I recently came back to university – almost ten years after I graduated. I decided to do a PhD. My jobs have been at prestigious companies with dynamic and intense environments, allowing me to be empowered and thrive at what I do. I decided to let go of lucrative pay and forge something for myself. I set out seeing the PhD as a stepping stone to get me to where I want to be. Of course, I didn’t expect this experience to be a breeze. I’m still fairly new, having just entered my second semester, but here are my top survival tips that might help you going through something similar.
Manage your money – If you come from a working life, salary and money is more of a constant. Cycles that keep replenishing themselves, especially if you’re good at managing it. I am fortunate to get a stipend in the UK but it it’s a drastic difference to my usual monthly pay checks. It’s more important now than ever to stay on top of your finances as this might end up being a long journey if you decide to see if through to the end.
Rely on your support networks – I have been doing this, a. lot. I ended up relocating and this means that I’ve ended up relying a lot more on my existing support networks for emotional support. Feel secure enough to say what you’re feeling without having to put on a brave face. A lot of insights can come out of frank, candid discussions and you might be surprised by some useful nuggets of advise that come your way.
Forge new relationships – go out with your cohort! Life is extremely hectic in a new city, a new environment and doing new things all at once, I know. But don’t use that as an excuse to bail out of socials. It’s really helped me to form close relationships with some of my peers (many of whom are much younger) and even when talking doesn’t help (which for me does not work btw!), just having someone beside you, or having a short conversation with someone who’s company you enjoy or a lecturer, can go a long way to brighten your day and raise your sprit.
Structure your days – I recently had a coaching session with a brilliant person and discovered that some of the source of my feelings came from a lack of structure during my evenings. While I’m good at structuring my day and prioritising, thanks to my work experience, I’ve been rather bad at structuring my evenings. I hadn’t noticed this at all. While it’s okay to put in a little extra as your learning the ropes, it’s also important to have structured evening and to keep yourself engaged in activities you did as part of your working life. So, go to the gym, go out for a meal (a table of one is just fine by me!), go to the theatre or have a karaoke night. But do something that keeps that structure for you.
Reflect, re-evaluate and hang in there – This is a big one. I am quite introspective but it’s important to do little mental checks to see if your project is going in the direction (vaguely at least) that you set out when starting out with the PhD. Your dream can have different versions, sure, but the dream should still be there. If things are aligned, try to hang in there. Everything can seem hard at first but it gets easier.
I broke away from my usual topic pieces but I hope this is useful if anyone is going through something similar, within academia or not. It’s also good for me to have this to reflect back on in a few month’s time.
In October 2017 I set out to direct my second brain controlled film. For the previous two years I have been doing a PhD in brain controlled cinema, which has consisted of taught courses, ‘performance led research in the wild’ studies, a bit of my own practice and a lot of reading. The PhD has given me the time and resources to study and analyse how people came to interact with my first film The Disadvantages of Time Travel, and to read up on passive theories of control amongst other topics relevant to my field. All this has informed my practice and when it came to returning to the director’s chair it was with the foundation of that work. The process of making my second film The MOMENT required me to dedicate all of my time and resources to it, and being able to officially pause my PhD during that time was invaluable. The production was gruelling. For at least a month I worked 7 days a week on no more than 4 hours sleep a night. After the shoot a lot of the crew, the producer and myself went into a kind of freefall and took a few days to return to a semblance of our previous selves. The MOMENT is the largest project where I have been at the helm, it had a crew of 28, and 9 professional actors and we worked to a budget of £54k.
I kept detailed notes as I went along, throughout all of production, which will be helpful when it comes to writing up the practice side of the thesis. Screenings of The MOMENT have been used to collect ‘in the wild’ data form the public focusing on their interaction with the brain controlled film. However the film itself has its own touring life and a sustainable tour is currently being planned throughout 2019.
A project of this scale needs a team behind it. It is worth mentioning that I have the privilege of having an excellent and engaged supervision team who have supported the process, and my producer and partner who have made the practicalities of this project possible. I also found additional partnerships in industry with Live Cinema UK who helped with exhibition and engagement with widespread cultural organisations.
Lessons learnt summary –
Make sure you have adequate budget and time.
Time spent planning is never wasted.
Pool your resources, work with people you trust and if possible have history.
An army marches on its stomach, keep your crew fed and watered.
Find all the support you can from within and outside the PhD structure.
He said that it was an amazing experience, but felt a little nervous about speaking infront of an expert audience and in his reflections thinks that he needs to get some more practice in public speaking to boost his confidence.
His advice to other PhD students:
“don’t be shy, a top conference can give us chances to exchange ideas with most successful and famous guys in our field face to face”
Will 2019 be the year your publish and present some of your PhD research?
