Category Archives: PhD Fraud

PhD Fraud #07: That Sinking Feeling

PhD7

My attitude to this whole PhD business has calmed down a lot lately, despite the rapidly-ticking clock that’s now deafening me as it counts down to the final deadline I can submit a thesis. I’m yet to come to a conclusion as to whether this is a Good Thing or not.

I think I’ve just reached the point with my research that it’s just over, now, and that there’s not much more I can do with it (or time to do it in) except to just “finish it off” and hope that it’s good enough. I certainly don’t have time to go re-doing a lot of my work if it isn’t good enough, so in that respect, I’ve reached some sort of ‘epiphany’ that it doesn’t really matter anymore; the decision has essentially already been made as to whether I get this damned PhD or not, I just need to ride the train and see where it ends up. All I can do now is just continue with the work I’m still finishing off, continue with the thesis-writing I’m still in the process of, and make sure I keep turning up each day and picking away at it all. It’s too late to do anything major [not least because I’m also working part-time as a Senior Research Assistant on two EU space debris projects: ACCORD (Alignment of Capability and Capacity for Objective of Reducing Debris) and ReVuS (Reducing the Vulnerability of Space Systems)] so even if my work is all wrong, or just not ‘novel’ enough, then there’s not much I can do about it anymore.

I’ve also relaxed my position towards what my four years of research will get me in the end – in the beginning, it felt like  attaining a PhD was the be-all and end-all, and that if I didn’t achieve that, then I’d be some sort of ‘failure’; from both the point of view of my department/supervisor, but on a personal level as well. At around the 18-month stage, I successfully transferred from the original MPhil/PhD course everyone is registered on to begin with, and was stuck on the final PhD course: so, I’d like to think that, if my work isn’t quite enough to get me a doctorate, I will at least be awarded an MPhil for it. Depending on who you talk to in academia, getting an MPhil is either a legitimate qualification, or just a massive, neon sign saying “Hey, so I wasn’t good enough to get a PhD!” Previously, I was considerably worried that I’d end up with just an MPhil (or worse, nothing) and that I’d be considered a ‘failure’, particularly since so many of my RockSoc friends have successfully survived the PhD process and come out the other side. Such a result would be an acceptance that I’m not “clever enough,” or somehow less good than everyone else who tried and succeeded.

In the final years of my undergraduate degree, I’d kind of ended up feeling a little bit disappointed by my efforts on my individual and group projects (3rd and 4th years, respectively), and had built up a mental reputation of being someone who tries very hard at their research, but ultimately ends up with very little. Of course, when starting a PhD, everyone dreams that their research will change the world, or at least lead to some new way of thinking or solution to a problem; naturally, this rarely ever happens and it’s all about making an incremental step forward in your field, even if it’s just a minute step forward in a very specialised area. Have I managed that with my PhD work so far? Well, I kind of have ( I tried some new stuff, and some old stuff in a new way) and kind of haven’t (the stuff I did didn’t really work, and there are a bunch of problems with the theoretical basis of it all), so it’s very ambiguous. My thesis won’t be my greatest achievement ever, but I’ve kind of reached a plateau where (I think) I can finish it up in its current state without undertaking a major amount of new work. I think.

So, everything’s been kind of going okay recently until, today, I received a reviewer’s (uh, review) of my submitted journal paper and it was… not so good. This was a paper I submitted to an open-access journal around 5/6 months ago, and after receiving one critical but largely positive comment early on, there has no other review discussion since. The most recent comment, from an anonymous reviewer is, however, fairly critical and calls into question most of the results I’ve presented in the paper. I know that, technically, no criticism is bad criticism as it will strengthen the final product, but it’s still not easy to take negativity when it’s thrown quite liberally at your own endeavours. I’m yet to fully process the review (I only skim-read it, and need to sleep on it before I can start to think properly about what it means), but it’s not exactly what I want to hear. It’s amazing how quickly confidence can get knocked; particularly in academia, where your importance to your institution, or scientific field, is based almost purely on your ability to string together publications and gives rise to the “publish or perish” mantra.

So, what does this mean for me? Well, by and large, I think I’ve worked out that I don’t want to stay in academia after my current time is up; not in a direct-research role, anyway. I’ve got thoughts about what I want to do when I finish, and a lot of them revolve around teaching, or expanding on the outreach/public engagement activities I currently participate in. I’ve no idea whether this is a sustainable career, or indeed whether the ‘ideal’ job exists, but it’s worth a shot. With that in mind, then, perhaps I’ve reached the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether I have a PhD or an MPhil; whether I’ve got journal publications under my belt or not. These things largely only matter in academia; so, who cares? Certainly,  the trauma of ‘doing’ a PhD is worth more than the letters after your name or the ‘published’ status anyway, so if I’ve already reached that conclusion, then I’ve got nothing to lose.

