Thesis Reflection Attempt no 3: The beginning of a thesis’ checklist….

I am a masters student in Performance Studies, with a particular interest in dramaturgy and dance. I am also fascinated by philosophy and science and I am interested in exploring how these different fields of study can interact, challenge existing modes of knowledge, and offer alternative ways of understanding concepts such as cognition, embodiment and experience.

Ok, now I feel like I am starting to actually get somewhere…

Yesterday, I had this sudden burst of thoughts while I was on the train, so I noted them down on my phone, and I think they might be a good way to start my thinking process…

I think after you reach some critical points during the thesis process it is important to identify the issues that were creating issues and mental blockages… And then, I remembered a book that I read recently written by a Atul Gawande a doctor trying to figure out ways to deal with complex situations…The title of the book was The Checklist Manifesto, and however odd or funny it might sound he uses some really interesting examples on how a good checklist can prevent to a large extend a wide variety of even deadly incidents…I am not going to elaborate further on that, but it might suffice to say that it has been mastered by aviation professionals, civil engineers and construction workers and their success depends heavily on checklists…In the book, he even presented very compelling examples and evidence in order to encourage more and more doctors to use checklists…

All in all, the point that I want to make is that it might prove also useful to try and employ this strategy for my thesis….these critical points that you might encounter during your thesis are moments when you learn something, whether this had a positive or a negative effect, and by trying to condense and codify them, you might prevent the same issues from coming up again, even in a different form…I don’t know about the rest of the people, but I think that some of the problems that I encounter might manifest in different ways, but actually originate from the same source, maybe that is a thought, a specific insecurity, an attitude that I have acquired over the years and I continue to enact, without me really realizing, and most of the time without realizing how detrimental it might be for my mood, and the way that I decide to approach things….. Soooooo what should my checklist include???

These are the first points that I came up with while on the train:

  • Accepting that you might need to let go of an idea – Veery important!!! I tend to get stuck on a specific way of doing things that has proven many times in my life and for very different things to be very counterproductive….
  • Learning to identify when advice and help is needed – I have this also very annoying attitude towards things most of the time, where I want things to be perfect and I think that I should be able to do everything on my own…But then, you end up getting stuck in your own mind bubble…also very counterproductive as well as frustrating
  • Start writing, formulating thoughts, even when you feel you don’t have any – Sometimes ideas don’t just appear, and inspiration can’t just pop out of nowhere. Yes, it is true that some days you have a, let’s say a more “productive” mindset, but unless you maintain and oil your machine regularly, it will eventually get stuck and then you would need twice the effort to make it run again… So, it’s good to start writing…whatever that writing might be, just to open the tap and let the water running. I think this is why I am also doing this blogpost…writing in such an informal context, without being worried how “correct” I am, whether my thoughts construct a convincing argument, they are “well- researched and backed up by other authors, helps me get into the mood and into the flow if writing…In my mind, I am now considering this an essential part of writing my thesis…and I am actually very, very surprised at how many words I was able to generate in the last three days, with literally no struggle, no effort.
  • Let the text speak for itself – Another important element, don’t try to impose your own desires and wishes on a text. On a superficial level you might think that two authors are saying similar things, but when that time comes when you need to bring them together it suddenly doesn’t work….and then you get stuck….If you see that something does not flow and cannot be explained and connected in a simple and precise manner, then it might be wiser to distance yourself from the text(s) and rethink your approach…
  • By trying to articulate your ideas in an informal setting you are testing the extent in which you have truly comprehended the material – Really useful exercise and also connected with the previous points about accepting help or advice, or even just be excited about what you are doing and try to share your ideas with people who are interested in listening, I think I have underestimated the power of communication until now during this process…
  • If you are not able to construct a consistent narrative then you might need to re-evaluate how your ideas are linked – Also connected with the point on making the text speak for itself…it is very important to be open to the flow that research generates. There are certain things that you can control and other that you can’t… and in the end this is the point of doing research you want to find out more about something…if you already knew everything you wouldn’t enter into this process… but then exactly because you don’t know everything, you don’t know exactly where the text that you are reading will guide you …you start with some assumptions but maybe your initial assumptions might be wrong… of course you start working on a topic that you are more or less familiar with you already have an intuition and some explicit or less explicit reasons why you choose that, but it is again extremely counterproductive to try to impose your ideas on your research sometimes you might need to…just go with the flow…

