A Christmas tale of two PhD’s
A short story by Dr Gary Kerr
[For those not in the know - I am currently embarking on my second PhD, hence the title of this post].
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us” Charles Dickens (1859).
I want to share with you a dream I had the other night. Well, I think it was a dream. I’m not sure though. You can decide for yourself if you think it was a dream or not.
I had just had a lovely cup of tea and a biccy. The tea was lovely, but the biccy was a bit of a let-down to be honest. It was an Eccles cake to be fair. I thought that since I’m now living in Salford I might as well try a local delicacy, but it just tasted wrong. Anyway, I finished my tea and went to bed at 11 o’clock. I must have been tired because I fell asleep as soon as my dome hit the pillow. But I woke up a short time later and looked at the clock. It was exactly 01:00. Spooky.
I closed my eyes again, but I could just sense that something wasn’t right. I opened my eyes and saw the street light shining through my window, lighting up the room. I noticed a figure standing in the corner of my room, so I leaped up out of my bed and shouted angrily to the figure “Who the **** are you?” The figure replied “I am the Ghost of PhD Past”.
After the initial shock and the refusal of the “Ghost” to get to the place I firmly told him to go to, we had a conversation. It went like this:
GARY: “Why are you here?”
GHOST: “I’m the Ghost of PhD Past”
GARY: “Yes, you already said that. Stop repeating yourself. What do you want from me?”
GHOST: “I am the ghost from your first PhD. I have come to show you the error of your ways”
GARY: “The error of my ways? What you talking about?”
GHOST: You have embarked upon your second PhD. I have come to tell you to learn from your mistakes so that you can make life easier for yourself. Come, follow me”
GARY: “You do realise that I cannot walk through walls”
GHOST: “Do what you’re told, son”
I stepped closer and looked at the ghost. He looked very familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on how I knew him.
The Ghost of PhD Past (right). Henry VIII, eat your heart out mate.
I wearily walked behind the ghost as he walked through the wall of my bedroom, which should have taken him in to the hall. To my surprise and disbelief, I was also able to walk through the wall with the ghost. But I did not end up in the hallway where it should have taken us. We were now somewhere else. Somewhere far away. Somewhere that is a distant memory. Somewhere in the past.
GHOST: “Do you recognise this place”
GARY: “Why yes of course I know this place. This is my old lab. There are my old labmates. There’s my lab bench”
GHOST: “And the whippersnapper?” [pointing over to a figure at the lab bench]
GARY: “Of course I know him. That’s a younger version of me”
GARY: “Look, there’s me sitting alone at my lab bench in the corner diligently streaking my yeast cells on to an agar petri-dish. And there’s my lab pals John, Claire, Graham and Lindsey at the other end of the lab chatting by the radio. It’s BBC Radio 1 playing that Mariah song. It must be the last day in the lab before the Christmas holidays. And there’s my supervisor, and second supervisor doing replica plating. They’re having a good old festive chat about the molecular mechanisms that control chromosome segregation in yeast”.
GHOST: “Come follow me”
GARY: “Where are we going now?”
GHOST: “I need to show you another memory. Come, follow me”
We walked down the lab, past the incubators and the PCR machine, and opened the door to the lab office. It did cross my mind that I should tell the ghost that it is good lab practice to wash our hands before we leave the lab, but I thought that on the grand scheme of things, there were more pressing issues. As we opened the door to the lab office and stepped inside, something was not right. We were in fact not in the lab office, but oddly enough, we were now in the kitchen of my parent’s house.
GHOST: “Do you know this place”
GARY: “Of course I know this place - it’s my parent’s kitchen. This has been the family home since 1993”
As we were standing in the kitchen, the ghost pointed over to the dining table. I looked and I could see myself sat by the window with my laptop, surrounded by a mountain of printed journal articles. It was chilly-baltic and it was snowing outside and the back garden was covered in a beautiful white fluffy snow.
GARY: “I remember this. That’s me. I’m writing up my PhD thesis”
We walked over to the dining table and stood behind me writing my thesis. I could see my breath emerge from the coldness of my mighty sigh when I saw I was fighting a losing battle with Endnote and it brought back all the memories.
