_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. Read more in this and in the other interviews – Student 1 (Richard Williams), Student 3 (MuKa), Student 4 (Rogue), Student 5 (Ian Fyfe), Student 6 (Tine Janssens) and_ Student 7 (Marcel S. Pawlowski).
The second up and answering our 7 questions is PhD student Paige Brown:
1. Tell us about your PhD
I am currently pursuing my PhD at Washington University in St. Louis, working on a collaborative project between Dr. Younan Xia, professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Dr. M. Welch, professor of Radiology and Chemistry. We are investigating the potential use of a unique class of nanostructure, gold nanocages, for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer with PET and optical imaging. My research is funded by the Department of Biomedical Engineering at WUSTL.
2. Why did you decide to take on a PhD?
I started out on my path towards a PhD as a graduate student at Louisiana State University. It came almost by accident. Graduating with an undergraduate degree in Biological and Agricultural Engineering, I applied to several schools for a M.S. degree in Biomedical Engineering (including Washington University in St. Louis). But my Alma Mater, beautiful campus it was, along with my to-be beau (a handsome Cajun scientist by the name of Chad Jarreau), won me over. I stayed on at Louisiana State University as a PhD candidate in the lab of Dr. Todd Monroe, working on several molecular biology and nanomedicine projects. The decision to pursue the PhD was two-fold: (1) My prof had funding for a PhD student and (2) I figured I had the mental stamina, so why not. As time went on, I realized the real pull for me to complete a PhD, other than the fact that I had always been on a hike up to that specific mountain top, was a career in academia as a professor. I reasoned, “I love science, I love teaching… surely a professorship is the position for me.” Armed with my new-found knowledge, a whole career planned out ahead of me, I sought a PhD at a different university. This change would broaden my horizons (I hoped), and allow me to perhaps someday return to teach in the Bayou I knew and loved so well. I finished up at LSU with an M.S. degree, and set off to Washington University in St. Louis, and on the crazy new adventure which that particular decision turned out to be.
3. What did you expect from a PhD, and has it lived up to your expectations?
This question is particularly interesting in my case. My expectations of a PhD were perhaps overly imaginative. Arriving at Washington University in St. Louis, I expected an inspiring education, a centre for pure and rich learning. I expected excellent professors who would inspire me with their teaching and ability to impart their vast knowledge base. I expected collaboration… I expected questions to be welcomed and answered with zeal. I expected the support of my professors and my lab-mates. I desired to learn as much as physically and mentally possible. Perhaps something like the Harvard of the movies. You may perceive from this answer that I am somewhat of a dreamer. I believe life is most brilliantly and joyously lived on the tipping point between reality, like the security of a concrete platform, and one’s dreams, the great blue depths below. Life is a balance between the security, and the jump.
The PhD for me has been much of a learning experience, but in ways I did not expect to learn. I learned much about myself as a person, and about how to deal with hard situations professionally. I learned that no PI is perfect, but that you also need to select your primary professor carefully. I learned the most about my own truest dreams and desires, and which paths in life make me happy, and which paths might not. I learned that balance is far more important in life than success. On the positive side, I very much enjoyed a few courses I took during my first year which were not required, but simply appealing to my own interests. Take for instance a Medical Imaging course I took, which surveyed a wide variety of modalities and during which I had the opportunity to hear the perspectives of many different field experts. On the not-so-positive side, I feel as if my chosen PhD program would benefit from allowing and encouraging more ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking from its students, especially in such an innovative field as Biomedical engineering.
4. How do you find your workload and how do you manage your time?
The workload of PhD research is taxing, especially when combined with courses and exams in the beginning years. Achieving exam and term paper deadlines while staying on task with research requires time management and a steady work ethic. Mostly I find it helpful to restrict my time spent on each task… trying not to spend an excess amount of time browsing articles, when that term paper for my Nanostructures course is due next week. I try not to get side-tracked… unless it’s a REALLY interesting Nature article or podcast! I personally find that as long as I resist procrastination, I still have free time to pursue extracurricular activities (like my NN blog!).
