Making time to write – Week 45

It is Sunday morning here in England, and I am writing this blog piece early so that I can work on my report. This is not what I imagined when I started blogging. I thought It would be difficult to be consistent, but not writing early morning on a Sunday difficult.

This week has been relatively routine, on Monday I loaded up the freeze drier, a procedure I can now do on my own. It is a large green box, that looks as if it was built in the 50’s. There is very little to it. There is a refrigeration component and a vacuum component. Mostly, you put your samples in, turn on the vacuum pump, and then wait.

Because the all the water in the plants is frozen and there is a vacuum, the ice sublimates to vapour and condenses on the condenser plate in the back of the machine. Five days later, you have a bunch of crispy leaves with no water in them. From this point, you have leaves that will not degrade in a hurry, leaving you to sample at will.

On Tuesday, I had a meeting with my supervisors which is always nerve-racking, but usually a pleasant experience. This one was no exception, I am on track at the moment and need to keep calm and carry on. They talk a lot and try to give good advice, and I try and pick out the best bits as it is tough to remember everything they tell you.

On Wednesday I was doing general busy work, loading samples onto various machines and doing extractions in the lab. On Thursday I had a writing day, where I stayed at home, these are nice to have at least once a week. Friday was a repetition of Wednesday.

As I have entered a period of relative busyness, few of my extra-curricular activities have slipped. I have not had any time to read any of the books I wanted for the last few weeks, and I have not played any video games, which means I haven’t spoken to many friends in a while.

Another activity that has slipped is my blogging; I have not managed to write my mid-week posts. This is because the time that I would normally set aside to do this has been taken over by writing for my PhD. I can handle the disruption for my routine for about a month at a time. I do not think that this disruption is worth it in the long run, and I would not want to put up with it for the entire four-stretch (my PhD is funded for 4 years).

I have had some good ideas – my opinion – with respect to blog posts. I think I am ready to start diving into nutrition and leverage my degree in nutrition in a thinly veiled guise for the creation of easy content. Also, I would like to do some crow sourced science, mostly by the collection of data from surveys as that would be feasible. Please let me know if you know of any decent sites for large scale surveys and data collection!

An open letter – Week 35 as a PhD student

Dear Weblogger X,

I had a visit from my parents yesterday. Whenever my parents are in town we go out for dinner, yesterday was no exception, and I booked our favourite restaurant. They asked me all the usual questions, but when they asked: ‘how is it all going?’ And I replied with ‘ Well, it is just work now. I am fully adapted to my situation’. They did not bat an eyelid, and there it was, everyone in my life is now blasé about me doing a PhD. It is now the new normal; where do you go from here?

The older I get, the more I believe that ignorance is bliss. If the idea never came into my head that I should do something that is helpful society, I may be much happier with a happy go lucky attitude to life. I could drift through without doing anything challenging and be perfectly happy; instead, I have a delusion that I should be doing something grander. Ideas are dangerous!

This past week was a bog standard one; Lots of lab work, with me trying to sneak some writing in. The standout day was Tuesday where I was In Dorset on a picturesque farm. We were there to plant over 9000 plants by hand. It was relatively easy going as the weather was kind. However, everyone was sore and stiff the next day, and there was no way any of us could have done another day. I genuinely do not understand how people do this sort of work every day. Either they do not work as long and hard as we did, or It doesn’t take that long to get adapted to it, or they push through the pain. Either way, I now have a much greater appreciation for the people that do it and genuinely worry what is going to happen when Brexit takes full hold. I am not a highly political person, and I believe that you do not nay cannot have an opinion of everything, so I shall leave it there.

Next week, I am hoping that the current block of lab work will be over and I can do a lot more writing. I might just end up analysing all the data collected over the past couple of months, but I am not going to think about that now as it is depressing. One thing I should make sure I do next week is learn how to use my camera. I’m too used to the clever algorithms that autofocus and white-balance my images that using a camera with manual settings is like learning to walk again. I need a guide that shows me the simple aspects of using a camera. There are so many things I need to do that will keep getting pushed back as only the most important tasks get completed. In spite of this I have ended the week feeling quite content; now of to the gym for a leg session. You cannot neglect your body as much as your to-do list!

Your friend,

Weblogger X.

Welcome home procrastination – Week 34 as a PhD student.

Writing this is a welcome distraction from the monotonous grind of PhD life this week. I have even resurrected an old time-destroying habit that is competitive gaming to distract myself.

It is not that is bad or soul-destroying work, but if you do anything for a long enough period, it becomes boring. I have been harvesting and processing rocket for what feels like three months. I would really like a week of no lab work to concentrate on a few others things I need to get done.

I need to make some ground on my paper and learn a few data analysis techniques. You know how it is; you get home from a day a work and all you have the strength to do is the easy items on your to-do list.

I think the lack of energy for any substantial activity after a day in the lab is the cause of why I have relapsed and started to play video games again. They help to distract from the constant murmurings in my mind about variables I should measure and experiments I should re-run.

