Looking Back: The Core of My 3 Years in London

I’m embarking on a new journey come Monday, and as I clear out the stuff I’ve accumulated over the past 3.5 years as a PhD student, I am feeling strangely nostalgic and somewhat eager to embrace a new life too.

The reason why I had moved to London was because of M. We planned for this big move for more than a year. I’ll save the details of our story for later, but let me tell you that it was one of the most daunting tasks we took on. After M got accepted to our university in London, we were elated but we had a bigger problem to face. It wasn’t hard getting a professor to accept me for postgraduate research (I mean who doesn’t like free labour?) but we were worried. Where the hell are we going to get the money to fund my PhD? I was a research assistant then in one of the universities in Singapore, and I remember spending my breaks with dear friends QM and P, poring over sheets and sheets of calculations, wondering how I could ever pay off this feat? We worked out that I would require S$300000 to do a PhD in London, including fees and living allowance, and that was the price of a small flat back in 2007! After months of agonising and an awful lot of planning, I was constantly ill with bad gastric problems and much too skinny but by grace, I managed to get hold of two scholarships to fund my time in London. I remember calling M when I received the news, and I couldn’t contain my excitement as I paced up and down the corridors at my workplace. I was almost in tears. M was having lunch with his brother at Noble House. It was quite a moment. Then on our second anniversary, M proposed. I was delighted, things couldn’t get any better.

My professor was also happy to hear that I was fully funded. On his way back to London from a conference in Australia, he stopped by Singapore with his son to make sure I wasn’t a psycho. We took him for a lunch that he recalled having in Singapore 20 years ago – curry served on banana leaves – so, clueless us brought him to Banana Leaf Apolo. Both of them enjoyed the meal very much. We walked around in the area of Little India, took them to Sentosa to have a look at the museum, and sent them back to Berjaya Hotel. A few months later, I visited the lab in June 2007 when we were setting up our home in London. I met a few people, felt that it was a nice place to work in and before I knew it, we said goodbye to our families on 18 September 2007. I cried like a baby.

I was terribly homesick for a long time. Not one day went by without me missing my family. I was often in tears. I didn’t have any friends here and I had a hard time whilst working under the mentorship of a postdoc in my lab. Tensions escalated and I often fought with M, blaming him for my plight. I was a mess.

The first two years of my PhD was carved out of nothing but blood and sweat. I was going in at 8.30am during the first months as I was told to do so, and my mentor didn’t show up till 12pm, so I often wasted hours waiting for him each day. As he worked late till 10-11pm, I had to stay with him till after working hours. M and my sister–in-law were here in London then and I was adamant about spending time with them; I decided to ask my mentor for a schedule, so I could work my personal life around it without wasting time waiting for him to show up during the first half of the day. He cornered me in the tissue culture lab and warned while wagging a finger in my face, ‘If you want a schedule, you should be a banker, not a scientist’. There, the first threatening insult spewed right in my face. M encouraged me to talk to my professor about it, I did and the postdoc got into trouble. On hindsight, I should have told him, bankers have erratic working hours too, you stupid ass.

Just as I thought the situation was getting better, ironically, life as a postgraduate student worsened. Long hours and weekends aside, both of which are inevitable when one does research, I had to stand up against the lack of integrity in science and I was berated for being ‘stupid’ and ‘daft’ when I couldn’t show the same results as the predecessor. I doubted myself and felt that I wasn’t good enough to do a PhD. Yes, I had very low morale for two years, and that was part of the reason why I started this blog. I needed a way out of the negativity and I needed to realise that life wasn’t just about my PhD. I felt better when I approached the later half of my second year; you see, wedding planning made me quite a happy girl and I was a truly delighted Mrs when we said I do. Things also got better in my third year, when my work gained recognition and people realised that I was right after seeing how the work done by the predecessor was also not reproducible by others. Suddenly, I was praised for being consistent, good and upright in my work. Suddenly, I wasn’t ‘stupid’ or ‘daft’ anymore.

