Letters from my PhD

Oh shit it’s November!

This sentence pretty much summarises my experience in London so far. It also entails that it’s been a bit more than one and a half months since I moved to this humongous city to start my PhD. One and a half months that have gone, just like that. So it feels like the perfect moment to start a new section in my blog: a place where once a month(ish) I’ll try to write about how this PhD thingy is going. You can expect to find things about the Programme I’m in, the science and the life of a PhD student in London, and any other random things I fancy sharing in here.

The moving

Moving to London (and specially finding a flat) was a proper adventure, but looking back (specially comparing it to when I moved to Munich) I have to say it was quite alright. After the mandatory trip(s) to the swedish ‘build-your-own-stuff-and-leave-us-alone-with-your-money’ company, and a really nice tour with our new neighbour, we were pretty much settled into our new flat.

But adapting to a new country is a slow process, and every week that passes by teaches me something different. Some things I learned the hard way, like avoiding the tube during rush hours (that is, if you want to preserve your mental sanity), doing the shopping in Lidl instead of Tesco (you save so much money) or never ever getting a cocktail in a pub (really, get a beer instead). Some others came as nice surprises, like the free gadgets to reduce water consumption from the local council or the surprisingly high number of parks and green spaces that London has to offer.

Hampstead Heath London
Hampstead Heath, London

The UCL Introduction week and Departmental Inductions

Although I still find that University Introductory talks are filled with too much self-back-patting, there is still some room left for useful stuff. Things like registering with a GP (general practicioner), transport discounts for students, enrolling to the University  and getting a Council Tax exemption are easier after such introductory sessions.

In my opinion, the Departmental Inductions are much more useful. In these sessions you can usually hear about the research being conducted in the Department, how to make the most out of the support network (IT, Careers, Seminars and Courses) and how to go about Stores, Core Facilites and Common Rooms. It goes without saying, but these introductory sessions are usually bound to come with some nibbles (a cute word I learned), free drinks (did I hear free?), and loads of opportunities for meeting your new peers.

The first month of the 4-year PhD in Neuroscience

But enough of inductions and introductions. How is the first month of the UCL NeurosciencePhD? Well, let’s revisit how I started this post: oh shit it’s November. And no, I haven’t been to the theatre yet.

The first thing we do once we are done with the Departmental and Faculty inductions is to spend two weeks visiting labs. Yup, it wasn’t a typo, I did mean to write two weeks. There were 83 labs to visit this year (you can see the full list here, but be ready to scroll down), and we spent 25-30 minutes in each lab. There is an insane amount of topics and techniques to choose from, but despite the inevitable overload of information that 83 lab visits result in, I have to say that it is an incredible experience. Not only you get to hear what each lab is currently working on, but you also end up knowing where everyone is based at. Yes, we got lost a few times, and we couldn’t help but mix up our schedules once, but luckily no one got hurt. It is also interesting to see how each PI has different ways to present their ongoing research: presentations, informal chats, handouts, lab tours, giving you time to talk to students, everlasting monologues, defined vs. tailored projects, etc. And last but not least, these visits (and also any posterior meet-up with current lab members you manage to make time for) are very useful to get a feel for the type of lab you are dealing with, and things like lab size, ratio of PhD/Postdocs, techniques, lab meetings or not, relation with the supervisor, collaborations and lab social life are all important to weigh in before deciding if you are going to join that lab for a rotation or not.

After having ticked every lab in the list, we enter into two somewhat more relaxed weeks. One of them is devoted to the Home Office Licensee Training Courses, and the other is free for you to talk with more people, meditate, reach nirvana and decide in which lab you will do the first rotation. There is also time for a couple of socials with our more ‘senior’ peers from the Programme, who are happy to share their wisdom and experience on making the right (and avoiding the wrong) decision. I personally think that doing rotations before making a final decision on your PhD lab is the best way to go, or at least one that will certainly spare you a few surprises.

Tip of the month: set some boundaries

Ha! Turns out I’m talkative today. Or whatever the equivalent word for writing is (writative?). Anyhow, before I finish this post, I wanted to share something I put a lot of thought into during the past year. After making up my mind on where I would go, I decided I didn’t want to get sucked by the PhD. I did not want my life to become quantumly entangled to the outcome of my research. So I decided that I should prevent that from the start. And this meant doing the things I wanted to do from day 0.

The first step consisted on compiling a list of those things. Easy. I love lists. The second step is making that list happen. And guess what, you need time for it to happen. You need boundaries. You need to steal back your time. Weekends and evenings are out of bounds. This is the hardest part, and it will always be work on progress, but your personal wellbeing depends on it. That said, practice what you preach right? So here’s my list. 1) I wanted to continue writing. I can’t say I do it as often as I would like to, but I am getting there. 2) I wanted to keep on doing Judo. So the second week I visited three different dojos, and I am really happy to be sweating my judogi at least once a week. And 3) I wanted to continue playing guitar. So I bought one and I play it whenever I have the chance. And with this last item comes my most unrealistic PhD goal: being able to play something that remotely resembles Bohemian Rhapsody by the end of the 4th year. It will be fun even if I fail. After all, what would science be without all the failing and the having fun?

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