One of the defining characteristics of postgraduate research that spans the disciplines is that takes up time. So much time that you can’t really call it a job; you probably should think of it as a lifestyle. Coming out of the pharmaceutical industry – where research is a 9-5 job with the luxury of flexi-time – back into academia where the time commitment is more fluid, has highlighted the difference starkly.
Organic chemistry is particularly susceptible to long hours because the researching is divided into neat blocks – the experiments. Each experiment can be subdivided into preparation, reaction & purification. These blocks come as inflexible units of time: purifying your material by column chromatography takes about 3 hours, try to do it faster and you’ll most likely end up with impure material that has to go down another column. When a scientist’s day is divided into these inflexible blocks they will usually err on the side of fitting more blocks in, even if it means working into the night. Research is all about getting things done and making progress, after all.
I thought I would have more of a problem with the extended hours than I actually have. Fortunately we aren’t expected to be chained to the fumehood for the whole time – breaking the day up with literature searches, experiment planning, lunch and group meetings stops me from exhausting myself. Cycling daily does wonderful things for my energy levels, too (when I cycle home at night I get back feeling really alert). I’m satisfied with how I’m using my time at work, which is promising news if I’m planning to do a PhD in an institution with equivalent or longer hours.
With the constraints on my free time I’m starting to appreciate the smallest details and inclusions into my life. Things like curling up in bed with a book and reading for half an hour before sleep. Since the lab is chronically under-heated and the bike rides are usually nippy, my bed is the warmest location I have.
Another micro-wonder is noodles. Few things feel as nourishing as a large portion of veggie stir-fry from a greasy noodlebar. There’s a great place in South Kensington near the tube station called “Noodlestix” which I call into when I’m at Imperial on the weekends.
Because of my budget constraints I’ve returned to the practice of logging all my purchases in a notebook and keeping track of my weekly spending. I’ve been very well-behaved and made my own lunches every day of the week and cooking at home in the evening, so costs are lower than I expected. However, it may intrigue you to know that 10-15% of my weekly budget goes on chocolate muffins…
The fourth vital detail is a Friday evening trip to the sauna room of the Imperial College fitness centre. Even if it’s only for 20 minutes (including a jacuzzi intermission) it relaxes the hell out of me. The sauna and steam room are tiny – fitting 4 people in each is excessively optimistic – but the sauna gets up to 90 oC, smells of pungent aromatic oils and I think they would count as “genuine” even to a sauna-loving German. Plus it comes free with my ICL gym membership so you won’t hear a word of complaint from me about it.
At the end of the day: I’m busy, I’m exercising regularly, I’m getting to be a full-time scientist, I’m not unduly stressed, I’m happy with where I am and what I’m doing. Those are the main things.