Nobel laureates spoke at the Global Young Scientist Summit 2016. Andy Tay was there for Naturejobs.
Guest contributor Andy Tay
Congratulations! After investing so much effort to write your personal statement and research proposal, you’ve been accepted into a PhD programme. It’s now time to decide which lab to commit to.
Like most other PhD students, you may be eager to perform and steer your PhD in your direction. However, as your salary, tuition and research expenses are likely to come from the grants of your professor, this financial need might trap you in a research project that you’re not interested in. While PhD students in countries like Singapore and Australia are paid generous scholarships, their counterparts in the U.S. and European institutions typically rely on their professors for income. In all cases, PhD students still require their research expenditure to be covered by grants.
Is there no way out?
After hearing – along with many other topics – about the role of micro-organisms in cancer, and the use of light for quantum computing, students present in the Global Young Scientist Summit 2016 voiced their concerns on PhD education during group sessions and panel discussions with 13 Nobel laureates.
A common worry was the lack of autonomy on research projects and the impact that has on scientific curiosity. The Nobel laureates, fortunately, had experienced advice to give.
Talk to your professors about their funding
If you are a PhD student who has not committed to a lab, it can be scary to discuss funding status with potential ‘bosses’. But, like any employee, you have every right to know what’s in for you.
If you’re not confident about asking, prepare by searching for your professor on the websites of funding agencies such as National Institutes of Health (U.S.) and the European Research Council. Take note of grants like the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award or the Coulter Foundation Award, which are given to projects without preliminary data, detailed annual budgets and specific goals. You can make use of these resources, which provide information on professors’ funded projects, to assess whether your interests align with theirs.
Nonetheless, grant descriptions on websites do not reveal the ‘trade secret’ of grant writing, as Sir Tim Hunt, 2001 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, pointed out. Therefore, you should discuss with professors how your desired project can fall within the broader scope of their funded research.
Discuss time management
If you are in the early stages of your PhD, you can afford to split time between a funded project and your project of interest, said Professor Ei-ichi Negishi, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.
As a funded project is usually in your professor’s field, you can expect more scientific advice when you face technical challenges and will benefit from expert advice on how to publish your research.
On the other hand, whilst exploring a scientific curiosity of your own can be satisfying as a scientist, you should be prepared to not enjoy as much guidance from your professor during your own personal project. A win-win arrangement worth considering is to take on both types of projects – as well as reducing the risks of unsuccessful research, you’ll become a more independent researcher, find ways to link both projects and even come up with original research ideas.
Look out for external funding
If you are in the final few laps of your PhD, consider applying for external fellowships that allow you to perform independent research. According to Professor Arieh Warshel, 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, there are various agencies, public and private, administering grants to senior PhD students for original research ideas.
Public institutions such as the European Molecular Biology Organization offer Short Term Fellowships, which support citizens from members of the European Molecular Biology Council for up to 3 months of research. A similar programme is also available in Singapore, where the Agency for Science, Technology and Research hosts international students for up to 2 years in a research institute. There’s also funding available from the private sector, such as the Grass Foundation Fellowships, which support up to 12 students each year with lab space, animals, laboratory reagents and equipment for 14 weeks in the Marine Biological Laboratory.
PhD students in different stages of their education can leverage the resources described here to maximise their research experience. Talk to your professors about funding, learn to manage multiple projects and try applying for external fellowships to engage in PhD research you truly care about.
Heed the advice of the Nobel laureates and start taking charge of your PhD education!
His research focuses on the evolution of magnetotactic bacteria and biophysics of neurons. In his free time, Andy enjoys using the gym and writing.
Andy is grateful for the travel fellowship from Contact Singapore to attend the Global Young Scientist Summit 2016.