GARY: “Ghost, will you just look at this - you can see Endnote has randomly changed the format of all my references and had decided to randomly delete some of them too”
GHOST: “You seem sad”
GARY: “Yes, I think this was quite sad time for me. All my friends were out at Christmas markets being merry and drinking mulled wine, but I had my thesis to write. I had three-and-a-half years to write a thesis but I left it all until the very last minute, so I had to write up during the festive season”
GHOST: “We must go now”
GARY: “Where are we going now?”
GHOST: “Less chat, more walking!”
We walked out of the kitchen in to what should have been the hallway. But we were not in the hallway. We were now back the bedroom of my flat in Salford Quays.
GARY: “I’m back in my flat now. What is the purpose of your visit?”
GHOST: “You will be visited two more spirits before dawn”
GARY: “Brilliant” [said sarcastically] “Nice one mate”
And with that, the Ghost of PhD Past disappeared and I began to question whether or not I was dreaming. Maybe I was still dreaming. But the next thing I knew I jumped up from my bed and looked at the clock. It was 01:00. Again! I was mega-confused. I must have been dreaming. It was all a dream surely? I told myself that the Ghost of PhD Past was just a vivid dream. It was a figment of my imagination. Perhaps it was an undigested bit of cheese from the cheesy pasta & chips I ate for my supper. I took a sip from a glass of diluted supermarket-own-brand orange juice that was on my bedside table. I lay back down in bed and closed my eyes. It was all a dream, or so I thought…
I think I began to drift off back to sleep, but the next thing I heard was a great amount of laughter. I sat up and could see some light shining through my bedroom door. The light from the living room was shining in to my bedroom. I sat up on my bed in a somewhat confused state. The laughter got louder and then I could hear music playing. It was good old Micky Bubbles singing his festive duet “Baby it’s cold outside”.
I stood up at the side of my bed looking at the door, still listening to Micky Bubbles:
“I really can’t stay… Baby it’s cold outside…
…My mother will start to worry… Beautiful what’s your hurry?
Father will be pacing the floor… Listen to the fireplace roar…”
The laughter got louder and then I heard a great big voice shouting from the living room:
“Come in and know me better man”.
I walked out of my bedroom and across to the living room. As I entered I saw a man standing by the Christmas tree. He seemed like quite a jolly character. He had taken the liberty of pouring himself a dram from my whisky collection and was wearing a Christmas jumper. I asked who he was and he was killing himself laughing like a total radge and said “I’m the Ghost of PhD Present”. I said to him “Can you please stop playing Michael Buble on your phone - it’s doing my head in” and he said “Ho, ho, ho, ok fair does then big man”
I asked the Ghost of PhD Present why he was here and our conversation went like this...
GHOST: “I am here to show you your current PhD”
GARY: “I do not need you here. Please go away. I’m tired and the best thing you can do is go away and let me have a proper nights sleep”
GHOST: “I want to take you on a journey. Come, hold my Christmas jumper and follow me”
I held on to the Ghost’s Christmas jumper and then we walked through the wall of the living room and before I knew it, I was walking in the snow wearing nothing but my pyjamas.
GHOST: “Do you know where you are?”
GARY: “Indeed I do. We are standing outside the Salford Museum & Art Gallery on the University campus. Just over there is the building where my office is”
GHOST: “Show me your office”
GARY: “OK, but we’re taking the lift up. I’m not in the mood for walking up stairs”
We arrived at my office and there were the usual 4 people there among a sea of empty desks. Of course, I was also sitting at my desk.
GHOST: “Ho, ho, ho, who do we have here?”
It was clearly myself that the ghost was talking about. I walked over to my desk and stood and watched what I was doing. I appeared to be reading an academic paper online and writing notes as I was reading it. I said to the ghost:
GARY: “Look, I’m being very conscientious by reading papers and writing short summary notes about the papers”
GHOST: “Yes, this is what you should be doing during your current PhD”
GARY: “Good on you present Gary! Future Gary will thank you for your hard work you’re putting in just now”
GHOST: “Remember, he cannot hear or see you just now. Now, come with me man”
I held on to the ghost’s Christmas jumper and we walked out of the office and unexplainably, we were now in a different building in the teaching laboratory. It was full of undergraduate students bustling about in their lab coats and working in pairs doing experiments. I said to the ghost:
GARY: “Ah, we’re in the teaching lab. It’s full of eager students”
GHOST: “Ho, ho, ho, what are they doing man?”
