Rituals and Sacred Spaces

Today was a good Sunday. The snowfall on Friday left me very disappointed, but it seems that we have Spring Weather once more. The snow melted, and today was 100% sunshine, warmth, birdsong. Sundays are the day when I should be completely out of the lab (I say “should”, even though I know that rarely happens) and use the opportunity to regenerate.

I went to the gym, snuck into their on-site sauna for a wonderful 20 minutes. It doesn’t pack all that much heat, but the warmth is enough to soothe me. I wasted time in a coffeeshop, ran through a To Do list that I’d been neglecting for too many weeks (grading, ordering Lapsang Souchong tea, booking flights, tax return) and took it easy.

Coping with grad school means knowing how to turn off the stress. On the weekend nights – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – I like to light candles or burn incense. I’ll turn off my cold bedroom lights to leave only the warm glow of my nightstand lamp. I’ll drink a cup of green tea, chamomile or Rooibos as one of the last things I do before sleep. I think it must be a ritual; a programmed way of releasing stress. I know it works, because I sleep very well.

Heat and fire. Candles and saunas.

Food is part of the ritual, too. Going to a restaurant where the servers recognise me (“Long time no see.”) and know my preferences is very soothing. I prefer to eat vegetable-heavy meals, the more vegetables I eat, the clearer I feel inside.

Veggie pho. Eggplant in garlic sauce with string beans & bak choi. Pad Thai. Paneer, sag and chana masala.

Most of the time I would say that I am doing well in grad school. Although it is tough, I don’t think my experience is a bad one. I’ve heard plenty of genuine horror stories (many of which were firsthand accounts), and I’m grateful for what I have.


Does anyone else have any “Grad Life Rituals?” What are the little things that keep/kept you sane during your PhD?

Cracks in the Darkness

The light will always find a way in, eventually. Sometimes you just have to look for it. 

|A. Nothing On, But The Radio|

Let me tell you one of the best things about owning a car. It gives you an uninterrupted, gently forcing opportunity to listen to the radio. My father could drive from our home in to St Andrews in 15 min at a push. But the drive could also be extended to 30 minutes so we could listen to comedy shows on BBC Radio 4: I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, The News Quiz, and Just A Minute. A late-night program on the World Service about Middle Eastern facial fashions once sustained my mother through an entire festive season of social chat.  Although the crisp English tones of the British Broadcasting Corporation are something I miss, I try to adapt to my surroundings. It turns out that NPR (National Public Radio) is a good substitute for BBC Radio 4/BBC World Service. Several times I’ve parked at my chosen destination, only to kill the engine and spend a few more minutes listening to the culmination of a particularly entertaining anecdote or dispatch.


|B.  Red Hot Saunas|

There is this thing I like to do in NYC. I’ll trek down Manhattan to an unassuming Avenue where I will enter the Russian & Turkish Baths to burn up a good chunk of a Sunday afternoon. There are a lot of sauna complexes in New York (I’m aware that most of my Edinburgh-based readers will assume I’m talking about brothels) – some are deliriously swanky, others are shamelessly indulgent. I’ve yet to find one that packs as much heat as the R&T Baths. There’s a seedy, underground-neon-lit vibe to the place; clientele ranging from rabbis to hipsters, with all intermediate points…but that just adds to the charm. There are two steam rooms, one feels like you’re sitting inside a kettle, you can barely see an inch in front of your nose. There are 3 sauna rooms: the first one smells of warm sandalwood, the second has the power to make you uncomfortably hot after a few minutes, the third is hotter than the fires of purgatory. But in a good way. The sheer force of heat in the saunas relax me completely. In between bouts I will lounge on the decks, nothing whatsoever going through my head. It’s brilliant.


|C. Long Time Coming, But Now The Snow Is Gone|

I’ve set my alarm to 6.30am once more and seem to be disciplined about getting up instead of switching the alarm off. Why? Well, I know that shortly after I finish my breakfast I will be able to look out of my window and see the first glimmers of blue in the black night sky. Before I’ve even reached the bottom of my morning espresso the sun will have risen. I love this time of year – knowing that the days are getting longer and the light is getting brighter. That even if there is darkness now, soon there will be light.

