Gamifying the PhD

Over the past weeks, I have taken an awesome MOOC called “How to survive your PhD” on EdX (thank you Simone for pointing me to this!) Of course, I did survive my own PhD a while ago, but as I am crossing over to the dark supervisor side of things, I want to learn as much as I can about the general PhD experience and about what we can do to support our students.

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A day in the life

Today is Monday, 20 May 2013 (yes, sorry for the delay in posting)

I am working at Caltech as a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering

This is a day in my life.

  • 8 am – It is a sunny morning in California.


    I get up, shower, have breakfast and walk to work, admiring the blooming jacaranda trees on my street.


  • 10 am – Work is underway.


    I spend the morning trying to install a new software package which will eventually allow me to do some cool modelling and parameter analysis of biochemical reaction systems. This bit of software requires some other software, which in turn requires some other software. After spending nearly all morning googling exotic error message, I finally manage to install all the required packages.

  • 12:15 pm – I check my e-mails and reply to some of the more urgent ones.
  • 12:45 pm – I go for lunch, enjoying the beautiful May weather outside.


  • 1:15 pm – Back in the office, I read a paper draft my work study student has sent me, and start adding my own sections and figures to the paper.
  • 3 pm – As part of the “Women Mentoring Women” programme at Caltech, I have this year been mentoring a grad student. This afternoon, we meet for coffee to discuss her plans for medical school, books, and cats.


  • 4 pm – Back working on my paper draft.
  • 4:30 pm – My boss just came in to schedule a meeting for tomorrow. I take some time to prepare for the meeting and e-mail relevant documents to both my boss and my co-worker.
  • 5 pm – Back to working on the paper draft, and finally get it into a state that I am happy with. Will it be Ice Cream Day soon?
  • 5:45 pm – Do some reading.
  • 6:45 pm – It’s evening on campus. Get a sandwich for dinner.


  • 7 pm – Back at work, wrap up, update my lab notebook, make plans for tomorrow.
  • 7:30 pm – Choir rehearsal on campus. At the moment, we are learning bits of Beethoven’s 9th for commencement. Good fun.
  • 9:45 pm – Home from choir, I spend half an hour doing some housework, while listening to an audiobook (Bring up the Bodies, part 2 of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell). Listening to audiobooks is literally the only way I can trick myself in doing any household chores at all. (The rest of it is handled by my robot vacuum cleaner. Yay robots!)
  • 10:15 pm – I make myself some tea and tackle my final exam for my EdX Statistics Course. Longer than I expected, but fortunately not hard.


  • 11:30 pm – I skype with by boyfriend in London. It is the last thing I do before I go to sleep and the first thing he does after waking up. I am insanely grateful to be living in an age where technology allows us to do that. Where it is possible for two people, across an ocean and a continent, across an entire night on earth, to connect.

Start MOOCing

I have recently registered for my first Massive open online course (MOOC). Basically these are online classes, delivered by university professors and accessible for free by anyone, anywhere in the world (provided they have internet). A tremendous idea! I decided to take a class on probabilities, both to refresh my knowledge in this area, and to get an idea of what these courses are like. Let me walk you through the experience so far:

First, I got an account at EdX, one of the companies that provide MOOCs. On the front page, you can see a list of participating universities:


You can browse the courses on offers. I decided to enroll for Stat 2.2X, a class offered by BerekelyX, after looking through the course description and requirements:


This course will take 5 weeks (I am currently in Week 2). Each week, the instructor uploads lecture slides and videos, which students can watch at their convenience:


At the end of each week, a problem set is due, which students can enter through the web interface. In addition, there will be a mid-term exam, and a final. Students can follow their progress through their course with the help of an online progress chart:

progress chart

So far, I am having great fun. The delivery of the lectures is great, and plenty of material is provided for further reading and practise. The workload is considerable (and especially, it’s impossible to take a week off), but since the entire course only lasts a few weeks, that’s fair enough. Students are provided with an online forum where they can discuss problems or ask for help (provided they don’t post answers to the assignment questions).

I have read about how MOOCs are a great resources for high school students preparing for college and for students in developing countries (there is a great article here, if you can read German). For me, it’s a great opportunity for continued professional development and lifelong learning. Also, I just really like doing problem sets. But maybe that’s just me …