Monthly Archives: January 2013



I’ve been doing my PhD for a while now and in all honesty it goes through fits and starts with regards its progress, but on the whole I think that it’s getting there more or less.  I follow quite a few different people of on Twitter who are on a similar journey and often take a quick run through the #phdchat channel although because of a commitment on a Weds night with the British Red Cross I can never join the conversation.

British Red Cross...

I’ve seen a few comments over the past few months that a PhD is about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration… but it surely can’t be that straightforward, can it?  Since I graduated all those years ago I’ve usually kept a trio of books on the go at any one time, each one from a different genre: fiction, self improvement, and a technical book.  The self improvement book that I’m reading at the minute is called ‘Outliers’ and is all about those over achievers that sit far and beyond the datum of us mere mortals, but interestingly there are a few things in the book that have really got me thinking about this 90:10 statement.

One of the points raised in the book is that on average it takes about 10,000 hours to get really good at something, whether it’s playing the piano, ice hockey, or other activities.  This got me thinking about how much effort it is going to take me to finish my PhD, given that it takes about 4 years on average for a student to complete their PhD and most students work insanely hard at the end which I guess makes for a 50 hour week averaged out over the duration (including time for noodling stuff over and reflection) and that most people take a couple of weeks off a year for a holiday this gives a rough idea of how long it should take a typical PhD student.  After all gaining your PhD is essentially demonstrating that you know an awful lot about a very focused topic.

\[\Large \underbrace {50}_{Hours/Week} \times \underbrace {50}_{Weeks} \times \underbrace 4_{Years} = 10,000{\text{ }}hours\]

So the amount of effort seems to match pretty neatly on my guesstimated figures, but what about the 10% inspiration part?  It’s argued by Gladwell that once a persons IQ is over a certain point, say 130 or so then they’re deemed to be ‘capable enough’ to be a contended for a Nobel prize or a reasonable University education, in fact just as many people win with an IQ of 130 or so as compared to the ultra intelligent folk who have IQ’s of 200+.  Now clearly if you have a huge IQ, then the chances are you going to find it easier to grasp particle physics than say someone with a lower IQ, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to come up with that 10% inspiration easier.  Now I’m never going to aim as high as a Nobel prize, but certainly completing my PhD would be great!

As part of my PGCAP course I was interested to see how different people learned and one thing that I thought was interesting was a test for multiple intelligences as I really connected with the idea that different people will excel at different types of activities, but how can you argue that a musical genius is any less intelligent than a physics genius? Surely they have similar genius qualities, but they’re subtly different… My results for the multiple intelligences test are below which show I’m spread over a few different strands, but clearly I can barely hum a decent tune.  If you would like to see how you’re intelligences are distributed then you could take the test here.


Personally I think that the 10% inspiration part is going to be easier for the sort of person who likes to think of new uses for existing things, or indeed someone who can noodle over and think creatively and abstractly and I’m remaining hopeful that my experience designing buildings and other structures will be useful in thinking creatively on my PhD.

There is an interesting test that can be taken called the divergence test, this test asks candidates to think of different uses for a common everyday item such as a brick for example.  Creative sorts should be able to come up with all sorts of examples that are beyond the every day uses of this item… some people will list that they could build a house with it and a BBQ and then run out of ideas, a creative sort would be able to list all sorts of madcap ideas from weighing down the corners of your duvet, to using it in a smash and grab, to leaving a car supported whilst you steal the wheels.  I tend to fare pretty well on these sorts of tests and I’m one of the few that’s still writing ideas down as the time runs out and I’m hopeful that it’s this creative thinking that is going to help me draw upon the 10% inspiration part of my PhD.  The downside is though that I frequently go off on madcap related and unrelated tangents whilst I’m in this kind of thought process, so the biggest risk for me completing my PhD will be focusing on the task in hand I think.


Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers: The story of success. London: Penguin.



Self improvement…

I’ve decided to take a few minutes to sit back and reflect on the past year, with the intention of creating a plan to make this coming year slightly more pleasurable and not as stressful.  To do this I’ve been reading up and running through a few blogs of other souls that are far more organised and driven than myself.  One blog article that I found particularly useful resides on the Personal Excellence website and in particular this article which I have taken the six questions from that I’ve used in the article below.  This is highly self indulgent as a read, but it’s intended more for my own benefit to try and construct my thoughts clearly about the year ahead.

1 What are your biggest accomplishments this year?

Last year I managed to pass my PGCAP course with an excellent grade and this entitled me to join the FHEA. I really enjoyed learning again, particularly in a creative manner which is something that I’ve never experienced before.

I began learning Mathematica and wrote a useful set of scripts looking at the behaviour of cable-chain arches towards my PhD. This has opened up a new found respect for maths and made me appreciate just how undervalued I’d allowed it to become in my life.

