I am a young scientist

I am a young scientist. Ridiculously young, according to some of my colleagues.

I’m 23. I’m the most traditional of traditional students, I guess: no gap year, no work break, no time off for family or health reasons. I’m lucky! I went straight from school to university, where I did a 3 year bachelors degree followed by a one year undergraduate MSci. This is pretty standard in the UK, where most bachelors degrees are 3 years, and a Masters, whether taught or research, is usually one year – although tacking it on to the end of a undergrad degree, as I did, is unusual. Most people graduate first, but since the fees are so much higher for a graduate masters I took the cheaper option, since I had it! Compare this to most of the rest of Europe, or the US, where undergrad degrees tend to be 4 years plus 2 years for a masters degree… aaaaaand, yep, I’m 23, I’m a second-year PhD student, and I’m the youngest in the lab. I’m younger than both the first year students! (One took a similar path to me but is still somehow older, and the other has worked for a while.)

Why am I talking about this? Well, for me, my age affects my confidence in the lab. When I hear “Oh wow, I’m a decade older than you” or “You look, like, sixteen. To me!” or “at your age you should/shouldn’t do x” – it doesn’t make me feel like a colleague, like a peer. I feel like looking, and being, younger than the average student, means that I can be taken less seriously. It doesn’t feel like a compliment (even though I suspect most of the comments are meant to be).  It’s not okay to say “You’re so old!”, why is it okay to say “you’re so young!”?

I wish I had some advice to give about how I’ve dealt with it, but I don’t, really, other than venting (like this). It’s important to remember that you have exactly the same right to be there as your fellow students – yes, they might have a few more years of experience, yes, they might have more degrees than you, but you were still accepted into the same PhD program. You deserve to be there. Don’t let imposter syndrome get you down.

Having said that, I do think a year or two of break between masters and PhD would have been helpful for me. Not so much for the lab experience as the life experience. Being an adult is difficult, damnit, and I may have forgotten to pay rent for a few days, or given up on cooking dinner and bought takeaway, or procrastinated doing a necessary errand because it couldn’t be done online in my PJs with a cup of tea, a few too many times in my first year. It would have be nice to learn how to deal with the stuff that comes with renting privately, and living with a partner rather than a handful of friends, and having a less flexible schedule, while I wasn’t also having to deal with the stress of starting a PhD. A few standing orders, a whiteboard, and some fiddling of how we share tasks later and we’re coping pretty well with being adults, thankfully 🙂 Given the chance, though, I would take a short break, and I’d definitely recommend others to do so if they have the chance.

— Bob

On navigating politics and the importance of female mentors

One of things I find hardest about being a graduate student is navigating interactions with others of varied statuses around me. My institute now is very different, culturally, from my undergraduate institution, despite being in the same country and only a couple of hours away. I think a lot of that comes from being an institute, rather than a university department – of course we are connected with a university, but there are no undergrads around, and very few Masters students. There are few teaching responsibilities for PIs, and none for postdocs or PhD students. There is no departmental tea room!*

Here, the only people who ask questions in seminars are PIs and senior postdocs and people who don’t know yet. People don’t hang around after seminars and debate or chat; work always takes priority over networking. The culture is less relaxed, but more than that, it’s unclear even what is and is not acceptable. There are few opportunities to observe how others interact with each other – to see who is gregarious and who of few words, to see if and how other students will approach a PI with a question. The politics of how and what and when I am supposed to speak to others about their work, about my work, to ask for help, to collaborate – it escapes me. And of course there are no written rules, no induction course, nothing to go by except what observation you can.

Maybe I’m just slow at this – I certainly wasn’t the most socially skilled as a child – but I wish there was a little more guidance available on navigating departmental and intra-lab politics. The title of this post by Athene Donald – On being Feisty and Unconventional – made me smile because I figure that’s what I’m doomed to be. I’ve always been feisty, even when shy, and eventually a part of me says sod convention, whatever it is around here, and speak my mind.

