Why become an exam invigilator?

As a PhD student, I usually take up non-demanding temporary or part-time jobs to augment my income and to keep financial stress at bay. My favourite place to look for these jobs is Lancaster University’s Employment and Recruitment Service page. One of the work roles that I personally find appealing is that of an ‘exam invigilator’. What better time to share some of the things I enjoy about this role than the exam season…which is well and truly underway.

  • To start with, an exam invigilator role is only available to postgraduate research students. As a large pool of invigilators is required to support the huge number of exams being administered at the university, you are almost always guaranteed a spot.
  • You have complete flexibility over what days of the week and hours (morning/evening) you would like to invigilate. This means that you can schedule the work when you’re least expecting to be busy and not have to worry about juggling tasks.
  • I personally find it relaxing to be mentally unoccupied for some periods of time which is usually what one is while invigilating. Sure, you’re vigilant to your surroundings and to any irregular goings-on (hopefully not) but for the most part you’re also free to think your own thoughts. I notice that it is when my mind is thus free that I am struck with ideas. In fact, the thought of writing about invigilating for my next blog struck me in one of these mental meanderings!
  • As a PhD student, it is easy to get stuck in your own hole for days and weeks on end without meeting a single soul. Invigilation presents an opportunity to meet new people and hear new stories—almost climb out of your everyday life for a brief while and see the world from a different perspective. In the past few weeks alone, I have met a girl from the Physics department doing a PhD for the second time…we got talking about what made her venture onto this path a second time when many can’t handle it the first time around, and she said she must have forgotten what it was like! We got chatting a bit more and I felt like we were kindred spirits. Then I met this person who was into theatre, then into academia, now again into theatre…and he spoke of how Manchester was turning into a mini London, and how theatre people and actors were finding it unaffordable now just like London. In his view, when a place becomes too sanitised, it leaves no room for people who are a bit ‘rough around the edges’ and for their art. Apparently that was his research topic back in the day. I argued that such cities might actually draw the kind of audience that appreciate art and have the money to spend toward art. It was an interesting discussion that got cut short too soon in my opinion.
  • Being amongst eager fresh-faced students all nervous and anxious but also hoping to give their best might make for something refreshing in your otherwise routine day. I am usually reminded of a younger version of me and for a moment I am transported in time. Today I happened to notice that a student had kept a small transparent pouch full of sea shells on his exam table. Apparently it was for ‘good luck’. I remembered how I used to have a blue coloured ‘lucky top’ that I reserved for maths exams. I don’t know if there was anything to it but I did manage to get good marks.
  • If none of these reasons have convinced you, this last one just might. As an invigilator, you are encouraged to patrol and move around the room to keep tabs on what’s happening and to check if a student needs anything…walking around a room while not the same as a walk or run in the park is still a bit of exercise, which, if you happen to be too lazy to get out of the house like me may be counted as a not-so-bad side-effect (all in all, you gain a few pounds in your wallet and lose some in not so desirable places…).

Well, so next time, when you look up the recruitment page, I would recommend hitting apply on ‘Invigilation’. And if our paths happen to cross in some or the other invigilation session, don’t forget to thank me…and tell me how you’re getting on!

What I will bring back home with me?

After a long academic year, it’s time to start planning for a visit back home and there are many stories, ideas, experiences, and souvenirs that I am eager to share with my family and friends. As a PhD student I will be returning to Lancaster University after my short summer holiday, yet I know many postgraduate students who will be finishing their degrees and going back home to start a new phase of their lives. Around this time of the year, I am busy either submitting assignments or marking exams, or both. But I am also excited to plan for my summer trips, such as how to get there, things to do, who to meet up with, etc. I will probably plan more things to do than actually do them, but the inevitable plan is my trip back home.
Over the years, and trips, I became a rather light traveller, taking only the necessities which I would not be able to find at my destination, but this is usually different for my trips back home. Not only do I take back a few presents and souvenirs, but also clothes and personal items, some of which I have never used and will probably not use in the future. Part traveller, part student and part homesick, these are some of the items that I am planning to take back home with me and share with my family and friends.

New foods:
Not only new foods, but new recipes too. There is an exceptional diversity of local and ethnic foods at Lancaster, and they’re not only found in shops and restaurants, but also in meals that I shared with friends and at various events. For example, last month, the Lancaster University Culture Society organised a Global Village event where for a couple of hours students enjoyed performances and traditional food from various parts of the world. There are a few items that I will be able to take with me on the plane and those will mainly be different kinds of cheeses and chocolates.