The forces of distraction are pulling me towards them as the minimum level of energy required to avoid them is not available. This weekend I am going to allow distractions!

This week brings with it a marker that I have had staked out for a few months; the marker is a three-month countdown timer to my transfer viva. This is essentially the only barrier between me and the next few years of continuation as a PhD student. Therefore, it is quite an important thing for me.

To complete the process, I have to complete a report similar to that of a masters thesis and then have a viva, which is a grilling from two academics on your work. Of course, it won’t be anywhere as hard as the final viva, but to someone in my position, it feels as important. The reality is that it is scarce for anyone to fail, and one should not worry too much, but in a more physical reality, it feels as if it is fifty-fifty: pass or fail.

Coming up next week is a day where I have to leave at 5:30 AM. This is something that would sound like hell, but I am looking forward to the change of pace.

We are going to plant 9000 plants for a field trial; I have not been involved in the planting stage before, only the harvesting stage. It is going to hard, gruelling work, but I like to try everything once, and it will be a nice break from my day-to-day activities.

I hope next week will bring about the end of all the long days in the lab for a few weeks, so I can do some planning and get on track.

Mostly, I hope I can make a decent start on my 1st-year report as this would help relieve some of the anxiety I have towards it. I woke up thinking about it during the week; this is one of my sure signs that I am not quite altogether mentally.

Fear and loathing in Glasvegas – week 31 as a PhD student

Fear and loathing in a Glasgow hotel

If you have read a lot of blogs by PhD students or even mainstream media articles, you will know that mental health issues are a problem.

I am not going to tell you that I have mental health issues because I don’t. However, this week has been the worst, and I have spent all weekend recovering from stress-related illness.

I have been harvesting and sampling all day Monday, Thursday and Friday which is not mentally draining, but it is physically draining. On Tuesday morning at 5:30 I had to catch a seven-hour train to Glasgow, I arrived at 12:30 and immediately had a maths related training course until five o’clock. After the course ended, I went out for dinner and drinks with the other students, which is a large part of the training course.

There are three parts to these training courses that I can distinguish: the training, the socialising and the therapy. The therapy is where the students unload all their grievances on each other. I think it is one of the most critical aspects, and I guess it is very cathartic. I didn’t have any issues this time; I will get them next time.

So, with very little sleep, Wednesday delivered another day of training. It included marketing and social science, which were exciting but not too useful. The course finished at three, and my train was at five.

The train that would get me back home at midnight. I should have flown, but I didn’t think I could get that reimbursed, it turns out I could, and most other people flew. Oh well, at least I learnt something. To kill time, I went to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens that happened to be right next to the hotel. If you’re ever in Glasgow, I definitely recommend it. Here are some beautiful pictures I took.

Just inside the entrance of Glasgow's Botanic Gardens
Just inside the entrance


One of the rooms in Glasgow's Botanic Gardens
One of the rooms in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens
Purple Pitcher plant
Purple Pitcher plant – do not touch!
Bird of paradise plant
Bird of paradise plant – my favourite plant

I don't remember what this is

 Inside the botanical gardens – can’t remember what this is


I drink this every day

Back on the train, the views are fantastic, but soon it is night time, and all I have is the unread research papers in my ‘to read’ folder. To my surprise, I managed to read quite a few before losing all sense of reality.

I arrive home at midnight.

Thursday, back to harvesting and sampling, I finished at six, walked home, had a small dinner and straight back out to dancing with my partner, get home 10:30 exhausted.

Friday, exhausted, didn’t sleep well, stress and tiredness levels reaching a peak. I get told on Friday afternoon that I cannot use the machine I need on Monday and possibly Tuesday. This essentially pushes me to the worst mental state I have been in for a long time. I think the tiredness had a major influence on my mental state.

After, having done all this work, for the past month at a significant cost to me, and then having been told I can’t continue it this week was my first big failure since starting my PhD. I knew it was coming as everyone has setbacks, and I had been cruising along enjoying myself waiting for an issue to occur. Well it did occur, and now I have to deal with it, I imagine that this will be a relatively small bump in the road, but it feels like it is a lot more important at the moment. Tune in next week to see if it gets worse, or to see If I have dealt with, or simply accepted the issue.

One of the other things that contributed to the low feeling that descended on me on Friday is surely the lack of exercise (1 run and one weight training session) and the different food I was consuming. All this worry and anxiety that has come to me is part of the learning process and what makes a PhD student stand out. Resilience is a major skill worth developing, so I am trying to be systematic about it.

I think I know what you’re thinking dear reader. ‘Poor guy, he has his education paid for him and gets to live a relatively free and privileged life’. Well yes, this is true, I understand it and think the same when I hear others complain. Even being cognisant of this does not help when you feel down and depressed, that is one of the reasons we know we won’t be happy if we won the lottery and never have to work again. This is one of those deeply philosophical ideas that makes one question life.

What is the meaning and what is happiness?

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