PhD student, PhD candidate, doctoral researcher, post-honours degree, or for those of you who take titles serious a Doctor of Philosophy. Just few of the many ways post graduate students can be labelled. I use “Doctoral research student” on my LinkedIn profile, just to please and confuse everyone. I take the cliche way of seeing titles, that is only what you do and how you sell it matters and not the tag you stick on it. When you want to impress people, I suggest you use the posh sounding doctoral researcher, which is all justified, as we get staff news letters at the University of Sussex as PhD students and are called this way by the doctoral school. However, when you want to get a streaming service or gym membership for 50% off, do not ever mention you get paid for what you do, hinting even the slightest impression of that you are a professional and have money to spend. Just use PhD student proudly and loudly.
Early days, late nights
But what does a PhD degree really mean? I don’t know, ask me in three years time. Apparently, Alexa just told me I started my PhD adventure 1 months, 3 weeks, and 4 days ago. Oh girl, she is precise. I’m hesitant to ask her how much I actually worked during this period… Shh, I never said that. If you don’t see an other post from me, more than likely it means my supervisor came across this entry. Joke aside, she is really cool – HI MARIANNA!!! 👋 – just like the whole SCHI lab team.
This story turned out to be 3 pages long, so if you want to read what a PhD is in my view, and skip all the interesting thoughts, jump to the last paragraph.
The PhD from different angles
Looking at it from the materialistic point of view, a PhD degree means you get paid (if you secured funding) and therefore I consider it a job. How much it pays compared to a job in industry is a question you might ask, but before you do, let’s look at the content side of things. During a PhD you have a job you enjoy doing by definition. If you don’t, there is something wrong. From the university point of view, you are still learning, your contributions to the field might or might not be valuable asset for the community. From a particular lecturers point of view, if you like the student life, partying, drinking, being with other university attendees, you first do an undergraduate degree, then you apply for a PhD, then… you apply for a post doc position, then… you become a lecturer and party your whole life. Interesting way of seeing academia. Isn’t it? 🍻
A balanced touch on what I do
Let’s take the balanced approach and illustrate both the intellectual and Isocial aspect of a PhD degree. Let’s do it through my own example. Why not, at the end of the day I’m writing this post. But I bet, this can be generalised. After I graduated with a degree in theoretical physics, I wanted to do a PhD for several reasons. First, my research interest shifted from fundamental physics to Human Computer Interaction (HCI). In particular Multi-sensory HCI, used for science communication, engagement primarily. I was especially interested in the field of ‘haptics’.
What is haptics?
This word might sound foreign to some, but think about it this way. Optics is easy to understand. Everything to do with light and light perception – in simple terms. Now haptics is a fancy term saying anything to do with touch. It can be haptic feedback, haptic perception, haptic interfaces and so on. Touch is crucial in our life, but so far humanity didn’t really put in the effort of understanding it’s details. All we know about optics now, photonics, all the cool laser gadgets, or the numerous applications as a result of exploring the full spectrum of the electromagnetic radiation probably came from a simple curiosity of how our eyes work. Do we send out ‘vision rays’ which explore our environment than return to our eyes? Funny concept ancient civilisations believed in. Of course touch is not as directly linked to survival, not as transparent and perhaps this is why we could get on for so long not really taking full advantage of the sense of touch. We know that touch has a great influence on emotions, but is there more to it?
My personal insight is that since introducing concepts of fields, electromagnetic radiation, not to mention quantum mechanics, gravitational waves, dark energy, Higgs mechanism, the visible nature of physics became too abstract. Society has encountered a difficulty in understanding “invisible” phenomenology and relating it to experiences coming from “the visible” world of classical physics.
Newton says that’s how gravity works. I say I don’t believe you mate. Newton says ‘think fast – catch this cannon ball I just dropped’. Ouch, OK, there might be something in what you say mate. Now Planck says here is how spintronics and quantum encryption should work and Einstein joins in saying gravitational waves are much more awesome to talk about. So what dude, I don’t believe all this. What will Planck, Einstein et al. do? Give me a few cool interactive graphics? Hmm, I’m not sure I’m convinced. You need to come up with something better to sell your ideas to me. I speak no mathematics, I don’t understand your language and you can not convince with me using these arguments. I also want to try myself what you assert and not only passively look at computer animation.
