See my recent blog post on The Biochemist blog
Once you have decided you want to carry on doing scientific research the next question is:
What area am I going to do my PhD in and how am I going to pick a project?
This is a big decision as the subject of your PhD will be the main focus of your working hours for the next 3-4 Years! So it is important to pick a research project that you find fascinating.
But having a successful and enjoyable PhD depends on more than just the research topic. The supervisor, lab set up, colleagues and funding situation are all key factors, which if selected carefully can improve the experience of your PhD.
There are differences between PhD adverts in the UK with some PhDs being linked with a direct PhD project and supervisor and others being adverts for general Doctoral Training Programs in broad subject areas.
It is quite hard to get a feel for what a PhD project will be like from just the advert, you can tell if you are interested in the area of research, then you have to carry out some detective work.
If looking at a PhD at a different university to your undergraduate one, try and find out about the supervisor and research group from your current network of lectures and tutors.
Once you are invited to interview, you should get a tour of the lab and opportunity to talk to some of the current members of the group, this is the best opportunity to learn what working here would really be like.
Top questions to ask
But overall this is only a 30-60min conversation, where you are not able to grill them as you are still trying to make a good impression because you are still being informally interviewed.
So is there a better way to choose your PhD project?
Maybe, the BBSRC Doctoral Training Program at University of Nottingham offers a broad range of bio-science projects, then you can pick 3 of these labs to do a mini project related to the 3 advertised PhDs. These mini projects last ~8 weeks and provide an opportunity for you to find out about the people and environment you could be conducting your PhD in. With the idea being that you can try before you buy and develop some useful lab techniques along the way!
What to look out for in your rotation projects
The 8 weeks gives you more time to gradually build up a picture of the real working environment of that lab group and allows you to compare experiences in different lab groups to help you pick where you fit in best. Here are some of my key areas to watch:
Even after 8 weeks of immersion in a lab it is difficult to predict how the next 3 ½ years will pan out, but it gives you a better chance of finding a lab that fits you. Hopefully having a PhD project on a topic fascinating to you paired with having the correct environment and people around you can help get you all the way successfully through your PhD and make in a more enjoyable process.
I recently reflected on what I wish I had done before I started writing my Thesis and shared this with the Biochemical Society. My basic tips are around Thesis structure, supervisors and remembering your audience!
Click the link for more on How to start writing your Thesis
Last week for the third year running the people of Nottingham were able to experience science through The Festival of Science and Curiosity 2017.
What is the The Festival of Science and Curiosity?
The festival is unique to Nottingham and was put in place by the STEM city partnership. The STEM city partnership is made up of a group of some really great Nottingham organisations with some noble aims:
Because of these aims the festival does a lot of work with schools but also with the public and families. This year the main day for families and the public to enjoy science together was Saturday 11/02/17 with events held at the Broadway Cinema, Central Library and Broadmarsh shopping centre.
Broadway held ‘The Explorers Fair’, this had talks, shows and the chance to try at being a science presenter. Central Library held ‘Hands on Science’ with activities that let children play with science and Broadmarsh had an inflatable planetarium and plenty of scientists too.
How did I get involved?
I had just finished my PhD when the call went out for festival volunteers. I signed up straight way keen to get out of the immense detail of a PhD and go right back to the basics of Microbiology…
The event I proposed was ‘Make your own Microbes- get creative with PlayDoh’
What was my event about?
This event tried use playdoh and playing to explain to younger children what microbes are. It can be a difficult concept to understand, but it is best to try and introduce the idea of microbes early, this is happening more commonly now in the curriculum- normally through explaining the importance of hand washing!
(See some very good comics on this area by the Microbiology Society)
The main barrier to understanding what a microbe is the fact that they are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. One of the best ways to describe them is as tiny creatures or microscopic animals (just as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek did -one of the founding fathers of microbiology) he also tried to explain how tiny they were to his friends by saying how it would take 1 million of them to be the same size as a grain of sand.
