A PhD student’s lot is not a happy one. You spend your first year failing in everything you do. You spend your second struggling with a lack of motivation. Your final year is taken up rushing to get almost every figure that will feature in your thesis, cursing the days of first-year procrastination and second-year moping. Then you’re forced to take part in Final Year Talks (or what is bombastically referred to here in York as ‘Graduate Symposium’). Thanks, Science!
Past ‘Graduate Symposia’ have been splendid affairs, showcasing the department’s very best students and their excellent work. My cohort and I had a lot to live up to. Here, I’d like to give you a runthrough of my preparation and that of others. Let me take you on a journey, back in time…
9th February: email comes through to remind us to send in an abstract for the ‘Graduate Symposium’. What the hell am I going to talk about? What am I doing at the moment? Why don’t I have any flipping data? I type down the first thing that comes to my head and click “send”. Abstract done.
18th February: Timetables are posted up. Bugger. I’m first on, in the biggest room. Oh no, wait: that’s a good thing! Is it? I’m not sure. I work out who I’m going to see in the three venues over the whole day, like working out which bands you’re going to run around to see at a festival. There’s a few differences though: for example, there’s not likely to be anyone starting late because they’re too drunk / high, and there’ll probably be fewer “free hug” idiots in the way as I scamper between stages.
Late February to Early March: Working plenty of weekends and late nights. Dismayed to find most of the lab machines booked up for weeks. What the hell is this? Find out that Masters and Undergraduate students, due to hand in their dissertations before the easter break, have joined final year PhD students in an almighty last-minute-dash for data for the talks. Many fists shaken, bitterly mumbling “I would’ve gotten away three hours ago if it weren’t for those meddling kids”.
Fri 11th- Sat 12th March: I’ve taken part in some outreach activities (more on that soon). When not in the lab, most spare time at work developing materials to entertain kids with. In short, another last-minute-dash for laminated pictures of bacteria.
Monday 14th March: More work on an epic experiment, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Science, you fail me when I need you most, you cold-hearted mistress.
Tuesday 15th March: Long day spent in the lab. Birthday party for one of our PI’s. A rather more diligent friend who is also presenting on Thursday announces he’s finished his talk and now needs to practise it and adjust where necessary. Amongst other fellow final year talkers, tensions are rising. Beginning to think that maybe I should start my presentation for Thursday.
Wednesday 16th March: am – spent on epic experiment, which is now turning into a epic pain in the neck. To add insult to injury, it’s the same thing repeated over and over again to gain replicates, but only two of which I’ll have ready for the Final Year Talk. Pah! Whoever heard of “n = 2” without laughing? Ok, most normal people, granted, but never mind – it’s going in the presentation regardless, and at least it’s better than n = 1.
A friend announce his first runthroughs have gone swimmingly. I’m yet to start my first slides, so I decide that I’ll recycle my presentation from a talk I gave a month ago, which is in itself recycled from a previous talk, recycled from a previous talk etc. The talk recycling lineage can be traced back to my second year talk, almost exactly a year ago. Strangely, there isn’t much to change. I decide to take this as a blessing from the Gods of Last Minute Presentations, instead of damning evidence from the Judges of the Supreme Court of Lack Of Progress.
pm – Powerpoint. The wonderfully insightful encyclopedia of modern life, “Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?“, describes Powerpoint as “The Microsoft tool that encourages people to think and talk like fuckheads.” Powerpoint. Power. Point. Just the name gets me in a rage; alas, it is the software of the seminar talk. I really do wonder how Professors of yesteryear got by without that swooshing animation on their acetates. On the plus side, they didn’t ever use the animation that drops each letter onto the slide like a machine gun. Don’t talk to people who do this.
Anyway – work reluctantly started on slides, and finished at about 6.30pm. I decided to stay at work to practise the talk, and as a distraction I periodically updated Facebook on my progress:
Thursday 17th March – Talks Day: This is the point at which I’m glad I’m first talk of the day. Walk into work, have a run-through and a cup of tea, and I’m straight in. I’m delivering my talk in the main seminar room of the building, which has seats on a slope much like a cinema. I’m glad that it looks a lot smaller from the bottom of the room. As for the talk? All in all, talk went fine, and I think I presented well. Phew.
Skip around to see the other talks of the day, managing to fill up most of my day’s schedule with talks by friends instead of anything related to my subject – it’s good to finally find out what these people I eat lunch with actually do with the rest of their days. I was also relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one who had had a less than ideal preparation – a Paleontologist friend had been up til 4.30am that morning putting together a talk, and hadn’t had a runthrough at all. We spent the rest of the day drinking far too much coffee, and indulging on what has become an institution of the department’s catering for all seminars/conferences/symposia – Grandma Wild’s biscuits. Wooop woop!
Next comes lunch. Every year for the final year talks, there is a lunch arranged exclusively for the speakers and judges. As the speakers filed away, I often wondered what happened behind those close doors, and I was anxious leading up to my opportunity to find out. Would it be like a secret society rite of passage, featuring ritual goat slaughters and fire and nudity? Would it be an American frat-house party with kegs and funnels, beer pong and nudity? Would it be a sophisticated post-conference dinner hobnobbing backslapping session, with champagne quaffing, business cards, and nudity? No, unfortunately not. It was a buffet lunch where the speakers sat on one side of the room and the judges on the other, like some sort of awkward Academia School Disco. More coffee with Grandma Wild.
After some questionable pastries and more talks, the day ended with a drinks reception and awarding of prizes for the best talks. My aforementioned diligent friend won a prize, prompting his ever-supportive supervisor to comment: “Well done. Now I’m going to rip the shit out of you forever”. We made merry like only PhD students can – over-caffeinated and under-slept, drinking free wine, eating complimentary Milky Ways and Smarties, and trying to forget that our next formal assessment would be our viva …Bugger.
Oh, and everyone’s talk was really great. Good work, everyone!