GARY: “They’re doing some pipetting and measuring different volumes of liquids to mix them”
GHOST: “Look over there”
I looked over to where the Ghost of PhD Present was pointing, and he was pointing to myself. I was working as a lab demonstrator helping the students with their lab practical. We walked over and stood behind myself. I was explaining to a student the difference between 6.5 millilitres and 650 microlitres. The ghost said to me:
GHOST: “You seem very helpful”
GARY: “Yes, it looks like that. The student appears to be measuring out 6.5 millilitres using a P100 pipette but I’m questioning the student to steer them in the right direction to show them that this might not be one of their greatest ideas”
GHOST: “Patience is a virtue. This could be the present. Now we must go”
We left the lab and before I knew it we were yet again standing at the bottom of the stairs to the Salford Museum & Art Gallery. The Ghost of PhD Present was laughing hysterically but then suddenly disappeared. I shouted after him “Ghost, Ghost, where are you? Take me back to my flat” but he was gone, so I started to walk home. Bloody typical I thought to myself. I was walking along the crescent, on the bridge above the River Irwell, and a man wearing a black hoodie was walking directly towards me. I told myself that since I was dreaming, he wouldn’t see me, but he stopped right in front of me. His hood was covering his face, so I couldn’t clearly see him
I asked him who he was and he said nothing. I said to him “I have been told that three spirits are to visit me tonight. You must be the Ghost of PhD yet to come”. He did not respond. I asked him if he was going to speak, but he remained silent and dour. He started to walk so I followed him. We walked for what seemed like a long time, but eventually ended up outside The Lowry at MediaCityUK. This is the place where Salford University graduation ceremonies take place…
It was a lovely day. I asked the Ghost of PhD Yet to Come what day it was and he said nothing. I could see the marketing team had went all out and there were signs everywhere “Congratulations on your Graduation”. It was a graduation day that is to come in the future. The Ghost of PhD Yet to Come and myself walked inside The Lowry and the Ghost was pointing to a big pile of booklets. “What are you pointing at” I asked him. But he kept his silence.
I opened up the graduation booklet and looked at a list of names. It was the names of everyone I recognised who started their PhD at the same time as me. They were all graduating with the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. I looked down the list and recognised all the names. But there was a name missing. My name was missing. I turned to the Ghost of PhD Yet to Come and begged him “Please tell me that this is not the future. Please tell me that I can change the future. I can change my ways. I won’t let this happen. I will work conscientiously and graduate with everyone else”. The Ghost was silent and I closed my eyes and begged even more “Please Ghost, tell me I can change, for I do not want this to happen”. The tears were running down my eyes and I was on the floor curled up in a ball sobbing.
I looked up. But something dramatic had happened. The Ghost of PhD Yet to Come had disappeared. I was now lying on my bedroom floor holding the sheets from my bed. I looked at the clock. It was 07:00am. I jumped up and looked out of the window and wondered if I had been dreaming or the visits from the three spirits was real. When I looked outside, the street was covered in snow and the Quays were thick with ice.
A teenage boy was walking on the road outside my window, so I shouted down to him. Our conversation went like this:
GARY: “You there”
GARY: “What day is it today?”
BOY: “It’s Monday”
GARY: “Monday. Is it Monday? I love Mondays. It means I have a full week of research, reading and writing ahead of me”
BOY: “What's it got to do with me?”
GARY: “Can you do me a favour? I’ll give you a fifty pence if you do”
BOY: “Amazing. Of course. Sure, what is it?”
GARY: “See the snack van up the street, is it still there?”
BOY: “Yes of course it’s there. It’s always there!”