But it was too late. I had seen enough fraud and I am now jaded. I had gone into science, wanting to plough through facts and pull them out so the next generation could learn the truth. I didn’t go into science to publish for the sake of publishing. I couldn’t bear to be in this field anymore if I had to compromise my principles. I’m not saying that this happens in all research groups but it’s a shame that it happened to me in two out of three labs I worked with. I applaud the efforts of people who have the strength and courage to stay and produce good science, but I am ready to leave this to the better people.

So after six long years of research, three years of which were spent in London, I bid farewell to this life, for now. Maybe I will return, maybe I won’t, I still love science, I really do, I just don’t know if I can tolerate what I have stood up to for so long.

I summed up the core of my life here in London in 191 pages of my thesis. I passed my viva after 105 minutes of grilling by the examiners. Even though I was a bagful of nerves before the viva (I couldn’t walk up and down the stairs when I made my way to the university….), I came out feeling exhilarated that I had the most intense, useful and thought-provoking scientific discussion I’ve ever had in my life. I popped the champagne and celebrated with a group of labbies (sans that postdoc) whom I enjoyed working with in the office. I treated them to farewell tea at Patisserie Valerie afterwards. I squealed at the lovely and thoughtful gifts from them. I took farewell pics with this group of lovely people and of the stuff I’ve collected over the years.

M arrived in time for the farewell tea. I bade my peeps farewell, and M drove us to Charlotte Street to grab some celebratory grub. We stupidly didn’t make any reservations, tried our luck at Roka, nah uh, slipped round the corner to Fino, fat hope. I was seriously considering McD’s to line my rapidly eroding tummy as we left Fino, but there stood Nizuni, looking like a landmine waiting to be stepped on with its Japanese fusion-esque menu.

Looking tired but happy at Nizuni after 105 minutes of  grilling by the examiners

Luckily for us, the newly opened Nizuni didn’t disappoint. We were expecting teething problems with service and sushi smothered in mayonnaise, but no, everything was in good order. We nibbled on small but fresh slabs of nigiri. We feasted on the delicately-battered ebi tempura. We chatted over beef tataki, ika karaage and saba shioyaki. It was a lovely meal. Most of all, I had the most amazing time reminiscing about the journey we’ve taken. I didn’t think I could make it this far, but I did.

Like M said, I’m at the shore now, and all I have to do is wait for him to arrive. So yes, my dear, I will wait for you.

I leave the rest of you with one of the four quotes I included in the preface of my thesis:

Persistence is what makes the impossible possible, the possible likely, and the likely definite. – Robert Half

This persistence saw me through to where I am today. Bring on the new life ahead of me!

 

 

35 thoughts on “Looking Back: The Core of My 3 Years in London

  1. Indra

    You did so well, in the face of the mountain of difficulties n challenges n the gastric pains. I am so very proud of you – can’t say that enough. Looking forward to hearing about your work. Take good care and continue to smell the roses along the way🙂 Hugs

    Reply
  2. Z

    What a long way you have come! (Good riddance to that prick of a postdoc btw). Congrats again and all the best for your new journey babe!

    Reply
  3. Quee

    Alright best friend.. you really rocked it! Congratulations on successfully completing this long and arduous task that is the PhD… so now that you suffer from Permanent Head Damage and are official Dr R… I am glad to have been a part of it LOL.. albeit a tiny one… =P

    All the best as you start on your new venture!!!!!

    Reply
  4. thenakedlistener

    Wow! Your Ph.D. – if you’ve spent S$300,000, that works out to roughly £3,400 a month. It also works out to HK$1.83 million here in Hong Kong – price of a small flat. Serious bread, serious bread. Did you have fun doing the Ph.D.? Or was it all blood and sweat through and through?

    Reply
    1. The Pleasure Monger Post author

      thenakedlistener: I think the fun came round when results came a-knocking. But in research, positive results are rare so it’s all about hanging in there until they come, however sporadic they might be. So I would say, lots of blood and sweat, and teeny bit of fun.

      Reply
  5. Ee Hong Tan

    Hey Rachel,

    Congrats to you on getting your phD! I’m so happy for you and I could totally understand the difficult journey you went through cos I was once there myself! So what’s up in the next chapter of your life?