The trouble with the description of ‘tiny creature’ is they don’t have the same obvious physiology as the animals and insects that we can see and all the parts of a microbe have complicated names.
However for children this can be simplified, for example:
So with the help of PlayDoh and poundland I was ready to help children start to visualize the typically invisible microbes.
What happened on the day?
I held this event in Nottingham Central Library where the staff involved had been very organised and had set up a separate science room for the occasion.
I was in good company with other volunteers doing the science of visual illusions, chemistry experiments and the science of eggs!
I was lucky to be by the door and had lots of interested children all day. I think that by having playdoh, a plaything that children are familiar with allowed them to easily approach the stall and not be intimidated.
The age range was varied and so were the conversations, in some cases the playdoh kept very young children entertained while I talked to their parents about science. In other cases it was interesting to find out what they already knew, many described them as ‘germs and bugs that make your tummy sick’. This was a good opportunity to talk to the slightly older children about good and bad bacteria.
I had made some example playdoh microbes for the children in case they wanted something to copy but it turned out they were all very creative and I wish that I had photographed the children’s own creations. There was a slight trend of the younger ones describing their models as spiders or monsters, but I think that is understandable when you are trying to understand something that is invisible!
Hints and tips for running a stall at a Science festival
I fully recommend getting involved in the Festival of Science and Curiosity, its great to see how much curiosity and creativity the people of Nottingham have! Already looking forward to next year
So you have had your Viva and have finally passed your PhD!
Well done! Go and celebrate!
But we all know that thoughts of the corrections are lurking- try and suppress these thoughts for a few days.
What type of corrections have you got?
The most common result of a Viva is 3 months corrections. This means there really isn’t too much wrong with the Thesis, which is great, but it still means you have to open it up again.
Formatting, typos, additional explanation/clarification, minor alteration of figures, in some cases editing, occasionally re-writing a page or so of the discussion.
Our University has recently removed the 6 months option which means if the examiner thinks the corrections may take longer than 3 months, the next option is 1 year! This can alter your perception of the amount of work that needs to be done quite a lot. It might be that the changes are similar to the ones mentioned above, just that the number of these changes are greater. Or it could be that the examiner wants some data shown in a different way or takes a different view on a set of results, meaning multiple changes in the discussion to reflect this. These changes are not necessarily hard but may take time and if you are working full time may take more than the 3 months. So do not be deterred by 1 year for corrections, you will probably complete them in less.
Should you start your corrections quickly or wait?
Personally it took me 3 weeks to get started on my corrections.
I felt this worked quite well and would recommend it. It gave me time to celebrate properly and have a relax. It also gave time for my examiner to send me the full correction list ( I had a bullet point list given to me at the end of the Viva of the main changes) and for my letter to arrive from the University.This contained both my internal and external examiners reports- this allowed me to have a better idea of what they thought of the thesis, so I could understand my corrections better.
How do you force yourself to start?
I had a good Viva but by this point I was bored of my Thesis. I had revised from it in the 3 weeks leading up to the Viva and worked on it for months previously. After my 3 hour chat about it I felt well and truly done with it!
For me after the 3 weeks of ignoring the corrections, I started to feel a little worried. I thought perhaps these will take longer than I have estimated, I’ve got a Job now maybe it will take the whole 3 months!
This made me look at them and work out a timetable for getting them done!
I was lucky that the Christmas Holidays were coming up so I scheduled to do a lot of work then, I did a bit but not as much as planned and just enjoyed Christmas. January arriving fired me up, I was not having corrections hanging over me in 2017!
Because of not using the holidays as much as planned I had to do corrections in the evenings and on the weekends, which is a pretty common situation, but is still difficult to find the motivation after a full day of work.
In total it took me about 10 days of work but scattered around rather than working solidly. Its difficult to force yourself to do it but you just have to keep telling yourself how close you are.
