Rita Lopes

back to school

Last time you heard from me I shared a few thoughts on my first month working part-time. The reason for this change, if you recall, was me going back to school to pursue my PhD.

I thought it was an interesting experience to be back to school, seeing as I hadn’t been in such a situation in a while… Nearly a decade, if we’re being picky. Because it’s been so great so far, I decided to write this post about what it currently feels like being back to school, and some of the main differences between previous academic experiences and this one.

old school

As with pretty much everything else in life, how big a certain school is is a matter of perspective. I remember, back at 17, visiting my almost-to-be university and thinking how cool and gigantic it was—when compared with my secondary school, where I’d studied the past three years. It had an additional “feature” that made it interesting: it felt like a bit of a maze. The university comprised of several buildings that had been purchased and thus the insides had changed in various ways; including tearing down some walls, stairways, etc. It led to laughable situations like you being able to see where you wanted to be, but couldn’t figure out how to get to.

A few years later, degree completed, I worked for a company which had its HQ within another university’s campus. Then, already used to my “little big university”, I remember thinking how spacious everything was. Unlike the university I studied at, where the campus was a collection of old renovated typical Lisbon buildings, this was an actual campus, built for the purpose of being a university, with various buildings, green spaces, and. so. much. space. everywhere.

new school

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m at UCL. It’s so, so, so big, that it doesn’t even look a campus. Basically, they’ve kind of taken over a whole square mile where the majority of the buildings are UCL’s. According to one of my introduction / welcome talks, apparently, they’ve got over 230 buildings in total.

It’s got nothing mazy about it, but it’s still interesting to be able to get google maps directions to get from place A to B within the university. On my enrolment day, I was amused with the fact that they enlisted many students and staff to help out, and I noticed that when you had to move from one place to another, for different parts of the enrolment process, they always had one person (clearly identified) in line of sight of where you were standing, and then they took you to your next stop. So, you were kind of “delivered” to each place you had to go, without any possible chance of getting lost along the way (provided you followed the person you were “delivered to” to take you to your next stop). That was the most amusing part. The most impressive part was the waiting time: zero. I waited for nothing, in any of the stages (trust me, that was not the case when I first enrolled for university back in Lisbon…).

the cool… kids?

Key-word here being “kids”. Yes, it is true. When you’re not 18 anymore, everyone looks slightly too young. Thankfully, as a postgraduate researcher, there are also many people “not 18” within the same groups I partake. Whether it’s a specific course, or an event.

Just like at 18, when you first start you tend to immediately identify a few people and then stick to them. I am now able to confirm that it does still happen like that. Maybe less so for shyness or awkwardness striking conversation, and more so for convenience. The people you meet that are also PhDs tend to be people you’ll continue to cross paths with, and possibly work together. It’s no surprise, then, that about two months in, I found that of the people I’ve met meanwhile the ones that I tend to see more frequently are the ones I met early on as we share similar research interests.

school life

Being a Post Grad Research student means school life is really quite different. Deadlines are, for the most part, soft deadlines (that you set for yourself), and we’ve got specific allocated people to “take care of us”. And “us” being a much smaller group than in other degrees of study, most people know each other by name which is a nice thing.

I would like to talk about “A day in the life of a PhD student”, but I feel that deserves its own post and I don’t want to prolong this one any further. That being said, next time I’ll write a little bit more about the specifics about doing research, the similarities and differences between academic and business work, and all the details that have been making this a very interesting experience!

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