_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. Student 1 (Richard Williams), Student 2 (Paige Brown), Student 3 (MuKa), Student 5 (Ian Fyfe), Student 6 (Tine Janssens) and Student 7 (Marcel S. Pawlowski).
The fourth up and answering our 7 questions, is PhD student Rogue:
1. Tell us about your PhD
I am PhD fellow at the LMU, in Germany. My funding comes from my Graduate School. I am at the crossroad of wet and dry bench: I perform quite a lot of the experiments and their subsequent analyses as well. My main interest is in gene expression and genomics, but I follow what happens in proteomics and metabolomics too. My projects are focused on evolution and regulation of gene expression.
2. Why did you decide to take on a PhD?
I have ever wanted to do research, I am fascinated by living beings and the many ways they have elaborated to interact with the surrounding world. I am a very curious person who needs challenges and never-ending intellectual adventures. Thus, completing a PhD was the most natural thing to do.
3. What did you expect from a PhD, and has it lived up to your expectations?
I was expecting quite a lot of things, indeed: a correct salary, a complete and critical support by my supervisor, be able to attend conferences and workshops, and fruitful discussions with my fellow colleagues. Well, things are not exactly as I was expecting. I knew that the salary would not be very high if put in correspondence to the working time one spends in the lab.
I can attend quite a lot of conferences and workshops with the travel funding I have. This is really excellent! Thus, I have attended 10 conferences and 3 workshops since I started my PhD. Meeting other people passionate about science and discussing motivating research topics is really vital for me.
I have nice interactions with my supervisor who recommended me to review several papers and is always available to have a chat on an ongoing project. I would, however, appreciate that he is more active and initiates discussions on a more regular fashion.
Lastly, since I am much more versed into bioinformatics compared to the other people in the lab, I feel a bit lonely. Yet, this is compensated for through journal club sessions with the others from my Graduate School: we meet every two weeks, organize our discussions, projects and exchanges entirely by ourselves. Recently, we initiated a collaborative project to be entirely driven by us. Wish us luck: we have to ask for funding now!
4. How do you find your workload and how do you manage your time?
I have always had quite a lot of things to do, sometimes it is really hard to handle! I use various tools that help me to better organize my time. For instance, I use one paper diary for everything I need to do in the lab and one other for the remaining (personal) stuff.
I use a Linux operating system on my computers and the KDE desktop environment. My e-mail application, KMail, can be interfaced with Kalendar so that, in one click, an e-mail with a demand is transformed into a task from my ToDo list.I also use Kalendar to schedule when I do various things and their duration, so that when I have an overview of what I have done, I know how much time I spend on any task. For a professionnal procrastinator such as me, this is really important.
Last but not least, I need to have a regular overview of what I do and what I want to do: thus, I use a mindmap application (namely, FreeMind) which allows me to draw such a comprehensive scheme.
When I have enough time and find an interesting paper, I write about it on my blog.I also use Twitter to keep track of new and fancy things ongoing in Science in general and make acquaintance with inspirational people.
5. What problems do you think there are with science PhDs?
Well, from a very pragmatic point of view: salaries are not a fair retribution of the efforts people put in their PhDs. In Germany, most of the PhDs are paid half-time (ie, their salary is for 20 hours/week). But this is totally irrealistic: nobody is successful with 20 hours/week and 3-year contract. So, nearly every PhD I know, including myself, works at least 40 hours per week. I often do more than 60 which means that I just don’t have a week-end. AFAIK, PhD salaries in France are more or less similar to these here in Germany, but for 30-35 hours/week. I have even heard from a Professor that people prefer hiring a PhD rather than a post-doc because it is cheaper… There are also cases where PhDs from the same lab are not paid equally whereas they have similar backgrounds.
Coming back to the time spent in the lab. Many will say that working 50-60 hours/week is quite common. Indeed, but the question is not “is it common?”. The question rather is: “is this how it should be?”. You see, there are so many testimonials from women in science who stop their carreer because they want a family and cannot stay at work that much. There are also men in science recognizing that they are successful because they are single. Even though a family life is not (yet?) a priority for me, 60 hours/week is not a healthy work load. There is a PhD in my Graduate school who has so much pressure that she works from 8pm up to 2am every day. I definitely don’t find this normal. Does being successful mean not to have a private life?
There are also other issues I see around me. Everybody knows that papers are essential. This is a very delicate thing though. I mean, a bioinformatician developing a software will have at least one first-author paper before finishing but what about all the molecular biologists? Experiments are extremely time-consuming, one’s expertise is not addressed here. So, does it necessarily mean that someone having done experimental work will be less favoured when searching for a post-doc in comparison to someone who has not? A similar issue comes around when you meet a PhD having completed the Master’s degree internship in the same lab. In France, this kind of internship lasts at least 6 months, in Germany it can go up to a year! Continuing the research in the same lab for 3 more years gives the person a very clear advantage. So, when there are 2 candidates for the same post-doc position and they have a different number of papers, how does one research director decide about their knowledge and expertise?
These are questions I face every day and that make me feel uncomfortable about the future.
6. What’s next for you?
I am now in my second year, I’ll begin searching for a post-doc toward the end of 2011. I began giving it a serious thought so that I can decide what I want to do during my first post-doc and later, I’ll search for a lab to go. I’d love continue with bioinformatics and microbiology. I intend to complete a degree in intellectual property as well since technology transfer is a quite exciting field and may allow me to stay close to research without going into industry.
7. Finally do you have any advice for those who want to carry out a PhD?
Well, I’d definitely encourage people to go for it! Even though there are many issues, I believe this is a unique and brilliant experience.