Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Big Wide World - Passing the baton: what I've learnt during my PhD

Penny Sarchet, PhD candidate and freelance writer
(For plant biologist Penny Sarchet, choosing a PhD was like finding the right vial of DNA in a freezer - it took care to pick the right one. Image: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

For three and a half years, the expiry date on my student ID has seemed impossibly far away. I've spent the last forty months thinking constantly about plant developmental biology, spending each day planting seeds, measuring cells and sequencing genes at the University of Oxford. Now, it's finally 2012 and my PhD is coming to an end. As I wrap up the last of my experiments, here is a list of the most important lessons I've learned along the way. 

Don't expect anyone to understand what you're doing
Friends and family will be in a continual state of confusion as to why you're still at university and what a graduate student actually is. I have relatives who believe that I'm doing "what they do on CSI," whereas in fact I'm genetically fingerprinting plants, not murder victims. 

Choose an institution with a lot of graduate students
A PhD is a fairly special mix of sustained unpredictability, bemusement and pressure. After an exhausting week counting cells down a microscope in a darkened room, you need to go for a drink with someone else who knows what that feels like. Your fellow grad students will make excellent, if slightly nerdy, friends. They'll program your computer for you, offer you some of their home-brewed cider, and invite you over to use the 3D surround-sound home cinema they've built in their lounge.

Befriend post-docs
They will show you how to do experiments, share their Zen-like wisdom with you, and reassure you that the stresses and strains of your PhD are in no way exceptional or unique. 

Do some research before choosing your research
There's a lot you have to decide on when selecting a PhD - the project area, the supervisor, the institution, even the continent. What really helped me to make my decision was undertaking a number of different summer research projects as an undergraduate. These helped me to home in on my interests and to find the right lab to pursue them in. It can be difficult to know what you're getting into when signing up for a PhD, so I would definitely recommend doing whatever you can to get a taster of the project you'll be doing or a feel of the lab you'll be joining before committing yourself. 

Don't think you know what it's like to do science
A PhD is not the natural extension of an undergraduate science degree. The emphasis is on depth of understanding rather than breadth and you spend just as much time doing as you do thinking. Whilst undergraduate lab projects can be invaluable in helping you choose your PhD topic, lab and institution, what they can't show you is what it's really like to spend four whole years working towards one goal.
The plants I study have a life cycle of nearly three months, so experiments can be months or even years in the making. To be able to produce a thesis at the end of your PhD requires four years of extreme planning, patience, adaptability and perspective. In contrast, when you're doing an undergraduate project, you effectively swan into a lab for a couple of months to collect data from an experiment set up a long time ago by some poor graduate student. 

Do a PhD for the right reasons
Don't do a PhD because you find white coats sexy or because your parents want to tell everyone you are a doctor. Quite a few people end up sliding into PhDs after they finish university because they haven't got any other ideas. A PhD is quite a long-term commitment for an early twenty-something to make and if you're not doing it for the right reasons you're really going to struggle.
Some people sign up for PhDs simply so they can continue being a student but they soon learn that mid-week partying, afternoon naps and long vacations are strictly the preserve of undergraduates. PhDs aren't easy, so the only reason to throw yourself into one is because you want to contribute to science. 

Appreciate the cool bits
Immersed in your daily lab routine, it's easy to lose sight of the perks. You get to decide your own objectives, design and execute your own experiments, and form your own conclusions. This is a level of freedom and responsibility you'd be hard pushed to find in any other job for recent graduates. It's great to be this independent at such a young age and the work is so varied that you're never stuck doing the same thing for too long.
You also get to do some pretty exciting stuff - I've used lasers and electron beams to look inside tiny cells and I've studied when and how individual genes are expressed. Every now and then, pause and remind yourself that your ten year-old self would find this very cool.

You get to do things outside the lab too
When applying for real-world jobs, applicants with PhDs usually emphasise their analytical skills. Whilst these are useful attributes, it's pretty obvious that you are comfortable with handling data if you have a science doctorate. I've found that it can be the other experiences you pick up during your PhD that impress more. For example, I have sat on departmental committees and helped organise symposia, both of which have allowed me to develop transferable skills that are valued inside and outside of academia. I have also had the opportunity to present my research at international conferences and some of the most fun I have had talking about science was with a group of hard-drinking Italian developmental biologists in the wine cellar of a German palace.

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