Friday, 29 November 2013


Like most people, my idea of what I wanted be when I grew up underwent frequent review processes with input coming from anyone who was older than me. So my earliest memories confirm that I always wanted to be a doctor. Why? well everyone older than me said I was intelligent and it was the most intelligent profession I knew of as a child. Then I grew a love for animals, started watching wildlife documentaries on the National geographic channel and wanted to be just like David Attenborough. This lasted a few years until I got attacked by the neighbours dog and decided maybe I didn't love animals so much. In the years following, I convinced myself that doctors were overrated but I still wanted the title (what can I say, I have been a DoctorWho fan for a very long time). Thankfully science was still attractive and the possibility of winning a Nobel prize was even more so attractive. 
Sure a lot of Peace prizes
Having now completed a PhD there are a few things I have discovered which I feel would have been courteous of others to inform me. It really isn't too much to ask, at the very least it would have saved me the shock of discovering them first hand

4. PhD holders are all knowing...

Everyone with a PhD is a genius or atleast expected to be. The whole world knows that because everyone movie starring a Dr., potrays said Dr. as a genius. Think of House, Jurassic Park and that guy from Independence day whose name I can't remember. A genius not just in their field but in every other field of studies imaginable, think of Fringe and I will say no more.

A few years ago when I would tell people I met that I was doing a PhD in neuroscience. This will usually be followed by a barrage or questions to 'pick my brain' on topics ranging from insomnia to neurological disorders and from organic chemistry to evolution. Given half the chance, I would have explained that I specifically studied deficits in the auditory system, specifically tinnitus and even more specifically just one structure within the whole system.  

Societal perception.....a PhD must know it all
Somehow people never got it when I tried explaining by telling them the title of my thesis. On hindsight I don't know why I thought that will clear things up. It really did become easier to read up and remain updated on the newest discoveries across all the sciences. By so doing helping to propagate the false stereotype which subsequent students will also be expected to live up to. Hey don't complain, I am just passing on the buck

3. It's a degree in problem solving...

It is all a shame really because whereas society at large judges PhD holders on their knowledge, the academic world passes judgement based on research publications. In the midst of all this, the real shame is that, both are far from the truth of the reality and the degree does not credit any of the above. 

So then, "What does the degree credit?" I hear you ask, well the hint is in the name. A Doctor in Philosophy is only awarded to someone who has displayed an ability to think (that's all philosophy is right?). The best way to prove this thinking ability is to undergo a 3 year minimum period of extensive problem solving, troubleshooting and thinking outside the box. Science in particular is like trying to solve one huge jig-saw puzzle with missing pieces, the whole time having no idea what the final picture looks like. Oh I should also mention you are only allowed to work on a small section and trust others to faithfully complete their small sections which must ultimately be coherent with your section and the grand picture. 

Confused? That's fine, only God knows how we have made it this far.
Its perfectly normal to develop an involuntary love for puzzles and brain teasers during your studies. 

2. Everyone is a critic...

You would think that such a world where teamwork is essential would be driven by a sense of camaraderie, brotherly love and support. On the contrary, its driven by criticism. This is best illustrated by a personal story shared by a physicist at a recent careers expo. He explained how for over 15 years every talk or presentation was met with judgemental-like questions. "Did you try this?", "How about that?", "What if....?", "Have you considered...?" "This doesn't look like it adds up!". The same work, presented at public engagement activities was however received with shouts of praise and accolades. 

It helps to have a shoulder to lean/cry on
What more can I say. If you are going to do a PhD or even work in academia, persistence and motivation is key because the criticism and setbacks will come in bucketfuls

1. Nobody cares about the title...

For me this was the worst shock. If you have read anything on this blog or heard me speak about my motivations you would have noticed a few DoctorWho references and my desire to claim the title of Dr. for myself. Two weeks into my course it dawned in me that nobody cares for the title. So what if you can now tick 'Dr' rather than 'Mr' when filling out forms?. So what if you can stand up tall if ever that famous question is asked, "Is there a doctor in the room?"..... then calmly proceed to explain how you are actually not a medical doctor. In the world of academia everyone is on first name basis. 