‘Dr.’ or no ‘Dr.’, by October I will have gone through the PhD process and be all the stronger for it: most people in my situation would have given up long ago, so if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s Carrying On In The Face Of Vastly Superior Adversity. In fact, maybe that should be the tagline for my CV:

Simon George.
Good at facial hair, making a mean cup of tea and bloody well not giving up.

And if that doesn’t make me a shoo-in for any job placement ever, then there’s something very wrong with this World. Something very wrong, indeed.

[Zinar7]

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PhD Fraud #06: Hashtag Overly Honest Methods

PhD06

Okay, as we’ve just enter a new year, I thought that it was time for an update on my ride on this crazy PhD Research Train. What’s changed? Well, a few things, but not a great deal.

Around the end of October, I started doing some additional, part-time post-doctoral research work to help pay the bills now that my PhD funding has come to an end. Thankfully, it’s completely unrelated to my PhD work, which means it’s actually pretty interesting and a nice distraction from the thesis slog. The work is more temporal though, meaning that the post-doc stuff has weeks where lots of work needs to be done and 100% of my time is spent on it; and others, like now, where there’s not much to do at the moment and I’m focussing pretty much entirely on my thesis. This blog was always focussed on the PhD struggle, so I’m not going to talk too much about my other research commitments, but stick to my thesis work. t’s probably not a huge surprise to say that I’ve lost almost all my motivation and interest for finishing my PhD – this comes despite the fact that the sooner I can finish, the sooner I can work on something else; somehow, I’m finding it hard to muster even the motivation to just “GET IT DONE”), and can find infinite amount of other things that I’d rather spend my time on. This has been made doubly hard, since I technically already have the job (the post-doc position) that I needed a PhD for in the first place, so it’s not like I need that Certificate of Graduation for a job interview or anything.

So what’s going on? The past few months have been super frustrating, as some significant problems were been identified with my scientific technique and have led to me kind of not being sure whether what I’m doing is right, wrong or whatever. I’ve had doubts about my results for a while, but have largely put these to the back of my mind because the scientific models are complex and the theory is very confusing: recently, though, I’ve had to really tackle the mathematics and it’s left me completely baffled. It’s time like this that I wish that my project/thesis was on something that somewhere here (i.e. my university) knows about, because no-one aside from me really does and neither are there a bunch of resources (aside from those I’ve collected) that I can draw on if I’m in a bind. My work is quite distant from my supervisor’s field, and so he’s not really able to help with any of the technical details, use of models or analysis of results except in a vague quantitative way. My PhD always started from a position of isolation, as my main remit was to do some exploratory research into a dark region that no-one’s really looked into before, and essentially been given a flashlight and told: “right, go and find something interesting, and bring it back here when you’re done.”

It’s a matter of slight pride that, with everything I’ve done, I’ve done off my own bat: except some gentle comments from others, I’ve gotten where I have purely because of my own work. All the way, I’ve largely driven myself in the direction that I have, and have been given limited guidance on what exactly I should be looking at. From a research point of view, maybe that reflects well on me in that I’ve managed to be pretty much autonomous for the last 3 years, and developed things of my own accord; on the other side, though, this means that I’ve had to search everywhere for the ‘right’ way to do, hitting many dead ends along the way and absorbing considerable frustration. Of the work I have done with my results, I’m pulling together ideas and concepts from a number of fields and trying to make them compatible, but in a way that I’m not really an expert in any one of them and there are considerable problems in integrating the scientific model in the way that I have. I’m woefully aware of the meaninglessness of my results (or what results I’ve actually managed to get) and am not entirely convinced that my efforts are truly at the sort of standard to which they hand out doctorates. Maybe I’m overestimating how ‘good’ or ‘novel’ the final thesis needs to be, but I’ve got super-mega worries that what I have so far is painfully below the mark.

