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!

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

Can I stay? – week 55

The wait is finally over, next Thursday it will be decided if I continue with my PhD. I am well aware that most people pass this, and a lot of people around me tell me I will be fine. But, it still feels as if it is fifty-fifty as to whether or not I will pass.

This perception of the odds feeling like they are stacked higher against you than they actually are is probably much more common than I can imagine. I think it is an example of our poor ability to handle probabilities, and why lotteries are such good money spinners.

I shall try and adjust my attitude towards the fact that I know the odds are in my favour, but I apologise if my monkey brain takes over.

Furthermore, I have been hugely distracted from writing and life, with an AI competition that is currently running. And The allure of continually making little tweaks to my bot has me captivated. I am actually doing quite well in the competition; however, I can still see all the flaws, and if they were fixed I would be doing much, much better.

Apart from what I have just discussed, everything is going quite well. The experiments I have been pushed back on due to broken equipment is now running, and I have some more lined up. The only source of anxiety for me at the moment is the organisation of my next trial, which needs to be done next week so I can collect the samples the following week.

I have joked about this with my colleges, but I think I may have the entirety of December off. I have not had any holiday since last Christmas, and feel as if some holiday will reinvigorate me. Let’s see how November goes.

I had a meeting with a statistician this week, to discuss some problems I was having. It reminded me very much like going to see a doctor. His mannerisms were uncanny. He suggested a couple of useful things, and mostly asked me questions, as a doctor would. He reassured me in the sense that I was already doing the things that a statistician would do. But also, there was no great epiphany, so I am still in the same position as I was before the meeting. Oh well.

It has started to get cold and dark here in the UK, the clocks go back tomorrow, so it shall get darker and darker for a while. I am looking forward to open-fires, and hearing people complain about how dark it is for x time of day.

Note: I wrote this several months ago and I don’t want to give spoilers 😛

Brain fuel – week 54

We did not order any coffee to come in the shopping this week which was a slight mistake. I am writing this with a brain that is awake but very cloudy. Concentration and logical thought are a bit of a struggle. From experience, without coffee, it will take around a month to reset my coffee addiction.

So, the dilemma is whether or not I want to lose optimal performance for the sake of weaning myself off of coffee. On the plus side, I will spend less money. On the negative side, I will lose a ritual that I enjoy – the first coffee of the day whilst reading a book.

I quit coffee for around three months last year, and it was not fun for the first month. After that it became normal, and everything was okay again. My energy was evenly spread throughout the day when I was a non-coffee drinker. Whereas, when I drank coffee, I got to choose when I was most alert.

Choosing when you are most alert is quite the ability if you stop and think about it. I guess this is only the case if you have a relatively low tolerance of caffeine otherwise you would have to consume coffee constantly just to feel ‘normal’. I don’t think addiction is quite the right word as cars aren’t addicted to fuel they just can’t perform without it. Dependence is probably better.

And there it is, the preamble ramble…

If I wasn’t quite explicit enough with my explanation that I am not feeling myself, maybe the length of the preamble could be used to diagnose the fact that I am not quite on top form.

There were a couple of interesting things that happened this week. Firstly, one of my fellow students has been told they cannot continue. This has come as a massive shock to me as I thought she was a good student. She did not get on well with the supervisor, and this is probably the main reason for her dismissal.

She is far more qualified than I am for the job. She had two masters degrees and had already had a years experience of being a PhD student for one year prior to joining our group. I am a masterless wonder, wondering how it is not me that is leaving. There is still time.

I was told this news by the lab gossip and don’t actually know this.

The second interesting thing that happened was that we went out for a meal with everyone in our lab group – minus one. It was at a restaurant most of us had already been to and enjoyed. However, our table was situated next to a party of very drunk middle-aged men. Singing. Loudly. The entire of the restaurant were sick of this group, and after a good twenty-minutes of everyone trying to be nice, the tension was cut.

A brave group of women sitting adjacent to the group asked for them to politely shut-up. They said okay and then carried on anyway. Then a group of similar looking ‘adult’ males started swearing and trying to persuade them to stop.

At first, it all seemed like bravado, until both groups stood up simultaneously, and the waiting staff jumped in between. Having not been involved I wasn’t scared of injury, I was scared of all the lovely Indian food getting pushed off of our table in the brawl!

A long few minutes of squaring-off occurred until there was classic ending as far as macho posturing is concerned.

It turns out one of the people from the offending group went to school with one of the other group, and they spent the rest of the night hugging and reminiscing, which was only slightly less annoying than the original singing.

Whether or not you were hoping for a bloody ending or a happy ending to that story, will be largely subjective, and perhaps a reflection on you.

This was just from one day this week! The rest of the stuff I did seems dull in comparison.