Well, if I might say, I am quite satisfied with the first draft of my checklist…it will definitely need to go through many trial and error checks and I think I will have something more concrete only after my thesis has finished…maybe even several months later…But I think it will be fun to see where this thing goes…

To see more of Liza’s writing click the link below.

Easily influenced – Week nine as a PhD student

This was written well over three months ago, and I remember the next morning after writing this and thinking, that I would never publish this as it is quite weird. I think it is essential to show the process of improvement so it will be posted.

Week 9. I mentioned last week that I had a lab meeting this week, surprisingly, It went very well. To explain why I have to take you back to my first year at university. During the 1st summer holiday, I spent my time working as a paid intern at an olive factory. It was closer to my parents home than it was to my home, so during the week I would stay with my parents, and travel home on the weekend. I got bored almost instantly and the fact that I had stopped learning was grinding on me; I decided I should learn a language (One of my friend’s brother learnt mandarin and now is earning a wedge in China). I’m sure, that most people reading this are native English speakers. My thinking was to choose a language by-the-numbers, so Spanish or Chinese. However, I didn’t really want to learn either. Another one of my friends was studying computer science; I ended up choosing to learn a programming language instead. I must skip forward to the present day, as the nostalgia is leading me to become a tourist in my own youth (Sickboy). I am leaving the realms of beginner python programmer and am now touching the bottom of the boot of an intermediate programmer. I have previously mentioned that I have been working with ImageJ to analyse the colour of decaying plant tissue. I showed the group what I had been doing and got a fantastic reception. Now I am mid-development on my own program; it will do what I was doing in ImageJ but in an automated fashion. When I have finished writing this program, I will have something I can use throughout the rest of my PhD which should make things easier in the long-run.

In other news, I finally finished ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ by Tom Wolfe. I did not enjoy reading the book therefore, I will be switching back to non-fiction. With Christmas approaching I am feeling a strong bout of niggardliness coming on (if you have read the book you won’t be surprised by that word) I sensed this would be an issue now that I am more fiscally aware. I will just have to try and re-program my brain, a seasonal patch back to Self 0.5 when consumption was the well-placed hit that kept me on the ride. This week has been one of the better ones, but if you forced me I could not pin down exactly why that is, my guess would be a sense of progress. I earned £5 this week for being a participant in a psychology experiment; the true meaning of the study has eluded me, but the task was related to finding smiling faces among other facial expressions and then hitting the appropriate button upon seeing a smiling face. Half an hour of being a lab rat; £5 tacked on to my net-worth, I’ll take that over a real job all day long.

Next week presents us with a plethora of Christmas parties, my first exposure to partying with academics, into the fray we go! I am also going back to the lab to correct some of the work that was brought up in the lab meeting; the meeting was very productive. Another reason for getting back into the lab is that I am tired of staring at my computer screen. I’m running out of steam for this week’s post and am trying to wrap up. Choose a blog. Choose an error. Choose to work 9-5 as anonymous desk flesh because you’re too scared to do anything else. Choose to be like everyone else. Choose a mortgage. Choose a cat or dog, or both. Choose consumerism and a life filled with debt. Choose to read something else, by someone who can actually write. Don’t choose anything; rise with the tide and have your life be dictated by circumstance, there are no right answers.

P.S. I wasn’t high while writing this: I watched Transpotting2 last night.

