Thursday 31st March 2016 was probably an ordinary day for most people. But for a group of uni students, this day is one of a special kind. Census date. The last day to submit your PhD/Masters thesis or else risk having to re-enrol in another semester, with the associated financial/administrative burdens and loss of potential scholarships.
For me, the PhD journey was starting to draw to a close – I had run my four year course. My time was up, and accordingly, submission was on the cards. Even though submission day was just today, I think it’s probably a good time to reflect upon the experience and my thoughts about it.
The whole concept of studying a PhD was bought up by my undergraduate thesis supervisor at the end of 2011, who had connections with my main day-to-day supervisor in the Water Research Centre. While I did fairly well in my undergraduate thesis, and I got a conference paper, a presentation and highly-commended paper prize out of it, I was thoroughly researched-out at that time. I had just undergone a Taste of Research, 2nd year project and my final year thesis all without having a break. I really felt that I needed a break.
With full intentions on entering the industry, the job market was not particularly good, and after many failed applications for grad programs, I ended up at a small company. Within a week, I decided it really wasn’t for me due to their working conditions, and I decided that I would be happy to trade away a little money to go on a PhD instead on Australian Postgraduate Award and UNSW Engineering Research Award and regain some of the freedom that comes with it.
I officially began my PhD on 5th March 2012, in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Water Research Centre. Getting a start in this field was a little difficult, because my background was in electrical and photovoltaics/renewable energy engineering. As I became based in the WRC, the first year was mainly spent with literature reviews, basic coursework requirements, meeting people and developing ideas for future experiments. This was very helpful in broadening my knowledge base, and getting a feel for the “big picture” issues where my interdisciplinary approach could prove advantageous. This is where my imposter syndrome began to grow, as I was constantly talking with people who were “natives” of water research, who themselves treated me like I was a native. It felt very awkward.
The second year was fortunate, as I managed to secure an ASI/ARENA scholarship which made the PhD proposition more financially palatable. Ultimately, the money didn’t worry me, because it was an opportunity few have, fewer actually take, and rarely seen through to completion. It wasn’t until the second year that I took a second-year level Microbiology course that I was introduced to the bread-and-butter of spread plating, drop plating, serial dilutions, Gram stains, making agar plates and aseptic loop technique. I really loved learning and using practical skills, because that meant having time in the labs and taking a hands-on approach. The labs were even better because there was air-conditioning!
Even though some experiments are repetitive and boring, I enjoyed taking a break from reading literature and doing “shopping”. I built my test systems and ran experiments week-in, week-out, experiencing the other PhD student must-haves of staying late at night and constantly trying to beat the clock. Things didn’t go smoothly initially, with some very basic mistakes spoiling my early experiments, which easily take the better part of a week to run with necessary incubation times and queueing for shared equipment such as autoclaves. Other setbacks include equipment “borrowing” without permission, which resulted in some competitive lab practices to “secure” the necessary gear for your experiments.
Initially, I was somewhat disheartened, but it’s amazing how quickly this turns around once positive results start coming in. Enamoured by the knowledge that my late nights were producing data, I continued and spent the better part of around one and a half years running bench-scale microbiology experiments, and preparing papers. In the time I spent in the lab, I estimate that I’ve made at least 1800 agar plates, 50 agar slopes, plated them all and counted most of them. By the time I started to tire of the process, luckily, I had already achieved what I had set-out to.
During the PhD, I was struck down with ankle pain issues which resulted in prolonged sick-leave being taken. It was a somewhat difficult time, as the pain made it hard to find motivation to work, and made travelling to the university an impossibility. Ultimately, I missed out the chance to present at Asia-Pacific Solar Research Conference 2014, where a supervisor presented on my behalf, but I did get a paper out of it. The issues really caused me to reconsider what I was doing with my life – at one point, I wasn’t sure if I could make submission in time, but I decided to persist anyway. I was too far in to turn back. I felt very fortunate to have the chance to present at Elsevier/IWA 3rd Water Research Conference in Shenzhen, early in 2015, which I found a very valuable experience to meet some industry members, some who were in similar areas and exchange ideas.
The final year was very much spent with more journal publication work, construction of final systems and write up of the thesis. Construction was not straightforward, and resulted in the development of more DIY plumbing and construction skills to solve the immediate problems at hand. Obtaining the necessary clearances for testing on the roof proved challenging, but in the end, with a lot of effort put in, the problems were overcome. Once these final results were obtained, some modelling work was put in, and we decided to pause the investigation at that point so as to prepare the submission.
A first journal publication came out in 2014 of my literature review efforts, and in 2016, a second paper was published on my bench-scale efforts. In preparation of these papers, I was able to appreciate the rigour and procedure involved in publishing in a prestigious journal. The preparation of these papers helped prepare some of my thesis, which saved on time.
