_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)":http://blogs.nature.com/u6e5b2ce1/2011/04/21/phd-5 and Student 6 (Tine Janssens).
The last up and answering our 7 questions, is PhD student Marcel S. Pawlowski:
1. Tell us about your PhD
I’m doing my PhD in Astronomy, at the Argelander Institute for Astronomy which is part of the University of Bonn in Germany.
My work centres on numerical simulations of galaxy interactions, the formation of tidal dwarf galaxies and tests of cosmology on small scales. In comparing predictions of the current standard model of cosmology on Milky Way scales, we find a number of serious issues which challenge or even falsify the model. (You can find out more about this here). Consequently, my work suggests an alternative formation scenario for the satellite galaxies of the MW, having formed as Tidal Dwarf Galaxies in a collision of two disc galaxies.
Luckily I am funded through a project grant by the DFG (the German Research Foundation). In addition to that I receive a small stipend by the Bonn-Cologne Graduate School of Physics and Astronomy (BCGS), which also supports me with some additional travel funds. (In fact, my trip to the conference in France I’m at right now is funded by them.)
2. Why did you decide to take on a PhD?
Having a PhD is a prerequisite for a scientific career. I decided to become a scientist at young age. Astronomy, as a science, has attracted me early one. But over the years I also got interested in computer science and later, while studying physics, theoretical physics raised my interest. My work, theoretical research in astronomy using computer model calculations, now basically incorporates all these interests. It allows me to finally do my own research, which is not really possible during the undergrad studies.
My dedication to science grew over the years. It even let me chose philosophy as a minor, concentrating on the philosophy of science. I think this strongly influenced me and the way I approach my research. I find it important to know what science is about, what we can conclude and where we have to be sceptical.
My future goals thus are to stay in science and contribute a small portion to our understanding of the universe.
3. What did you expect from a PhD, and has it lived up to your expectations?
Yes, I guess my expectations have been met, if not even exceeded. The salary is OK, but as a scientist one does not aim at getting rich. My love for science is much more important. I’m happy with the support I get from my supervisor, but also about the freedom he allows me, both in letting me decide how to work and in coming up with my own ideas. The travel opportunities are great, too. My field of research is not very crowded, so I start to know a good fraction of the colleagues. As they are spread all over the world I could already go on several trips for conferences or collaborations. While sometimes exhausting, these make valuable experiences.
In addition to that, I made a number of experiences which I did not expect beforehand. For example I got involved with some public relations work, giving interviews about our research. My professor and I also accepted an invitation to start a blog on Scilogs about problems of the cold dark matter model of cosmology, called The Dark Matter Crisis. While not directly related to my PhD studies, I think I learned quite a lot of extra know-how.
4. How do you find your workload and how do you manage your time?
The workload is big, but fair. I’m doing this for myself, after all. The PhD is part of my education and the time I spend on my research is well spend. What is stressful sometimes are the additional activities. There are many possibilities and they might come up on short notice. Like giving a public talk here and there, taking care of visitors, preparing PhD celebrations for colleagues, making some modified plots for a talk or answering a surprising call by a journalist. Each single one of those is great fun or at least interesting, but sometimes too much of it comes together. I had to define a time-limit for this and had to learn to say no to some requests. It is good to participate a bit, for example I am the students representative at our institute which can be quite time-demanding every once in a while. But these things should not become my major occupation.
What helps me increasing the productivity is to define priorities and plan out the work in small steps. That way you know what to do next and you also see what you have accomplished so far. I find this motivating. But except for my calender and notebook I don’t use any other tools to manage my time. Maybe because I am afraid that it might take me too long to get used to more modern tools ;-).
5. What problems do you think there are with science PhDs?
You never know what your live will be like in two years. There is quite some competition on the job-market within science. Many people drop out after their PhD, because they don’t find a job in science or don’t want to move too far away. However, those colleagues I know of did not have much trouble to find a job. Whether the PhD will help you in finding a better job I do not know, I assume it depends on the job you apply for. It opens new possibilities, while some employers might find it a wast of your time.
When staying in science, I guess salaries will not be astronomical. But money does not motivate me to become a PhD. What worries me are the budged cuts for research in many countries, I’m afraid that this might make the situation on the job market even worse.
When you pursue a scientific career, I’m afraid you can not expect too much support for partnerships or families either. You are expected to be extremely flexible, maybe moving around the world for several postdocs. It is hard to develop a serious relationship that way, and you will be relatively old once you may have a chance to settle down. If you are lucky like me and found your loved one already, you might be more bound to stay close to him or her, or your partner is flexible as well.
6. What’s next for you?
I would like to stay in science, preferentially finding a postdoc position somewhere abroad. This will be a rather uncertain time, probably with several short contracts. But I’m nevertheless looking forward to it. It is a chance to see and live in different places around the world, collecting new experiences. With more experience comes more creativity and more contacts, so this will support my professional development.
I’d also like to take on teaching at some point and of course we all dream of a permanent position at a nice institute some day, don’t we?
7. Finally do you have any advice for those who want to carry out a PhD?
Well, sure. Let’s start with the obvious ones: chose your supervisor wisely, work on a topic that will interests you for several years and that belongs to a field where you have a chance to contribute something to the community. Don’t let yourself being exploited as cheap labour, a good supervisor will also have your career in mind.
Know what science is about, what the scientific method is. It helps you judge new approaches. Especially when working on controversial issues, it helps when you can remind people that science is not about believe in a model, but about testing.
But there is another advice I find important: have a life besides your studies. It is too easy to dedicate yourself entirely to your work and spend time only with colleagues and fellow students. There may be phases where everything else has the lowest priority, but we know that monoculture does not work too well in the long run. It is good to stay in touch with the real life (and at least it might help you to appreciate the world of academia even more). I suggest to find a creative outlet. Be it painting, dancing or, like in my case, photography and writing (you can find some examples on my blog, Eight Minutes Old or on my website. Your brain sometimes enjoys a break from hard science. This way your subconscious can surprise you with new ideas, fresh perspectives or different approaches to problems you are working on.