If you’ve read my About page, you’ll know that I’m a PhD student. Specifically, I’m a student on the University of Bath’s Accountable, Responsible, Transparent Artificial Intelligence Centre for Doctoral Training, or ART-AI for short. In other words, it’s a PhD program with a focus on making AI easier to understand and implement in a responsible fashion. As someone very interested in both explainable and ethical AI, this is a very nice fit for myself.
If you’re interested in applying for a PhD yourself at some point, whether you’re working on it now or looking to do so in the future, you’ll likely already have done some Googling on the subject. You may have had a fairly mixed response in this search, with a lot of articles talking about just how miserable the PhD experience can be, and some that are more optimistic. Personally, I found a lot of people’s attempts to dissuade potential PhDs a bit disheartening. Given my position as being at the very start of my PhD career, I feel like this is an opportunity to challenge the view.
Hence the new post series: My PhDiary. In these posts I’m going to chronicle my journey through the PhD program, focusing on the big important moments like seminars, getting published, important deadlines, or just anything I think people would like to read about. You as a reader can get a more detailed journal of the PhD experience, and I get to read it again down the line and feel all nostalgic. Everyone wins!
To kick us off, I’m going to describe my induction week experience. If you’re not in the know, induction week is the week prior to the official start of lectures and all the things that entails. It involves various sessions to get familiar with the university and the program, along with social opportunities to get to know your fellow students better. Considering that I’ve spent most of the previous year sitting in my flat thanks to the combination of Covid and working from home, you would assume I’d be quite eager to get out and interact with the world again.
But of course in real life, emotions are never quite so straightforward.
The good thing about Monday is that I didn’t actually have to leave the comfort of my flat and visit the university that I was so excited to see again, as the only induction session was online. Specifically, it was a session on general university life, services available, and where to go in the event of an emergency. Since I did my master’s degree at Bath in 2019, the session was pretty much just a recap of what I’d heard before. Overall, easy stuff!
The major difference between the 2019 session and this one was that it was online, due to the wonderful effects of Covid. Unfortunately, while a lot more events could happen on campus, many things were still taking place online for a variety of reasons. Not perfect, but much better than having to do the course from home all the time. One of the main lessons from this pandemic for me has been the importance of maintaining a distance between your professional life and your home life, lest it become impossible to take a break from either. So if that means some sessions have to be online so others don’t have to be, I’ll roll with it.
With that single session out the way, the content of which I was already quite familiar with, I could switch off and relax, looking forward to the next day’s sessions.
Or that was the plan, at least; people who know me would point out that relaxation is not a very prominent word in my vocabulary.
On Tuesday I was awake at 5 am, despite having my alarm set for 6:30, because who could sleep on such a
nerve-wracking exciting day? Introduction to the Computer Science department in the morning, and getting to meet my PhD colleagues in the afternoon. Good times! With a breakfast of a banana and some cough medicine (not Covid), I packed far too many things in my bag just in case and set out my door to my brand new adventure.
But first, I had to get up this f*cking hill.
Bath is quite a hilly city, and a walk around it will get you a good workout to go along with your touring and shopping. Bathwick hill, in comparison, is the boundary between the city centre, where I’m based, and the university itself. It’s about a mile long and 550 feet high. I’m no expert on hill walking so I don’t know how that ranks, but it’s certainly enough to leave an amateur like me quite sweaty and short of breath by the time you reach the top. However, wanting to get more exercise into my routine and save on bus fare, I’ve set myself the challenge to try and walk it at least once a day to university. Will I persevere? Only time will tell!
I don’t have a lot to say about the induction to computer science session, apart from the fact that it has been a long time since I had to sit in a lecture for two hours with no breaks. After a while certain needs became a bit distracting; one of the cons of being at home with easy access to comfort breaks for a good long while.