GARY: “Aren’t you a delightful young chap. I want you to run up to snack van and get me a roll and bacon with brown sauce. And a bottle of Irn Bru. I’ll give you fifty pence for your troubles. And if you bring it back here within 5 minutes, I’ll give you an entire pound coin to spend at the school tuck shop”
The boy ran as fast as he could up the street towards the snack van. I quickly got dressed and was bursting with excitement and enthusiasm. I locked my door and headed downstairs and out of the block. As I walked on to the street, the boy came back and gave me my roll and bacon and bottle of Irn Bru. True to my word, I gave the boy his money then I walked on the double all the way up to the University campus and in to my office.
Today was going to be a great day. I burst in to the office and my colleagues wished me a Good Morning. I responded “It’s such a wonderful morning. I will live in the past, present and the future. The spirit of all three will strive within me”
My colleagues thought that was a bit odd (I think they already think I’m odd anyway) but and they asked if I was feeling ill. I told them “I’m feeling fantastic. I’m doing a PhD on something I love. In fact, I think I’m going to write myself a letter”
One of my colleagues asked “Why are you going to write yourself a letter?”
I responded “I’m going to write a letter of advice to myself”
I made myself a cup of coffee and sat at my computer and began to write myself some advice. Here goes…
The Ghost of PhD Past (left), Ghost of PhD Present (centre) and Ghost of PhD Yet to Come (right).
***THE ACTUAL PURPOSE OF THIS SHORT STORY/BLOG POST***
Here is a letter that I wrote for you. From my experience of already having done a PhD, here is some sage advice I’m writing to myself for my 2nd PhD:
1. Get some perspective
It’s a PhD, not a prison sentence. Of course, you need to work hard for your PhD, but remember you also have a life that you should live life to the fullest. Get out there and do things; meet people; have fun! You need to develop yourself as a competent independent researcher, but always remember to live, laugh, love!
2. Remember what matters the most
Of course, this is about family and friends! Don’t get into the mindset that you *think* you’re too busy to go see family or go out with friends. Yes, times will get tough and there’s lots of research and writing to do, but if you manage your time well, you should allow yourself time to socialise and try not to become that family member or friend that no one ever sees because you think you need to be sitting looking at your computer all day. You don’t. This is good for your mental health (see tip number 9).
3. Go for coffee
Remember all those times when you skipped lunch and ate at your desk (sneakily, as no food is allowed in the lab office) or felt guilty about losing precious time by going for a coffee? It wasn’t really that productive, was it? You need to go out; get some fresh air; go for coffees with other people doing their PhD. You can exchange ideas and remind yourself that the PhD is a process, and everyone is at different stages in that process. It will do you good to get away from your computer every now and then.
4. Get involved
There’s so much going on in any university department. So get yourself involved with the school’s social events, public engagement activities and postgraduate training. It’s good to get away from your own research for a few hours and see what exciting things are going on in the school. Get involved with the cultural activities of the school and the wider university, and develop those all-so-important transferable skills!
5. Go to conferences
You didn’t really have the opportunity to go to conferences last time round. But they’re a great way to meet people in the field and a great opportunity for networking and exchanging ideas. Make sure you go to them and make the most out of them!
6. Present your research
Never pass up an opportunity to present your research. In fact, seek out these opportunities. Whether it’s a presentation at an academic conference, or a presentation for a non-specialist audience, you should do it. Putting together a presentation makes you think about your research in more detail and how you can explain it. It is a real benefit for your research and career development if you think about your research in so much detail that you can explain it to a variety of audiences – from tenured academics to school children!
7. Think of the practical applications of your research
You’re doing a PhD on science festivals, mate. There’s loads of avenues you should explore to see how your research has a direct impact in the real world. Collaborate, and put your research in to practice. Demonstrate the impact and worth of your research, so that you can tell your examiners about this in your viva.
8. Teach students
You don’t really have much choice over this one since you’re contractually obliged to teach up to 180 hours per year. You’ve always enjoyed teaching students and this is an important part of an academic career. Yes, it’s the research that you’ll be examined on, but remember that if you want a career in academia, you’ll absolutely need teaching experience. Prepare well for any teaching assignments so that you and the students get the most out of it. Always reflect on your teaching experiences. Always ask yourself what you could have done better, so that you can improve your skills and become a real role model for the students.