Progress and Procrastination – week eight as a PhD student

In contrast to last week, I have managed to start writing this on Friday, Will I finish it? No courses this week, the only time I left the house was to attend the school’s weekly Wednesday seminar. The weekly seminar series is compulsory; students and academics have to give talks at least once a year. First years like me normally have until the summer before they have to do a turn. However, it still gives me fear, knowing I am going to get an email telling me when I have to perform. Anyway, that was the only time I actually went to the place where I work, which is one of the perks of doing a PhD. This week I have felt much less productive, I have been busy but it didn’t feel like I was getting much done. One of those weeks I guess. Also, our washing machine broke and we had our bathroom window break so that it was stuck open, not ideal. I am very distracted whilst writing this, as I am watching DrDisRespect at the same time.

I did not finish this on Friday night… It is now Saturday morning, today I have to un-plumb the washing machine so the new one can be installed, go to the gym, record the data from my experiment and re-evaluate what my short-term goals are for my experiments. I have a lab meeting coming up next week, where I will at the very least have to explain what I am up to. This isn’t really something you can wing and you generally get challenged each time on certain aspects of your thinking. But this Is one way in which one learns. I have a love-hate relationship with It, on one hand, I can’t live without challenge, on the other hand, I don’t enjoy being questioned in front of the group, who does? So I will still be working today but not at as much as I would on a weekday; I do try and keep a 9-5 schedule. I am very cautious of burning out, a phenomenon I encountered every exam period as, I am sure, every student has at some point. To be fair I fully understand the confusing literature on lettuce discolouration from the results of my experiments this week, so that is a big personal win. At least there Is a sign of progress. Although pink and brown are the obvious colours the eye is drawn to, they are not the most significant change. That most changed award goes to yellow, which increases subtly over shelf-life but no-one seems to care about it!

This week I got a personal best solve on the Rubix cube, one minute and twenty seconds. I am getting close to the sub one minute zone, pro’s only. We are going to start watching season two of stranger things this evening which is exciting, we binged-watched the first season last weekend. I think I will leave it here for this week; I am going to try and make this the best piece of writing I have done, in a grammatical sense, so far.

According to Grammarly, there are 19 advanced issues. Can you spot them?

Stumbling towards productivity – Week six as PhD student.

This week, I feel that I am finding my feet a little bit. I am still unsure what I am doing, but I have been doing something, which is progress in some sense. I have one training course this week that was about creative thinking and problem solving, as expected I felt about average in the group with my problem-solving skills. The creativity part was easily the most fun, as we just played games essentially. I noticed that the main effect of the creative activities was the awakening of my competitive side. For anyone else out there that has a highly competitive personality, you will know that is the best and worst of you at times. I feel that creativity is more fun in many ways, but often feels devoid of meaning, so I will not be donning my kimono and silk trousers anytime soon (I don’t know).

I Learnt how to use a new program (ImageJ) which made me feel productive for the first time in a while. However, I also tried to learn how to use scikit-image, the python module for image analysis and had a nightmare installing the module. If anyone has tried to switch to Linux from the ‘other two’ you will be well aware of the time-sink that can occur trying to get stuff to work, that you know would take minutes on the ‘other two’. I installed Linux as I wanted to learn a bit more about the technology I had been ignorantly using for the majority of my life. The massive positive is that my patience has drastically increased. There are so many problems you have to solve using Linux, such as getting the spellchecker to work in Libre Office, which was a good half-day. There have been many instances similar to that, however, i have not yet come across a problem that I could not solve eventually. I would recommend switching only from a hobbyist point of view or in professional circumstances, you would certainly be more productive in the ‘other two’ operating systems. But, having said that, most of the best things in life are due to their difficulty; there are also privacy and ethical issues to consider, but I will not get into that. Wow, that was very rambly, I do apologize.

In summary, it is coming along slowly, I still feel lost. The consolation is that everyone I speak to is feeling the same, and thankfully misery loves company.

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’.