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Living in the Cambridge bubble


First Year Report

Let’s write about writing. Here in Cambridge, for the first year of my PhD I am not actually a PhD student — I am on the probationary year. By the end of June I am expected to submit the first year report (FYR). The name speaks for itself: it is a progress report from the past year. It has a word limit of 12000 (varies slightly between the departments).

Writing is an essential part of PhD life: first you write a few research proposals, which can be tricky if you don’t know exactly what you will be doing. For the more fancy scholarships, like Gates, your creative self may have a field day, as they ask simple questions such as “How will you change the world?”. Then you write abstracts for conferences, reports for the grants you are involved in, and if you are smart or lucky enough, there are papers to write as well. I’d estimate a good half-day a week was spent on writing during my first year, and I imagine you write more when you progress. Exciting, isn’t it? Except for maybe when what you write is only going to be read by four people, as is the case with the FYR.

It’s not too bad though. I mean, it is when it comes to the introduction, which takes 1/4-1/3 of the report, and is more or less the same thing that you wrote for your Master’s thesis and a few proposals before. My introduction ended up being a 90% recycled material — how ecological! If you have time and will, you can start with a blank page and try to explain all this from the beginning, just for yourself, so that you see the gaps in your knowledge. I didn’t have either, not for a report reviewed by four people who have seen countless similar intros.

The fun part is the experimental chapter, where you try to convince them you did find some time to enjoy science in between enjoying Cambridge. The secret is your lab book — time invested in noting every step of your measurement or idea is time well spent, because all you need to do then is to transcribe your own notes into something more intelligible to others. It gives you a very good idea about what you have missed and where your project is heading to, how much time it can take (well, if you remember to put dates in your lab book!) and in which areas you are (in)efficient. My weak point is definitely debugging others’ code and I spent way too much time on it — a month and a half or so.

Apart from making measurements, it is usually good to make some sense of the data. In the early stage of your PhD it is usually facilitated by the fact you are working under someone’s supervision and it is in their best interest to help you out. On the other hand, I don’t think we are expected to draw revolutionary conclusions already, so I took it easy: I said what my ideas where (they were really simple) and then I clearly said what I did not understand, putting it in nice words like this effect needs to be further investigated. Yes, science writing is full of euphemisms, possibly because it is written in English.

To make the writing period a) more pleasant b) shorter, I decided to take a few days off and write at home, which is not unusual in my group. The first week of writing was accompanied by a perfect weather, so I ended up cycling in the mornings and reading The Feynman Lectures… in the garden a bit too much than I should have, but at least it was a work-related book, right? It took me 11 days (including a weekend, during which I wrote ~500 words) to write the report. It could have easily been done in a week, but I am not that strict with myself when I work from home. I feel it is full of statements that raise doubts about my understanding of the field, so without wasting more time on meta-writing I will try to come to grips with all the thirty references that I cited…

Here is my progress plot, just because I wanted to try out Google Visualisation API (I found a much better tool: The first significant increase on Monday was when I added the introduction, and the second when I included bibliography, figure captions etc.