_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 5 (Ian Fyfe) and Student 7 (Marcel S. Pawlowski).
The sixth up and answering our 7 questions, is PhD student Tine Janssens:
1. Tell us about your PhD
I am currently in the third year of my PhD in the Netherlands. The chief focus of my PhD research is veterinary medicine yet my work also collides with pharmaceutical science, bioanalytical chemistry and public health issues. Veterinary medicine closely follows advances in human medicine. I consider how certain compounds used in veterinary practice, could be dangerous to humans.
2. Why did you decide to take on a PhD?
I grew up wanting to cure puppies and cuddle cows. Veterinary medicine is science at its best: having a list of seemingly unrelated problems, pinpointing the most probable diagnosis, starting a treatment and monitoring its effects. As a scientist you can dive deeper into subjects, science requires critical, creative and innovative thinking. I find these intellectual highs exhilarating.
A PhD is also a project management role. Research is not only about setting up experiments, working late nights in the lab and interpreting results – but is also writing, presenting, communicating, holding meetings, deadlines, keeping records, administration and doing an endless amount of other chores. Doing research is a balancing act; it’s like juggling with twenty balls, sometimes with one hand. Life, and research, is about taking on challenges, failing and trying again.
3. What did you expect from a PhD, and has it lived up to your expectations?
I expected to learn a lot and I have done so and still do. Doing a PhD is like looking in the mirror – you are confronted every day with your flaws, insecurities and shortcomings. I am shy, at times socially awkward, chaotic, impulsive and very forgetful and after 2.5 years I still am. Nevertheless, I have learnt how to embrace these characteristics rather then trying to change them; I have learnt more about who I am and how I can use that to my advantage.
4. How do you find your workload and how do you manage your time?
The workload is huge and sometimes I can fill my days, nights and weekends with an infinite supply of tasks. It is paramount to schedule breaks into you working day where you can stop running and have time to reflect and relax. You need to look where you are going or you’ll end up crashing into a wall, next to the open door you were actually aiming at.
At times I am chaotic and forgetful and this has prompted me to make an effort to be organised when it comes to my research. My PhD can be divided in three categories, resulting in a total of 22 subcategories that all have at least two subcategories themselves – so as you can imagine time management is a difficult task. Despite this, I have been able to develop my own time management system. Every Monday morning I plan my week, clearly setting out my goals. At the end of every working day I cross of what I’ve done and re-write what I should have completed. At the end of each month I look at what I have completed, helping me to plan my work schedule for the following months. I use excel files and mind maps to ensure that I have a clear summary of all the projects I have running , as well as my plans for future projects. I keep records, a diary, lab journals, digital files and various report forms.
I am widowed since September 2010 and bereavement has aggravated my disorganised thinking. I have memory problems, concentration difficulties and a slower thinking speed. My system collapsed and I had to rebuild it, accepting those new limitations. Since then I use the pomodoro technique to improve my efficiency and keep my focus.
5. What problems do you think there are with science PhDs?
PhD students are well cared for in the Netherlands, luckily. Even so funding is and will remain a big concern.
6. What’s next for you?
Science is my love, research is my niche. I am determined to pursue a career in a research field I am interested in. I am also a Lifecoach in training (second year) and coaching people has taught me that I love to encourage unrecognised talent in others. In the future I would like to be able to combine these two passions.
7. Finally do you have any advice for those who want to carry out a PhD?
Life sometimes knocks you down, and it won’t stand around waiting to see if you get back up. It is important to scramble up and scrape yourself from the road, but when you lie on the ground, trying to catch your breath, it is equally important to rest your head, look up to the sky and just breathe.
Research can be very exciting, but most of the time it is excruciatingly tedious and painstakingly dull. PhDs are hard work and you will get frustrated. On the other hand, you will gain knowledge, experience and skills, but most of all… it’s FUN. But hey, I want an Einstein action figure for my birthday, who am I to tell?