9. Be active
You thought you had no time for anything outside the lab during your first PhD, but you really just needed to make time for it. Physical activity is great for your body, and your brain! Research has shown that exercise releases chemicals in the brain that make you feel good – boosting self-esteem! This helps you concentrate better, sleep better and helps keep your mental health in check! Try to do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity 5 times a week. So that basically means try and do some moderate physical activity every weeknight for 30 minutes that gets the heart rate up, but doesn’t necessarily get you too sweaty [**cough, cough**].
10. Be healthy
A healthy body makes a healthy mind. Ditch the late night junk food, and instead eat a healthy balanced diet. I know you’ve heard it all before, but you know it works. Eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you won’t feel the need for dirty snacks. Since I happen to know that you like a good bit of evidence-based research, I can tell you that this links nicely to the paragraph above – it does link to keeping your mind nice and healthy and happy!
11. Read, read, read and then read some more
Tony Blair’s priorities in 1997 might have been ‘Education, Education, Education’, but your priorities as a PhD student are to ‘Read, Research, Write’. You should allocate at least one day a week to be doing nothing apart from reading. Read everything from the very niche to the more broad stuff that may or may-not be directly linked to your research. The more you read, the more literature you can draw on for your research. But don’t just read something ‘cos you know you’ll forget it. Save everything you’ve read in a dropbox folder, and keep short summary/ideas notes on them too!
This is advice is from my co-supervisor. One day a week, switch off the mobile phone, and don’t go on social media – switch off notifications! Because today you are going to be a superhero and knuckle-down to write loads of great stuff (well, it doesn’t have to be “great stuff” – it can even just be “good stuff” or “stuff wot I wrote”. Find other PhD students/postdocs/academics/writers who want to do the same thing. Book a group room in the library and set break times at the start of the day (remembering of course to allocate coffee breaks periodically). Set the ground rules from the start - No talking at all, and if anyone so dares speak or go on social media, or use their mobile phone, they get told off by the entire group!
13. Become an independent researcher
This one is absolutely vital. Your PhD is preparing you with the training you need in order to become an independent academic researcher. So you need to make the most of your PhD. Don’t rely on your supervisor to tell you what research you should be doing and how you should be analysing data, because you should be asking yourself these questions and designing your own research. Of course, you should run all this past your supervisor, but try to generate your own ideas and thoughts rather than relying on your supervisor telling you what to. Embrace criticism as it helps you develop as an academic thinker. And also think about what grants you should apply for and start to apply for grants. It’s all a learning process. Remember, there’s no such thing as failure – there’s only experiences to learn from!
14. Engage with Social Media
Using social media effectively is an essential part of being an effective researcher. So do keep up with different types of social media and utilise them effectively. Remember who your audience are before you post things, and do build up networks of people who are interested in your research, doing similar research to you, or who are in a different community that might either benefit from your research or who you might benefit from if you engage that community effectively. You’ll also fun using social media, and will generate ‘social media friends’. Also, you should start to write blogs. This will benefit your research as it will provide you with a platform to freely create and write ideas and will allow you to develop ideas as you write. You don’t need to write your blogs in a formal way that you would for publication in the academic literature, so just go with the flow and write down what’s in your head (within reason).
15. When the going gets tough, remember why you’re doing it
Times will be tough and sometimes you’ll wonder if it’s really worth it. But when you start to doubt if you should continue or if it’s worth it, then you need to remind yourself why you’re doing a PhD in the first place. Everyone has different motivations, and you have your motivations. You want to be a successful academic researcher and science communicator, and this PhD will help you on that journey.
16. Enjoy it
I cannot stress this more. You should always enjoy what you do. Your PhD should be both challenging and fun. Where else can you get paid to do things that interest you? Where else can you tell people your job is to research something that no one else has researched before? Enjoy the research. Enjoy the “eureka” moment – when you find out something that no-one else in the world knows. Enjoy the process of doing a PhD and the training that comes with it. As I said in the first piece of advice: Live, Laugh, Love!
Lots of Love, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all that jazz!