Souvenirs:
These are the obvious type of items which people usually get when they travel. The souvenirs that I got were mainly magnets and postcards of the different places that I visited. I try to get at least one magnet from each new place to remind me of what the place is like. My collection includes magnets from the Yorkshire Dales, Edinburgh, Whitby, various places in the Lake District, and various places in continental Europe. For example, I got a magnet in the form of a witch from Whitby which is a town in Yorkshire, where people are big on Halloween costumes.

Memories and experiences:
Memories and experiences are a natural shaping experience. I have to admit that I was not prepared to embrace the amount of new experiences and memories that was awaiting me at Lancaster, especially at the beginning. Some of them were difficult, such as adjusting to the fast pace of learning, to the new places and faces, and to the different habits and lifestyles of my flatmates, these were overwhelming sometimes. For the same reasons, some experiences were ecstatic too, such as achievements, working with classmates, having good conversations, going out to new places and getting to know new people and cultures. These have their own kind of emotions and connections which are both cherishable and memorable.

Clothes and miscellaneous items:
When I first came to Lancaster I had one suitcase full of clothes, by the end of the year, I could easily fill two suitcases. A friend of mine came to visit me for a few weeks and had brought with her only one backpack; she explained to me that she travelled to Rio de Janeiro where she stayed for a month and managed to bring with her a bigger backpack only, but that before her trip, she attended a training course on travelling light, packing compactly and managing to spend long periods of time with a minimum amount of clothes and personal items.
I probably didn’t need to get this many items and wasn’t thinking of what I would be doing with them in the future. I also probably didn’t even use most of them. The Green Lancaster initiative “Don’t Ditch It, Donate It” was helpful in letting me figure out how to manage the items that I would like to keep, and those that I would give away. This would not only reduce waste, but also contribute to a good cause.

New ideas:
One of the topics that is seeping into my daily routine and gradually affecting my choices is zero-waste living. There are several initiatives at Lancaster University that have inspired me too. For example, recycling and donating items are easily available, as well as buying recycled materials, going paperless, talks about various sustainability applications, and growing your own crops with the EcoHub. More and more options are becoming available in shops as well, such as items with reduced plastic packaging and eco-friendly and reusable bags. I am becoming more and more aware of my use of plastic bags, all kinds of bottles and plastic packaging, unrecyclable items, palm-oil-containing foods … the list is endless, yet I’m trying to apply one small change at a time. This will be one of the new ideas that I will try to keep on practising when I go back home.

Visiting my family and friends and sharing these memories with them will certainly make me reflect on these things and experiences. I have certainly changed because of them, and I haven’t at the same time. Change comes in small packages. When it doesn’t, my mind seeks it, and when it is fast, my mind protests and slows down. From the new photo album of my trip to the Yorkshire Dales to my newly-realised environmentalism, and from making new friends to reading new books, I learned that leaving my comfort zone could lead me to new experiences, some of which I consider now to be the highlights of this period of time. Yet sometimes unpleasant encounters disheartened me, until I figured them out. All of this combined led me to a newfound confidence and independence to recognise those things that I want to remember and share.

 

Why procrastination is good for me

This time when I was back home in Mumbai, I decided to bring with me my art painting paraphernalia (which I have never used) including acrylic paint, paint brushes, palette and the like gathering dust in a corner. I could never find the time to get around to using them before.

The idea to get the painting tools struck me when I came across this store called The Works in Lancaster city centre. I am fascinated with all the variety of art and craft material they have there and enjoy looking through their stuff. Now that I had my materials with me, the next question was what I should create with them. At first I thought of making something like an art poster that I could hang near the dining table to create a homely feel. But then I realised that making something that only I and hardly anybody else would ever see would probably not add to my motivation. While browsing through canvases and art paper in The Works, I chanced upon blank greeting card packs. It struck me that greeting cards might be the perfect object upon which to conduct my art experiments because I could employ my creativity as on anything else, have a bit of purpose to it (how can a researcher forget the purpose), and I was guaranteed at least one person who would be smitten with my work.

