Where are the beakers? Week four as a PhD student.

The clocks were rolled back at the end of this week; in theory giving us all an extra hour in bed, or in my case, another hour laying awake thinking about my PhD. This was written on the 29th of October 2017. Efforts have been doubled this week, and there is a much more noticeable increase in pressure. Pressure to get work done. I learnt what was expected of me in this 1st year was to essentially try as many different experiments as possible to try and find something suitable for taking forward. So, I have spent a lot of timing planning experiments this week. I’m trying to do the most basic experiments first, so I can get used to the lab and find where equipment is, as that Is genuinely the hardest, most daunting part of my PhD thus far. One of the main benefits to doing a PhD is also one of the most difficult things in the beginning. What I am talking about is how independent your work is. Of course, this depends on your lab group and your project, sometimes you will join an ongoing project and get help with your work. In my case, I am not joining an ongoing project, and all the work will be my own, therefore there is nothing set up for me, and I have to figure everything out for myself from the first instance. Where are the beakers! What do you mean I might have to buy them?

Other than dealing with logistics and busy work; I have been writing an abstract for a conference. Since I have no data, or experience in writing an abstract for conference submission, writing 300 words has been quite the challenge. But the challenge is why I wanted to do a PhD, so despite the pressure, I felt this week I am still happy! Going back to the difficulty of orienting myself in the lab, I organised a meeting with one of the post-docs in the lab for me and my fellow fresh PhD students, so we could ask questions like dude where’s my beaker. It turns out you have to either, order them yourself, or ask someone if you can borrow them. The same is true for almost all equipment, from spatulas to GC-MS systems. So, one of the key skills I think I will develop is the art of beg, borrow and, well, hopefully, I won’t need to complete that triad of skills.

The only other thing of note this week was the fact that, I am the only male 1st year PhD student in the Food Science and Nutrition department (this was the same in undergrad). I am yet unsure if this a good thing or not, it will certainly be easier for me to stand-out.

P.S. Looking back on this is a useful exercise in itself, I can clearly see 4 errors in the punctuation, and it is generally quite poor. This was written 16 weeks ago, it is nice to see how far I have come in such a short time. Although, you will not see this improvement for many weeks to come. I was very tempted to edit this piece, however, I think it is important to show the process.

Life is good – Week three as a PhD student

This week was more interesting; the work was the same, but there was more diversity. A society meeting, and two training courses! One of the training courses was health and safety related, so I’m not too enthusiastic about it, but it was a welcome break from searching through the scientific literature. The second course, which was on Thursday, was about data management. One of the key revelations from the course was that my sponsors could ask for my data at any point, which has certainly re-evaluated my approach to note taking and data storage. My usual approach is as basic as possible, i.e. no comments, minimalist headers, optimised to be imported into stats packages. Knowing that it could be requested from me has changed my view drastically.

Socially in my academic life, I have always been a bit of a mutt. I went to University when I was 24, too old to care about going to clubs anymore, too young to consider myself mature and join the mature society. When you’re 24, 18-year-old people seem like they are decades younger in many ways. Visually not so much, and that is why the older students 30+-year-old are also a vast departure. Anyway, why I am telling you this, is I have always felt a bit out of place, and therefore, did not attend any society stuff. This time around, I have decided to say yes to much more. Which is why I attended a mature society lunch. Bear in mind that you’re technically a mature student after the age of 24 in the UK, I was by far the youngest person at lunch, it felt like going to lunch with my parents, they were nice enough, but it was still slightly odd.

As an aside – I have recently bought a kindle; it is better reading on this device than conventional books, controversial I know. But I was annoyed with having most of my shelf space taken up by books; I had gotten over the fact that it looks good to have a large collection of books, to show how well read you’re to everyone that visits. So, I got rid of most of my books and bought a kindle, now my issue is that books are more expensive than the ones I used to buy from Oxfam. The solution… join the library. So I did. If anyone is considering buying a kindle paper-white. Don’t, as you cant get library ebook’s on there. Which means you’re going to have to pay for almost everything, which is highly sub-optimal.

One of the best things about doing a PhD is the amount of training you receive, I have signed up for 5 courses this year. All free and all expensive if you would have to pay. Also the number of emails I get for different schemes to take part in with different scientific bodies. It is very odd that once you get to the stage In higher education where you’re finally getting paid everything becomes free. I have heard millionaires state this to, obviously slightly differently in the sense that if they have some following they get given stuff for promotion e.g. a fancy car. As an undergraduate everything cost more than I could ever afford, hence the £50K plus debt. It is an observation I have just come to in my life that maybe it should be the bottom 90% that benefit from this rather than the top. I fear I am now chatting bollocks and am far from my remit.

In summary, life is good.

Orientation and training – Week two as a PhD student.

