_This week’s issue of Nature includes a special feature on the Seven Ages of the PhD where seven scientists will be reminiscing about their PhDs. To tie in with this theme and continuing our mini-series on science education, we decided to talk to seven current PhD students from the NPG family of bloggers (who blog on Nature Network, Scitable or SciLogs)._ We asked each of them the same seven questions about their experiences.We asked each of them the same seven questions about their experiences. Read more in this and in the other interviews – Student 2 (Paige Brown), Student 3 (MuKa), Student 4 (Rogue), Student 5 (Ian Fyfe), Student 6 (Tine Janssens) and_ Student 7 (Marcel S. Pawlowski).
The first up and answering our 7 questions is PhD student Richard Alun Williams:
1. Tell us about your PhD
My PhD is based within the Department of Computer Science at the University of York, however the research is actually based in the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCSSA). I will be using computational approaches to model and simulate the transcription factor NF-kB. I am funded by the White Rose Universities Network, which is a consortium of the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York.
2. Why did you decide to take on a PhD?
I am a career changer, having previously been employed as an IT Consultant for a large US software house. I originally read Biochemistry, but became frustrated with wet-lab research, studied for a conversion course in Computer Science, and moved over to IT Consulting. Having spent 8 years as a programmer, then project manager, I began to feel an unstoppable pull back to science, but the computational and mathematical aspects of biological science. I therefore decided to merge my education and experience of Biochemistry and Computer Science through a Masters degree in Computational Biology, and enjoyed the experience so much that I applied for a PhD in Computational Immunology. My ultimate ambition is to use the PhD as a stepping-stone towards a future career as an academic researcher, and hopefully a lectureship.
3. What did you expect from a PhD, and has it lived up to your expectations?
My only expectations of the PhD were that it would be exciting, and provide me with the ability to explore science. It has lived up to this and more! I have thoroughly enjoyed virtually every day so far, due to being immersed in a culture of smart, like-minded postgrads. Through extracurricular activities such as blogging on Nature Network and writing short articles for the professional associations that I belong to, I am beginning to find my ‘voice’ and indeed my own place within the wider scientific community.
Obviously, leaving the world of IT Consulting has had a significant impact on salary and lifestyle, however I had time to plan for the reduced income, and in fact it sounds clichéd, but money is not everything – I’m happier and having more fun now than I ever did in industry.
4. How do you find your workload and how do you manage your time?
I believe that my time in industry and indeed my background as a professional project manager has provided useful skills and experiences for settling in to life as a PhD research student. My time managing large, complex projects has provided a number of transferable skills regarding organisation and management, and although I have gone from managing teams of consultants, to now just managing myself, I am still able to use a number of project management techniques to facilitate as smooth a research environment as possible. The techniques that I use the most include: scheduling and planning with Gantt charts and critical path analysis, careful and thorough scoping and requirements gathering for my mini projects, and frequent and clear communication with my supervisors. Apart from MS Projects and Mind-mapping tools, I also quite heavily use Dropbox to share documents, skype for conference calls, an electronic calendar to ensure I do not miss engagements, a wiki to upload minutes of each meeting with my supervisors, and of course a trusty hard-backed notebook.
5. What problems do you think there are with science PhDs?
I’m currently in my first year of PhD research, therefore am quite sheltered from the outside world. Apart from the meandering ‘journey’ of a PhD, which I am told is a natural process where you find your own niche in the wider scientific community, I believe that the biggest problem is not being told early enough what the rules of engagement are for landing the next step on your academic journey (e.g. a Post Doc or Fellowship). I am very fortunate however in having a partner who has gone through the process, so I am able to learn from her experiences.
6. What’s next for you?
The immediate goal is to perform good science. I am hopeful that if I achieve this goal that publications will follow. As a career changer with outside responsibilities, I also need to complete my PhD in as close to 3 years as possible. All being well, and if the economy picks up, I then hope to gain a Post Doc to further my academic journey.
7. Finally do you have any advice for those who want to carry out a PhD?
I believe that project management and personal organisation is paramount. I am fortunate in having a background in project management, however it is quite quick and easy to pick up the basic principles. I would suggest a week reading online articles by the Project Management Institute (PMI) or Association of Project Management (APM) at the beginning of a PhD and indeed signing up for any personal effectiveness courses run by your institution. I have enrolled on a number of courses this year relating to communication, presentation and time management, and have gained something from each of them.