.

Words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order. Hunter S Thompson

I guess the first thing of note that I have done this week is sign up for a half marathon next year. The furthest distance I have run before is eight miles, although I regularly run five kilometres twice a week. Why did I do this? I needed a new physical challenge, and I have never had a running goal, plus it was a spur of the moment thing where I saw an advert and decided it we be a good thing to do.

I am looking forward to it, and hopefully, it will be a stepping stone to the full marathon someday. I am not a natural endurance runner, I am very quick, and was always the fastest sprinter during my youth, but as is normally the case, the talent for sprinting I was gifted was taken from me in endurance.

That was Thursday, so what did I do for the rest of the week? I set up the freeze driers for someone who was on holiday. We tend to freeze dry everything because plant material has a limited shelf-life, and it is difficult to measure everything you need to measure in that period; therefore, we need to preserve it. We remove all the water from the plant and then grind it up, so we have a homogeneous sample that does not degrade. Water is essential to life, and almost all biological reactions stop once you remove water, therefore once we dry our samples they are frozen in time, and we can study them in our own time.

It is quite an interesting process, and setting up the machines is relatively simple, but I keep forgetting exactly how to set them up as I use them so infrequently. Whenever I do these things for other people I feel as if I am getting in positive favour balance; being in positive favour balance is something I always try to achieve. I am sure I will need all the favours I can get very soon.

I will need the favours as I had my summons for my one year transfer viva; this is very important as it is essentially the only exam other than the final thesis that you have to do during a PhD. I have to submit a dissertation and sit a viva; it is very much like the end of a Masters degree from what I understand. If I pass, I continue as normal; If I fail, I change to a Masters program. It seems like a win-win situation, but that kind of thinking is a trap.

I came for the W and will not accept an M.

I got to spend a lot of time programming this week, which is my favourite thing to do these days, if I were starting my career again I would certainly study computer science. There is something that I find really satisfying about automating mundane tasks. I am actually considering trying to push my career in a direction to where I get to combine my agricultural skills with technology; this is something I will have to figure out how to do before I finish my PhD.

In summary: it was an average week.

 

On exams – the worst part of being a student?

One of the best things about being a graduate, at least for me, Is the knowledge that I will not have to sit formal exams again. I will have assessments, but there will never be a time when I have to sit in a room in silence with only a pen and a strong sense of dread.

I am one of those people who hated exams, not to the extreme, but I always preferred coursework and essays as I could work on them over time. The main negative with exams is that the questions that will come up are somewhat random. You know the kind of question that will come up most of the time, and you will have practised similar questions, but inevitably you cannot learn all that is expected if you’re a normal person. What makes it worse is the fact that you know you will be judged on the results of this for the rest of your life; if you need certain grades to move up the ladder to your next goal I can’t imagine how nervous you would be. One of my bosses a few years ago told me he still has nightmares about his exams that he took well over 30 years ago!

I am not sure how many exams I have sat in my life, but I imagine it is around 100. Here is my biggest issue with exams. It is a bulimic system; you cram as much information as you can in preparation for the exam and then spew it all over the paper. The information, from my experience, stays on the page, I do not have even fifty percent of the knowledge I gained in my binging period, and it has continued to fade over time. If I were to sit the same exams as I did last year, I wonder how I would do. Better? Worse? The same? Without going through the same binge period, it would undoubtedly be worse. If you do not take the knowledge with you what is the point. Just do a general IQ test and be done with it.

Are there any benefits to exams? I have heard someone who works in an educational institute say that one of the only reasons we keep exams is that they are very hard to cheat in. It is true that it is quite easy to cheat with an essay, as there are many websites that will write your essay for a price. On the first week of my undergraduate degree, I was given a voucher for £10 off of a website called IvoryResearch. Presumably, the university did not know about the company, and has since banned them as I didn’t see them again, but who knows? I have never known anyone who has used one of these services, but there are many of them, so I guess they are doing a good trade. You cannot get this kind of service for exams. Although I did see on TV once that some guy was taking peoples driving tests for them for a price, so I guess it could be done.

So, should we get rid of exams? If we care about students mental health, the answer may be yes. However, I cannot think of what we would replace them with. Besides they are basically a rite of passage at this point, a ceremonial process that results in something that feels like it is straight from the middle ages, in the UK anyway, It is very pompous, and I didn’t enjoy it. I cannot see a world where exams no longer exist, but I hope that they become less relevant.

Do you like exams? What should we do about it?