Scholar has jumped to the front of my tiles on the google dashboard, like a new acquaintance jumping straight in at number one on my Myspace top ten friends. Before I continue, I feel obliged to let you know that the most interesting thing I did this week was fire safety training.

The week started with ‘Health and safety introduction’ which, despite its captivating title, wasn’t in the top three of training courses I attended this week. If you were to put a gun to my head I would say that ‘Lab awareness training, was number two, and that ‘Fire awareness and the use of fire-extinguishers for lab-based staff’ was number one. It took the number one spot purely because it involved putting out fires, in a lavish waste of perfectly good fire extinguishers.

Next week I have two courses and a chocolate tasting session to look forward to. The main bulk of my work this week has been searching through the literature trying to find papers that match the research I want to carry out. I am not sure how many hours a day it is possible to read scientific papers for, and still take in information, but from this weeks experience, I would say it is about 3.5 hours, dispersed over 7 hours with procrastination included. One thing about reading all day is that it is very tiring for minimal kcal expenditure. I am unsure if this will improve like a muscle being trained, or I will develop into someone that doesn’t need to read journal articles all day.

There were lots of other menial tasks that had to be done this week such as: changing my email to a post-graduate email address, getting forms for a locker, getting access to certain areas of the building etc. It seems I have sorted all the little things that come with being a new-starter, and now all I have to do is a PhD. I feel I should be less hard on my self for procrastination in the early stages as the work will build up. If I had started a new job the feeling would be the same, and it has been in previous employment. ‘Hi, sign this, then read this, and now shadow this person etc.’ If all the people in my department are anything to go by, I will soon be too busy, and will have to let down at least one person a week. Stress levels will also be ten levels higher, whilst feeling completely normal, so that is something to look forward to.

Being a post-graduate has so far, for me, been more lonely than under-grad. So when I am saying yes to almost every social event, so I don’t become the hermit I’m perfectly capable of becoming. I still need to take up a hobby; solving a Rubix cube in under two minutes does not satisfy me.

 

P.S. I know the writing is fairly poor here; see ‘About this blog’.

 

Week one – Mediocre expectations

First of all, I think it is important for to me to explain the position I am in, and how it came to be. Just this year I graduated with a 1st class honours degree from the University of Reading. My degree was in Nutrition and Food science and I had a year in industry between my 2nd and 3rd years. My expectation was to go into industry after my degree and nine-to-five-it until I had accumulated just enough resources to not have to do that anymore and sit around all day doing ‘whatever I wanted’, being perfectly mediocre, all the while imagining being rich and successful.
During my final year, I did my dissertation with (someone anonymous, we shall call C), looking at discolouration of lettuce. This was essentially a continuation of the work I had been doing on my placement. Towards the end of the project, C asked me what I was going to do when I left university, and if I wanted to do a PhD. My reaction was essentially ‘me?, but aren’t PhDs just for geniuses?’. Luckily for me, they are not just for ‘geniuses’, and a plethora of skills are required. Anyway, I’m not rich how could I afford it? I think I need to work.
Later in the year the idea of doing a PhD had been grinding on me and perhaps I could do it, otherwise, why would she ask? To speed up along the story, which I am getting bored of typing when I finished my degree I had two choices, a PhD fully funded and with a £17k a year salary or a job I liked paying £30k. I was quite conflicted myself, so I asked my family and friends, which had a 100% response rate of ‘PhD’. It was the best of times and the worst of times, I had miraculously got a win-win situation and it became a source of misery, in the end, I know you feel very bad for me, but it was a very strange situation.
When the time came that I had to decide, my mind was fully made up, maybe I should not go the mediocre route, and avoid becoming anonymous desk flesh for at least three more years. In the end, it was very easy to choose the PhD.
It was July, I had accepted the PhD, and was due to start in October. A new ultimatum, to job or not to job, the latter won out and I went into retirement. I have never been much of a good-little-consumer eating all the market has to offer, so I had enough saving to bridge the gap. So that is what I did, and to my surprise, didn’t really get bored. I filled my days doing all the things I didn’t feel I could do during my degree, as it would be procrastination, and I learnt loads of useful things, like how to solve a Rubix cube. I would recommend retirement as soon as possible, or at least financial freedom which is now one of my main goals, more on that at another time.
The bit where I actually start my PhD. Week one has mainly consisted of figuring how to structure my calendar and email, Microsoft’s new clutter feature hasn’t helped. Everything is now in sync, and I have a relatively large amount of training and inductions to attend. This is good news as I do not have any lab work planned; it breaks up the reading that has become my life, as does writing this.
What is my PhD in you ask? Food science, understanding freshness and quality etc. The end goal of the project is to have packaging that will better predict when the food is about to go off, and thus reduce waste. In the interest of reducing waste, I am going to end this now, I shall try and write one of these each week. I have left out pages and pages; the trip to Rome for example. I hope there are many mediocre free moments to come over the next 3-4 years.

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