MCCRC Symposium – organised by my colleagues, this symposium and workshop provided me with some insight into the legal side of privacy.
Value in Personal Data workshop at the Digital Catapult – I attended a brunch workshop that explored putting a monetary value on personal data.
Misinfocon – as part of Mozfest’s programme this conference explored minsinformation in today’s society. This was particularly interesting from a public health perspective and the impact of misinformation on epidemics. I wrote some reflections for the Initiative’s blog.
Hannah Fry talk – I attended Hannah’s talk on her recent book on algorithms.
USB-C talk from Google – this was a little too technical for me, but it was interesting to learn about the challenges of USB-C in laptop design.
Lunchtime talk with Prof Simon Schaffer – who talked about Babbage who didn’t invent the computer, but in fact replaced them…
Aside from different events, I met lots of new people from different areas from sociology to law, to computer science, to psychology.
I think this was a good time for me to take three months away from my PhD and explore different (but not unrelated) areas. It’s given me some perspective and a sense of where my PhD fits in the wider context.
In terms of work, I first of all started to explore the personal data downloads from social media platforms. I looked at the ease of access, the file types and device compatibility. I was interested to see how personal data downloads might be useful for social media users who participate in online health communities.
While this area was interesting, I wanted to make sure that the internship had a tangible outcome that could be useful for my PhD. I began to explore my interview data from my first study and specifically focused on a question I asked around ‘trust’. I had not analysed this part of the study because I was unsure of its relevance and usefulness, however, whilst at the Trust and Tech Initiative I felt like this was an opportune moment to explore it. I am hoping to write the findings up more formally and submit it to a conference proceedings in 2019.
When I shared the findings with my colleagues at the Initiative and it was felt that my exploration of trust through a transdisciplinary lens could serve as a useful resource for others entering the conversation. I have been writing up a report that uncovers one approach to talk about trust in technology and I use online health communities as an example case study. Once it has all been tidied up and formatted into a well-designed document it will be published by the Initiative.
Overall I feel that the internship was a positive experience; however, I am looking forward to focusing back on my PhD. The break was welcomed and now I feel it’s done its purpose. 🙂
Hackathons are endurance events that bring a host of parties involved in software development together with subject-matter experts in a field to work together to develop products usually in an extremely short period of time, typically a day or two. A long-time staple of the software community, hackathons are increasingly popping up in other industries as they have been shown to be very effective in producing innovative solutions to problems.
I recently had the opportunity to take part in HackTrain 5.0, a rail transport focused hackathon organised by Hack Partners over the weekend of the 9th to 11th of November and it was an amazing experience. It was a hackathon with a twist, as being rail-focused, it involved hours of coding interspersed with train trips to different cities in different countries. It also had massive support from the industry, with sponsors from a range of industry stakeholders including the Department for Transport, Network Rail, Transport for London, Great Western Railway, South Western Railway, Eurostar and Fujitsu among others.
The weekend began with a launch event that saw over 100 participants from all walks of life in the same room with rail industry staff and experts. After a brief introduction to the programme of activities for the next 48 hours by the organising committee, it was the turn of partners and sponsors to present an overview of their various challenges and datasets that they hoped participants could come up with innovative solutions to. These challenges were centred around 4 main themes: customer experience, operational efficiency, rolling stock enhancement and intelligent infrastructure. The presentations were followed by a dinner break where participants could mingle and get to know each other better as well as prod the sponsors and mentors for more information on the challenges. After dinner, participants were divided into two groups: one group would be travelling through two European cities (Paris and Frankfurt) while the other, of which I was part, would visit the UK cities of Milton Keynes and Cambridge. While the European team proceeded to take their leave, the UK team began the process of team formation.
Participants were allowed a minute to present any ideas they had around the challenges and rail travel in general as well as any skills they would want in potential team members. The top 10 ideas were voted for by all, and teams were formed around them. I took over an idea from another participant who pitched two and recruited 2 others to join me. Our idea was an online marketplace for trains where passengers could buy and sell items among themselves while on a trip, in response to the customer experience challenge.
After the teams were formed, the group headed to the station to catch our train to Milton Keynes. It was an exciting trip with our large group making our way through crowded stations decked in our HackTrain paraphernalia, which included an infinity gauntlet! We had to share carriages with other passengers and after explaining what we were doing sometimes got some feedback on ways our solutions could be enhanced.
Our first stop in Milton Keynes was a hotel, where the hacking officially begun. My team began with refining our initial idea by doing some research into its technical feasibility and business viability. Even though the idea was novel and innovative, we decided there were too many issues with it to progress it. After hours of deliberation, we settled on a new idea that took advantage of one of the technologies provided us to solve a long-standing problem with rail travel: accessible travel for disabled passengers.