I’m probably going to grow up to be one of Hope Jahren’s ‘difficult women‘. I’d quite like that, actually 🙂

But what I’d really like is a local female mentor to help me tread the line between ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’. Between ‘feisty’ and ‘rude’. Between ‘confident’ and crossing boundaries.
I have two assigned academic mentors, both male, along with my two male supervisors… People talk about the importance of mentors, of multiple mentors… but, erm, how do you find one, if you want one, in the first place?

— BoB

*probably what I miss most; I think a department-wide tea break is great for building community.

A year of attempts to exercise

I was not a sporty child. I have terrible hand-eye coordination – at primary school I was still learning to bounce a ball off a wall and back to myself while the other kids got to throw balls at each other 😦

But, I realise the importance of exercise. Not only does it keep you physically healthy, it can benefit your mental health, too. Since starting my PhD I’ve been trying to incorporate exercise into my routine, because there was no way doing a PhD wasn’t going to increase my stress level

Here are some of my attempts so far:

  1. Running! I started the Couch To 5K programme, which takes you from jogging in short intervals to running 5km non-stop, theoretically in as little as 8 weeks. I got to week 6, last autumn, but while I enjoyed running in intervals, once I had to run for 20+ minutes at a time… I got bored. I am slightly ashamed to admit that my willpower is not sufficient to get me through even half an hour of exercise against my body’s complaints. I tried audiobooks, music, podcasts… and then it got to be dark and cold and wet in the evenings and I stopped trying 😦
  2. Bouldering – my partner is a rock climbing fan, and he persuaded me to give it a try. I do really enjoy bouldering, but I don’t find it relaxing! There’s a big problem-solving aspect to it, and while I know that it works for some people, I can’t focus on bouldering problems when I’m stressed out by something else.
  3. Jujitsu – well, okay, I thought about trying this but the classes aren’t at a convenient time. I knew that if it was a choice between finishing an experiment and getting some exercise in, I’d probably choose the experiment. Yep, I’m that obsessed. Plus, see previously mentioned lack of coordination.
  4. Running –  again! Recently I started going running with a few of my labmates. Amazingly, even the first time I went with them, I ran for 20 minutes without stopping and without getting bored. It seems that for me, company is a much better motivator / distractor than anything else. Unfortunately, the evenings are too dark now for the running time that works best for us all (~6pm), given that we work in a slightly-dodgy, not well lit area. Which brings me to…
  5. The gym! Tonight I went to the gym with some of the people from running. We did a mix of things – a bit of treadmill, a bit of bike, a bit of rowing, a bit of weights. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m not sure why I’d been putting off checking out the gym. I used to go during my last couple of years of undergrad, and I did enjoy it. Our gym is free for students (yay!) so I really have no excuse now. As long as I can persuade my workout buddies to come with me 🙂

So, the moral of my attempts and partial successes at becoming someone who exercises regularly? What works for others may not work for you. Some people are into yoga, some #bikedouchery cycling, but whatever they do, no matter how much they love it, if you don’t, you aren’t going to stick with it. If you are not naturally inclined to exercise (like me) then finding something that you enjoy, and that you can fit into an existing schedule rather than carving out time to fit in something new, will be key.

So, what’s your sport / activity of choice? How do you fit it into your schedule? Teach me your wise ways in the comments!

Lessons

The new students started today; I’m officially a second year PhD student.

This is just a little bit scary, given that I still haven’t finished the experiment that will prove my experimental system can be used to tackle the main question of my PhD… or got really any results… but at least I do feel like I’ve learned something already. Even if it’s things like “trust no one protocol, always double check”, “always google error messages” and “my boss isn’t as scary as he looks”.

Two things I’ve learnt have lead me to decide that I ought to be blogging: one, that I’m really out of practice at writing, and two, that if I want something to change then I’d better start doing it myself.

So hello and welcome, to the blog of a grumpy but optimistic PhD student working somewhere on the border between molecular biology and bioinformatics. Hopefully I’ll learn something from this, too, in the next few years – and hopefully you might too 🙂