Over the whole of my PhD research, I kind of feel like I’ve squandered my time and expertise. I feel like if I’d have focussed on the right things, I could be somewhere good with my research, but that in reality, all I’ve managed to do is find problems everywhere with what I’m doing and flaws in the models/techniques that I’m using. Sure, this might be valid ‘research’ in finding out the wrong way to go about science/a PhD/[insert relevant title here] and technically no science is ‘useless’ science (unless someone already proved it), but it’s no match for actually doing something positive with your work. I kind of feel like the only positive thing that will have come out of my PhD is that someone, somewhere might read my thesis and not have to go through the same three years of frustration and errors and wrong directions that I did. I’m currently trying to formulate a title and general approach (the story, say) that my thesis will describe, and it’s a brain-breaking task. My work feels just like a smattering of ideas that people elsewhere already came up with, but thrown together in a way that things haven’t quite been looked at in this form before, or with these methods. Maybe my thesis can be called: ‘A Bunch of Science Thrown Together with Blunderbuss Accuracy‘ or ‘How Not to do a PhD (and 101 Other Useful Tips for Going Completely Crazy Before You’re Thirty)‘, and that’ll summarise things quite well.

Yes, yes, I know I’m being pessimistic. I know that I just need to Yvan Muller the PhD, and get the bloody thing down. Maybe it won’t be the best piece of research ever, but maybe I can fill it with enough pretty pictures or flattering writing that the examiners will overlook the significant lack of content and ‘pass’ me, largely out of pity. We can but hope.

[Zinar7]

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PhD Fraud #05: Crashing Around You

PhD05

A few weeks back, before I went and had super-fun at Bestival 2012 (my review can be found here), I spent three days or so at Cumberland Lodge in the middle of Windsor Great Park discussing the prospects for a postgraduate-graduate and meeting with a whole slew of people from across the country and a whole bunch of PhD disciplines in a similar situation of pre- or post-thesis preparations. This post partly acts as a personal debrief for everything that I learnt at the event, but also explores a few of my continuing ‘PhD Fraud’ themes that have populated my other posts in this series thus far.

What may be surprising is that it was not the talks from interesting set of speakers, nor the discussions with other (confident) PhD students attending the conference that gave me the most food for thought, but a stimulating all-night conversation with someone who (in many ways) feels a lot like me, and in a similar position through her project, of feeling a complete Fraud at postgraduate research. Usually, I speak to students who’re still passionate and confident about their work, but rarely talk to those who’re happy to admit that they hate their PhD and just don’t want to do it any more. Perhaps we genuinely are the only people out there who are completely at odds with their research (and I don’t believe that for a second), but I was surprised just how much I didn’t feel able to connect with those who were perfectly satisfied (and passionate) about their work: I just couldn’t compute how that felt, to still enjoy what you’re doing, and to be excited each day to get back to work.

It’s no big secret that I’ve (kind of) fallen out of love with my PhD: I’ve misplaced the passion that I had for it, and now merely wish to see the process through and see the ink dry on the piece of paper saying that I’ve been passed and can finally move on to a different project, potentially at a different institution or field. I know for sure that it’s just a cocktail of coincedence: a combination of a topic that’s kept moving out of my grasp, a project that’s deviated considerably from its initial definition and the sheer amount of time I’ve spent concentrating on one, single thing. The chance to get started on something new is something that I will relish, and hopefully on a topic that I find more engaging than my current work. I’ve not lost my passion for all things space and satellites, but I’d prefer to move on from the miniscule little niche that I’ve chipping away at in one of the very lonely corners of that world.

I’m also just starting a course of mentoring to help me work better. A lot of the time, I find I have significant problems gaining the motivation to start work each day, that by the time I’ve raised the courage to really get started, it’s nearly the end of the day or I’m too tired to actually get anywhere. Maybe that’s the stress and frustration talking, but I kind of don’t really feel that there’s anything about my work/daily routine that gets me out of bed in the morning; nothing to motivate me to get working other than ‘it needs to be done’. Many of the other attendees of the conference were students from the humanities: for which they’ve chosen their research subject, presumably, because of some prior enthusiasm or interest for their chosen topic. I imagine this prior passion inspires armfuls of motivation to completely engross yourself in your subject, and pursue research out of both necessity (for awarding of degree) and personal interest. In the sciences, students largely move with the funding, occupying whatever task/project needs taken on at that time: often, passion for the field will reflect in the research, but perhaps less often: fr’instance, I wouldn’t dream of performing simulations of sea surface radar signatures in my spare time, but if I was doing a PhD on The Influence of Star Wars on Modern Science-Fiction Movies, I’d probably spend all my time in front of a DVD player and projector.

That being said, I’m still very aware of being switched ‘on’ all the time; always worried about my work, or that my whole life might come crashing down on me any minute – not necessarily about the work itself (I yearn for the night I bolt upright with some truly world-changing inspiration), but about its impact and on all that stuff I have to do tomorrow. It’s not so much that I’m kept awake at night over it (at least, not yet), but I can never seem to escape the Doubt nor switch on the Conviction to succeed. I’m desperately terrified that I’ll get “found out”, or that suddenly my supervisors/faculty will realise that I’m actually not a good enough student, and I’ll be kicked out into the street. Or worse, I’ll write up my thesis only for everyone involved to go: “Is that it?” and I’ll come out of this PhD journey with nothing; or worse, the ‘consolation prize’ of an MPhil or some other token degree that’s an acceptance that I definitely tried, but that I most definitely failed.