For the IStructE I co-ordinated what I feel is a varied and interesting programme of technical lectures for the regional branch and contributed to the new IStructE structural behaviour exam.

Through the course of the year we’d made massive progress on constructing our new house for our family to live in. I’m really looking forward to the building work to be completed, in part because I think it will open an exciting chapter in our family’s life and also because I’m hoping that the associated stress of building it will end.
Week 32 - Front-1667

This year I’ve managed to draft several journal articles for submission and created a video lecture for inclusion within a maths MOOC. This is an entirely new experience for me, I’m used to writing large design reports and can do this standing on my head, but structuring my thoughts and ideas in an academic writing style is a new challenge.

We finally seem to have found a medicine that is working for my son’s illness, whilst this comes with several risks including liver damage, the reduction of recurring MRSA infections that we’ve had the past 3 months cannot be underestimated or over valued.

2 What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned this year?

I’ve learned that I can be inspiring and terrifying in equal measure when I get a bee in my bonnet about something, I need to channel this passion more often, it’s infectious.

Adjusting to life as an academic is proving to be an ongoing challenge and one that I need to develop a strategy for if I’m to be half as productive as I know I can be. I’m still not convinced that I’m the sort of animal that responds well to the bureaucracy that life in the public sector seems to breed and I think this will be the year that determines how long I decide to stay in academia.

I am very unhealthy in what I eat and how I behave, combined with the stressful year I’ve had, this is having a very negative effect on my health and general demeanour.

I’ve lacked focus at times, this is probably because I take on too many responsibilities and don’t structure my time as smartly as I could.

I need to relax and make time to do more fun activities or I’m going to have a very short life.  I think I need to take a leaf out of my dog’s book, he’s a clever border collie, but only exerts just enough brain power to be devious… the rest of the time is spent plotting how to over throw the evil human dictators that limit how much time he can spend playing with his ball.

158:365 - Flame...

My wife appears to have endless patience, I wish I could be half the person she is… I’ve no idea how she keeps her cool at times.  She is a Jedi and I’m more of a Wookie… and I’m not used to losing at chess, you’re supposed to let the Wookie win.

When I’m tired and worn out, I’m a miserable, evil bastard.  I would quite happily pull someone’s arm out of the socket and beat them to death with the wet end at times.  It’s a good job I have a modicum of self-restraint, but I could learn to be more patient and not allow myself to get so fatigued which will help keep the inner Wookie in check.

I’ve learned that life is short and nobody looks back on their life and thinks “I’m really pleased I spent all of those late nights writing those reports and slowly killing myself for an extra £2k a year”. I’ve had a great career as a structural engineer and contributed to changing the skylines of several cities around the world, but I’ve also had a few colleagues die young and suddenly this year and it’s given me a change in perspective relating to work and what constitutes a rich and fulfilling life.

That said I’ve learned that I don’t have anywhere near as much disposable income as I had when I had a proper job and unfortunately my brain likes to buy things when it’s stressed out.

3 With a grade, how satisfied are you with how you spent the year? Why?

I’d give this year a B, it’s been a good year in many respects, I’ve been very busy and accomplished lots of things, but it has been at the personal cost of my health and happiness leaving me absolutely exhausted by the end of the year.

4 What do you want to accomplish next year, such that it’s your best year ever?

I really want to make significant progress on my PhD and develop a well-rounded approach to structural analysis that I can script into Mathematica which I think could be very useful for my students.

Further develop my ideas and thoughts on teaching into a series of lectures and trial them ‘in the wild’. When I’ve discussed my approach and demonstrated the prototypes to other academics and publishers the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

I really want to take time and make our new house into a home, as silly as it sounds I want to do a few little projects with the kids now we have a decent sized garden and a greenhouse. Even if this is something simple such as growing some tomatoes and cucumbers or using the produce to do more baking and cooking with them.

186:365 - Sowing the seeds...

I would like to find an activity that we can do together as a family and do this regularly.

I need to improve my physical and mental well being over the course of this next year and I need to either improve my income back to the levels that I was used to or learn to rein in my spending over the coming year.

5 What new habits to cultivate that will help you to achieve your goals in Q4?

I need to be more structured about how I spend my time and energy. By being more structured I’m hopeful that I should be able to work less but remain as, if not more, productive. I also need to include times where I can just muck about and chill too if I’m to be anything close to approaching a human being again.

151:365 - Put yer feet up...

One piece of advice that I’ve come across is to walk… I love how on the 3MonthThesis site the first piece of advice given was every time that he felt he was becoming stressed or faced a problem he would put on his coat and walk. Previously he would fluff about on the internet, checking mails, twitter, etc… and this is what I find myself doing too, so this year I’m going to take his advice and just go for a walk every time I feel that I’ve gone off the rails a little bit.  I also think an activity such as Muay Thai that I used to love will help an awful lot, there’s a lot to be said for pummelling a punching bag within an inch of its life, much better to do it this way than growling and snarling every time someone asks you a stupid question.