Using the local train Wi-Fi network, augmented with an innovative “Edge Computing“ platform, we proposed an web application that would allow disabled passengers to book travel, require assistance, order food and plan their onward journeys form the train. Our aim was to empower these passengers to make more spontaneous journeys, as the current methods hampered their ability to do this and usually resulted in bad journey experiences and ultimately fewer trips overall. We called our solution Platform C 3/4 to reflect the how our service would serve as a portal to a magical train experience for disabled customers (C). With our idea and plans finally decided, we proceeded to work on building a prototype and prepare our final pitch. Even though we only went to bed quite late into the night, we were satisfied with what we had been able to achieve.
The next morning, we headed back down to London, to the next hacking space. This trip was much better, as most teams managed to get table seats so they could work on the train. We spent the afternoon at the ORM offices and continued working till evening, when we set off for the final hacking space in Cambridge, the St John’s Innovation Centre. We nearly lost some members in the chaos of the Saturday crowds and were delayed for a while due to this. However, we finally made it to Cambridge safe and sound in the evening, quickly set up and got to coding our prototypes. Each team had a mock ‘dragons den’-style presentation where we pitched our solutions to the HackTrain team and mentors, who acted as the dragons. This session proved very useful and provided very constructive feedback on our pitches in terms of delivery, content and challenge focus. We spent the entire night incorporating this feedback as well as working on our prototype. It wasn’t all work and no play though, as the teams took turns to take part in a Mario kart competition, which turned out to be as competitive as the hackathon itself.
Our final trip came the next morning, where we joined up with participants from the European train back at the Fujitsu offices in London, which was to host the finale of the hackathon. Despite most people staying up the whole night, the energy was amazing, even as teams rushed to make last minute fixes to their codebase and submit their work to beat the submission deadlines. At about two o’clock, the final pitches began. Teams were given four minutes to present their work and the grilled with questions from the judging panel. A lot of innovative solutions were presented and every team had a working demo to show. At the end of the day, even though my team did not place in the top 3 overall, we were able to nab the top spot for the best solution around South Western Railway’s customer experience challenge and came away with cool prizes. Not bad for a weekend of work J .
All in all, it was a great experience that gave me a lot of insight into the issues, priorities and future direction of the rail industry. It was also a good opportunity to sharpen my skills in idea generation and prototype development through its agile design sprint-like process. Finally, I made lots of new friends and industry contacts that would be valuables resources in my future projects.
The best ideas often don’t emerge from a single person – they are often the result of collaborative innovation. Hackathons bring together like-minded people who bring together different skills, tools, equipment, and experiences to celebrate creativity, innovation, and technology.
I have recently returned from ExHack, a student hackathon held at the University of Exeter. Over the last 4 years, I have supported more than 45 Hackathons throughout Europe and North America through my work with Major League Hacking before joining the World Bank Group on a short-term engagement to support the Lake Victoria Challenge.
Hackathons – What are they?
Hackathons are collaborative programming competitions run over a short period of time (usually 24 to 36 hours). During the event, attendees are encouraged to work in small teams to turn tech-related ideas into prototypes before pitching their projects to judges for a chance to win amazing prizes. Beyond the material goal of winning prizes, Hackathons are about a culture of building, learning, and sharing. They provide attendees with a holistic view of everything that goes into working as a team and implementing an idea from scratch.
While I participated in Hackathons as an attendee during the time I worked on my MSc in Human Geography, I have since focussed more on the learning and sharing aspect of hackathon culture. Working with Major League Hacking, the official Student Hackathon League, I have traveled to over 45 Hackathons to empower, support, and mentor Hackathon organizers and participants over the last 4 years.
During the events, I routinely run workshops and help attendees brainstorm ideas for their projects and debug their project code. My engagement is often in the form of informal mentorship – Hackathons are not about reinventing the wheel. Instead, it is about sharing what myself and others have learned, what worked and what didn’t and getting folks to try out new technologies.
Hackathons are also great spaces for networking. The events are frequently organized by students and supported by a myriad of (tech) companies from local start-ups and initiatives such as the Digital Economy Network to global players such as Google, AWS or Dell. Through my work with Hackathons and my Ph.D. research focussing on the role of novel data sources in informing Urban and Transport planning in Tanzania, I have been offered the opportunity to be involved in organizing the first Lake Victoria Challenge in Tanzania.
Lake Victoria Challenge
The shores of Lake Victoria are home to over 30 million people, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Delivering vital health supplies and other urgent goods is often challenging due to rugged terrain, the remoteness of island communities and limited road networks. Novel technologies such as cargo drones have huge potential to alleviate some of the supply chain burdens faced by communities and businesses in the region.