Heck, I even feel such a fraud that, should the stars align and I suddenly become the luckiest bastard alive and manage to pass my viva, I think I’ll probably feel guilty about calling myself ‘Doctor’; like I haven’t really earned it, I was just in the right place at the right time. Perhaps I’ll go the complete opposite way and change my name to ‘Dr. Thundersmash’, then at least my name will be about as credible as I feel.

[Zinar7]

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Catching Hay Fever on the Moon

Hi! Welcome to the supporting webpage for the ‘Catching Hay Fever on the Moon‘ talk from the Besti-versity tent at Bestival 2012. If you heard the talk and would like to learn more about manned spaceflight, spacecraft systems engineering or anything else to do with spaceflight, then further details and information can be found here along with other good resources, books and webpages that might be of interest.

If you missed the talk or want to download copies of the presentation (in either Prezi or PowerPoint form) from the Besti-versity tent, then you can do so here:

About Me

This is the blurby bit about me:

I’m Simon. I’m a postgraduate student from the University of Southampton, working in the Astronautics Research Group while working on a PhD project looking at using satellite radar systems to observe turbulence in the upper-layer of the ocean. This page is posted on my personal blog; feel free to have a browse if you’re particularly curious.

I’m currently finishing my third year of PhD study while simultaneously working on various outreach activities (like the University of Southampton Roadshow at Bestival and beyond) and trying to promote the world of ‘space’ to a wider audience. The personal webpage for my PhD project can be found here: Satellite Measurement of Turbulence

If you’ve got any questions about anything I’ve talked about or want to find out more about the sort of work I do, then feel free to e-mail me at sgg303 [at] soton.ac.uk

Space

Space is extraordinary. More extraordinary, however, is the time, effort and expertise of the men and women who design, construct and operate the spacecraft and probes that explore and inhabit the world outside our own. ‘Space’ is still a deeply fascinating environment… the wonderful machines used to transport people and technology into space do not just “leap” into being: human ideas, perspiration and dedication are integral components to the birth of a spacecraft. All that’s required to take up the challenge of being a future spacecraft designer is a passion; you don’t need to be a superhuman to work in the space industry (they let me in, so it can’t be that hard!)

I first got into spacecraft engineering during my undergraduate degree, discovering the fascinating, exciting and groundbreaking work that is pursued in the space industry and its subsidiaries. I was immediately captured by the considerable efforts to place humans in space and keep them there, but also the development of earth observation satellites and instrumentation to observe our planet and its climate response.

Further Reading (with Amazon links)

The following books give a good introduction to the world of manned (and unmanned) spaceflight for budding rocket scientists, astronauts or spacecraft systems engineers without delving into armfuls of mathematics, equations and formulae. If the Besti-versity talk piqued your interest in the world of ‘space’, then these texts come highly recommended.

If you’re considering spaceflight engineering as a career and are interested in designing, constructing, testing or operating spacecraft, then I recommend the following text for getting started on systems engineering of spacecraft:

Degree Courses at the University of Southampton

If you’re interested in studying space systems engineering at University, then follow the following links to the University of Southampton’s degree course webpages.

Other Links

How has the ISS benefitted people on the ground?
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/benefits/index.html

Where is the International Space Station right now?
http://www.isstracker.com/

What happens to the human body in the vacuum of space?
http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2691.htm

ESA: Effect of spaceflight on the human body:
http://www.esa.int/esaHS/ESAGO90VMOC_astronauts_0.html

Radiation doses in space and effects on human body:
http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMYYHUHJCF_index_0.html

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PhD Fraud #04: The Escapist

PhD04

Massively stuck in a rut at the moment. This comes after an awesome week at Farnborough International Airshow last week, which was awesome for many, many reasons: notably awesome company, awesome stuff to see, rewarding engagement with the public and it not being my PhD. So, after a week of mega Highs, I’ve had a week of mega Lows and another inevitable look into the mirror at who I am and what I’m doing.

