_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 4 (Rogue), Student 6 (Tine Janssens) and Student 7 (Marcel S. Pawlowski).
The fifth up and answering our 7 questions, is PhD student Ian Fyfe:
1. Tell us about your PhD
I am in the third year of my PhD in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge, working with Professor Mike Edwardson. Despite the department, my research is more molecular biology than pharmacology. I study protein-membrane interactions using a combination of molecular biology techniques and atomic force microscopy (AFM). AFM produces images at the nanometre scale, allowing me to see protein molecules binding to artificial lipid membranes in near-physiological conditions and see their behaviour and effects. My main areas of research are the ESCRT proteins, which form a supercomplex that mediates membrane budding and scission in the endosomal sorting pathway, and the effects of the SNARE protein syntaxin on membrane channel trafficking. My PhD is funded by the BBSRC, who provide me with a small amount of research funds, travel money to attend one or two conferences, and a monthly stipend.
2. Why did you decide to take on a PhD?
I studied biological sciences as an undergraduate and specialised in neuroscience. During this time, I became fascinated with how simple molecular interactions come together to form an immensely complex network of pathways and produce something as complicated as a nervous system. The idea of contributing to our knowledge of how the brain and nervous system work was very exciting. My first experience of lab work was a summer research project during my undergraduate. I loved the environment of the lab and was lucky enough to experience the buzz of experiments producing results. At that stage, I was fairly sure I wanted to follow a career in academic research, but did a year of lab work to make sure. The obvious next step was a PhD.
3. What did you expect from a PhD, and has it lived up to your expectations?
I expected my PhD to allow me to do my own research and discover things that no-one had ever seen before. In terms of research, it has not been quite as I imagined it. Due to failed projects, my research has deviated and I now work on areas that are quite different to what I set out to work on. While a successful experiment that gives a novel result still gives me a buzz, I’ve discovered that these are few and far between. However, my PhD has been about more than just the research, and I have gained a lot from it. It has taught me to manage my own projects and approach everyday problem-solving logically. The freedom to manage my own time has allowed me to pursue other interests, in particular as a member and eventually president of science communication student society BlueSci. I also have access to many transferrable skills courses, ranging from presentation skills and academic writing to computing and accounting, allowing the aquisition of skills that are useful for a PhD and beyond. Something I didn’t expect was how much the nature of the work would teach me about my character, in terms of things like resilience, motivation, working methods and so on.
4. How do you find your workload and how do you manage your time?
The workload fluctuates, and in my case, the amount of work I do is ultimately up to me. Since a PhD is such a long-term commitment, and since difficulties with experiments can sap my motivation, my interest also fluctuates. This can lead to periods where you don’t work so much, and give more time to other interests. I’ve learnt to be comfortable with this because at other times, I’m very enthusiastic about my experiments and am in the lab early on a weekend to finish an experiment because I’m keen to know the result. Deadlines for publications, written reports and presentations alongside the normal workload lead to busier and more stressful periods. I’ve found that planning ahead is the key to managing time and working efficiently. I try to have a rolling two week plan of experiments so that I always know what’s coming next. I also use Microsoft Outlook to organise and remind me of my tasks, since busy times often lead me to forget. It also allows me to prioritise and make sure the most important things get done first.
5. What problems do you think there are with science PhDs?
In my case, the main drawback of my PhD is perhaps the time; as someone who now wants to move away from research altogether when I’ve finished, I will have to start at a low level of my chosen career despite my qualification and at a considerably older age than others. Having said that, the PhD has taught me many skills that will hopefully help me to progress more quickly in my chosen career.
6. What’s next for you?
I have discovered that research is not for me, and want to move away. During my PhD, I have gained considerable experience of science writing and publishing, and decided that this is what I’d like to do. This will allow me to use my scientific training and interest to do something I enjoy, without having to worry about the tiny details of everyday research that I find very frustrating. But without doing my PhD, I would not have the scientific knowledge that I do, which helps with my science writing, and I would not have had the chance to gain so much valuable experience.
7. Finally do you have any advice for those who want to carry out a PhD?
The advice I was given before deciding on my PhD was to make sure I could get on well with my supervisor, and I’d say now that this is essential. It’s important that you feel comfortable talking to them about your work, and sometimes other issues. Make sure that you talk to them about projects before choosing their lab, preferably in person, and talk to their lab members – it’s important that you get their opinion on what the supervisor is really like to work for and also find out what the lab members are like, since you’ll spend at least three years working with them. I’d also say that at the end of a degree, it’s easy to think that you know a lot about science, but I found my degree had not prepared me very well for practical science; in the first few months of my PhD, I felt like I knew nothing! As well as this, I think it’s important to realise from the outset that a PhD can be extremely testing and stressful at times, and needs real commitment and self-motivation. This has all been part of the learning process for me, and I’ve found that having outside hobbies and interests is crucial to maintain my sanity!