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Here’s another rant about food in the world of PhD students.

Actually, it’s more about the apparent lack of food.

Having worked 8 to 10 hours a day in a shared PhD office for the last 2.5 years, I’ve increasingly noticed the strange feeding habits of some of the colleagues I work alongside, and in all honesty, if I followed their example, I’m sure I’d die. In the space of the 6 to 8 hours some people spend in this place, they seem to survive on just a couple small snacks, and sometimes on nothing at all.

We have one colleague, for example, who shows up at about 10am and is in the office all day, until about 5 or 6pm, and habitually eats nothing throughout the whole time.

Seriously.

Then there are the ‘grazers’. Grazers are people who seem to float around the lab working in an unstructured fashion and just eat little bits and pieces at odd times. We’ve had so many of these in the last couple of years – one who used to show up at around 11am, immediately have a coffee, and then eat a sandwich at around 4pm (a bizarrely-timed meal I call lunner), another who would show up any time between 9 and 10am and immediately have a huge sub for breakfast, followed by sips of coke for the rest of the day, and yet another who would spend the entire day testing in the lab, walking back and forth to meet participants, and having long chats to postdocs in the hallways, surviving the whole time on coffee. Then of course, there are the ones who eat nothing except small pre-packaged salads for lunch, even if they are at work for the whole day.

I just don’t understand how you can do research when you haven’t eaten anything all day.

I’m sure most people around this place would be less grumpy and more productive if they actually had a proper lunch break in the middle of the day, and actually ate something nutritious and filling during it. In fact, I hypothesise this would exponentially enable more research to be done, and more PhDs to be successfully completed sooner.

In the meantime, I’ll just try to smooth my incredulity at grad students on Victoria’s Secret angel diets and have some lunch.

I spent the weekend preparing slides for a lecture I’m giving to a group of undergrads in a few weeks’ time.

I, the supposed-to-be-submitting-in-May PhD candidate.

Over the years, the more immersed I’ve become in my very narrow, very specific area of research, the more complex my understanding of the world has become, and the less I am now able to see the world in simple (or simplistic?) terms. Where, as an undergraduate, people, places, events seemed reasonably clear to me in what they were, now I always seem to be saying “but only if”, “based on the assumption”, “may have a different perspective”, “if we hypothesise”, “insufficient evidence to suggest”, “need further research” and “remains an open question”.

Even about things like what the weather’s going to be like today.

I’ve forgotten how to think like a lay person. Science has taken over my thoughts. I can’t resist the logic, the rationality, the stoic procedural calmness of thinking like a scientist.

So it’s not surprising that I find it difficult – infuriating, even – to write lecture material for an undergrad cohort mostly newly out of high school and unaware of the basic things many of us academics would expect they ought to be aware of. At an undergraduate statistics tutorial last year I only just managed to hide my incredulity at a student who didn’t know how to round numbers to two decimal places when the purpose of the tutorial was to construct a simple 2D correlation matrix using output from statistical software.

“So when you’ve got 0.972, you look at the 2 and then what?” she asked. I stared for a second, unsure if she was serious or joking.

“Then because the 2 is a number 4 or under, you leave the 7 as it is, and your answer is 0.97,” I said.

I thought that would address her confusion, but a while later the same student called me over again and this time asked me what to do if the third decimal place was a number 5 or over.

Honestly, I remember learning about decimal numbers in 6th grade. At primary school. Where have these students been all their lives? What do schools teach them these days? And I’m not even that old – in fact, most of the students I teach are just about my age, in their early twenties. It’s not like I was educated in a different era.

So, in what should theoretically be a straightforward research methods lecture, I have, deliberately, included words like “paradigm”, “constructivist” and “empirical” and suggested reading original articles dating to the 1960s. In short, I’ve included material that, in comparison to the relatively ‘soft’ lectures other staff seem to give, will shock and repulse many undergrads and fill them with the horror of actually having to look up an article themselves and read it in all its 1960s snobby white upper middle class style of English. And, imagine them being forced to look up “paradigm” in the dictionary! Oh, the torture!

So what do we conclude? Am I a bad lecturer for raising the level of complexity in my material even when I know many students won’t be able to understand it completely without, shock horror, doing extra reading, researching, or investigating? Or is the system to blame for so many of the students coming to university without knowing how to round decimal numbers, write essays, or address lecturers respectfully? Or, conversely, are all undergraduates at a degree of understanding that is somehow ideal, and instead I’m the one who’s gone nuts because my PhD has made me far too scientifically knowledgeable?

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!