Here is the first card that I made for my cousin in Mangalore, India. The fact that he actually asked me if I made it was flattering, though I won’t put it past him to pull my leg.

birthday card

 

The truth is that I wasn’t really bothered about having a fantastic output because I am not even an amateur artist (only one who loves to have fun with colours and loves seeing the beauty in art), but the process was an absolute joy. Sitting alone at my desk with the sun blazing through the window (yes, it’s been pretty sunny lately!), visualising and finding inspiration for a theme, concentrating intently on choosing harmonious colours, mixing them and seeing them come alive on the card…sometimes beautifully and sometimes rather jarringly… scratching my head to make the imperfections less imperfect…the whole event offered a heavenly sort of relaxation. I would probably compare it to meditation though a bit better than that for me because I can never quite still my thoughts and focus on nothing when I’m meditating…whereas in this process it was as if the real world had melted away and it was just myself lost in a sea of colours splashing on the card.

I loved doing the first card so much that I was already looking forward to my second. I have done this one for my sister-in-law’s birthday in early June. She doesn’t know about my blogs so I can take the risk of sharing it with you.

Birthday card

 

I would never have imagined that I would take up a long romanticised hobby while doing my PhD. I felt like getting my art tools to have something interesting to do when I had the itch to procrastinate, which as other PhD students may corroborate, is fairly often! I believe in this instance though that the tendency to procrastinate has helped rather than hindered me… come to think of it, maybe procrastination tends to be a blessing in devil’s disguise because while you are doing something you enjoy such as baking or fishing or painting, your brain is silently working in the background weighing in on your ideas and coming up with solutions. If your mental focus wasn’t diverted into a completely different direction every now and then, a part of your brain would probably be overworked or stressed out and not exactly operating at full steam… at least I tend to be more productive because of my procrastinations rather than for lack of them. What is your experience? Would be great to hear your thoughts.

In the middle of the student life whirlwind: taking care of your mental health

Student life is an exceptional experience, but it can be stressful at times, especially towards the end of the academic year when students are snowed under with assignments, deadlines and exams. A student can feel under pressure because of many other reasons too, and, fortunately, there has been an increasing awareness about the topic of mental healthcare in higher education. At the same time, various organisations, charities, staff and student societies organise mental healthcare and well-being activities to facilitate it for students to know how to deal with such issues.

During my undergraduate studies, my strategy to fight deadlines and exam-related stress was to escape them by watching comedy series and doing all those house chores that I had been putting off, and I would only start working on my assignments as I got nearer to the deadline. As a PhD student now, this strategy unfortunately doesn’t work any more because of the nature of the assignments, and I find myself having to come to terms with them sooner.

Whether it’s long-term periods of pressure or short-term but frequent bursts of stress, one way in which Lancaster University has helped to prepare students to deal with well-being issues is through their related events. In this blogpost, I write about two events that I attended earlier in the year: a training session on how to take care of your own and other students’ well-being, and a well-being fair which included a few organisations and short activities to let students and staff know of the available mental health services.

The first event that I attended was the Mental Health First Aid training. It took place early in the academic year and was a light-weight session to help students understand what well-being is and how they can spot if they, or anyone else, are struggling with any related issues. We were divided into two groups, and the session leader guided our discussions. The session quickly turned into a safe space as we started sharing our own experience in our own groups and the session leader gave us a few real-life examples from his experience.
When asked to define well-being and mental health problems, both groups compared them to physical pain. While mental health problems usually require professional or medical assistance, well-being is a state of being comfortable, and both types of issues can influence each other. For example, if a student is in an uncomfortable situation, this might trigger a mental health problem. These issues are subtle in nature and can be much harder to spot than physical pain both in oneself and in others, as one of my friends once told me, “Don’t forget to check on your ‘strong friend.’”

Even though some of the information can be readily found on the internet, it is only when I discussed it in my group that I started to become aware of how someone’s behaviour can indicate that “something is not quite right with a person” or that “this person needs help.” This shows how delicate mental healthcare can be and how interpersonal skills can be useful in setting a helpful environment for someone to express what is affecting their well-being, and, as a result, their academic progress. The session gave me a starting “toolkit” to deal with stressful situations, which might be affecting me or other people.

The second event was the well-being fair. It was on the 1st of March, the University Mental Health Day, and it was held at the Chaplaincy centre. This day was also a very cold, rainy and windy day, so I found my way quickly to the centre. A well-timed hot chocolate was being served. It was the first time for me to be inside the Chaplaincy centre, and I found it to be a peaceful place with spacious rooms, a good place for this type of event. A lady from the Alternative Health Practitioners approached me and we started chatting. We talked about the different ways that could help you relax, such as massages and talking/listening. We even talked about history and the organisation’s involvement with the community. Then I spoke to somebody from the sports centre who organises weekly walks and runs, some of which are to raise funds for various causes. Vegan soup was also being served and in the opposite room a mindfulness session took place. The fair allowed students to see what organisations, people and techniques were available to them, on campus and in the city, which can make them enjoy well-being-related activities.

