Survival Guide to starting your PhD   Leave a comment

I recently came back to university – almost ten years after I graduated. I decided to do a PhD. My jobs have been at prestigious companies with dynamic and intense environments, allowing me to be empowered and thrive at what I do. I decided to let go of lucrative pay and forge something for myself. I set out seeing the PhD as a stepping stone to get me to where I want to be. Of course, I didn’t expect this experience to be a breeze. I’m still fairly new, having just entered my second semester, but here are my top survival tips that might help you going through something similar.

  1. Manage your money – If you come from a working life, salary and money is more of a constant. Cycles that keep replenishing themselves, especially if you’re good at managing it. I am fortunate to get a stipend in the UK but it it’s a drastic difference to my usual monthly pay checks. It’s more important now than ever to stay on top of your finances as this might end up being a long journey if you decide to see if through to the end.
  2. Rely on your support networks – I have been doing this, a. lot. I ended up relocating and this means that I’ve ended up relying a lot more on my existing support networks for emotional support. Feel secure enough to say what you’re feeling without having to put on a brave face. A lot of insights can come out of frank, candid discussions and you might be surprised by some useful nuggets of advise that come your way.
  3. Forge new relationships – go out with your cohort! Life is extremely hectic in a new city, a new environment and doing new things all at once, I know. But don’t use that as an excuse to bail out of socials. It’s really helped me to form close relationships with some of my peers (many of whom are much younger) and even when talking doesn’t help (which for me does not work btw!), just having someone beside you, or having a short conversation with someone who’s company you enjoy or a lecturer, can go a long way to brighten your day and raise your sprit.
  4. Structure your days – I recently had a coaching session with a brilliant person and discovered that some of the source of my feelings came from a lack of structure during my evenings. While I’m good at structuring my day and prioritising, thanks to my work experience, I’ve been rather bad at structuring my evenings. I hadn’t noticed this at all. While it’s okay to put in a little extra as your learning the ropes, it’s also important to have structured evening and to keep yourself engaged in activities you did as part of your working life. So, go to the gym, go out for a meal (a table of one is just fine by me!), go to the theatre or have a karaoke night. But do something that keeps that structure for you.
  5. Reflect, re-evaluate and hang in there – This is a big one. I am quite introspective but it’s important to do little mental checks to see if your project is going in the direction (vaguely at least) that you set out when starting out with the PhD. Your dream can have different versions, sure, but the dream should still be there. If things are aligned, try to hang in there. Everything can seem hard at first but it gets easier.

I broke away from my usual topic pieces but I hope this is useful if anyone is going through something similar, within academia or not. It’s also good for me to have this to reflect back on in a few month’s time.

Update: Thanks to the previous blog piece which really sprung me into making some sort of a difference, my mentor supported a brilliant food drive for Christmas to help a local food-bank and it was humbling to see all the support and donations pour in. Thanks to those who read that post and wrote words of encouragement to me.

Until next time.


Posted February 16, 2019 by neeshekhan in Life, Science, Uncategorized

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User Interface (UX) and Software Communication to bypass cycles of poverty   1 comment

Watching the documentary being featured on BBC One, Panorama investigates ‘The Universal Credit Crisis’, led me to thinking about two things: 1. the concept of being left behind and 2. perpetuating cycles of poverty. Below, I propose that actually both of the two concerns above, can actually be boiled down to, and solved by, better designed user interface (UX) and transparency in software communication.

For any of my readers who are alien to the UK’s welfare state system I will quickly summarise the welfare framework which is relatively easy to understand, especially if you’re from countries that adopt a welfare state model. If you happen to find yourself out of work and no sources of income, the state provides you with money for food or food stamps/energy/rent payments towards these expenses which largely comes from the working tax payers.

The amount of how much is received by an adult in the UK is arguably below what would be expected for an adult to survive on (average £65/week) when you include expenses such as rent (average £600 in London for a room in shared accommodation), utility bills and food. This money only comes after successfully navigating a complex system with an abundance of form filling, welfare departments (like the Job Centre) which are stretch to their limits with insatiable demand, and dependent on conditions (like mandatory bi-weekly meetings at the Job Centre to discuss if you’ve found work and if not, why). Failing to meet these conditions results in penalties such as reduction in weekly payments or absolute cutting off of all payments after a fixed number of ‘no shows’ to these meetings, which can reportedly be as little as five. This also means that it is up to the receiver to find a way to turn up at their local job centre, which might not be ‘local’ at all.

