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.
Matt Allinson, is a chemistry PhD student at Imperial College London (hybrid photovoltaic devices) and occasional accordion player. You can find him on Twitter @Mattallinson.
I am a first year PhD student at Imperial College London’s Centre for Plastic Electronics, and have had immense benefit from studying in their Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) for 2 years.
The main goal of a DTC is to encourage the collaboration and training of students working on various aspects of an interdisciplinary field.
Plastic electronics — the study of electrical properties and applications of a wide range of new organic materials — is a good example of a wide interdisciplinary field. It has staff and students working in the physics, chemistry, materials and chemical engineering departments on problems as varied as synthetic chemistry, theoretical simulation of charge transport, industrial prototyping and materials processing.
However this broad variety of projects are incredibly dependent on each other: a synthetic chemist will want to make a new polymer that the theorists say will be useful, that the materials engineer can make into a useable device, and that the process engineers can scale up.
Predictably a recently graduated student with expertise (or at least a degree) in only one field would find such cross-faculty research a daunting prospect. As a materials science undergrad, simply understanding what a colleague from another department (usually chemistry) has just said can occasionally be a tough ask.
The first advantage I found from the DTC was the lecture series that took place in the first term of the Masters year. This covered the fundamental physics and chemistry of plastic electronics, as well as the materials science and the principles behind making working devices out of the stuff we produce. In addition to this, it also allowed us our first chance to get to know other students from various departments who were also working in the Centre for Plastic Electronics (CPE).
One of the main goals of the DTC itself is to foster strong working relationships and friendships between the students from different departments, under the umbrella of the DTC cohort. Not only are we seated together in the lecture theatre, but in the first few terms we went on external courses at partner organisations to the CPE, for example the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating at Swansea University, the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, and a lecture series from the staff at Queen Mary University of London.
These proved both informative and educational, but also invaluable in helping us all to get to know each other outside the lab. In addition to this, we were veritably spoiled with social events by the CPE, which allowed newcomers to Imperial College, and those of us who had been here longer, to get quickly settled in to life as a postgraduate researcher.
After January exams on our previous term’s work, the rest of first year was spent in the lab doing preliminary work on our research projects, the main body of which we wrote up for our MRes in Plastic Electronics degree. By having friends across departments and research groups through the DTC has personally made the beginning of my career as a researcher substantially easier. Common problems, such as finding the right piece of kit or learning a new technique are greatly reduced by having such a strong cross faculty network. It was with this benefit that all the DTC students from my cohort completed their MRes year and moved on to the PhD.
With fewer formal classes to attend, being a DTC student shifted from having a group of class-mates to having a ready-made group of friends, providing advice and expertise to help with most problems. This has been reinforced through various DTC events, including the immensely enjoyable CPE winter-school in the Swiss resort of Bergün. Mornings were spent in seminars given by academics and senior researchers from Imperial and Queen Mary’s as well as guest speakers from ETH Zurich. Lunchtimes were spent working on team projects set by the senior researchers which were based on current problems facing the field. As we were hundreds miles from the lab and with minimal internet, blue-sky thinking and novel approaches were encouraged. The projects were great fun; they allowed us to meet more researchers from within the CPE who weren’t DTC students, and they also allowed for more engagement with the stuff we were being taught, something that can occasionally be lacking from the standard seminar-skiing-socialising format of a winter school. That’s not to say that the skiing and socialising weren’t great, as some of the pictures from it can hopefully attest to.
The majority of our taught courses since finishing our formal education have focussed on personal and career development. My favourite so far was a thought-provoking two days studying ethics – a field which I had never really considered relevant before but found both fascinating and entertaining. More “down-to-earth” courses have included entrepreneurship, which provided a wealth of information on patent law and what to do with our research if we want to commercialise it, and a 3 day residential inter-personal skills course.
Finally, one of my favourite aspects of the DTC for my life outside of the lab has been the opportunities they provide. The DTCs at Imperial College (the CPE, to which I belong is one of 4) are great instigators for students to take the lead. Personally, I’ve found plenty of opportunities to take part in science outreach through contacts in the DTC, who work closely with the outreach office in the physics department. Furthermore I was particularly impressed by this year’s Festival of Science, which was organised and run by DTC students. This day long event included guest lectures from Government science advisors and science communicators, as well as hosting debates on the future of science funding, The most telling part of the day was a group debate on whether or not the DTC model is a better than a traditional PhD. It’s difficult to compare the merits of different PhD systems, considering most people only do one, but, all things considered, it is perhaps unsurprising that we voted yes.