Even though I am a PhD student, which means that, fortunately, I do not have to take any exams, I still have deadlines for assignments where I have to write long and elaborate essays for my supervisors (some for a few modules that I’m currently taking, and some to apply for funding for my research). I am also a tutor to undergraduate students, which means that, on top of my deadlines, I have to mark the exams and assignments of my students. Sometimes I find a healthy balance by being able to manage my time well and motivate myself, and, although I consider myself someone who works well under pressure, sometimes things can be overwhelming. Part of the PhD journey, as many would agree, is to face puzzling situations and ambiguous readings and modes of reasoning. When I started my research, I wanted to know more about how different individuals can perform better in certain organisations than in others. I was interested in this topic because, in my previous job as a recruiter, hiring managers often discussed it with me. I find this topic ever more complex and perplexing after starting my PhD research. There is no straightforward answer to it, or, rather, the most straightforward answer would be that “it depends.” On what? On whom? Or does it depend on wider societal and economic circumstances, or on how one wants to think about it? The list of questions is never-ending. As I get close to an answer to one of them, ten other questions emerge. In summary, this is what I think about daily, or try not to think about sometimes too when it gets overwhelming, especially with the presence of other personal and work-related commitments, and, for an international student, with the mental overload that comes with adjusting to living in a new environment. But back to our initial topic, the mental healthcare awareness and activities are helpful in different ways: they have helped me to take my mind off studying, and sometimes just by taking a break, I come back more energised than before.

The presence of the mental healthcare services and well-being organisations and activities has been noticeable on campus. Alongside the increased awareness of these issues, there is an increasing number of services and initiatives to ensure that students find a suitable solution for them when they face such problems or simply when they want to have a good well-being experience. These range from professional counselling services to activities to engage with the community.

Teaching a man to fish…

People are supposed to be good at a few things and relatively decent at others (I can’t bring myself to say ‘bad’ even though that’s how I would characterise myself at, say, dancing). If you’re doing a PhD, it may not be farfetched to assume that you might be a specialist sort of person—someone who knows what you are good at and who keeps chipping away at the same block. At least, that’s how I am.

When I started on my PhD journey, I was looking forward to the prospect of doing research, of discovering patterns and insights, of uncovering something new, of maybe making a difference in the realm of ideas. I didn’t really take into account that in reality there are many other things that an academic, and by that logic a doctoral student, is expected to do. One of the important things happens to be teaching. Something I had never done in a formal capacity so far and certainly not within the higher education context. I had delivered one-off presentations and training sessions in my previous work roles, but those were a miniscule percentage of my portfolio. The real issue for me, however, was the suspicion that teaching might be one of the things I would be decent at rather than great or excellent. It’s not the being able to do it that I was worried about so much as to be able to do it to a very high standard.

Luckily for me, I was introduced to SLP (Lancaster University’s Supporting Learning Programme, now ATP). All new doctoral students who are also going to work as Graduate Teaching Assistants are asked to undergo this programme. I must say that it is through this programme that I was able to more deeply explore the meaning and practice of teaching essentially as a means to support learning rather than as an ability to ‘perform’ teaching. The self-reflection that I did … who would have thought my own journey as a learner shaped how I approached teaching? …and the knowledge that I gained from the pedagogical material and discussions with fellow researchers transformed the way I thought about teaching as well as learning. It also opened my eyes to the complexities inherent in both. Take, for example, learning approaches. Students may have a ‘deep’ learning style or a ‘surface’ learning style or a ‘strategic’ style that is a bit of both. I wondered how students come to have a style (which might be a topic for a separate blog!).

The questions that I found relevant to think about from this newly informed perspective were of a very different variety: how could I create the right kind of environment for learning, how could I support students with different learning needs better, what did I need to do to develop students’ learning style, how could I connect with different students with different learning backgrounds and levels of knowledge in the same class, what strategies could I use to motivate students in the class, and so on. I noticed that the emphasis in my mind had shifted to learners and helping them with their challenges, away from teaching and blowing my own challenges out of proportion. It seemed to me that to be a great teacher, all I needed was a genuine concern for the intellectual development of my student learners… and if I had that the rest would eventually fall in place.