The only people who seem to care for the title are sales reps trying to arrange an appointment. As a matter of fact they bless everyone with the title, students and graduates alike.
Maybe that is the reason some are so good at their job

Thursday, 31 October 2013


Hello to all you ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, mummy’s and daddy’s, vagabonds and convicts, PI’s, post-docs and students (at least one group will probably not be reading). What's the big news that requires such an all inclusive introduction to people from all walks of life? I am proud to announce that I am now a parent and have fathered a PhD thesis weighing in at 202 pages, with 120 references and it goes without saying that she is such a beauty. I was filled with joy when the printers presented her to me, with her blue cover page and perfect binding. Tears came to my eyes as I held her for the first time and looked her over. From her 14 point bold calibri level 1 headings to her 12 point double spaced justified text. I was glad to see she had no deformities, an introduction, methods, 3 results chapters and a discussion all in the right places. I named her "Synaptic modulation in the dorsal cochlear nucleus, a biological substrate of tinnitus" or Smits for short (pronounced Schmidt in some weird recognition to my non-existent German heritage). 

 All hail Smit the great

Allow me to take you through the journey of how Smits got to be here, and what a journey it has been. Smits was conceived on the 1st of September 2009 after my part-time love relationship with Science became the real deal and we decided to move our relationship forward. Our love was so strong and sure we went straight from undergraduate to doctorate status. Like a few other couples I know we chose to bypass the whole Master's phase. Four years since this update in relationship status, my relationship with Science has had its trying times. The hardest of which was when I had to learn electrophysiology in preparation for Smits's arrival, a skill which comprises fifty percent 'know-how' and fifty percent luck.  To give you an idea imagine trying to pierce a pea-sized water balloon with a needle only that your pea-sized water balloon is about fifty times smaller than an actual pea-sized water balloon (assuming those exist).

The pin-sized glass pipette next to the pen tip is the tool of my trade
 Now here is that pin sized glass pipette next to a real cell
 Good luck, may the ‘driving’ force be with you

After your first five hundred successful attempts you are unofficially an electrophysiologist, and Grandmaster status is only reached after ten thousand successful attempts. There were however many great times, when I visited many places on this huge island I call home to have Smit’s progress vetted by experts, and yes I do mean the UK. Both national gatherings in London and Leicester (Departmental seminars) and international crowds in Edinburgh (PhySoc 2012) saw experts and professionals peruse over her content each with helpful suggestions. Less professional gatherings in Nottingham (Vitae regional finals 2012) and Leicester (Brain Awareness Day 2012), saw individuals express their opinions and delight about her growth and progress. Now that Smit is here the story doesn’t end there, she has one more expert scrutiny to go under. She will be scrutinised page by page by two others before me who also fell in love with Science and have had babies of their own. Two others who have been together with Science, even before that faithful day I met her aged 8 learning about photosynthesis. Two others who will decide whether Smit should be accepted as she is. Two others who will decide my love for Science is worthy enough to be acknowledged and as such induct me into the not-so-secret society where all lovers of science go by the name ‘Doctor’ (rumour says some get a complimentary TARDIS). However I have no fear, because I, her father will be there to defend her to my last breath. I will answer every question, explain every misunderstanding, and express why bringing Smit into the world is the best thing that ever happened to Science.

Follow me on twitter @Tom_DAT

Friday, 11 October 2013


Like every good storyteller, I saved the best for last. So do not be dismayed, here are the last four pointers you will need if you are going to triumph over education.  

 5. Familiarise yourself with old war stories
"It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

There is nothing new under the sun, and everything that will be has been before. This is not to say give up on whatever you are doing due to a lack of novelty. Rather it is to say that the underlying principles that govern or dictate any position you find yourself in are neither new nor are they unique to you. As humans we are hardwired to think the world revolves around us, notice that in a busy town centre some people are so inconsiderate to just cut across your path. However, from their point of view you were that inconsiderate person who almost cut across their path had they not quickened their steps. The same concepts apply when good things happen to you, obviously because you are amazing and bad things happen to you because life is so unfair and the whole world is against you.

I am sure you never had it this bad

In its totality, your life is unique, but the individual experiences that make up that life are not. However here is the silver lining to the dark cloud which is the commonness of your position; if there is nothing new under the sun then someone has already been where you are. This means two things:
  • This someone made it through the dark tunnel and is on the other side. If so they can advise and support you, offering useful hints on how to make it out of the tunnel yourself. 

  • This someone is still in the tunnel which is bad news for them but good news for you because you can learn what not to do, effectively learning from their mistakes.
Whichever way you look at it, taking the time to hear the old war stories from other students who are above you is always helpful. You are likely to face similar problems which you will then be able to solve in a fraction of the time it took them. 