Part of being structured this year will be finding a good place to work and write. I have a sneaky suspicion that this will be the key to me being productive over the coming year or two on my PhD and it’s become very apparent that my office at work isn’t the best place for this to happen as I am frequently interrupted.  That said I lacked quality mentoring when I first moved to Manchester and I think the students appreciate having a ‘proper’ engineer that’s actually designed quality buildings being their lecturer, I wouldn’t want to lose the connection with the students as I genuinely enjoy watching them have their Aha! moment, it’s all going to be about striking a balance.

To identify and deliver various activities to do as a family, this could be baking, growing stuff, walking, or any of a multitude of things that we all enjoy, but currently they happen a little too infrequently for my liking.  I think a good way to achieve this could be to let the kids pick an activity that we do together and no matter how silly it turns out to be, then that’s what we do for an afternoon.

6 What are your immediate next steps to achieve these goals?

I need to create a schedule that can help me structure my time more effectively, this needs to happen at two or three levels: daily, weekly, and monthly initially so as to build a plan. I need to stick to this program quite strictly at first and then continue to improve and refine it until it becomes habit.

I need to go and buy some packets of seeds ready to start planting with the kids ready for our new greenhouse.

I need to put my walking boots on more often…


Personal review…

I’ve been thinking a little (probably too much lately) about happiness and what I need to try and improve over the coming year so that I don’t run into next Christmas the fizzling wreck that I did this year.  I’m not quite sure if I’m honest why I found last year so demanding, I know I’ve taken a lot on, but I know people that work much harder than me and manage to tick along quite happily.  However, what I need this year is a plan so that I don’t end up unravelling by the time I hit Christmas…
223:365 - Unravel...

Perhaps it’s the stress of the new house and trying to get that constructed or perhaps it’s still my inability to adjust to life as an academic (I still find working in the public sector a massive culture shock compared to the private sector) or perhaps I just need to cut back on the number of activities and groups that I’m involved in.  Whatever it is, I’m finding it hard to get back into the swing of things and I need to start pushing forward.

I’m a big fan of LifeHacker and whilst there is probably an equal measure of articles that I find myself raising an eyebrow or to at in disbelief or disdain, there are a few little gems in there that are quite helpful.  One thing that seems to have been a recurring theme on the LifeHacker blog is the idea of undertaking a personal review of the previous year and see if that shows any patterns.

I’m going to search around for a template and see what I can conclude from a personal review, I’m not sure if I’ll share the results of it on here or not, but I’d be really interested to know if anybody else does something similar at the end of the year?


Geek Tools…

I’ve been tinkering around a little bit with GeekTools, which is a Mac utility that allows you to customise your desktop, to try and customise my desktop a little bit to integrate some dynamic components.  I’ve seen a few interesting desktop arrangements on LifeHacker lately and decided to see if I could nerd it up a little more too with time apps, weather, and basic connection status.

April '11 Geektool Desktop

Combining this with a nerdy wallpaper with a Star Wars theme I’ve managed to pimp my desktop suitably and for a first attempt I’m pretty happy with it.


The time, date, etc are all pretty easy to set up and they can be taken from this link.  However I struggled for quite a while to get the weather app setup to allow real time updating of the weather in my area as Yahoo has changed the way that they create the links and therefore lots of the tutorials that I’ve found don’t quite work anymore because they’re based on the old Yahoo Weather codes.

To help future non-US guys set up their own Geek Tools I’ve listed out the Syntax for a couple of my widgets that gives the Weather in Stockport, these would be easily customised for any other UK city by simply determining the code for your city using the following link.

To create the weather image, you need to add two widgets in Geek Tools, one is an image widget that physically shows the picture, the other one is a shell element that is used to farm the image from the Yahoo site.  The URL that is in red in the syntax below would need to be swapped out for a URL that reflects wherever your location is, and this is simply done by finding your Yahoo Weather site for your city and then copying and pasting this URL to overwrite the red text in the link below.


curl –silent “” | grep “current-weather” | sed “s/.*background\:url(\’\(.*\)\’) .*/\1/” | xargs curl –silent -o /tmp/weather1.png\


The next step is to then get the textual description that goes next to the icon, this is a little trickier as all of the tutorials that I found made use of the RSS feed utility from Yahoo that doesn’t appear to exist any longer.  You’ll have to work out your city code using this website and then replace the text in blue in the shell element script that you’ll create below.


curl –silent “” | grep -E ‘(Current Conditions:|C<BR)’ | tail -n1 | sed -e ‘s/<BR \/>//’ -e ‘s/ C$/˚C/’


Sometimes it can take a few minutes for this to refresh and update onto your desktop, but I found that these were the only scripts that I could get to work and I’m going to stop tinkering anymore with my desktop for a while before I kill it.