The worst part of the whole PhD experience is often claimed to be the writing. On the whole, I would have to agree, but I don’t think it’s as bad as some people make it out to be. It’s often hard to find motivation to write, because it’s not exactly the most interesting thing to be doing compared to hands-on lab work. Writer’s block is a key problem, and trying to find the right words to best express an idea is not easy especially for engineers who tend to use a more limited vocabulary, typically mostly jargon, from day to day. I suppose the worst part is sending it in for review by your supervisors, and then realizing just how bad a job you did of it. It can be very disheartening (obligatory PhD comic).
But that’s also where I eventually learned to emotionally detach myself from my work a little more and ultimately look upon it as a learning experience. I’m very thankful that my supervisors were able to dedicate the time necessary to give this feedback, even if it was inconsistent and conflicting at times, because it gave me a good idea of what really needed attention even if I didn’t necessarily agree. There are many subtleties in expression and inferred meaning, as well as conventions in scientific writing that I wasn’t aware of, and am only starting to get a grasp of.
Preparing the final thesis was a moderately large job. A lot of time was spent wrangling with consistency issues and formatting difficulties with Microsoft Word – an experience that many students are likely to have come across. The other bulk of the time was spent with back and forth corrections. Ultimately, I resolved that everything would be printed and bound the day before submission, which resulted in me staying another late night last night to get everything ready including the online information.
At 9:48am this morning, I was at the Graduate Research School office with the hand-bound copies for assessment. They took the thesis from me, and offered me a small gift. It was only then that it dawned that they actually took the thesis from my hands and I’m essentially free … sort of.
The gift was a little unexpected – how many of us can say “we’ve done this before?” Not many I would suspect.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t any queue for submission – I was told that it was common for students to rock-up at 4:55pm and all try to submit at once. I’m glad that I was more organized than that! After submission, I felt an immense feeling of fatigue – partly because I didn’t get much sleep last night, and partly because all the sedentary sitting around writing the thesis had resulted in a loss of fitness, which only became apparent after the long trek down to the GRS. The binding machine, and carrying a ream of paper really gave both arms a good workout. I suspect the feeling of relief still hasn’t yet fully developed.
The Best Office in UNSW?
As part of my experiments with deployment systems, I was granted a very rare access to UNSW’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Building’s rooftop. This is one of the tallest buildings on campus (probably third-tallest), which I would probably class as the best office on campus. I took my camera up there to take some panoramic photos as I commenced my roof-experiments – but I decided to leave releasing the images as a submission-day treat.
The roof itself has good views towards the north into the city, south down towards the airport and west into the mountains. I took a high-resolution daytime panorama (split into three sections) and marked some of the landmarks on it – the visibility is amazing on a clear day.
With reference to the above, you can tell what you are looking at in the below “continuous” panoramas. By far the most enchanting views are in the evenings – just as the sun is setting …
… and just after the sun has set.
I really loved this view from the top of the roof of the university I’ve called a second home for the past nine years.
It’s been a very wild four years. I started my PhD a few months before I began to blog about technology, and it seems amazing to me just how much I ended up doing in both areas. If anything, I’ve probably written more on this blog than I have for my PhD.
My PhD gave me the freedom to pursue my own interests on the side, while exposing me to new areas and giving me the freedom to dictate my own research directions. The frustrations are a necessary part of the experience, but it’s how one overcomes their challenges that really matter. In engineering, unexpected problems are an expectation, and I’ve had my fair share of them. However, it is often these high-pressure experiences that bring out the best solutions and result in meaningful skills being acquired. It gave me the discipline and self motivation to make sure I deliver things on time and taught me how best to be efficient at time management – whether that was to actually do PhD work or properly “relax” and reset my motivation.
However, that being said, I’m glad that the first step to graduating is over, as it’s a big burden off my shoulder. For most of the four years, I wasn’t sure how everything would come together, as there was a wide variety of fields being covered. Ultimately, it did come together in the end, in a way that I could not have anticipated from the start. Now it’s fingers crossed that everything passes, although for the moment, I’ve got to keep the actual thesis under wraps for confidentiality reasons.
It goes without saying that thanks go out to all my supervisors, the lab staff, the associates I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and discussing with, the coursework professors and my family. I couldn’t have done it without any one of them. Thanks also for all your well wishes, random friends from the internet!
Despite this, I’m not a free man as yet – I’ve got to apply for a write-up scholarship to give me some time and financial support to get a few more journal papers out into the world, and that’s likely to be three months of further work. Maybe I’ll have a chance to blog a little more in the next few weeks and write those posts I’ve always been meaning to write … but I suspect I will just need a good rest.