5. What problems do you think there are with science PhDs?
Recently there was an opinion article in Nature proposing that postdoctoral research positions be made semi-permanent, as lab-head jobs in academia become harder to obtain…. “we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.” Despite some good points in the article, I was personally discouraged. After all this work, to be stuck in a position where your creativity and passion for science are limited by the PI that micro-manages your experiments and dictates the direction of your research? I think most postdocs, at least the ones I know personally, would object to this solution. Why do we get into our PhD and postdoctoral research positions in the first place? Problem-solving and inquisitive minds. Willingness to toughen out daily failures and sleep deprivation to see a project through to completion, whether the results be ground-breaking or simply a small step in the right direction. Most of all, hope and vision for our future. ‘Mindless’ and ‘unconcerned’ simply do not fit into the science PhD student’s vocabulary…
So what happens when my prof looks at me after a series of failed experiments, or if I’m lucky an incremental success, and I see only inconvenience in his eyes, or worse yet, indifference? What happens when I am just a number, a small pawn on his chess-board of important research and impressive success-stories? Where does my creativity and avidity for science fit in, as an individual? I currently struggle with these questions, and my desire to be in on the big picture. I think every scientist’s work benefits from an understanding of the big picture. However, cross-disciplinary experiments and collaborative projects are often so complex, the science PhD student in chemistry, material science, biology, etc. is encouraged to stick to what he or she knows. Stick to your piece of the puzzle, so that no time is wasted. But with a lack of direction, costly mistakes are often repeated, and very few will step in to make sure that the end objective and the process breakdown are understood by the entire research group. It is similar to a team trying to put together a 5000 piece puzzle board, when nobody in the group has the box cover displaying what the final picture should look like. I am often discouraged by the attitude that collaboration with scientists of differing backgrounds is a necessary annoyance, instead of a self-expanding opportunity. I believe that the next generation of science PhDs will need to promote open-minded collaborations, even with non-scientists, to see science become an integral part of our society, to bring about the innovations that save and improve the quality of lives.
6. What’s next for you?
I may soon be enacting my very own paradigm shift, from the world of science for the few, to the world of science for the many… perhaps even eventually the world of science for, well, everyone. I believe strongly in the translation of science from the bench to common knowledge, from the test tube to the real world in the interest of bettering our future as a society, as a nation, as a people, as a world. The ‘many’ non-scientists can have just as large an impact on the application of science in our world as the ‘few’ PhD level researchers.
I have my sights on a PhD program in Journalism at Louisiana State University (if I have the honor of being accepted!).
Although my love of science is tried and true, my passion for writing simply will not be ignored. If I step away from bench-top science, into science writing, I feel that my appetite for the field will only increase. Many aspects of my current science PhD program have left me hanging, and left me rung-dry of much of my thirst and passion. This time, I’m following my gut. It’s time to get back to science the way I first had a fondness for science… and discovery, and teaching, and outreach, and writing, and the creative process. Two feet planted on the platform of science, diving into the deep blue of writing, communicating, and translating a field of vast importance for us all
7. Finally do you have any advice for those who want to carry out a PhD?
My advice for potential PhD students: (1) Find your passion, and (2) Communicate. You should understand that getting your PhD is not a simple beeline to the top. It takes hard work and sacrifice. Know what makes you happy, and why you love what you will be studying… because it won’t take long for the day to day bench-top to get old, and you will want to remind yourself of why you got into this field in the first place. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk with other students and potential PIs. Keep your options open… what you think of a PI after a semester rotation can be very different than what you thought of him/her at your first meeting in his/her office. Keep some balance in your life as a science PhD. If you are an athlete, keep up your work-out routine. If you love to paint and write, make time to do so. Make time for family. Don’t lose yourself entirely in the test tubes and late night experiments…
Learn as much as you can, but remember that the letters P-h-D do not define you as a person. Stand up for yourself, and always… do what you love, and at the very least what you like and find interesting. Life is too short: if you are miserable, find a different path. You are a science PhD student. If you have gotten this far, you have the wherewithal to follow your other dreams.