Black Soul Coffee

Right now, black coffee consumes me. I think nothing of reheating day-old filtered coffee in the microwave, often 1-2 cups per day. I know I should switch it out with tea sometimes, but my body needs to taste that nasty dark bitterness.  I equilibrate with the dark bitterness within, I guess.

Honestly, I’m a mess of bad habits right now. My worst vice is regularly (i.e., more often than not) going to the lab on Sundays. If I was to give a prospective PhD student one piece of advice it would be “Don’t work 7 days a week – take a day off to refresh yourself”. Do as I say, not as I do, folks. Granted, I don’t work as long or as hard on the weekends (…usually): I give myself the luxury of checking Facebook during the daytime on Saturdays & Sundays, and I may well head out for a long lunch somewhere off campus. But at this point the PhD and Chemistry research is just…something that I do. Being in the lab is just…something that I do. There isn’t much of a distinction between “work” and “life” – it’s balanced in the sense that work is my life.

The PhD was always going to feature some sacrifice. As soon as I articulated my desire to do a PhD in Organic Chemistry I was warned that it would consist of 12 hr days, 60+ hr weeks. I never liked the idea of that, it was only after a lot of exposure to the concept that I finally made peace with it. Swallowed the bitterness, if you will. I’m an ambitious person, I wanted publications, prestige and a strong CV. It would be almost impossible to get those things in the Synthetic field without joining a 12/60 lab and matching that work ethic.

Yes, I’m envious of my friends in 9-5 white collar jobs. Yes, I feel sad that I had to give up travelling, dancing, doing lots of fun stuff. The hope is that I will (eventually) get it back. I have a clear idea of the kind of professional I want to become, and the kind of lifestyle I want to live. When I walk through Philadelphia I remember.

Despite all of this, I’d still say that I am happy. I’m in a lab that I enjoy being in. I don’t stress about money (I had 6 months in Edinburgh of full-time money worry: it made me appreciate financial security). My overall stress levels aren’t especially high and I’m not at risk of burn-out. I don’t have any pressing fears or uncertainties about what is coming next (there was a fair chunk of that when I was in Basel. Again, I can feel its absence).

Grad School Cycles

She only sleeps when it's raining...

She only sleeps when it’s raining…

Grizzly, drizzly weather today. If I’d realised how bad it was outside I wouldn’t have got behind the wheel to brave the freeway. Still, I need the practice of driving in rougher conditions, so I went to pound stress out at the gym, before heading out to the mall zone to get groceries and enjoy a veggie Indian buffet lunch. By the early afternoon I retreated into my apartment and decided to stay put for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t that long ago since my last Crunch Time. Now it is hurtling back at me: the second and final half of my candidacy exams. This time the focus is on my research – what I’ve done and where I’m going. If my written proposal and PowerPoint defence aren’t up to scratch, then I leave the program with a Masters degree this summer.

That said, there isn’t a huge amount of ambiguity or stress here. I managed to prove last semester that I could hack candidacy-level exams: my committee & PI were pleased with how I did, the latter has expressed the opinion that they aren’t “too concerned” about my upcoming exam. At this stage, as long as I put in a solid performance I will be set for the rest of my PhD.

The challenge comes with getting my research polished. I’ve got “results” from the project I’ve been working on since last summer: not good enough for a publication, but good enough to indicate that it will be possible to get them up to publication quality.

When you’re in the middle of a PhD, you are navigating through a dense jungle of research space, only able to see (metaphorically) a few paces ahead of you. You’ve no idea what the bigger picture is, and making progress on your project is often a case of hacking your way through what seems to be the path of least resistance. Except that you switch your path constantly, left for a bit then right.

As such, I’ve amassed a decent quantity of data, but I need to sort out the bits that are useful (a lot of stuff I tried doesn’t add anything to my “results”) and fill in any gaps that I missed. And I want to give the impression that instead of flailing about blindly in the jungle for 9 months, I was actually following some kind of rational agenda.


My research productivity is a cyclical thing. What usually happens is that I will have 1-2 weeks “on” – I get fired up about a new lead, or become particularly frustrated with my lack of progress, and spend a lot of time in the lab, running a near-constant stream of experiments – followed by a week or so “off”. I can’t sustain the “on” mode for very long, and so my productivity eventually ebbs. There are times when I’m staggering about the lab late at night, wanting to close my eyes but pushing myself to at least tidy up and prepare for another intense day tomorrow. There are times when I walk through a wing of the department and it looks like I’m the only person in the building. There are also times like today when I take a full day off or get home in time for dinner.