At the moment, I just want to Escape. Where to? Pfft, anywhere. Last week was kind of like the most magical Escape ever, what with working an 80-or so hour week with Farnborough and the Headstart Design Triathlon, since not only were both of them super-fun but also I didn’t really have time to stop and think about my problems or worries. Skip forward a week, and things are the complete opposite: sure, life is a rollercoaster and has ups and downs, blah blah blah, but usually they’re rarely this violent or placed so close together. I’d just love to run away somewhere and hide out for an indefinite amount of time; barricade myself in a fortress of pillows in a long-forgotten cave and sleep away eternity. Running away from problems, though, is rarely a viable solution, but it seems too tiring and depleting to tackle them head-on right now: I just don’t have the energy or willpower to fight them, so retreating to a completely comatose state devoid of feelings sounds almost like heaven right now. It’s all just too much, and I’m feeling hugely overwhelmed with Life in general.

Also following such a busy week of meeting and talking to so, so many people, the return back to everyday life makes me feel so alone. Maybe it’s my brain trying to do the Escaping for me; shutting out everything and everyone in an attempt to wish my problems away. This sort of thing is normal service, bottling up the troubles and keeping out everyone who might try to tinker with them. It’s always been this way, and I’m not sure I know an alternative. There are some people I can talk freely and openly to (oddly enough, not even necessarily those I’ve known for a long time) but every so often the barrier opens enough to let someone in, to actually forge a real bond or connection. Meeting new people is always a constant strain: I’m always worried about how I come across, or trying so hard for others to ‘like’ me rather than just being myself. It’s when the blockade is truly disengaged that I make the best friendships, when I’m not pressurising myself to be the most likeable, talented or attractive homo sapien in existence, but just being content with presenting myself as I really am. There’s a great part from the end of The Ataris – The Hero Dies in this One that sums that all up pretty nicely: “The hardest part isn’t finding who we need to be, it’s being content with who you are.

The PhD locomotive has slowed to an almost halt at the moment, and it’s almost impossible to either built up enough momentum to get through the day, or to maintain concentration for more the fifteen minutes before the inevitable desire to do anything else at all overwhelms. My work feels so unfinished, and so useless, and my energy stores are so empty that I don’t have the facilities to do anything about it. I came into my PhD fresh with enthusiasm, and ideals of creating or developing something that I could be proud of in three years’ time: what little I feel like I’ve achieved barely even classifies as something ‘new’. I’m disillusioned, dispirited and despaired with myself and my abilities. I don’t feel like I deserve a PhD at this stage, to be honest. And that’s pretty demoralising: I don’t think I’ve made enough of an impact to obtain a doctoral qualification yet, and the worry is that it’s still a long way off. Sure, supervisors are encouraging and hint that I’m being pessimistic, but it’s a constant battle with my own confidence. Then again, do I even care any more? If I finish my thesis and get rejected for a PhD but make it out with an MPhil, is that so bad? For many, coming out with an MPhil is worse than not bothering in the first place, but what difference does it really make in the end? Applying for jobs or a career is subjective (on the part of the employer) anyway, so if I’m looking to head into industry, those 3-4 years of research struggle probably tell a bigger story about my commitment and perserverence in the face of adversity than about my failure to obtain a full doctorate.

Good news? Well, there is some. Turns out that, as part of the University of Southampton Roadshow, I’m going to be representing our research group at Bestival, and in order to get extra tickets so one other from my group can come, I volunteered to give a half-hour talk in the ‘Bestiversity’ zone of the festival or a rolling daily schedule. So yeah, I’m playing Bestival. Stressing my balls off about it at the moment, but if I can nail it then it should be pretty fun and also a massive thing for both my confidence and CV. Plus, while I’m not au fait with much of the line-up (I don’t think Bestival is really aimed at me), I will relish the opportunity to see Justice live, plus there’s New Order, Gary Numan, Kavinsky and maybe Nero to go watch as well. Just need to whip a half-hour talk into shape in less than six weeks, is all…

Anyway, I’ve probably vented for long enough.  I feel a little bit better for doing so, but if you’ve read this far down the post, you have to promise to do me a favour. Next time you ask me how I am, if I respond with “I’m fine,” don’t believe me. Keep asking me, because eventually I’ll break and explain the issues with the kind of gravity that they have rather than trying to brush them off. Things feel dark for me at the moment, but only because they were so light so long ago; and I’d like to recapture those photons and feel as energised as I did last week. I can’t run away from problems and I can’t keep them stored up forever. Open me up, and let the light in.

