Chapter 2: A History Lesson

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away… that doesn’t work, I think someone has already used that. Once upon a time… still no, overused... I give up.

Before we can dive into what is going on with my PhD, (we’ll get there eventually I promise) I’m going to recap the journey which led me there. I’m not doing it because it’s particularly important or dramatic, unless you count that incident with the train in France, but we don’t talk about that (it still haunts me to this day). It just feels like the right thing to do - before you know what’s coming you should know what came before. And if I am going to compare this PhD to the hero’s journey, it is best to know how the hero ended up on that road in the first place (I know in the last post I said I’d keep the hero comparisons to a minimum… I’m trying my best).


A flair for the Dramatic

I stand alone onstage. The audience is silent. I am Bruce the Spruce. At least, that was the name of the first acting role I remember being given. I can’t even remember if I had any lines, I may have been just a stationary tree in the background for the whole play, but at age 10 I didn’t really care; I was just glad I got to dress up as a tree.

That was the first of a range of minor acting roles; I went to a Secondary school (that’s High School to those outside of the U.K) that was aimed towards the “Performing Arts”. This meant that all things music, dance and drama were the main focus.  I’m not sure why my school chose to focus on this particular area but I have a feeling it happened in the wake of Billy Elliot, a film about a young coal miner learning ballet, which was based in the town right next to mine.

At school I chose to put my energy into drama (my singing and dancing are still to this day abysmal). It may seem like a leap from the dramatic arts to science, but I was slowly developing a keen interest in the more academic field. Up until I was around 14 I had chosen to ignore this because I thought science was too “nerdy” (as we all know drama is cool and science is uncool… at least that is what younger me thought). Then came the time to pick college subjects, where I had to make the decision between drama/performing arts or science. If you hadn’t figured it out yet, I picked science and chose to study chemistry and biology. I still wonder if I made the right choice; I could have been the next Leonardo DiCaprio (probably not, I don’t have the chin for it, or the hair, or any of the other impeccable facial features).

The research bug

From college, I (along with a great many from my generation) decided to carry on into higher education and went to The University of Leeds, where I chose to study Pharmacology. Occasionally, usually when I first met someone new, I would get asked what made me choose this subject. I always gave the honest answer, and people still refuse to believe me, that “it sounded like it could be fun.” That was all. I did almost no research and went purely on instinct. If anyone is thinking about going to university and is reading this, (if universities still exist in the future) I don’t advise using this method. It worked out for me, but always do your research before making such a big decision.

Thankfully, I got a great deal of enjoyment out of my degree and had the typical student experience; I drank alcohol and ate an unhealthy amount of fried chicken (at one point I lived 2 minutes from KFC - that was a rough year). More importantly, during my second year I took on a summer project and was bitten. Not by any radioactively enhanced insect, but by the “research bug.” I came to the realisation that I could spend my time in a lab, away from other people and if I was lucky, be paid to do so. To me this seemed like an ideal job. From there, I started to drift towards a career in research and decided to stay on and do a Masters, to stave off getting what some people call a “real job,” (FYI research is still a real job).  My Masters was fairly uneventful, and after my Masters I was extremely lucky and managed to get a job at the university as a research technician. This focused on biosensors (at some point I’ll do a post about biosensors, because in my entirely unbiased opinion they’re awesome).


Into the unknown

At this point in the timeline we are in early 2017, and following almost a full year developing biosensors at the University, I decided to continue my pursuit of a career in research with the next the logical choice, applying for a PhD. After a discussion with an old supervisor, I decided to focus on bio/nanotech and applied for a CDT, Centre for Doctoral Training, in Nanomedicine at The University of Nottingham. After what felt like a horrendous interview, (in my experience interviews always feel worse than they actually are) I was told several weeks later that I was accepted and would start in September 2017. So, after spending over 5 years at the University of Leeds, I packed up and headed down to Nottingham, into the unknown…

This is where I was, seven or eight months ago, about to start a PhD.

And now I feel like I’ve reminisced enough for one post. I realise this was a long one, I did have a lot to cover, but thanks if you’ve stuck with it this far. In the next post, I’ll be covering the successes and failures during my first few months on the PhD. Till next time, this is Steve the Scientist signing off.

Chapter 1: A Hero’s Journey

Seven months ago I sat down to read Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Despite owning the book for several years (I think it was a gift?) I had yet to make the effort to delve into the rather sizeable tome. That was until prompted by a tweet, which I’ll get to in a minute, and I decided to crack the cover. I read the first three pages in a week, then gave up and decided to move onto something more my level - like Kipper or Let's Go Home, Little Bear.

Around the same time, I made the decision to try and start a blog in which I would chronicle the PhD I was about to start. I came up with a blog title, drafted the first post and started designing the website. And, just like the book, I gave up. The post sat saved on a memory stick and the idea was forgotten about, laid to rest alongside previous unsuccessful endeavours.

In both cases, the book and the blog, I used the excuse “I was busy”, which at the time seemed true. The two were linked by an initial idea, prompted by the aforementioned tweet (and subsequent comments); a friend of mine started a twitter thread which compared the trials and tribulations of a PhD to the journey seen in The Lord of the Rings. It was an impressive story he told and I recommend checking it out: 

This is what prompted me to try and read Campbell’s book discussing the hero's journey; LOTR being a typical depiction of this story trope. I have still yet to read the full book but have since read certain sections and done some more research on the subject. In particular, I wanted to see if other people had drawn the comparison between the hero’s journey and a PhD. I found a paper from Colorado Technical University that tried to use the hero’s journey as a way to prepare doctoral students for their studies.  While this study was interesting, it was based solely on testimonials. So I started thinking, it could be more compelling to see how Campbell’s journey compared to a PhD from a first person perspective, from the heroes themselves.

So that's where the idea for this blog came from; in September 2017 I started a PhD and wanted to chronicle my journey from start to finish. Unfortunately, I have failed to document the first seven months. Thankfully, I am on a CDT (centre for doctoral training) which means that my first year is a training year, and I will be starting my actual PhD project this coming May. Essentially, I am making another excuse to justify why I failed to start this blog seven months ago and am only now getting started.

I realise this is not an original idea; since blogging became cool in the early 90’s PhD students across the world have chosen to blog their time in academia. Likewise, I’m aware that setting myself up as the hero of this “story” is a little grandiose. But trust me, it could be worse and unfortunately in this analogy, it is necessary. Plus, it’s my blog so I can do what I want! (Sorry for yelling).

The aim of the blog will be to collect data because, you know, that's what scientists do.  Not only that, but throughout history people have used journals to keep track of their progress and document their thoughts - Marie Cure and Charles Darwin both kept notebooks of their discoveries. I’m not saying that my writing a blog comes close to their historic findings (I did warn you that the grandiose comparisons could be worse) but it just highlights that chronicling this kind of adventure can be important. Plus, this will be as much for my own records as it is for anyone else’s; I want to be able to look back and follow my descent from student to mad scientist.  

In the next post I’m going to cover my history and how I ended up doing a PhD, because if we are going to follow a hero we need to know his origin (I  really am  sorry for how this comes across, I’ll try to keep it to a minimum in the future, I promise). Until next time, this is Steve the Scientist signing off. 


Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Lord of the Rings: an allegory of the PhD?

Launching New Doctoral Students: Embracing the Hero’s Journey