Half a life

As of today, I will have spent precisely half of my life at $PLACE_OF_WORK.

I first arrived at what would become my workplace as a badly coiffured youth in 1995 to do a biology degree. South Kensington seemed a great improvement over Croydon, where I had endured my previous 18 years: there was a refreshing absence of casual street violence, and a greatly improved proximity to the grubby delights of Soho. At that time, my Hall of Residence was directly above the first-year lecture theatre, and in the same building as the Students’ Union. Despite this tempting proximity to cheap vodka – and even cheaper dates – I somehow managed to attend almost every lecture of my first year, aside from a week (a week!) of lectures on algae, which I traded for bossing Munchkins about in the Questor’s Theatre in Ealing. I met my personal tutor at least twice, survived two under-catered field-trips to somewhere, somewhere in a field in HampshireBerkshire, and made friends whom I treasure to this day.

Ecology 1996

I discovered a cache of mediaeval exam papers in the bottom of a filing cabinet when I last cleared out my office. I have a very distinct memory of answering this question, probably because it involved talking about the “Sexy Sons” hypothesis.

Second-year forced me out into less convenient accommodation: an ill-conceived double-Georgian knock-through near Brompton Cemetery with 18 bedrooms, and anything up to 2 working bathrooms on any given day. Due to sometwo else both failing their first-year exams, I found myself promoted to Homosexual in Chief of the LGBT society, for which dubious honour I now have a pot behind the Union bar.


I am number 2 on the list of Chief Homosexuals. I believe number 1 is now advising the Lib Dems on election strategy. I suspect this pot may be cursed.

My final-year project on copper-tolerant fungi somewhere, somewhere in that field in Berkshire led to the offer of a PhD in wood preservation, which I leapt upon, having received no careers guidance whatsoever up to that point, and having begun to fear moving back to Croydon for want of any botanical PhD opportunities in London. My undergraduateship ended with a viva voce, upon which I thought hung the fate of my entire degree; in fact, I turned out to be a control, and what I had thought would be a bowel-loosening grilling turned out to be entirely unmemorable.

Summer Ball 1998

I had to hire my suit for the Summer Ball just before I graduated. I still hate wearing suits of any kind, which probably contributes to my unemployability outside of academia.

Like most postgraduate research degrees, mine was a heady mix of disappointment, poverty, and the growing realisation that week-day nights-out were incompatible with competent laboratory work. My department had moved out of the timeshare flat with the Students’ Union and into a brand-new building during the summer between my BSc and PhD, but someone had been a little unrealistic about the space available in the new labs. The first and second years of my PhD were spent trying not to poison myself with arsenic trioxide amongst a labyrinth of broken vacuum impregnators, quickfit glassware, and bottles of solvent with labels written in Linear A; the third and fourth years spent trying to fit research into the gaps between the demonstrating in lab practicals I had to do in order to have enough money to eat. Somehow I captured the heart of a young aeronautical engineer, who has miraculously put up with my questionable charms ever since.

I presented my ground-breaking findings on the bacterial biotransformation of an anti-sapstain chemical to a conference in glamorous Cardiff, and left it at that. My contribution to the greater knowledge of humankind will forever be a few grey literature conference proceedings, and a large blue book buried in quicklime below the College library.

Pallet boards [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

I occasionally have nightmares about being buried under a landslide of poorly preserved pallet boards.

Having drifted into a PhD, I continued on my under-thought career path by applying for a three-year post-doctoral position that combined part-time research with a part-time PGCE in secondary school education. In retrospect, combining the laugh-a-minute relaxation of academic research with the delights of herding teenagers through GCSEs may not have been the best life decision I’ve made. There were amusing moments – the attempts of year 7 students to embarrass me during sex-ed lessons were doomed from the start – but mostly it was exhausting and impossible. I somehow made it through to the other side, but with no interest whatsoever in ever darkening the door of a secondary school or research lab again.

Woodlice simulator [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Simulating woodlice: anything was better than differentiating my citizenship lessons for kinaesthetic learners [sic]

Fortunately, I had kept up a bit of lab demonstrating on the side, and had even been roped into giving a few first-year lectures in the twilight of my PhD. A temporary position opened up convening a first-year biology course, giving a few lectures, and running some of the practicals I’d been demonstrating for the best part of a decade. And so began a slow accretion from ‘stop-gap teaching gimp’ to ‘senior teaching fellow’.


One of my major roles is the conversion of caffeine into grades.

Many of the staff who taught me as an undergrad have since retired or moved on; even the new-born building of 1998 is now old enough to legally have sex and drive a moped. Some 1700 students have learned – or at least endured – first-year molecular biology and enzymology with me, and the pile of marking in front of me (for which writing this banal drivel is the sort of displacement activity against which I’ve hypocritically warned those very students) probably contains the ten thousandth script I have scrawled with the Biros of judgement.

I probably ought to get back to it.

In confirmation of the universe’s pitiless malevolence, I now give the lectures on algae that I skived off in my first-year.


Aleph-naught bottles of beer on the wall, aleph-naught bottles of beer, you take one down, you hand it on round, aleph-naught bottles of beer on the wall

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