London and the Happiness

Artwork found on the London Tube.

Artwork found on the London Tube.

It started out as a ploy to fill in a gap on my CV, but turned into a great piece of research experience in a city I took to immediately.

Back in late Spring/early Summer I made the decision to re-apply to graduate school for the 2013-14 admissions cycle, doing whatever was necessary to increase my chances the second time around. The gap I identified was that for all my research experience in industry (2 full years, which most professors would classify as “extensive” in the context of new grad students) I lacked experience in an academic lab. At the University of Edinburgh, Chemistry undergrads who go out into industry for their penultimate year are only required to do a short, part-time in-house project in their final year as an assessed component of their degree. In applying to grad schools I would be competing against applicants who had worked full-time in an academic setting for longer periods of time than I had.

The differences between academic and industrial research require a separate blog post; suffice to say getting more experience in an organic synthesis research group would not harm my re-applications in the slightest.

The first & obvious issue was with finding a research group willing and able to take me on. I fitted outside all the funding categories (I didn’t count as an undergrad, or a recent graduate, or an exchange student…) and the type of research groups that have lots of spare money usually have a high volume of interested researchers pressing to join. My tactics boiled down to (a) selecting universities with the best-established exchange/placement program (b) contacting all the faculty in my area of interest and pleading directly.

As I discussed in my earlier blog post, if a research group agreed to take me in then it would generate more complications than solutions.

I got lucky.

I’ve had 3 months of (CAUTION! EMOTIONS AHEAD!) being happy with my choice and time spent in London.

So, what makes for happiness?  Why did things work out for me so well?

  • Feelings of inclusion. Three months is a very short time. For comparison, it took me close to 6 months to begin to feel settled in Philadelphia and Basel. In the context of the new jobs, it was around Month 9 that I felt I was operating on full power and not wasting time trying to remember the location of the stationary cupboard, etc. As a temporary placement student it would be easy for the permanent workers to treat me as a transient. At Imperial I was awarded “full member” status surprisingly quickly and afforded the same responsibility and status as the other students in the group.
  • Compatible work ethics. It can be incredibly frustrating when you are just gearing up to run that second purification column and your colleagues tells you not to bother, because everybody will be going home in half an hour and you aren’t allowed to work by yourself. Similarly, it can be demoralising when you decide to call it a day at 5pm on a Friday and are immediately viewed as a slacker. You want your personal work ethics to match up to your colleagues’ (and boss’). I’m prepared to work steadily for “long” hours – provided I get a decent lunch break and can engage my labmates in casual chat beside the sink for a few minutes instead of running back to my chemistry.
  • Effective relationship with your boss. My sense of humour veers between surrealism, dryness, deadpan and teasing. It’s all very British (but time spent around Swiss Germans has absolutely baked the dryness). If I didn’t have a supervisor who “got” my sense of humour…things would get very problematic very quickly.
  • Challenging (but not impossible)  research project. Sometimes an unlucky graduate student will be lumped with a project that’s dead on arrival, i.e, two previous students failed to get it to work, or the reactivity tries to go against the fundamental theoretical laws of chemistry. On other occasions a project requires little more than setting up a variety of reactions to be classified as a success: it doesn’t stimulate your own brainpower or increase your scientific skill set. A good research project would have hurdles…but still be workable.
  • Feelings of value. I want to feel like I’m doing a good job, that my past experiences are helpful to others and that my contributions to the project are useful (and I’ve not been given a useless piece of work just to have me doing something). Ideally, I would like to feel as if I’ve brought something unique to the job that no one else can exactly replicate – be it a perspective, technical expertise or personality.


    I’m ready for whatever comes next (…I think). But I’ll be sorry to close this short London chapter.


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