The other interesting part of the session was the master’s student I met sat next to me. An ex-lawyer from London, he had made the bold move to pursue a more fulfilling career and move into a new field. Having gone through more or less the same thing when I stopped being an actuary to pursue my own master’s degree two years earlier, we had a good chat about the whole process. Sadly we were separated before we could trade contact info, but I wish him all the best with his own course!
Since there were two hours until my next session, I headed home to change into something a bit more presentable and less sweaty, as we were taking photos that afternoon. After the very short stay at home, I then hopped a bus back up to the university (because I am not bold enough to try that hill twice in one day) and got ready to meet my colleagues.
Introductions are very difficult, aren’t they? Even if you’re practiced at introducing yourself, it can be so hard to find an opportunity to step in when people are already talking, and once you’ve gotten past names, how much small talk do you do? Do you just leave it at a hello and a name for now because you’re working with these people for four years? Or is that too short a length of conversation, and you come across as rude? And once you’ve actually introduced yourself to people, where do you settle down and just sit afterwards? Agh!
But on the plus side, there was free pizza!
Never the less, I was able to meet everyone and did my best to remember all the names. At the end of the day, my strategy boiled down to hellos and handshakes (or just waves, because Covid), then move on to the next person. So if in doubt, take a fast approach and get to know everyone better later. There’s always the challenge of trying to remember names by the next day, but such is life.
The other difficult part of meeting everyone was probably the first source of that nasty little feeling known as Imposter Syndrome. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s described as a feeling of having cheated your way into a situation or position, with there only being a matter of time until you are found out as the imposter as you are. In this case, the cause was discussing what my PhD research would actually involve.
To get onto the ART-AI program, you do have to write an actual research proposal and discuss this in an interview, so it’s not as if I’m completely aimless. At the same time, my project is still in its very early stages design wise, with little specific focus. Hence, I summarise my project as “Something something Bayesian something something Explainable AI”. When you’re comparing that to people with very specific projects, to the point they already have stretch goals in mind, it makes you feel a little nervous!
That said, I’ve had enough experience with Imposter Syndrome in my previous line of work that I’ve developed some useful strategies for managing it. My main one is to not take myself too seriously, and just go along with things until they either succeed or fail. Obviously I would prefer the former (very much!), but it’s useful to accept that the latter wouldn’t be the end of the world. So if ‘something’ manages to make up four out of the seven words in my project title for the time being, then I’ll just have to work around it for now. I perhaps shouldn’t have described my project that same way to the management team running the session, but nevermind, they interviewed me and gave me the position, so they presumably have faith.
I suppose what I’m trying to get at here is that there’s probably going to be dozens of opportunities to feel inadequate on a PhD program, so why get worked up over one so early on? If you’re concerned, or ever feel like an imposter, just remember that you got into the situation in the first place fair and square, and that means you’re good enough to get through it too. And if you’re feeling really overwhelmed, confide in someone you trust or your local support service, who will be happy to help you out.
After introductions were done and the program was explained, we had individual and cohort photos taken. I did dress up a bit specifically for this occasion, so that I could use the picture as a good professional shot, but I didn’t go so far as to wear a suit. It was my smart ensemble that you could still wear in a casual situation. Smart-casual sounds too much like office wear to me though, which I detest, so I’ll call it my ‘Smasual’ look.
Finally after photos, we got to see the office space that was set aside specifically for our cohort. Even though I’m sharing with 17 other people, of which only 13 are supposed to be in there on average until Covid is sorted, I have my own office space again! I also managed to nab the corner desk with a window, which is pretty slick.
The drawers were full of tissues, a personal photo and various other crap, but it’s still my desk. Now I just need to decorate it, of which I’m told anything goes as long as it won’t leave any permanent markings, and no live cats. Plush cats are perfectly fine though.
After a lot of “see you tomorrows” and one last walk home for the day, in which the weather promptly soaked me to the bone, I can now put my feet up, have a cup of tea, and breathe a sigh of relief. The first real day of the program is complete!
And since the first day is inevitably the hardest, the rest will be smooth sailing from here. Right?