Moving towards multi-sensory documentaries and science engagement
Alright, let me open the window, I can smell some smoke coming out of the keyboard, the chain of thoughts I typed out got into a heated exchange of ideas. But I guess you see the point. At science festivals and outreach events, museums, exhibitors can use 3D printing, mechanical models to demonstrate concepts of science; however, if we knew more about how touch works, could we not bring back the interactivity to our digital world in a better way? Theatre and live concerts are unique since we have the extra dimension of interaction. Sometimes actors walk through the auditorium, sometimes there is a particular temperature, sometimes you have scented decorations and well, let’s be honest sometimes theatre smells too. You see tangible human characters. With TV screens and monitors we brought content closer but made sure to lock it in a glass cage, and lost something on the way. Same way as we can have a wireless home cinema system deliver the sounds surrounding us, could we not imagine a haptic system built in our coffee table at a convenient spot, so when Brian Cox shows up on the screen, talking about the Hydrogen atom, we could actually observe a tactile simulation? Why are we satisfied by a yellow stream of dots hitting a blue sphere which reacts to it? When somebody explains the concept of observables in quantum mechanics, why don’t we go and sit up to observe a virtual, haptic object, which reacts to our touch, our interaction, our engagement? Would it not enhance our understanding? Do we want to understand it more?
When academic research and social enterprise meets
But before this post gets bloody long, let me pick a thread of thoughts that might lead us to a near finish of this entry before I continue with a new one. Thus, there we go, me, a PhD and the sense of touch, and a question – how do humans and technology interact, how we can benefit from haptic interfaces to communicate science. After I graduated, I wanted to get paid, wanted to do what I enjoy, and I was lucky enough to join the Sussex Computer Human Interaction lab. All the new skills, new knowledge, and hopefully contributions I can acquire and output will help me to advance our abilities. Needless to say, beyond the grand scope of my research interest, inclusive and accessible STEM is a big subset. Training myself to become some sort of an expert in HCI and all the relevant packages you need to install alongside it such as, interaction design, participatory design,programming skills, sensory perception, project management, research methodology should also contribute to the success of the Grapheel Midas branch. Remember? King Midas, the golden touch. Accessible STEM is still on the wishlist of many, and I’m yet to book an appointment with Santa to discuss when and in what form Grapheel can deliver it. Doing a full-time PhD and taking care of a startup social enterprise is not easy, but if it works out, now that’s something Rocky. Both the Grapheel team and the SCHI Lab team are composed of unique and amazing people, a pleasure to work with. Both missions worth the effort, which one day can become parts of the overall vision. For now let’s just focus on “no pain, no gain” and make an impact.
And how does this ambition look like in the daily routine. Well, as a PhD student, excuse me, as a doctoral researcher you have to get on with lots of reading and note taking to satisfy literature review and avoiding the mistake of doing something that’s been done ages ago. You also have harsh days when you need to prepare an ethics review application with a million questions making sure your experimentation doesn’t go beyond borders, and I can tell you, this process can be very boring and frustrating. However, on occasions, you and your colleagues also pick up a random gadget just to fool around, like an Echo dot, and the next morning you have the most inspiring and heated discussion within the office, which slowly turns into a sensible research project. That’s how in 1 month, 3 weeks and 4 days I’ve got a project nearly set up, ready for the pilot study, started a new project to do with multi-sensory augmented virtual assistances used potentially for science engagement, and how I attended already an exciting conference on interactive spaces and surfaces. So yup, long hours filling out forms, contrasted with inspiring collaborative, innovative work with colleagues, which one day can be a miniature contribution towards shaping how we interact with our environment.
Social life of a PhD student and the lab team
I mentioned colleagues but that’s the phrase only valid while in the lab or office. When you start to go home together in small groups, get dinner and watch movies together after work, listen to live jazz and get a few pints, you start to find other nicknames and phrases to pull each others leg. If for nothing else, it’s worth doing a PhD to eat the risotto of your life, or make a group going to the Lewes Bonfire night. Whilst fire and pints, for some odd reason you also start to trust your friends from the lab to prove with your very own hand, that swinging it across the flame of a candle it doesn’t hurt. I know I said ‘few’ pints earlier, but I’m also the man who likes to be accurate, so – does 21 pints within a group of 5 people count as few?
So what is a PhD?
To sum up, a PhD can bring you intellectual, social satisfaction, while your purse also contains more than just dust. That’s the way I see it momentarily, but I reserve the right to change my mind when panicking to pass my annual review or preparing to submit the thesis in order to qualify, and when asked on the phone “Is it Miss or Mrs Daniel Hajas” just proudly say Dr, avoiding the embarrassment of saying “no, it’s actually Mr…” in a very deep voice, feeling somewhat defeated.