The pressure on the receiver (or claimant) increases as various local organisations do not effectively communicate to each other. For example you will be taken to court for not paying your council tax (which is mandatory if employed and is usually in excess of £100) although the claimant has informed the council of the change in circumstance and is claiming benefits at the local job centre. This results in the receiver being fined disproportionately for missing deadlines to pay, fees incurred by the council to pursue these charges and ultimately appearing in court to clarify a matter that could have been circumvented by the two departments effectively communicating with each other more efficiently and transparently. It would certainly save the court’s time and relieve the stress, anxiety and mental suffering experienced by the claimant.

This complex system for claiming benefits, now uses a an online system called ‘Universal Credit’. This system is so hard to use that 50% of claimants needed help when filing a claim for benefits. Help comes from already overstretched departments like the Job Centre and assisting a claimant to utilise this system means hundreds of hours spent by employees to understand the claimant’s position, identify their needs and process the claim. While this claim is being processed (which in some cases has reportedly taken up to six months) the claimant is left to manage their bills and essentially their survival (and possibly their dependants) in any way they see fit. This means that rely on help from relatives and charities (especially food banks) whilst organising a stack of bills that are long past their due dates. A difficult system to use (Universal Credit) coupled by a delays in payment or errors in records (which take an enormously long time to correct in ‘the system’) perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty. Is begs the question, why are systems that are designed to help those in need made so difficult to navigate?

Writing this, I am aware that this debate is not new. Across the pond, the US food stamps and welfare systems are notoriously hard to navigate and there are sociological debates about whether the system is designed to help those in need or keep them there (poverty cycles, violence and class movement in the projects).

My question here is if this can be solved by designing better systems through listening to evidence. Evidence in this case is that 50% of people who made (welfare) claims, needed help when submitting through ‘Universal Credit’ system. Can this be designed better, in terms of UX to fit the needs of a wide claimant needs. For example a claimant who is in their 50’s and had a welding job for 30 years of their life and simultaneously for a single mother in their 20’s raising children for the last 10 years? Although the target audience mentioned above might appear to be different segments of the population, an educated guess would indicate that their literacy skills and ways to navigate the ‘Universal Credit’ system would largely be the same.

Can pressure on supporting departments’ employees be reduced by better designed software and instilling transparency? For example software that effectively and efficient speaks to each other to communicate change in circumstance of their client that can affect them? This would simply mean a notification to say that a resident in their council has lost their job and update their database accordingly to adjust payment and revenue forecasts. We already have software that largely does this all the time, for instance in credit checks (banks speaking to each other), border control (entire history of residence, employment and tax), tax payments and even TV licensing. The same design principles would replicate this on a local (i.e. council) level to make decisions with accuracy and efficiently.

I understand that with the limited space this is an oversimplification of what would be required or the challenges that would be posed in such implementation (adoption and training of new interface and software along would be costly and time consuming) but the argument is that it would provide cost saving for years in correct payments, staffing hours and efficiency, while future proofing departments for a digital age.

As a concluding thought, if you’re reading this and based in the UK, please look up your local food bank (here is quick and easy one by The Trussell  Trust). They are, and have been for many years now, coming to the aid of those caught in the ‘waiting for the next payment to come in’ cycle which can sometimes last 6 months for a single family. Local food banks have a list of items they need for your local community and I’m sure would be appreciative of any help you could offer them.

Open Data and the future of science   Leave a comment

This post is back dated from when I attended the UKSG conference in 2015. While ‘Big Data’ isn’t generating the same level of excitement, my blog based on a talk by Professor Geoffrey Boulton OBE FRS FRSE, is still relevant. If you’re interested in this space, Professor Boulton lists out a few major themes that would peak interest or allow an introduction to the issue of Big Data.

Posted October 17, 2018 by neeshekhan in Big Data, Science

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