Wednesday kicked off with me sending out links to almost everyone I know to my brand new, shiny acdemic profile page! If the interviews, offer letters, meetings with the department and previous two days of induction week didn’t really make me feel like a PhD student, this certainly did.
After this brief high, I realised I didn’t have to go onto campus until the afternoon at the earliest, and was stuck with a feeling of being not sure what to do with myself. Eventually I settled on finishing off a Naive Bayes spam classifier, because I’m a PhD student and this is what I do for fun now. I was able to get the classifier up to 95% accuracy, which is pretty good if I do say so myself. I’ll be doing a full blog post on this at a later date, so keep your eyes peeled.
When it came time to head back up to the university, I found myself breaking my resolution to walk the hill every day within twenty four hours, which was disappointing. But in my defence, it was raining when I left the flat, and I’d already bought the ticket for the bus by the time it had stopped. I suspect this will become a running theme for deciding between travel options.
The first session at the university of the day was a peer mentor group session. Our cohort and the two that came before us have been split into three mixed groups; the purpose of these groups is a bit fuzzy, but they’re basically a peer support and collaboration operation. In this session, our session lead Scott lightened the mood with some very atypical ice breaker questions, which were hilarious if nothing else. My question in particular was:
“What is the lamest modern day item that you would take back to the middle ages and use to become king?”
To which I answered: a ball-point pen. I later justified this as being because the pen is mightier than the sword, but truthfully the question just made me remember a scene from Blackadder Back & Forth. Such is my line of thinking.
Still, despite this relaxed and friendly session, I couldn’t help but feel that spectre of Imposter Syndrome creeping up on my shoulder. Seeing all these confident experienced PhDs talk about the work they’d done previously, combined with being surrounded by other colleagues with seemingly more defined ideas, was a bit rattling. But I took my advice from yesterday about selection methods, and considered that if they had been able to make it to their second and third years and become confident researchers, there’s no reason I would be any less likely to. It’s still a rather intimidating prospect ahead of me, but I just have to take it one day at a time, like anything.
After this session was an hour’s wait before the cream tea social, which as students we naturally filled with booze. I’m not a huge drinker personally, due to my small stature and light weight, but I still had a very daring half-pint as a bit of social lubricant for the meet and greet coming up. As I said about Tuesday, everyone’s very nice and interesting, but it’s always a bit intimidating meeting so many new people.
When the social rolled around, I followed up my previous half-pint with a glass of prosecco and various nibbles. In hindsight, I don’t think I actually had any cream tea at the social, and I’m not sure I spoke to anyone who did. One day I may even discover what cream tea tastes like.
Regardless, it was a great opportunity to talk to almost everyone on the PhD program, both staff and students, and much fun was had. Most of the conversations were taken up by trying to learn names and talking about what people were working on, but practically everyone knew how to pitch their areas in an interesting manner, and then carry on a conversation afterwards. Really, the stereotype of academics being poor conversationalists is a bit dated by today’s standards: networking is more important than ever, and it’s always nice to do so in a relaxed environment with free bubbly and cake.
When things wrapped up some people did want to continue the party at the nearby pub, but I politely declined. Two drinks is pretty much my limit under most circumstances, and I knew there would be plenty more opportunities to spend time with my peers in the near future.
Despite yesterday being a good day on the whole, nerves had me awake at 5 am once again. Induction week is quite the emotional rollercoaster, isn’t it? Like Tuesday, however, I braved the walk up the hill this morning in spite of the rain. Though I’m still not really sure what the best outfit for climbing that hill is, as my coat doesn’t breathe at all and would leave me a sweaty mess, making the journey on foot rather than bus does seem to be a fairly effective way to work out some of those early morning nerves. It’s a handy tip to keep in mind and motivate me to keep on walking it.