Part of adjusting to grad school is accepting that I can’t be perfect. I’m not a human being that’s capable of working “on” for the entirety of their PhD. Nor do I think I’m completely capable of working at a flat rate of productivity – it’s something that surges and abates. Even when I’m “off” I don’t think that I can be classified as “non-productive”, I’m just not operating at full capacity.

I’ve become a lot more organised and productive as my PhD progressed. At the start I wasn’t efficient enough to do what I can do now: run a reaction, work it up and purify it in succession on the same day. It used to be impressive when I ran 3 column chromatography purifications in 1 day – now I can run 4 per day without too much undue exertion. Sometimes it’s the silly little things that accelerate or stall my overall productivity – do I have enough clean glassware, for instance.

My strategy in the lead-up to my candidacy exam is to just go with the flow. I can sense that next week will be “on” – it is the final week before teaching resumes, so I have a clear run at the research. I’ll try to avoid burning myself out, or getting too frustrated with the “off” mode.


It took almost half a year from the jolting realisation that I needed a car to the point where I held the keys to Saxon in my hand. Along with the smugness of finally having achieved something that every other adult managed to achieve in their late teens already, I felt a relief that I could finally switch out my deadlocked, trapped existence from something a bit more satisfying.

Quickly, I realised the truth. I’d been too eager to pin my future happiness on a definite object, and I’d missed the obvious signs:


I can take my car to the large supermarket. I leave the campus and pass through a couple of miles of suburban order before hitting the major traffic arteries and the Mall Zone. The vista of malls, superstores, drive-throughs and pokey restaurant strips fans onwards in all directions. Beyond that? Suburban order until we come to the next Mall Zone.

And that is the American heartland.

It echoes back to when I first touched down in the USA and was lodging in an apartment complex in King of Prussia, PA. Heavily jet lagged, I staggered along the road side (no pavements, I had to skirt up the embankments and duck around metal crash barriers) to the supermarket to buy some food. A Google Search had told me that the largest mall on the Eastern Seaboard was located in King of Prussia…that was it. Again: the suburban order of prim little houses followed by the soulless grey concrete of the Mall.

Americans love their shopping malls. I wouldn’t post a status on Facebook explaining that I was “going to the supermarket”, but it would be well within my rights to fore-post about a trip to the mall (an exclamation mark or two is the de rigeur accompaniment). No one of my American friends would consider it untoward if I shared with them a selfie during said mall trip (I’ve yet to see anyone post a selfie from their supermarket excursions). I can tell you with authority that some young Americans – presumably without much life experience – would consider the mall a prime location to (i) take a date (ii) “pick up chicks”.

To me however, there is no soul or personality in these retail wastelands. There is no allure or excitement out here. I turn Saxon around and drive home.

If I had a chance to meet my younger self for a coffee as she pulled together her PhD applications – and I think she was quite open to advice at that time – I’d probably have warned her. “Look, kid. The PhD is going to burn up a lot of your time and energy, so much so that you’re going to be spending almost the same amount of (per annum) time in your beloved Philadelphia during the American PhD as you did when you were domiciled in Europe. Except that instead of being able to spend your weekends people-watching in Edinburgh coffeeshops, cycling around London or swimming down the Rhein, you’ll be stuck on a university campus in the middle of a mall strip non-urban deadzone. For what it’s worth, you may as well just apply to cities all over the States. You liked Austin and Chicago, yeah?”

Which isn’t to say that I regret my choice or fault my reasoning in the application/decision-making process…but it would have been nice to have given myself a better class of choices.

2015 comes with hope, though. If getting a car isn’t enough to escape, then perhaps a chance of address will bring an improvement.


This might be an embarrassing thing for me to confess.
But I’ll do it anyway.
Owning a car is really exciting.

I realise that most people learn to drive between the ages of 16-18. By the time folk get to university (in both the UK & USA) they usually have access to – if not nominal ownership of – a battered old car for personal use. As such, they are used to the convenience of owning wheels, and I run the risk of appearing majorly naive with my mid-20s excitement.