From reflecting on my own successes as a learner, and indeed as an individual, I have come to realise that as a teacher the best I can do is to help my students cultivate intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and openness to ideas so that their learning is secured for a lifetime. To put it another way, to teach them to fish rather than to give them a fish. In this sense, I feel teaching is far more challenging than research because it is arguably more challenging to transfer ideas to person than to paper. The paper simply absorbs my ideas but the receptivity of the ideas and their assimilation depends to a large extent on the person’s pre-existing knowledge and beliefs, without even considering the cultural complexity.

But that should not deter one, should it? The future of the world would seem to rest as much on the shoulders of eager teachers as researchers…

Volunteering: In search for something meaningful

I recently started volunteering as a teaching assistant at a primary school, and it has been delightful, fun and at the same time very enriching. There are many reasons why students at Lancaster University volunteer at schools, and, from my discussions with a few of them, I noticed that we all shared a very positive experience, from the administrative process before the start of the placement to the satisfying sense of accomplishment and the end of each volunteering session. It is a ten-week volunteering placement which is facilitated by Lancaster University’s Student Union (LUSU) and where pupils get to know that university can be an option for them when they grow up and to speak to a university student. I wrote in a previous blog post about the purpose of the school volunteering placement, and this post will be about my impressions of the process, my engagement and how it connects to the wider aspects of work and my social life.

Why volunteer at a school?

I choose to volunteer at a school because I started teaching a module, alongside my studies, and wanted to see what it’s like to teach different age groups. I was also motivated to engage with the community around me, get to know how people live outside of the university student environment, and at the same time give something back by doing good for others and the community. Other students who have completed similar volunteering placements said that they did it because they were staying for a limited period of time in Lancaster and wanted to make the most of their time, or simply because it is something that they aspire to become after graduating and this experience could improve their career prospects. The placement was for only half a day per week, which makes it easy to fit within my schedule.

Just before I started

I signed up on LUSU’s page at the beginning of the academic year. The website offers many things to do to engage with the community, whether it’s to follow a passion, a cause, or simply to leave a positive impact on people. There are a number of volunteering categories such as human and civil rights, health and social care, university events, etc. I chose volunteering with schools. The application was straightforward and shortly after I submitted it, I received an email about the times of the introductory sessions which gave us an idea about the programme and the steps of the process. It was also an opportunity to meet the LUSU staff who were coordinating the programme and who were very supportive throughout the whole process. The following stage was to get the DBS check done and complete safeguarding training. Then LUSU staff contacted a school close to my place of residence as this was my preference. I was also given the chance to choose from a list of available opportunities. Luckily, the school I wanted to volunteer at had a vacancy for a volunteer, and I could start at any time.

My first day back at primary school

I arrived at the school and was greeted by the teacher who was going to guide me through the placement. She showed me around the school and we waited for the children to come into class. The classroom was impressive, not in a majestic grand way, but in how different and relaxing it was from anywhere else I’ve been since I left primary school. The more I examined the crayons, big letters on the walls and the children’s drawings, the more I appreciated it. While those are things that I wouldn’t normally be interested it, being there, in that moment, brought me back to my own childhood.

The teacher introduced me to the class after everyone arrived and the lesson started. On that day, children were learning how to write neatly and clearly, and I was assigned to help two pupils. After this exercise, everyone gathered around the class’s teaching assistant who read a story to them. The final fifteen minutes of the before-noon session were dedicated for relaxation. A voice that was playing soothing music guided the children – and adults in the classroom – similarly to a relaxation yoga session.

Spending the morning at the school made me realise how adults’ experience of time can easily change one’s mindset to racing mode. Whether I’m a worker or a student, I’m always faced with deadlines which I try to meet while thinking of other aspects of my personal life which could be anything from what I will eat to when should I call my family. This makes me rush into a series of tasks and duties for weeks at a time without taking a break and actually think about nothing. Doing a relaxing and unrelated activity helps me stop thinking about work for a while and sometimes that’s when I get my best ideas.

Lancaster University day out

My positive volunteering experience lead me to engage in the “Be the change” project. This project is designed to show pupils what citizenship values such as teamwork and leadership mean through a series of fun activities. The aim is to enable children to learn that everyone can be a leader when they make a positive change to their society. Among the activities, there was a treasure hunt around campus and the Marshmallow Challenge which let the children work together, communicate, help one another and work towards a common goal. The Marshmallow Challenge is a management exercise where a group of any age or profession is tasked to build a tower with nothing but a bundle of spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow. Surprisingly, children perform better than CEOs in this exercise!