The first session of today was an induction to the doctoral college across the whole university, rather than just my program. Before that though, I took the opportunity to sit at my new office desk for a little while, taking in the ambience. Although I’ve never been a huge fan of office life for various reasons, after working from home for a year and a half, it feels absolutely wonderful to have a dedicated workspace that isn’t also my living room.
The induction session itself was quite enjoyable, if a bit typical. Discussing what other students hoped and feared for in doing their PhDs was definitely the highlight of the session, and it was quite good to get to know the doctoral engagement team. I may even volunteer for it myself next year, if I can do anything to help people feel settled in just a bit sooner.
This was followed up with a trip back to my office, where I had a quick chat with one of the directors of studies, and then I had two hours until my next session. My plan was to do a brief bit of reading and planning, followed by a lunch on campus, but one of my colleagues joined me in the office and we wound up chatting for the whole two hours. Making good conversations like that at this early stage is very reassuring, since you want to get those relationships going early on so you have someone to chat and gripe with. It did mean I forgot to eat lunch, but oh well, I’m very fuel efficient as I like to say.
The library induction came next, which I must confess I paid very little attention to. The process had not really changed since my master’s degree two years ago, and I knew from experience that Bath’s library service is very easy to use. Nevermind, they can’t all be knockouts.
The last session of the day was another collaborative event between all three of the cohorts in the ART-AI, spearheaded by some of the students . The purpose was to discuss ways our projects interacted with each other, and to come up with plans for how we could collaborate together. It was a great opportunity to learn a bit more about the sort of methods my colleagues had been using so far, and we made some interesting plans for what we could do next. One of those was to work on a collaborative bit of blog writing about interpretable AI, so that’s another topic you should watch out for on here!
The downside was that I did not realise this was a two hour session instead of one, so it had been about nine hours since I had last eaten by the time we got out. Whoops. Never the less, we followed this session with another drinking trip to the student union’s bar. I opted to avoid any alcohol on this instance, because me plus alcohol minus food equals a mess. Fortunately, having gotten to know the cohort a bit better by now, conversation came along much easier. I’m sure as time continues and I continue getting to know them, it will just get easier still.
Sadly, Friday was a bit of a wash out.
Without going into too many details, a personal matter came up that left me in no real state to attend the cohort social that afternoon. We were supposed to go paddleboarding, which I had never done before and didn’t have a huge interest in, but I did very much have a vested interest in making memories with my fellow students. Alas, it was not meant to be on this day.
While it was difficult, the university staff I talked to were very supportive, and the student union’s support service was equally helpful. Thanks to everyone I spoke to for being understanding and their advice; it really helped me get through the day.
It’s unfortunate that I missed out on the social, but I haven’t lost heart. I’m working with these people for four years after all, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty of other opportunities to make memories when it’s more suitable. I would say the key takeaway is that the rest of the world will continue in full force despite how much a PhD can feel very much like the number one thing on your mind, and it’s absolutely sensible and important to keep a work-life balance.
It’s also important not to let your first week of something not going perfectly be some kind of indication that you’re off to a bad start, or that you haven’t done things properly. This doesn’t apply just at PhD level either: any kind of induction week can be a pretty stressful experience, as well as fun, and you need to do what you’re capable of without letting important things slip. If you need some down time to process some difficult events, or just to catch your breath from the non-stop activities, that’s perfectly fine. You know you best.
And there you have it, the long recap of my PhD induction week. Overall it was a very exciting, if rather intimidating time, with plenty of highs and lows. From what I’m told this could summarise an entire PhD experience, so at least I’m getting the practice in early.
Though this new adventure, even at a university I’m quite familiar with, feels quite alien and overwhelming at this stage, settling into a new environment always takes some time and energy. In a couple of months it should feel a lot more second nature to me, and before I know it I’ll be moving into writing up proper research proposals.
But above all else, it’s essential to remember to take things at the pace you’re capable of, ask for support if you need it, and take the right opportunities to have fun!
Do you have any opinions on how my induction week went? Any relatable stories from your own time starting something new? If so, I hope you’ll share them in the comments section below.