6. Comrades in arms
"There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

So what about the experiences which your superiors in this fight to conquer education cannot help with? Or she has now moved back to Italy and started a new post-doc position which is just wonderful because this is when you could really use her help to calibrate that one machine in the lab which is prone to give false data? The answer to both questions is ‘happy hour’.

"It's all mineeeeeeeeee"

I don’t mean ‘happy hour’ when you drink away your sorrows. I mean ‘happy hour’ when you share your sorrows. Here the sense of camaraderie is essential but the alcohol is optional. This could happen in the pub, in the university hallways, at the canteen, in the library, behind your desk or even when you bump into old friends. It’s true, ‘misery loves company’, but this misery is prone to disappear once the talking begins and you realise you are not alone. Sometimes you come away with a new perspective which helps you appreciate your position and other times you come away with a new insight which helps you approach your work from a different angle. Simply put, always surround yourself with comrades who are trying to accomplish the same goals you are. Like King Arthur, you also need your knights of the round table if you are going to take down the Morgana that is education.

 7. Quality over quantity
"One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skilful, subduing the others military without battle is the most skilful" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I cannot count how many times I heard it said to me that there is a difference between working 'hard' and working 'wise', and believe me there is. It makes the difference between constantly hitting your head against a brick wall in the hopes of bringing the wall down (working hard), or investing in some dynamite to achieve the same goal (working wise). Let me paint another scenario; two guys walk into the woods to cut down trees with their brand new but rather blunt axes. Why is it blunt when it's brand new? Because they bought it from that dodgy guy who owns the corner store which always sells cheap stuff (every city has a guy like that, mine is called Dodgy Dave, if you are living on a student budget I advise you get to know yours).

You want it? He's got it.

So back to our guys in the woods, the first guy goes straight to work, picks a tree and starts hacking it down. He reasons he doesn't have much daylight left so although the axe is blunt he needs to do the best with what he has. He goes at that tree like a beast, non-stop till the job is done. The second guy reasons the same, but he spends time sharpening the axe and picking out a tree easy to fell. Now this story usually ends with the second guy finishing first but I believe there is greater lesson to be learnt here (I will come back to this on my next point). Nonetheless, you can be sure that only one guy is waking up with a sore back the next morning.

I will always advocate quality over quantity, but more often than not this requires one to invest more time. Quality over quantity refers to the product not the time spent on completing the product. In my undergraduate years, I could write a 3000 word essay overnight but my highest scoring essay was 1500 words in length and I had spent almost two weeks on it. The grade (quality) a piece of work receives can be predicted by the time (quantity) invested into it. So yes quality over quantity, but be prepared to spend time sifting through dirt to find that gem. 

8. Praise and ridicule are separated by success or failure
"Never venture, never win" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Now back to my two guys with the blunt axes from Dodgy Dave. Let’s assume it took the second guy forever to find a stone to sharpen his axe and then he chipped the blade while sharpening it so that by the time the sun set, he had only just started chopping down the tree. People will look at that and call him lazy because he tried to avoid all the handwork our first guy put in to get the job done. Better yet, imagine if Leonidas and his 300 men had failed on the first night to hold off the Persian army at the Hot gates. People will call him an incompetent king and rightly so.

What I am trying to say is this; thinking outside the box comes with a risk. If you succeed; you are hailed as an effective genius. if you fail; you are heckled as a lazy person who likes to cut corners. Be ready to deal with both outcomes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

"Nobody does it like Leonidas"

Follow me on twitter @Tom_DAT

Saturday, 5 October 2013


If you stumbled upon this article looking for advise on how to effectively wage a subtle war against the lab next door over who gets priority on the multiphoton microscope, then this is not the place. I will however be offering advise on how to wage a different kind of war. A war that drafts children as young as age 6 and takes them to the front-lines  Do not be deceived, education is one huge war. Every test is a skirmish, open days are reconnaissance missions, every exam is a battle and it all culminates on the final battle field called University. So like a big brother to a little brother, a general to a recruit, a Jedi master to a Padawan, this is my list of 8 things you need to know if you are stepping onto this final battlefield. As the great general Shang Tsung once said (not to be confused with the great general Sun Tzu), let Mortal Kombat begin. 