One of the great things about the teaching system at LUMS is how it prepares students for the actual business world. This comes with the wider sociological and psychological issues that any such student/worker is prone to, such as feelings of stress and alienation. From my previous work experience, I find that working can be very rewarding, but it can also take away some of the worker’s autonomy, purpose and identity, especially when they get immersed in their job only to meet sales targets or performance measures at the end of the day. As a PhD student at LUMS who happens to be doing a thesis on workplace dynamics, I have come to notice these aspects more and more and realise how they could sometimes be inevitable. While some people enjoy socialising by going out for a drink or a meal, or take pleasure in a sports activity after an intense workload, others choose to volunteer.  This has left a very positive impact on me and made a pleasing difference to my everyday life.

 

Shifting spaces

I have been in Mumbai for the past two months collecting data for my research. I am living with my family and, knowing I must leave soon once my work is done, I am soaking in every moment of it. All the stuff I took for granted earlier, even the mundane little facts of everyday life, strike me as something worthy of note… such as how do we dispose of the garbage? I find myself reflecting on things that I never gave much thought to before. And I owe that to my life at Lancaster.

One such thing struck me the first time I arrived at Lancaster. The number of choices I had for a place to study. I have a computer-equipped PhD office where I could study and do my research or I could study in my own campus accommodation which was fairly quiet or I could find a spot in the very spacious library or I could go to the Storey building in the city centre where PhD students have a space of their own or I could study in the post graduate space in Graduate College… I might have even missed a few options here. The point is that I could decide where I wanted to study depending on my mood or depending on where I felt most productive. I remember thinking then that I had never given any thought to my choices for a ‘study space’ or lack thereof before Lancaster happened to me.

My home was the only place available to me for study at an undergrad as well as Masters level even though it was frequently noisy, full of interruptions and temptations, and a thousand distractions such as something interesting going on on the television. I never thought about it as a ‘study space’ because I didn’t really have any other. It was only upon arriving at Lancaster and being exposed to the world of university in the UK that I realised the difference the space made to the quality of learning and output. At first I wondered why there was so much emphasis on the varieties of study spaces but then it occurred to me that by providing the right space the university was simply showing me a commitment to my learning, intellectual development, and growth. It wasn’t investing in space so much as investing in me and investing in wherever my potential may be best realised.

Now that I am at home in Mumbai, I am missing the ‘space’ I have at Lancaster that both physically and mentally puts me in the mood for study. I almost catch myself thinking that I need to ‘go somewhere’ to reflect on my observations on the research interviews but then recall that I don’t have anywhere to go to to get my mental juices flowing. For now, I am resigning myself to playing with my niece when she pops into the room. I smile at her fondly when she pushes down my laptop cover announcing ‘Over’ in that cute little voice of hers. Of course, I would like to finish whatever train of thought I am pursuing at that moment while typing out notes from the day’s field work but it will have to wait a bit. Till I am back at Lancaster…my makeshift spaces will have to do. I am not complaining as they sure have joys of their own!

Study hard, play hard

Academic life has many tough tests for students, but as challenging as it may be, it also holds rewarding outcomes and fun experiences. Some of the toughest times in my life as a postgraduate LUMS student were writing-up my Masters dissertation and my current PhD journey. While I usually rely on my intuitive gut feeling to pace my studying, the settings and modes of study played a large role in keeping me sane and on track throughout my academic journey. Making sure that I had enough leisure and fun helped me to recharge my energy and enjoy my time. I tend to yo-yo study where I binge on reading for a few weeks and then I relax, and so on. Even though this pattern worked more-or-less for my Masters degree, I find it hard to follow for my PhD where time management is key, and where self-management is even more critical. A piece of advice that I heard in one of the LUMS study skills development sessions was that there are only two things that will go against you, they are time and yourself. This advice was an eye-opener to me because it made me think that there is something other than making the most of my time and achieving the highest grades that I can, I also need to take care of myself during this process. In this blog post, I will describe a typical week as a PhD student, starting with the dreadful Mondays and ending with the day-out Sundays.

Monday:
I am usually a morning person, but not so much on a Monday. After a strong cup of coffee, I open my weekly agenda to see what the rest of the week will look like, which also motivates me to start the day. My place to go for studying on Monday is the graduate social hub. It’s a cozy and relaxed place, and it helps me transition from the lazy weekend. I usually attend one lecture in the late afternoon before calling it a day.

