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Reflections on my PhD

Posted 27th May 2015

Abdul Karim Haji Dheere is coming to the end of his time at King's as a PhD student and wanted to share some of his highs and lows.

Aside from the allure and the glamour, going through a PhD can be tough. So knowing that others like myself suffer as much, if not more, should be somewhat comforting. I wanted to share with you my highs and lows during my period here at King’s and I will try to be as honest as I can while trying not to get into too much trouble!

In the past 3 years, I‘ve had some amazing times and thinking back now, I can’t help but smile. I have had the good fortune to have met some amazing people that made me laugh as soon as they opened their mouths, and some others that were able to memorise my bank card details with just one look – I’m still not sure whether I should be impressed or scared (I have however, changed my bank details). But of course, just like any other PhD student, I had my share of frustration and self-doubt.

When I first started here at King’s on a 1+3 PhD (1st year was a masters), the whole process was new to me. I was assured in my knowledge of chemistry, but the prospect of working in a multidisciplinary area was completely and sufficiently daunting, to say the least. Add to that the fact that I was to be working in a hospital environment, it was all rather intimidating.

Coming from years of traditional academic environments- with peers who were of a similar age to me- left me feeling bizarrely out of my depth. In the presence of my co-workers, I felt like a child; filled with awe and barely any confidence. And it’s in this state that I made the first of my terrible, cringe-worthy decisions at King’s. Now, before I begin, I’d really like to have you in my shoes for a moment. Remember, I’m in a new place, surrounded by people who are substantially older and clearly wiser than me. I mean, people here were going to conferences and writing their own publications. I, on the other hand, found it difficult to read an entire publication without skimming at least a paragraph or two. And the rapport they had with their supervisors- they spoke like friends! They spoke like… Grown-ups! My supervisors were always friendly towards me, but I’d always see them like mentors, like my seniors, like teachers. I needed to compensate for my lack of confidence through an act of immeasurable confidence. A sign that I was one of the team, that I belonged here, not a dead weight that required constant supervision but a maverick, as smart as they were.
I wasn’t.

So I’m in this lab, surrounded by equipment that’s entirely foreign to me- I mean, they had scales and hot plates, but the rest of the equipment there looked like the things NASA used to send chimps to space. During my induction, I was to be shown how one particular piece of equipment worked (it was an HPLC machine). A bizarre machine, stacks of what looked like mini fridges with odd buttons and lights blinking away measuring who knows what. The senior asked if I’d used one of these machines before. Remember that last paragraph? Remember my need to feel adequate? “Yeah, I have used one before” was my answer, and as a result, I was only given a very short explanation of how to use this particular machine. After which I gave him a big smile with two thumbs up, all the while thinking, “I have no clue what these boxes do…” Dear Lord, I needed to use this thing the following day. Could I ask someone else? Of course not! I’d just been shown how to use it in front of everyone! What kind of idiot needs two explanations on a machine he’s said he already knows how to use?! Not someone who does a PhD, that’s for sure!


So instead, rather than being given a full explanation on how a machine worked, I spent the entire night (through to most of the morning) reading the most incredibly mundane documentation on how this machine ran. Seven hours it took! Seven hours I could have spent sleeping. The next day I was so sleep deprived that I was constantly making mistakes on that very machine. I eventually had to own up to having not known how to use the machine and as a result I looked like a real idiot, I wasted a whole day and I lost an entire night’s worth of sleep.

I think the moral anyone could take away from this story is that if you’re going to lie about anything, don’t lie about knowing how to use a machine that is integral to your day to day work.. Lie about your age or something.

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