1. Know yourself

"Know yourself and you will win all battles" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

We are made to believe that peer pressure is a social problem limited to the teenage years but nothing could be more false. No matter the age or institution so long as people have to interact with one another, peer pressure continues to exist albeit a bit more subtle as one gets older. So know yourself, where you excel and what you suck at, when pulling an all nighter means staying in the library or in the club. In my experiences Science degrees assign more lecture hours than the Arts, whereas the Arts entail more continuous assessments than the Sciences. The two degree programs cannot be approached the same way. 

For a postgraduate taking on education's pinnacle challenge to be awarded the title of 'Doctor' (sorry you do not get a complimentary TARDIS, - I asked) you need a secret weapon when something like this happens...

.....and you hit a dead end. That secret weapon is the answer to this one question; 'What is your goal and what motivates you?'. Agreed that could be two questions but the answers are usually intertwined. Know this answer and know it clearly.  Recite it as your own personal mantra, write it on your doorpost, on your dog and on your supervisors forehead. When the going gets tough, that personal mantra is what will see you through. 

2. Know the terrain
"To know your enemy you must become your enemy" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Everybody makes it into University these days and having excellent grades to show potential employers....., well these come a dime a dozen. Know that you are not alone on this battlefield and to take out your enemy in one shot, you need a clear line of sight. So if you are not naturally blessed to be heads and shoulders above your colleagues, take a page out of Zacchaeus's book and climb a sycamore tree, actually any tree will do and if all the trees are full build yourself a tower. Simply put, you need to stand out and to do this you need a plan and you need it now. There is nothing worse than coming up with a good plan half way through your course only to realise time is not on your side to be able to implement such a perfect plan. 

3. Suck it up
"To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Sun Tzu was onto something here. In primary school you may be applauded for doing your homework, at secondary school you may be applauded for perfect attendance, as an undergraduate you may be applauded for thinking outside the box, as a postgraduate all these things are expected of you as a bare minimum. So at whatever stage of education you find yourself know what is expected of you as a bare minimum. Most importantly do not expect to rewarded for every achievement or else you may just find yourself throwing a tantrum if you are not acknowledged especially if it appears others are been rewarded for doing the same things.

When monkeys do it, it's funny. When people do it, it's not. 

4. You are an army of two (or three but hardly four or more)
"He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight" Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

If you are wondering who the other members of your elite team are, well that will be your supervisor or supervisors. From the moment you start a PhD you enter into a very complex relationship unlike any other and regardless how it turns out there is always one thing you need to remember; Your supervisor is for you. If you excel, it looks good on your supervisor. If you publish it goes towards your supervisor's REF. If you present at a conference it raises your supervisor's profile. So in most cases what's good for you is good for your supervisor as such they will help you achieve your ambitions. In the same vein what is good for your supervisor could also be good for you. After all if your supervisor's profile is raised you can brag about working under such an amazing and world renowned person. Sadly there are a few exceptions to this symbiotic relationship and I recently read one such account which was not so pleasant. 

To be continued.......

Follow me on twitter @Tom_DAT

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Houston, we have lift off

Its been a long time coming and understandably no one reading this will appreciate it but this is my second attempt at getting my own blog up and running. The first attempt shall be left to disappear into obscurity in the farthest regions of the internet. On hindsight that attempt was doomed to fail, not only was I in the middle of a time consuming PhD but I don't think I had the drive to pull it off nor did I possess the writing skill to produce continuous material of general or scientific interest. 

So what has changed? Well for starters I have recently completed my PhD, but I guess that was a bit obvious. My desire to put my student years behind me and step into the 'real world' was a real motivating factor and it was always going to be a matter of time before my supervisor run out of money which would have left me the smartest homeless guy without even a certificate to show how smart he is. Thankfully I was able to trade that reality in for one where I am the most qualified person I know still living off his parents. Although, fours years spent as a PhD student may have left me so accustomed to seeing D that I am genuinely surprised whenever I see the positive side of zero, it was time well spent. I now have an insatiable appetite for science and a larger vocabulary to go along with it. I believe the two should come in very handy as I now enter the job market if not I will always find some consolation in my Ruzzle achievements. 

Much more appreciated if you have played the game
So here goes, this is version 2.0 of my own blog. Expect some current science, some views and perspectives, some obscure science, the odd guest blogger, some funny science, pearls of wisdom, some homage paying science, some full on geekness and wherever my inspiration may take me including ideas on some fringe science.

Follow me @Tom_DAT