Doing a PhD – What is scientific research like?

When thinking about your career prospects you may wonder what it would be like to stay at university and go on to complete a PhD with the aim of working in scientific research after that. You may ask yourself what type of struggles you will encounter, or how different it is from working in a company. Or you may just wonder how different it is from undergraduate and master’s level Science studies. Is it for you? Let’s find out.

PhD vs. BSc or MSc

In comparison to studying a degree at bachelor’s level, a PhD will focus on a very specific topic in high detail and at high level, while during your bachelor’s degree you will have covered a very wide range of topics more superficially and written a thesis that is more descriptive or helpful in learning methods and concepts than in advancing science. In comparison to master’s level, it depends. In research-oriented master’s degrees, the master’s thesis or dissertation will be a first taste of what research is actually like, however at a smaller scale. On the other hand, industry-oriented master’s degrees will be more relevant to the interests of a company or industry sector, and may therefore require skills that are more suited to that particular field of industry and applied science.

Research vs. industry

After talking to people who have experience in industry, I understand that in a company you’re given specific tasks to do and sometimes tasks that are not necessarily related to each other but will be found within a longer or shorter term project. On the other hand, in scientific research tasks revolve around one or a few objectives that you want to reach by the completion of the PhD – e.g. in 3 years. Here you need to go deep into the problem, as deep as the available time allows you to, to find clues that you are convinced are the best way to reach the objectives you envision. You may sometimes find unexpected results and will have to deal with them. You need the courage to embark on a journey into the unknown. Having a good idea of what you’re looking for is of course a must. To sum up, in comparison to working in a company the main differences will lie in the time frames, depth of study, priorities and goals involved.

What is it like? Strategy and time considerations

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1: Managing time is important. (Credit: thesocialmediamonthly.com)

When doing research you learn to embrace uncertainty and tackle it serenely by having a good action plan to defeat it. You need to acquire knowledge by reading and then trying out your strategies, whether they involve fieldwork, experiments, analytical work or numerical methods. You should have an initial plan as your road map and then modify it according to the results, and of course consistently review and evaluate your new results.

The strategy for completion of the PhD involves not only constantly focused attention, but also prioritizing tasks and realizing how much time is available to keep working on one certain thing. You should always bear in mind the end goal and time available.

On the way you will have to periodically present your work at meetings with supervisors, colleagues, advisors or in conference talks or posters. These activities will help you to learn to present your findings and learn from others who might give you ideas to solve current research issues. The advice from supervisors, mentors and colleagues with more experience will prove invaluable to develop a more realistic idea of time. But in the end you will get a grip on the duration of tasks and priorities by yourself through your own experience; after all, your performance is your own responsibility.

Motivation

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2: Curiosity is important. (Credit: growthmindsetmemes.blogspot.com)

A necessary requirement is passion for the field of study involved. However, more so is curiosity. You must continue to be interested in how things work, in order to keep the fire burning and keep the research going. You have to also accept the times of uncertainty and use your curiosity to fuel your motivation.

 

 

Writing

Who said scientists had to be good at writing? It’s not necessary to have a language degree but writing with clarity is a requirement to conveying your findings to others, like funders, politicians, other researchers or lay citizens. Publications are the end result of your work, what makes your work actually exist in some way and makes it accessible to the rest of the scientific community. If you struggle with this part, a scientific writing course may come in handy. But the best way to improve is to actually start writing your research paper. In addition, you may find yourself writing beyond scientific papers, for a blog, such as this one, you never know! Needless to say, good command of the English language is mandatory.

Flexibility & adapting to new situations

More often than not, tackling a problem innovatively will lead you to doing things you’re not familiar with. In general the experience from your previous studies is crucial, but new challenges will always arise during the PhD. Examples may be using analytical equipment or experimental and laboratory techniques or using new software to process your results. You might have to ask other people how things work, get training from experienced members of staff or learn things by yourself. In any case, research requires an open mind and being prepared for learning new skills. In addition, you may need to be flexible with working times to get things done or in order to optimize the time you’ve booked to use an analytical machine. It is generally not the regular office job. Flexibility will also be helpful in having an international mindset and realize that travelling to conferences and meetings is necessary to make new contacts, learn from other people and share your knowledge. Along these lines, don’t expect to find your next job in your home town – more on being a (semi-) nomadic Early Career Scientist in Rachael’s post.

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3: Life outside the lab and the office. Left: PhD students and Senior Scientists during a field excursion. Right: At a conference.

Teamwork

If you think scientists aren’t sociable, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Socializing is key to the advancement of science. Whether you spend long hours in the lab or writing all day, talking to people with different experiences can help you share crucial advice that will save time and effort or will direct you or others in the right way. This is why it is worth spending time discussing with your colleagues or meeting scientists from different universities at conferences. Also one must know when to ask for help and avoid drowning in situations due to lack of experience. Communication is key. The scientific community is there for each other and diversity opens the mind to solve problems in a more creative way.

Teaching

Teaching bachelor students may or may not be a requirement in every PhD but if you want to stay in academia, bear in mind that experienced researchers are generally expected to devote some hours of their work to teaching – the amount may vary from one position to another. This is something to bear in mind when choosing an academic career path. Teaching is a good way to share knowledge and show students that science is evolving and that while some old theories are still valid today, the work done by the scientific community builds up on them and advances modern science.
I hope to have given you some insights into what doing a PhD in science can involve. For more information keep reading our blog!

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