[Zinar7]

PhD Fraud #03: Space Oddity

PhD03

Okay, so things feel like they’re getting right out of hand. It’s been on the slow burn for a month or two, but I’m totally starting to get backed-up into the same misery-hole that caused me a lot of grief around twelve months ago. It’s partly down to my less-than-stellar progress at work and partly down to massive feelings of low self-esteem; both of which encircle each other and spiral things right out of control. I recently tweeted a rather unsubtle cry for help, much of which was in an effort to understand who I really ‘am’, because somewhere along the line I think I’ve forgotten. I don’t know whether it’s the PhD that’s instigated these particular thoughts or not, but the documentation is being appended to the PhD Fraud series because I think it’s relevant.

Perhaps it’s the ever-approaching conclusion to the PhD journey that’s making me evaluate what sort of person I am, and what I want to be. Far from using this time to be reflective and figure out what I can do to make improvements to my life and where, it’s merely opened a whole can of self-doubt, self-criticism and self-loathing: it seems that whenever I’m face with difficulty or disappointments in my life, I turn that anger inward and blame myself rather than just getting on with fixing what’s wrong. Case in point: at the moment I feel like I’m some kind of repulsive, unattractive whale, but instead of doing something about either my looks or my weight, I turn the disgust inward and blame myself for not looking like Johnny Depp, or Davey Havok circa the video for ‘Beautiful Thieves’. What efforts I’ve made in the past to try and improve my appearance have invariably failed and left me in just the same situation of loathing my appearance, that I’ve kind of lost the energy to try any more. Self-confidence can have a massive impact on appearance, but when (almost) every day you look in the mirror and wish there was just some way of rearranging your face into anything else, you need a lot more of it than I have the capacity for.

I feel like I have zero motivation to  do anything right now, from pursuing my current work, to doing social things or even doing things I usually enjoy in my spare time. Right now, the only motivation for work is to just get it finished, but I sort of feel like I’m so far down the rabbit-hole that I currently have no idea where the end might actually be. I’m also finding it harder and harder to enjoy my hobbies and suchlike: I seem to have misplaced a lot of the passion that used to drive various aspects of my life, and I have zero energy to either try and track down where it’s gone missing or recoup some new passion from somewhere else. I can barely get myself fired up at all in the morning, and likewise when I get home: I’d just prefer to go to sleep (not that there’s been a lot of that recently) than to spend the free time socialising with friends or chilling out with a movie/video game and whatnot.

The outreach stuff I’m also doing is cool and taking my mind of the worries, but it only takes my mind off them but doesn’t eliminate them altogether. I’ve been putting off looking at a lot of my simulation results for a long time now, and recently came to the startling conclusion that it’s do-or-die time, and I desperately need to focus on that work because of the pressing need to publish results in journal papers and the final thesis. Over the past few weeks, I’ve managed to find other, equally-pressing things that I’ve needed to do and have focussed on those – however, that particular well has finally run dry and I don’t have anything legitimately important to otherwise do.  I need to hunker down to get intimate with the actual meat of my research, and it’s bloody terrifying because the time pressure alone is immense; let alone all of the other commitments that I’ve got going on with work this summer. I’ve also got a massive complex about the quality of my work and whether it’s to the standard that it should be at my stage of my career (hint: probably not), and feel almost perpetually on the edge of giving the whole thing up altogether and claiming defeat. That last comment may be exaggerated somewhat, but it’s perhaps not as far from the mark as you’d think.

I finally got round to submitting my first journal paper around a week or so ago, and was feeling relatively good about it (I’d just about got it into a state I was happy with), but heard this morning that it’s been rejected from the special issue I submitted. The editor did give pretty good feedback and suggested that the reason it was declined was not fault in the paper itself, but more that it didn’t quite fit with the aims of that particular issue: he indicated that if I fix a couple of things and submit to the regular journal, then it’d be in with a very strong shout of getting published, but it’s still a bit of a kick in the stomach for my mood levels. Current motivation for conducting research is rock-bottom as it is, without having further barriers being placed in the way such as journal rejections and whatnot. Even my leisure-time efforts seem to be met with just about as much success: musical proficiency doesn’t seem to be improving, friendships seem like they’re drifting away from me and maintaining a regular blog presence appears impossible.

So who am I? What makes ‘me’ me? At the moment, I’m having real trouble in pinning that down. I pretty much just feel like a huge, hulking ball of mass that’s actually no use to anyone and brings little joy to anyone else’s existence. Again, that might be a reactionary comment and slightly exaggerative, but ‘ball of mass’ is about as nondescript as I feel at the moment. Hopefully I can see out the rest of this week, struggle through the bits of work I need and then go on a week’s holiday to reset my circuits. Just feel epic low right now, and any assistance/encourage/feedback anyone can give is gratefully received. Dunno, maybe just a few kind words and a reminder of how awesome everyone is that’s around me might jolt my system into returning to a normal state; as it is, I’m floating in a most peculiar way.