Tuesday:
On Tuesdays the pace gets faster. I spend most of the day in the library. I choose a moderately quiet area where I can sit on a couch with access to an electricity socket for my laptop, and easy access to the water fountain to stay hydrated. While some people might prefer the quiet areas, to me, a little bit a noise helps me concentrate. The library is also near a few of my favourite bakeries and coffee shops on campus, which makes it convenient if I plan to meet up with a friend for lunch or a cup of coffee.

Wednesday:
Wednesday is the market day in the city centre, so I do my shopping before noon. Unless I have other errands, I head to my desk space in my department. Most of the time I run into my colleagues and we discuss our work progress, thoughts and lives, which is helpful given how isolating studying a PhD can be.

Thursday:
Thursdays are quite similar to Tuesdays, except that they’re closer to the weekend. Although half of my brain is already thinking of what to do during the weekend, the other half is engaged in productive reading. I usually try to stick to the same study area at the library.

Friday:
On Fridays, I try to do an energising physical activity early in the morning by going out for a brisk walk or a jog in the park. I spend the rest of the day at my own desk at home, unless there is an event or that I have agreed to meet up with friends on campus. My desk is not the most organised study space, but I made sure to set it up as soon as I started my PhD. I also try to separate my studying space from spaces where I carry out other activities such as leisure reading, eating or sleeping.

Saturday:
The weekend is finally here. I start my Saturdays with shopping and often go out for a meal afterwards. In the evening, I usually organise a games’ night which sometimes ends up being a long conversation about everything and nothing. I also occasionally go to a local pub.

Sunday:
One of my favourite hobbies is hiking or taking long walks, and I often dedicate my Sundays to it, if the weather permits. I find that this activity clears my mind and is a good exercise. Also, the nature around Lancaster is fascinating. I have been to a few breathtaking nature reserves on the coastal line north of Lancaster and in the Lake District.

I find that having a good study-life structure is better than having none. This is especially true when my PhD journey feels like a rollercoaster. The nature of studying is quite different to that of other degrees. At the PhD stage, the student is expected to be a knowledge maker. In my PhD, this experience has been deep and personal, thus the need to have a good study environment and enough leisure time.

When the going gets tough…

Most people seem to think that if you are pursuing a PhD you must be super intelligent. Which they also assume means you must have ample confidence in yourself. It is no use telling them that you suffer from as many insecurities about your talents and capabilities as the next person, because in their opinion if you have set yourself such a huge mountain to climb, you must know you have it in you.

The truth is that I find myself low on self-confidence a lot of the time. And I have come to realise that this feeling is fairly common among PhD students. Apparently we tend to suffer from what is called the ‘impostor syndrome’: The feeling that you are inadequate or incapable despite evidence to the contrary.

My confidence level also has a way of yo-yoing so that at one point I am on top of a mountain, soaring high and marvelling how I have at long last found my true calling, and another time I am down in the dumps, wondering what got into me to take on such a herculean project. I start questioning everything from the validity of my research topic to my thoroughness in doing the literature review to my experience in the academic jungle to the possibility of ever seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be a pretty quick downward tumble from there, luckily for me stopping short of actually calling it quits, but I have heard stories of people who take the exit route.

Over time, I have learnt a few ways to deal with these blows to my confidence:

  • Remember why you started a PhD. Chances are that if you are on this very tough journey, you have thought long and hard about it. You may have also made certain difficult choices in life or career because you wanted this so badly. Had you not put all of yourself into making this happen, you wouldn’t have earned a place at such a prestigious university. If you could get yourself this far, it is only up to you to take yourself further.
  • Think of the last time you felt a rush of confidence. It may have been a small accomplishment or a big one, but if you had reason to feel great about how you were doing then, the reasons are most likely still valid and solid. This low phase will pass soon enough if you focus on doing what you have been doing.
  • Think about how far you have come. You probably remember how daunting everything seemed when you first started, and how you never really expected to make it at almost every step. Not only did you make it, you did remarkably well too, be it acclimatising yourself to the new environment or developing a good relationship with your supervisors or taking all those difficult training modules or digging through tons of literature.
  • Stop comparing yourself with others. You might be tempted to compare yourself with others who started at the same time as you. Very often it will seem like they have a far better hold on what they’re doing while you haven’t the faintest clue. They may have started collecting data or completed writing a conference paper while you’re still putting together a proposal for your upgrade panel. Remember that this is your PhD and your journey… and you are its sole architect. How you approach it and how much time you take to build it depends entirely on what you’re fashioning.
  • Talk to family and friends. Talk to people who believe in you. Knowing that they believe in you more than you do can be motivating (though a bit annoying too because your feelings of inadequacy and incompetency are invalidated). It would also help to have someone with whom you can share your research and progress. Many a time I have found solutions to problems simply by talking to a friend who merely listened to me go on about it.
  • Take mini breaks. When you are really feeling like it, take a few days off all thoughts of research and writing and deadlines and do whatever it is you feel like doing or do nothing if that’s what you feel like. Think of it as some sort of reward for working so hard. I don’t know about you but at the end of that period, I bounce back with more energy and feeling a lot more positive. Quite strangely, I also tend to come up with better ideas almost out of the blue. You know what they say about the subconscious mind being at work…
  • Visualise a wonderful future. The PhD may be your stepping stone to a fulfilling career or it may be an end in itself. Try visualising what it would be like to be at the end of that road, having fulfilled your dream or goal. Imagine how you would feel, how the people in your life would feel, and how much you would like to be there. These bumps along the way are speed breakers but they can’t stop you from getting where you want to be.

