Things To Forward To When Starting The PhD (Pt 1)

Primrose Hill, London

Primrose Hill, London

 Less than 2 months to go, folks. Less than 2 months. Last week I headed down to London to check in with the US Embassy and hear the outcome of my visa application. I wasn’t expecting any difficulties – my paperwork was all intact, I’d done all the onerous bureaucratic hoop-jumping and I’d survived the J1 visa application that got me to Philadelphia. As predicted, the embassy visit was straightforward – amazingly, the time from me first joining the queue in Grosvenor Square to walking out of the building with mailing arrangements for my passport all completed was a little under 1 hour! I had initially intended to bring in The Economist and National Geographic to pass the time whilst waiting, as it was I barely finished off the Economists’ ‘European News’ section.


While the multi-day trip to London was a relaxing and enjoyable break, the accommodation & food costs are putting me back into ‘Austerity Measures’ territory, at least for a couple of weeks.


I’m usually a positive person, so it is a sign that things are wearing me down when I wake up in the morning and my first thought is a weary “Fuck all of this.” In a bid to keep a positive spin on events, I’m steeling myself for the final 1.75 months in the UK by focusing on all the things I’m looking forward to about starting my PhD in the USA>


1. Fixed income arriving on regular, pre-specified dates.

I shouldn’t have to be this pre-occupied about money. I shouldn’t have to be constantly fretting about next month’s total income and how it is going to match up with predicted expenditure. I’m really looking forward to the point where I am given a stable salary above the baseline amount, and know that ‘xx’ USD are going to arrive in my bank account on a biweekly basis.


The thing I dislike the most about freelance & casual employment is the irregularity and unpredictability of the pay.  The sum you’re getting may in fact be an alright one – my freelance writing pays rather well – but then you have to obtain purchase order numbers, fill out the invoice and wait until (a) the relevant person processes your invoice (b) the processed invoice morphs into a bank transfer. Another piece of casual employment pays its workers by cheque, which you yourself must pick up from their office during opening hours. Getting my free time to coincide with those office hours (which aren’t a traditional 9-5 thing) usually takes a couple of extra days.


By contrast the Teaching Assistantship (the job bit that funds me during my PhD) will give me cash left over at the end of the month, and is going to work out more than my salaries from my pharma internships.  Even when accounting for the differences in living costs.


Right now I’m refraining from buying a whole lot of stuff – a ticket to the cinema, non-holey socks, a second bath towel – because I don’t want to overstretch my finances. Stupid little things like shaving cream, a pillow for my bed or a pair of sunglasses which most people would buy on their way home without a second thought. When I start my PhD I won’t need to have this pre-occupied, paranoid mindset to “living expenses” versus “survival expenses”.


2. Being a scientist again.

It didn’t really bother me that the Imperial College science project didn’t work. I loved that project because it challenged me to think about problems in a creative and thoughtful manner. I’d come out of my PI’s office mentally exhausted but crackling with new ideas. I was constantly using my brain, my knowledge, my imagination. Trying to wind up my project before the end date was stressful…but the obsessing and fierce sense of ownership were deeply rewarding too.


When I worked at Novartis my projects weren’t quite as gripping. What I really enjoyed though was having lunch with my colleagues. We’d talk about current affairs, international politics, interesting TV shows, nerdy science topics and have a lot of funny, intelligent banter. We were all highly-educated and well-trained scientists – I felt that our world views and outlooks were broadly compatible.


Now I’m working as a cleaner. The permanent staff all have outlooks widely different from mine (in the sense that they see the world through a much narrower, localized perspective). The most brainpower I use is when deciding how to make my allocated cleaning tasks fit the days’ schedule. I don’t invest enough cognitive input to care about the work beyond what I need to get it completed in a satisfactory manner. I don’t dislike my job – I just don’t invest anything in it.


To be honest, I want that ownership back. It doesn’t matter that while I was in London I would awaken in a cold sweat thinking about my project, and only calm myself back to sleep once I’d written up a new To Do list of experiments for the upcoming week. I want to do work that I care about and which I have to invest in intellectually. I want to be respected for my creative and logical thinking, not just for my ability to buff a toilet bowl until it sparkles. I want to hang out with scientists and talk nerdy.


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