At August 20th’s SoNYC discussion, which this month is held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re going to be focusing on science PhDs. Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? In our latest series of guest posts on Soapbox Science, we’ll hear from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been. Follow and join in the conversations online using #PhDelta and share your thoughts in the comment threads on the blog posts too.
Marcus D. Hanwell is a Technical Lead in the Scientific Computing group at Kitware, Inc. He leads the Open Chemistry project developing open-source tools to for chemistry, bioinformatics and materials science research. He completed an experimental PhD in Physics at the University of Sheffield, a Google Summer of Code developing Avogadro/Kalzium and a postdoctoral fellowship in combining experimental and computational chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to Kitware, Inc. in late 2009. He is a member of the Blue Obelisk, blogs here and is active on Google+. He is passionate about open science, open source and making sense of increasingly large scientific data to understand the world around us.
I took a somewhat twisty career path, completing a predominantly experimental PhD in an experimental group at the University of Sheffield in Physics in 2007. My research was largely concerned with the synthesis, deposition and characterisation of thin thiol encapsulated gold nanoparticle films using a technique called Langmuir-Blodgett deposition primarily used with amphiphilic surfactant materials. My days were spent in the group’s clean room facilities, using departmental facilities such as atomic force and transmission electron microscopes. There was also the occasional trip to central facilities such as the neutron beam lines at ILL, and international conferences (including one in Japan highlighting the Langmuir-Blodgett technique).
I am now a Technical Leader at Kitware, Inc., originally joining as a Research and Development Engineer nearly three years ago, after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh. My job involves a mixture of software development, software process, testing, validation, project management, community building, scientific communication and proposal writing. We tend to work very closely with our customers; the line between customer and collaborator is sometimes quite a blurry one. Our projects are predominantly open-source, involving large and sometimes distributed teams working on large and challenging projects across an enormous range of platforms from smartphones to supercomputers.
In all honesty, I am largely self-taught and my PhD did little to train me in the skills required to begin a career in software development. I did a couple of courses as an undergraduate in C++, and sat in on a class during my PhD for advanced C++ (the primary language I use develop code today). These courses were at such a basic level in terms of programming that I had already covered and moved beyond the material being taught, and they unfortunately chose to concentrate on the mathematical challenges rather than introducing graphics or interactivity. This was something I struggled through in my spare time, and spent many hours trying to figure out how I might write custom software to not only crunch numbers but visualize and interact with my data in real time. There was also little in the way of training for proposal writing, and I left knowing little outside of the theory of writing a proposal.
I did learn a large number of experimental techniques that would have set me in good stead for a career in a traditional laboratory setting. There was also plenty of opportunity to see experts talk about their fields, to learn about effective scientific writing and communication. I think the biggest thing I learned in both in my undergraduate and PhD training was the art of problem solving; how to break apart a big problem into pieces, analyse those pieces and come up with solutions. This skill is absolutely invaluable in scientific software development, just as it is in many other fields, and without those skills I don’t think I would have been able to tackle some of the problems I have. I also had the opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate with a vast array of people from scientists, to the general public and even some members of parliament (with a brief trip to the House of Commons in London towards the end of my PhD). The Research Training Programme and week long residential programme for EPSRC students were both valuable, although it would have been good had they gone further.
If I had not ventured outside of my programme during my studies I don’t think I could have ended up where I did. I spent countless hours studying C++, graphics APIs and during that time discovered the world of open source. It was through that world that I discovered the Google Summer of Code, taking part as a student in 2007 at the end of my PhD. During that summer I had the opportunity to work with experts in areas such as C++, cross-platform software development, version control, 3D graphics APIs and building community around software. I think I was one of the only people taking part with a background in Physics, developing an open-source, 3D molecule editor called Avogadro as part of a KDE project.
The passion for the area certainly came from my PhD, and frustration with some of the existing solutions. However, the opportunity to work on something like that and really learn how to do it in an effective way was not available within my department. I think that software is often viewed as an afterthought in the sciences, and not given the attention and time it deserves and requires. We now have funding for the Open Chemistry project, an open-source project I am leading to develop a suite of tools to tackle big problems in chemistry, biochemistry, materials science and related areas. This is an area I learned about during my PhD, and became passionate about as a student. I had two very supportive PhD supervisors, and a postdoctoral advisor, who really helped me on an individual level to grow in skill and confidence. Strangely enough, I also live miles from the General Electric Global Research where Irving Langmuir performed much of his research in Langmuir films!
I think the work we are doing at Kitware can and will change the world for the better, and certainly have my PhD to thank for the opportunity to work in this area. There is however much more that could be done to ensure PhD students receive the training and guidance necessary to advance in careers outside of the typical academic track.