    All the best,
    Ee Hong

    Reply
      1. Ee Hong Tan

        Hey Rachel,

        I’m really so happy for you! Consultancy is something that I might go into after my postdoc here. Don’t know if they still want me! But all the best in your new job! I’m sure you will kick some ass!!

        Ee xxx

  6. Jeanne

    Thanks for sharing the truth. I was away in Canada for a few years doing my undergrad too and it really wasn’t that great of an experience. I still remember how it felt like fireworks exploded outta me when I went on stage to get my cert. Congrats congrats to you!!

    Reply
  7. Carrie

    Dear Rachel,

    I was inspired by your blog, which led to the birth of mine (which pales in comparison to all your stunning photography!). I feel as though we’re in the same shoes, albeit very different working industries, and I applaud you for being tenacious enough to get through your 3 years in London and emerge such a winner! Congrats on your PhD and more so for having been able to bring such optimism through your blogsite despite the undercurrents in life….

    Keep well and hope you had a good First Day!

    Reply
  8. meleahhickman

    I can completely empathize with your situation. I am currently a post-doc in the biological sciences and have been contemplating a change (perhaps one featuring food, since, like you, I am completely food-obsessed). It’s a brave thing to acknowledge that something isn’t working out and to make changes in your life. I wish you the very best in your future endeavors! I am interested to hear how they turn out.

    Reply
    1. The Pleasure Monger Post author

      meleahhickman: Yes it was hard stepping out of my comfort zone. Still is, but I guess this is one shot I’ve got to take to have a look a what the world has to offer. I hope you find your ‘change’ too!

      Reply
  9. Kaho

    I’m all impressed and inspired by you now! What a great story and you recounted it so well! You’re a talented scientist with a writing skill to attract readers with humor! 105 minutes of grilling… Wow, I can’t imagine how much prep you had to do for that. Congratulations on your completing your pos-doc and good luck to you in your new life.

    Reply
    1. The Pleasure Monger Post author

      Kaho: Thank you! I think my husband played a huge part in getting me through. Support from family & friends are really crucial too, I’m just thankful that I have these people rooting for me.

      Reply
  10. bookjunkie

    your journey sounds so difficult. You have so much courage to have pulled through. I can’t imagine how you kept up with this blog and whipping up beautiful meals in the kitchen as well. Wish I had a fraction of your talents.

    Reply
    1. The Pleasure Monger Post author

      bookjunkie: Actually I channel all my negative energy into the cooking and baking. I’m really not talented, it is just sheer stress that is pushing me to cook and bake. =)

      Reply
  11. Linda

    Hi Rachel, reading this has brought back memories of when I was doing my Ph.D. I started my science Ph.D. mainly because I wanted to learn more, and then go on to become a professor in my field. Over the years, I too, got jaded and lost interest in the World of research, and the politics that go around in academic institutions. I lost faith. In 2005, I got grilled during my viva, passed and never went back into science again. I, like you, still do love science and research, however, if I was to go back into science, it would really have to be in an area that made a lot of difference to the World.

    That aside, congratulations on gaining the Dr. title. (Believe me, the novelty wears off.) I’m sure that you’ve learnt a lot about yourself during those years, and it has made you into the person you are today.

    Your blog is wonderful and the photographs are spectacular. I look forward to reading more entries.

    Reply
    1. The Pleasure Monger Post author

      Hi Linda! Indeed the novelty wears off, in fact, I haven’t enjoyed the Dr title very much as I’m no longer in academic research. How sad…lol. Yes, I learnt a lot about life during these years, more so than anything else. It almost broke me but I think I’m stronger today. Now I’m happier, and a lot more mature (but still a long way to go on the maturity level), and there’s no looking back! Thank you for your lovely comments, I’m glad you enjoyed my blog. By the way, I’m going to try out the honeycomb recipe you have, looks AMAZING!

      Reply
      1. Linda

        As long as you’re happy within yourself, that’s all that counts. As for maturity – I still have a long way to go, and I’m in my mid thirties😉.

        One warning about the honeycomb toffee – it’s really really addictive. The only reason I stopped eating it was because it nearly made me feel sick, lol. However, once the sickening sweetness from my mouth had gone, I had to eat more!

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