Posted on September 6, 2009.
Well, if there was previously any doubt that I should be doing a Ph.D., that has been easily assuaged by my week in St Andrews at the STFC Summer School. The people there were all about to start Ph.D.s too, and they are exactly the right sort of people from my point of view. We had a whale of a time, and I think the group of about ten or so that I ended up in were all pretty sad that we were saying goodbye at the end of it for the time being.
Five lectures a day got a little tough to pay attention in towards the end of any given day, especially as most people were cruising along on less sleep than usual (or just skipping the odd judiciously chosen lecture entirely to catch up on sleep). Many were interesting, but a couple did drag on a little long; I suspect this was because the lectures frequently went to a full hour, but as undergraduates we've been conditioned to pay attention for 50 minutes, and then no more.
But really, it wasn't about the lectures, it was about meeting new people. Indeed, we were told a couple of times to forget all the physics we'd been told, as it was likely to be irrelevant or otherwise shown to be somehow mistaken in a few years, and we should concentrate on networking. I went in with this intention, but we relatively quickly settled down into a group of about ten, as mentioned above, and modestly began calling ourselves 'Team Awesome'. Lunchtimes and pre-dinnertimes were spent with a mixture of exploring St Andrews and playing party games, including 'Godel Eats Currency', the Cereal Box game and Pictionary.
Much of our evenings were spent inside the Raisin which was - purely coincidentally - the nearest pub to our accommodation. Pool tables, a jukebox and cheap drinks - what was not to like? The answer to this rhetorical question would be every other group in the pub's taste in music. We rectified this on the final night, where we essentially hijacked the jukebox (and a pool table) purely for our own entertainment. That said, we didn't spend all our time there. The second evening in St Andrews we went to the beach for what was nominally a bonfire, but should have really been called a campfire to reduce expectations. A bunch of us lay down on some conveniently flat rocks and stared at the sky. As we were all people about to start Astrophysics Ph.Ds, this was a common source of interest - and I was comprehensively schooled by a number of people on the contents of the sky, which was a novel experience.
On the Tuesday evening most people in our group went to see Inglorious Basterds, but I spent some time exploring the nooks and crannies of St Andrews with a couple of other people who weren't keen on sitting in a dark room not talking to anyone. We trundled around for a few hours, and found quite a few small alleyways which warranted exploring, much to our delight. Equally delightful was an ice cream shop open at eight in the evening with more flavours available than you could possibly imagine. I managed to convince someone that, being in Scotland, they needed to try the Iron Bru flavour, but they regretted this soon after when they couldn't finish the scoop!
A Ceilidh was held on the Wednesday, which was, as always, awesome fun. They allowed you to hire kilts, but I opted out of such frivolities and opted to bring my dinner jacket instead. As it transpired, I was one of the few guys there in black tie; other than the kilts, there were maybe two other guys there in proper attire - despite the fact that the kilts were present should have indicated otherwise. Still, if you're overdressed you feel silly, but if you're underdressed you look silly, so I was erring on the side of caution at least.
I think it's a little difficult to pin down exactly what made the week such a great experience. The few things that I've written above don't really convey just how much I enjoyed it, but I don't know how to fill in what's missing from the descriptions. I think part of it was that we had such a large common interest that conversation was easy despite our relative ignorance of each other. Of course, the fact that we got to make such incredibly nerdy astrophysics jokes that would have fallen flat elsewhere, but were met by guffaws of laughter there must have helped.
Team Awesome is hoping for a fairly compete reunion in a couple of weeks, when two members share the same birthday in Liverpool, which should be good fun one way or another. Beyond that, the word on the street is I actually have to start doing some work in order to claim I'm doing a Ph.D....