Well, these are a few techniques that seem to help me bounce back. What about you? What do you do when the going gets tough?

10 New Words I Learnt at LUMS

As an international student, learning about new words stimulates my linguistic inclination. By learning I also mean experiencing words that I already know in a different way. New words mixed with experiences are synergic; I find them fascinating and sometimes amusing. In this blog post I will write about my top 10 new words that I learnt at LUMS, starting with those that any international student could come across and followed by those that a LUMS or a graduate student in particular would be very likely experience. I choose these words because my experience of them has been either exciting, practical or pleasantly homely. A small story for each word tells why I found it particularly fascinating.

  • Flatmate: Flatmate is the commonly used word for housemate in the UK. My flatmates are the students who I have met since my first day at Lancaster Uni. We shared not only the flat, but also food, nights out, pictures, laughs, hobbies and life contemplations. We looked out for each other. My flatmates made me feel like I belong.
  • The weather: This is one of the most common topics you’ll hear a British person talk about. It is often unexpected and sometimes rainy, cold, lovely, sunny or snowy. And sometimes it’s all of them in one day! As someone who likes hiking, my outdoors motto is that “there is no bad weather but there are only bad clothes.” That’s why my big puffer coat is an essential item of clothing and part of my outfit on most days. Even though it’s cold in the north west of England, people have their warmth in their hearts.
  • The steam train: During the summer term, I travelled by regular train to go to Carlisle where I was doing some training. The steam train runs during the spring and summer between Lancaster and Carlisle, and the other passengers and I would see it majestically arriving in the morning at the train station. A peak inside allowed me to see the impressive décor and was enough to take me a century back in time.
  • Marmite: Commonly known by its brand name, this product is also found under the yeast extract category. I heard people say that you either love it or hate it, and I happened to quite like it. I often venture with food combinations and I accidentally found out that it goes well with certain types of jam.
  • Quorn: I discovered Quorn in the UK while looking for vegetarian meat alternatives. It offers a wide variety of products and is a good source of proteins. I found it to be a practical food and it goes well in a curry.
  • Reflexivity: As a LUMS student, being reflexive not only got me high marks, but also made me aware of the way my learning affected my professional and personal development and my view of the world. I try to apply this process to both important events and daily incidents that became a part of my routine.
  • Critical thinking: Critical thinking is an expression that I frequently hear in my lessons at LUMS. It’s an essential yet challenging skill and we practice it when reading, writing and reflecting. I even use it outside of academic coursework, for example when choosing to watch a film.
  • Dispersed leadership: Even though it’s not the most common type of leadership that is found in academic and personal development books, it’s one that sparked my curiosity. This is because it made me realise the different aspects, people and places in which leadership exists, and so it helps me put myself in other people’s shoes and try to understand them, a skill that I find quite important when interacting with people at university and work.
  • Graduate social hub: The graduate social hub is another place that makes me feel at home. It is situated near the graduate students’ dorms. It contains a quiet room for studying and a social room that has games, books, a ping pong and a foosball table. It also has a kitchenette with an endless supply of tea and coffee. I would metaphorise it as the graduates’ living room.
  • Grad bar: The Grad bar is our meeting place in the evening. Pubs are an important part of community life in the UK, and Grad bar is our communal one. It’s a place where I made new friends and enjoyed live student bands and drinks.

Whether they relate to a place, food or thought, my experience of these words continues to be absorbing. Learning new words and experiences still happens to me now as much as it did when I first moved to Lancaster, and as I got more and more involved with the campus life, the studying, the shopping and meeting new people.