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.

Six month review – Week 27 as a PhD student

To get a PhD all you need to do is convince the examiners you have put in a shift’.

Today, I had my sixth-month review. As far as reviews go, it was quite a pleasant experience. The review is in place to provide moral support rather than an examination. I suspect these ‘reviews’ were demanded by the students as there is a lot of self-doubts that is stirred up during the early period.
I had never heard the term ‘imposter syndrome’ before I started my PhD; almost as I stepped through the door, I saw a poster advertising sessions that included ‘coping with imposter syndrome’, amongst over mental health-related courses. Since then, I have heard many of my fellow students talk about it; if you read blogs that are written by PhD students, you will likely see that many of them are writing about mental health issues. If you read the article on the Times Higher Education’s website, you may believe that a stroll through a university wouldn’t be too dissimilar to that of a psychiatric hospital. I have never had any periods of depression — I have been sad, I am not a robot – and I optimise my life for happiness. I often plan things so I will take on the least stress possible; I am not a perfectionist I am a completionist, which seems to me like a much more enjoyable position to be in. With the constant reminder that PhD students are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, I think it is doing me a disservice as It feels as if I am waiting for it to hit. I am on the event horizon and waiting to get sucked in.

A lot of the questions that I asked my reviewer were about completion rates for a PhD student; he quashed my fears with the notion that he had not seen anyone fail who had put the work in. The rare few people he had seen fail did not do any work, and it was apparent they were going to fail. I can now relax and not worry too much about failing. That is until I forget about this conversation, and the dark cloud of doubt descends.

I have been learning computer programming in my spare time for the last few years using the Python language. I enjoy coding, one of the great things about it is that you get instant feedback about how your program is working. Because of this immediate feedback, it feels as if you’re making progress quickly. As a treat, after my sixth-month review, I took Friday afternoon off and entirely devoted it to coding. I managed to make an image recognition program with the help of some pseudo-machine learning techniques. By the end of the evening, I had a program that could recognise numbers I had drawn in pant and tell me what they are. For those that do not code, this could seem trivial, but it was fascinating. I must spend less time reading blogs and more time programming; it has been the best hobby I have taken up, and trust me, there have been many hobbies I have taken up and subsequently given up. I intend on spending a good chunk of time this weekend getting to grips with machine learning.

Overall I feel pretty good about my PhD at this point, and I am going to get stuck into the paper I have been writing over the coming weeks. Not this weekend though as I have a spa day on Sunday!

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?