Being a Scientist

Should you do a PhD?

I am frequently asked by people whether I think a PhD is right for them, which compelled me to write this article. One must be slightly insane to want to undertake a PhD, however there are some good reasons to do so.

Most of the successful PhD students that I have met are driven by the desire to make a difference and/or a curiosity to discover new things about the world in which we find ourselves. However, it is important to note that the job prospects in academia are dismal. It is highly unlikely you will become a professor, and you must sacrifice much of your life to even have a chance at achieving this rank, much like becoming an Olympic athlete.

How to pick the lab? You should only choose a project that you are passionate about and are compelled to do, otherwise it will be very difficult to work enthusiastically for several years, being able to effortlessly come up with follow up experiments and working harder than what is expected of you. There are many projects that use the same techniques I currently use but which I would not be motivated to carry out.

Although everybody has their own reasons for choosing a particular research area, it is important that the reasons will continue to drive you despite all the inevitable hurdles along the way. Experiments often go wrong, but if you are enthusiastic about your project then it will be much harder to be derailed by this and instead think in great detail about how to move forward. It is also a good idea to talk to students in the lab when the supervisor is not around. Although not all students will have the same experience in the same lab due to personality differences, if multiple students tell you that they are having a bad experience, it would be wise to listen.

The PhD itself teaches several transferable skills, including verbal and written communication, working to deadlines and problem solving. However, it is important to remain open-minded throughout a PhD and seek out opportunities beyond what is expected by your supervisor. Since the responsibilities placed upon a PhD student are minimal compared to a permanent job, there is a big opportunity to develop skills in whatever you find interesting. These skills could include science communication, leadership, intellectual property and innovation.

Only focusing on developing research skills is preparing you for a career that you are very unlikely to have! Your supervisor, unless a young research fellow, is likely very distant from the circumstances that you will be subject to after getting your PhD. A number of doctoral training programmes in the UK understand this and have a variety of competitions and other opportunities available to help you develop these skills. For example, BBSRC-funded students are required to undertake an internship of their choice (link), and MRC-funded students can participate in the Biotechnology YES (link) and Max Perutz Science Communication (link) competitions.

There are also other opportunities open to all PhD students, such as the Biochemical Society Science Communication competition (link), science-themed hackathon events, Roche Continents (link), Merck Innovation Cup (link), and many more. Why not create your own blog? Look at job advertisements for careers that you are interested in to learn what skills you need to develop in the next three years. You can learn any skill given sufficient time.

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