I would recommend making a timetable and having an extra incentive to be finally done.
Also it is important to factor in allowing your internal examiner time to look over your corrections and approve them for final submission.
Many universities no longer require a hardbound copy of your thesis which takes the stress of printing out of the equation, with just a simple PDF upload to do instead.
But it does feel good to get the hardbound copy done. I wouldn’t wait too long after getting your corrections approved to do this step as otherwise ending the PhD process gets dragged out and I know many researchers that even after 3 years of post doc haven’t yet found time to get their Thesis bound.
Finishing a PhD is a long process with many end points, finishing lab work, finishing a first draft, handing in the Thesis, having a Viva but handing in corrections is the true end point on the journey.
(and if you are not quite finished yet know that it is possible!)
So after all those experiments and months of writing you are finally facing the most daunting step in the PhD process, The Viva.
The idea of the viva can be pretty scary to a PhD student (it was to me). There are plenty urban legends about terrible vivas and horrible examiners to put you off and make you very nervous about you own.
And though there are plenty of articles out there saying what a great experience a viva can be, when you are preparing for a viva you can be very skeptical of these articles. In hindsight though they weren’t far off what happened for me.
My Experience (on 28th November 2016)
My own personal experience of the viva was very positive, it still felt like a test but the time passed quickly (3hrs) and none of the questioning felt confrontational. At points when I didn’t know any more on a subject we just moved on. At some points it was a very fluid and flexible conversation between me and both examiners about some of the constraints that are currently in our area of research.
Examples of questions I was asked
And many other questions I can no longer remember!
Then closing question:
What would you focus on next?
I liked this question and felt it allowed the viva to end well as there were many potential experiments to investigate the work further.
I was sent out of the room and about 10-15 minutes later go back in, have my hand shaken and am told ‘congratulations’.
We then sit down and briefly discuss:
However am told my internal will send a full list later.
How I felt after the viva
I disagree with a lot of the stuff out there that says it’s an anticlimax. For me this had been the last hurdle of my PhD journey and I was so glad for it to be over it. I couldn’t stop smiling.
It’s a difficult one to know how to celebrate, I was fairly low key on the day but it didn’t matter to me as I was just so happy.
And the first thought the next morning was that it was done, the viva was done, the PhD was done and that I had done enough! This was accompanied with such a sense of relief. I felt a sense of total freedom- even more so than when I handed in the thesis. As though handing in felt good there was still part of my brain holding back as I knew it wasn’t quite the end.
Some may argue it is still not the end as there are corrections and I agree. But for the following week after my viva I found it easy to block out the thought of corrections and enjoyed using the title of Dr.
Tips and Advice for Viva day
Having recently completed my PhD in a Molecular Biology Lab I have been thinking back over my time as a PhD student and trying to think about what I wish I had known in my first year.
There are lots of practical things I could talk about and may blog about in the future such as: how to organise and plan your reading and your lab work. However I feel the most important thing to be aware of at the start of your PhD is your safety.
When I started my PhD I was really keen and enthusiastic, I was really happy that my hard work as an undergraduate had enabled me to get on a PhD program. I had worked in labs before, so wasn’t daunted by the idea of lab equipment and dangerous chemicals as I trusted that everyone was taking the correct safety precautions when using them.
Looking back I was really naive and an optimist.
I have used these examples to try and demonstrate that though you will not be coming across unsafe working conditions every day in your PhD you will at some point in the PhD process as human error and poor judgement happens to even senior scientists. It is best to be aware of this from the outset so that you know how to respond when it does occur, its too easy to automatically say yes when an person in authority asks you to do something, but instead remember you can say no, ask why, or question the safety of what they are asking of you.
I guess in the end my message to you all is: Trust no one, question everything, be a realist, don’t get pressured into doing something you don’t feel comfortable with and in the end look after yourself. By doing this hopefully you will feel safe doing your PhD and avoid putting yourself at any unnecessary risk.