[Zinar7]

PhD Fraud #02: Chapter Next

PhD02

I sometimes wonder what I’m doing, and where I want to go in life. By ‘sometimes’ I do, of course, mean ‘all the time’, and that’s largely because I have absolutely no idea at present. As I’m heading towards (potentially) the last 3-6 months of my PhD and then (potentially) the world at large, I’m currently left with a whole bunch of questions as to where I want to go with my career, and the inevitable questions about whether doing a PhD has/hasn’t helped toward that goal.

The role of research, at least in academia, is significantly blurred between that of Employment and Study. Sure, technically I’m still a student and studying for a higher qualification, but the manner by which I go about is more like a job: I’m not being taught, I’m learning by doing, in an office with my own PC to which I turn up to every morning and leave every evening. It’s very different from the surroundings I inhabited in my undergraduate studies: Primarily my own student room, and only occasionally working in a mixed computer room or the library. Certainly, the attitude I have towards it is that of ‘work’, not ‘study’; I’m working for the University on research, not studying to become a doctoral researcher. At least, that’s the mindset that I have towards my research.

In that respect, the term ‘job satisfaction’ has a somewhat confused meaning. Am I enjoying what I’m doing at the moment? It’s difficult to say that I enjoy what I do day-to-day, but slightly more easy to say that I tolerate it. Many students take up a PhD project to challenge themselves; others wrap them up in their research because they have a genuine passion for their field. Me? Well, I certainly came out of my degree with a certain fondness for the space industry: Having jumped aboard the astronautics bandwagon mid-way through my degree, it was definitely a subject that I found interesting; but not one that filled my passions, or which I was instigated to pursue in my spare time. I’ve even forgotten a lot of my undergraduate teaching, which leads to me consider myself something of a fraud when I say that I’m a ‘space systems engineer’. Certainly, when I compare myself to a true engineer with a grounded knowledge of the subject, I feel awfully naive and inexperienced. The potential for me heading into the real world into a ‘real’ engineering position is bloody scary. And, I’m not entirely sure it’s what I want to do.

Truth be told, what initial enthusiasm I had for my PhD topic has long since dissipated: One can only go down so many failed avenues of research before the passion to pursue them all begins to dissipate. I’ll still press on and (hopefully) get it done, but perhaps not with the relish that true job satisfaction brings. Some of the stuff that’s gotten me through the rough times is the extra-curricular work I’ve been doing: Teaching undergraduates, being involved in a lot of outreach activities for our department, and most recently, personal tutoring. Certainly the ‘outreach’ strain has eaten a lot of my time: In 2012 alone, I’ve been involved with taster days for young secondary-schoolers using simple experiments (with stuff like iPod Touches) to teach about space, the University’s ‘family’-based Science and Engineering Day, and the Research Roadshow that’s about halfway through its run and has further events at InTech Winchester, Cheltenham Science Festival and Bestival on the Isle of Wight. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both preparing for and running these events, and its refreshing to interact with a ‘new’ audience, attempting to encourage kids to get involved in science – I guess that somewhat hints at the ‘dream’ scenario I could take after my PhD: I’d love to be able to do that kind of thing full-time, but alas I fear no-one would be able to pay me to do it as a career.

If anything, my PhD has taught me that, while financial reasons are worthwhile enough in the short-term, I’m not sure if I could deal with a career which provides adequate monetary return but little job satisfaction. At least with a job, if things were truly not working out then you’d hand in your notice and find another. In the PhD regime, while it’s possible to drop out, change topic or study elsewhere, you feel far more the commitment to the three (or more) of study, and supervisor relationships, to take that as lightly. For me, I find that ‘satisfaction’ is the key motivator:  I certainly know when I’m in a rough spell, as I lose all motivation to keep going and fall prey to lethargy, procrastination and depression.   In the real world, you have the rest of the hierarchy around you ready to shape you up or ship you out, but in the lonelier world of academia and research, you’re more like your own ‘boss’ with only sporadic supervision, so problems can go unregulated: A lack of job satisfaction can therefore fester unmonitored for significant periods of time without being addressed, which can become an unwelcome feature in a job that can be, by definition of ‘research’, frustrating and intensely disheartening at times.