Over 280 attendees from 23 countries traveled to Mwanza, Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria for a three-day conference and flying competition in October 2018.
The conference brought together domain experts from health, technology, transport, and regulation to discuss the transformative opportunities of commercial drone technologies for the Lake Victoria region specifically and other regions more generally. The event focussed on three areas:
1. Technology: discussing the latest development in drone technologies and application,
2. Regulation: integrating regulatory frameworks for integrating drones into civil airspace, and
3. Architecture: envisioning the form and function of Droneports, which are the hub for commercial drone operations
During the conference I had the opportunity to present some of the research outputs of the N-Lab’s Z-Roads project, using surveying drones and machine learning for low volume road condition analysis, as part of the LVC technology track in addition to being involved in the organisation of the event.
Each year children and parents are invited to visit the University and play lots of free and fun games that help us with research. This past summer, Wendy Olphert (2015 cohort) enjoyed assisting in one of the activities at Summer Scientist 2018:
A bit of brainwave! –Wendy Olphert
I’m researching the role that digital technologies (such as mobile phones and the internet) play in the lives of people with a brain tumour – whether their symptoms create challenges for technology use, and whether using technologies can contribute to improving their quality of life.
At one level, this is quite an easy idea to communicate to people outside of an academic context – we readily understand that if we have a problem with our brain it could affect our ability to think or act – but to appreciate the range of impacts that a brain tumour could have on an individual’s life requires an awareness of what our brains do and how they work. The brain is such a complex organ that scientists are still researching these questions. But we already know a lot, and as I recently found out, even for young children it can be fun as well as instructive to learn about how brains work!
Over the summer I had a chance to assist in an event called Summer Scientist 2018.
This is a week-long programme run by the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham in the school vacation that has now run for several years. Families are invited to bring their children (aged 4-11) to spend half a day at the University to play lots of free fun games and optionally to take part in some research activities – that were also designed to be fun and engaging. By taking part, children (and parents) get to learn about how the mind and brain work by experiencing real science first-hand.
I was given responsibility for an activity on the theme of electroencephalography – how dull does that sound for young kids?! But the organisers had found a clever and entertaining way to demonstrate the fact that the brain generates electrical impulses, using a special headset with a pair of furry (fake!) cat’s ears attached (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurowear). The headset picks up electrical activity from the brain which in turn moves the ears depending on your state of mind. When you are relaxed, the ears droop; when you are interested, the ears are alert – and when you are ‘in the zone’ the ears wiggle. The kids had free choice over the activities they chose to take part in, and most were fascinated by the wiggly ‘cats ears’ and keen to try them out for themselves.
The children attending had a free choice over the activities they opted to do, and during the course of the two sessions in the day around 40 children of different ages came to the stand to try out the ears and, by doing so, learned about electrical impulses in the brain. There was a mirror to look in; once I’d attached their headset, some found out that the more they giggled at their reflection the more the ears wiggled (and the more the ears wiggled, the more they laughed!) Others, especially one little boy of about 6, spent many minutes silently trying out different ‘brain activities’ such as thinking about exciting times such as parties, being calm, or trying to count backwards from 20, and clearly being intrigued to see the effects of his ‘brainwaves’ on the ears’ movement.
For the older children, and in some cases their parents, I explained how scientists can use the electrical impulses in the brain to find out more about how it works and what is happening when the brain is not working as it should – and that in turn gave me a chance to tell some of them about the research that I am doing.
I really enjoyed the day and it was clear that the kids had a great time too, as well as picking up lots of science along the way. I felt that the whole concept of ‘Summer Scientist’ week really was a bit of a brainwave!
Last week we ran a poll over our social media channels to see what podcasts our students (and the wider PhD community) listen to. Podcasts can be a great way to get out of your head for a bit and think about things a little differently. We recommend listening to them when you’re travelling around or when you’re getting ready.
We welcome more suggestions, please pop them in the comments.
RNIB Connect Radio is a radio station serving the UK, and is funded primarily by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and also by other local councils. Ahmed‘s PhD is focsued on navigation technologies for the blind and partially sighted and finds listening to this podcast really useful.
Roza Vasileva (2016 cohort) has recently returned the Oman National Open Data Symposium where she spoke about Open Data. After her presentation she took questions on smart cities, the focus of her PhD.
This week the new 2018 cohort have been settling into the CDT with their welcome week. They’ve been hearing about what projects are going on at Horizon and the CDT, and what the next year ahead is going to look like!
We wish them all the best and hope that they feel at home super soon!