I picked up the keys to a 2005 Toyota Camry last week. It will take a while to sink in: it represents a really big shift in how I conduct life in the USA. Although the bugger is expensive – I’ve had to sink costs for the purchase, registration, insurance, repairs – I think the shift will be profoundly GOOD.

Back in late spring, the downtown supermarket closed. It was my wake-up call that I finally needed to sort myself out with a car: I became severely limited in my eating habits if I couldn’t drive to the out-of-town supermarkets by the malls. At the same time I felt dissatisfied with life on the university campus: I couldn’t escape from grad school. It’s fine up to a point since all I do is conduct research right now, but it didn’t make me happy.

Owning a car called Saxon (yes, that’s his name) feels like such a hefty, adult responsibility. I’ve always been the person who had to rely on others driving me about the place – now I’m capable of driving myself. It felt weirdly exhilarating driving to the supermarket for a grocery shop – I didn’t have to worry about whether I could fit all the shopping into my rucksack to carry home, it all could fit into my boot! If I want to go eat in a restaurant, I am no longer limited to the establishments in downtown New Brunswick. If I want to buy something, I don’t have to play a day trip to NYC (via train) to procure it. I can ask people if they “Need a ride?”, rather than being the one awaiting an offer from others.

I’m a calm driver, cycling through bus lanes in packed cities teaches you how to keep cool under pressure on the roads. Driving at night or on the motorway still intimidates me a little, although I’m getting used to it. With practice I think I will be fine.

My next big goal is to move off-campus for the rest of my PhD. I already have a good idea of the neighbourhood I want to settle in to. If I want a 1 bedroom flat I know it will cost a bit more – I’m hoping that the cost of the car doesn’t prevent me from living in my preferred location. I don’t really want to adopt the American habit of driving everywhere – bad for the environment, expensive – but my lifestyle needs a tweak.

Grad school just got that little bit more manageable.

Midnight in Manayunk

309441-frederikaIn approximately 10 minutes my friend’s birthday celebration would begin. I decided to wait until the SEPTA 61 bus had passed all the way through Manayunk before disembarking and walking back. I used to get off at the Leverington/Flat Rock Rd junction stop all the time. Briefly, I detoured down onto the canal towpath – it was the first step of my regular morning bike ride commute at one point. On the other side of the canal were the old industrial sites that once powered Manayunk. It was peaceful and silent. Making my way into Manayunk I passed all the familiar restaurants, bars and shops that I loved to frequent. Lights adorned the trees, and the pavement was packed with people ready to enjoy their evening out.

Manayunk was exactly as I remembered it.

It is strange that something can make you so incredibly happy but also hurt so much at the same fucking time.

I think that if I had received a PhD offer from my top choice Philadelphian university, I would be living back here in Manayunk – the same district where I stayed in 2009 & 2010. And why not? It’s a fantastic place to stay.

It always comes down to this – did I do the right thing? If the universe turned around again, would I do things any differently? New Brunswick is a depressing, dull town. Although I can see trees from my bedroom window, I feel trapped on the university campus all day, every day. My research project has grown into an overwhelming obsession – I work around the clock on it, pushing to get results. The work is slow – this week the result of one reaction took my project 2 steps forward…another result set me 2 steps back. I second-guess myself – am I working efficiently enough? am I working hard enough? am I mismanaging the project and holding it back? – cycling through all possible emotions within the course of 5 new experiments. I am clearly a person who enjoys this level of obsession, otherwise I don’t think I would be doing it.

Walking through Manayunk reminds me of all the things I have given up in pursuit of this PhD, all the things I wanted to reclaim from the 2009-10 years…but realised that I couldn’t. I’m back on the Eastern Seaboard, back within a 90 min radius of Philadelphia…but I can’t turn back the clock to 2009. And the PhD in all its messy, obsessive, emotive glory is what I want to dedicate myself to.

I sat on my burning desire for 3 whole years – 3 years between leaving the USA and coming back. Another desire burns as I work late on weekends in the lab, or start setting up reactions at 7.30am on a Monday morning. I will pass through whatever Hells this PhD can drag me in to, in pursuit of later payoff. The reason I obsess over my project is because I seek the publication, and that will strengthen my CV when it comes to finding postdocs and jobs. It will give me the freedom to move back to somewhere like Manayunk, I hope.

Eventually there will be progress. I just have to keep the faith.