Perhaps my desire to leave research and head toward more straightforward roles is a reaction to that frustration; a need to have a more well-defined job where you know from month-to-month what you’re going to be doing, and that you’re (relatively) sure won’t veer off at a wild tangent at a moment’s notice. Or, perhaps, it’s just the comparative euphoria provided by my other activities that I’ve developed ‘grass-is-greener’ syndrome of pretty much everything else; when in reality everything is plighted by stress, anxiety and frustration. At the moment, I don’t know. Thoughts are (kind of) stirring in my head as to where to take this all once I’m finished with my PhD, but I’m not really in any rush to second-guess them before they’re ready. Certainly, while I’ve got a big ol’ Doctorate yet to finish and the prospect of a thesis to write, I’ve got just about enough on my plate as it is. Speaking of which, this post has gone on far too long, so I shall depart. Godspeed.

[Zinar7]

PhD Fraud #01: The Beginning

PhD01

Okay, I’ve refrained from posting much about my ongoing research-related struggles on this blog, despite the size and quantity of the struggles that I have encountered over the last two-and-a-half years. However, following my mission statement from the beginning of one of my recent posts, I’m going to correct this in the hope that either airing those struggles with the internet at large will give me a chance of vent some of the frustration and clear my head, that someone reading this blog may be able to give kind words (or better, solutions) to reinforce my sanity in the remaining six- to twelve-months of research, or that others in similar situations may be able to better understand the steps I’ve taken to solve my problems and may find some solace that they are not alone.

For a long time, I’ve had problems with stress and anxiety that apparently developed during my final years of my undergraduate degree and have been around ever since. I don’t really know what caused this change, but it’s likely that the continuing stresses of increasingly large workloads, rigorous examination schedules and ever-increasing expectations started a chain of anxiety over my intelligence, skills and abilities that I now regularly feel in all aspects of life. I must be mental, then, to accept the offer of studying for a PhD; and you’d be right, although it not for the same reasons you might expect. I signed on to the PhD process expecting hard work and close cooperation with my supervisors – essentially visions of both my supervisors riding on my back, whipping me left, right and centre into hard work. The reality is quite the opposite – relaxed supervisors who continually say reassuring things like “you’re doing fine,” and certainly no signs of the intensive slave-labour I’d come to expect. Which all sounds dandy, except for the aforementioned ‘performance anxiety’ that I feel about the work I produce and the progress I make.

Despite being two-and-a-half years down the line, I don’t really feel like I’ve gotten anywhere. Sure, time has passed and work’s been done, but in terms of how much of that has been useful and how far I’ve actually moved from where I started to where I am now, it’s disappointingly short – heck, I’m still not sure what the problem is I’m supposed to be solving. Some say that this is the same for all PhDs and I find some satisfaction in that, but that doesn’t stop you thinking that you could have spent that time so much better if you’d done things a different way; worked harder; been ‘cleverer’. Which is where the stress and anxiety comes in; forever making you second-guess your own work, tricking you into thinking that if anyone else had been given the same opportunities and tools, they’d have not only solved the problem you set out to achieve, but others as well and be well on the way to a fine career. It’s not like I’ve been slacking, and if you count the number of hours I’ve spent in the office since I started then I’d be no lower than average, but all my brain feels like doing is blaming myself .

The nature of research in tackling the ‘unknown’ means that, when the PhD proposal is written and the problem statement defined, this is being done after only a short amount of research into the subject – so the end result, the potential problems and the feasible timescale may not be accurate, or even present. In my case, my research was initiated by dual curiosity in two departments on the same problem, but both factions knowing essentially ‘zero’ about whether the problem could be solved, how, or indeed any of the finer details. When you’re coming into your first week of research with about the same level of knowledge about the problem as your academic supervisors, that can be a big challenge, and it only propagates through your study: A case of “the blind leading the blind”. For any undergraduate who’s used to rigorous testing/examination/coursework that has definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers (I’m an engineer, and so used to definitive solutions to assessed work), stepping into the world of research where there is no ‘right’ way to go is difficult; particularly if you suffer from similar issues to myself, where constant re-assurance that you’re doing things right is necessary to keep me from stressing the fuck out. More and more over the last six to twelve months, I’ve found it harder to engage with my work – Having to step forward on my own and make decisions about the directions to take or methods to use is immensely stressful, perhaps because I still feel like I’m handling the whole project with kid-gloves. Making the step up to assuring yourself of what you’re doing rather than assurance from others is a tricky business, and one I’ve not yet mastered.

Thus ends my first foray into this adventure of sharing my thoughts, anxieties and faults with the world at large. It’s by no means the last word on this subject, since I’m already working on the follow-up to this. Hopefully it’ll chronicle my problems and offer some sort of solace when this adventure is all over and I can look back on my time here with a tear-filled eye. Who knows. Anyway, I’ve taken up enough of your time, so I will bid farewell. Godspeed.

[Zinar7]

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