_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. Student 1 (Richard Williams), Student 2 (Paige Brown), Student 4 (Rogue), Student 5 (Ian Fyfe), Student 6 (Tine Janssens) and Student 7 (Marcel S. Pawlowski).
The third up and answering our seven questions is PhD student MuKa:
1. Tell us about your PhD
I am a PhD student at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. I conduct research in cognitive psychology, exploring how people respond to perceptual uncertainty. With the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), I use the acquired neural data to underpin how the human brain maintains optimal performance when faced with ambiguous situations.
I was largely funded by an Australia Postgraduate Award (APA) which typically awarded to most of the PhD students in Australia by the Government. As the funding has since expired, I am currently being supported by a grant awarded to my supervisor.
2. Why did you decide to take on a PhD?
I had the APA funding and thought I ought to use it! I also happened to find a project I was interested in, combined with a really good supervisor.
Over the years, my goals have changed. I am debating whether to continue research in cognitive psychology. I do enjoy exploring how the human brains takes-in information from our environment in order for us to function and not bump into things. In the future I would like to secure a postdoc position in the States as I have visited a number of US labs and am impressed with the scope and concentration of research being conducted in North America. It would be an invaluable opportunity to experience how scientific research is conducted in a lab outside of my home country.
3. What did you expect from a PhD, and has it lived up to your expectations?
I expected that I would be able to explore a scientific project in detail, and that I would be able to add something novel to the field. This has certainly proved to be true. I didn’t expect that there would be long stretches of time where things simply did not work – such as equipment failures halting experiments. This was immensely frustrating, but good to experience as I had to ask myself how much I wanted to be a scientist.
I expected that I would get to travel overseas for at least one international conference. This came to fruition when I attended a conference last year in San Diego.
4. How do you find your workload and how do you manage your time?
I am largely in control of how I organise my time. I am a bit of a “sporadic workaholic” and tend to spread work hours over all days of the week. My schedule may appear unorganised – I can be found taking longer-than-usual lunches when around uni, or ducking-out early to meet friends for dinner in the city. I like to think that time spent by working on the weekend makes-up for my excursions. I have to keep in mind that it’s not the number of hours I dedicate to my PhD, but the output and quality of work that counts.
I am completely dependent on my electronic diary on my phone to organise my week. I used to employ what I refer to as a “tactile diary”, where one must grasp an item known as a “pen” in order to record future events in flimsy material called “paper”. In retrospect, I am amazed I managed my time with such archaic technology.
5. What problems do you think there are with science PhDs?
Salaries and scholarships for PhD students in general are quite low. Many hold onto the hope that after their PhD, salaries in the workforce will rise markedly with the addition of “Dr” in front of their names. At least for many postdoc opportunities (depending on the country), this is not the case. Future prospects are placed in jeopardy when Governments cut funding to scientific research, as may be the case in Australia. I can understand why many, after acquiring their PhDs, leave the scientific field.
6. What’s next for you?
At the moment, I am determined to submit my thesis by the end of this year. Thereafter, I would like to gain postdoc experience somewhere in Australia. And after that, securing a postdoc position in a US lab would be ideal. But that doesn’t mean I am not open to work in industry, provided my interests are engaged.
7. Finally do you have any advice for those who want to carry out a PhD?
Yes, I do.