Intriguing Insight and Advice from Nature Jobs

I’ve been browsing the Nature Jobs website, and I’ve come across three articles that I just couldn’t choose between, so I thought I’d share all three of them with you. Nature Jobs is great for career advice in any area of science, and I’ve often found brilliant articles, comments and opinions there. Sometimes it can be hard to know where your science career is heading, or what options are open to you, and Nature Jobs is great for helping you gather your thoughts about your current situation. These articles are particularly enlightening, and I hope you find them useful!

Ticket to Everywhere – do some PhD courses do more harm than good?

Here, Peter Fiske discusses whether some PhD programmes are actually disadvantageous to graduates, with regards to their future career prospects. Obviously, PhD courses are ideal for a career as a post-doctoral researcher or an academic, as it equips you with the laboratory and research skills essential for these roles, but is it enough for careers outside of the lab?

In this article, Fiske questions whether the focus purely on research during a PhD in most universities leads to graduates being poorly equipped for the world of work, where ‘soft’ skills are in high demand. This is an interesting idea, because it it’s true that some PhD students do worry that they’ve doomed themselves in choosing to study for a PhD.

It’s suggested that universities follow the private sector, and offer training in areas such as business and leadership, so that PhD students are ideal candidates for both academic and industry careers. I’m lucky that, here at Nottingham, I have access to the Graduate School and its wealth of extra training and opportunities, and I’m actually required to undertake a number of courses each year as part of my PhD programme. This is one of the reasons why Nottingham is currently number 2 in the UK for Chemistry research.

However, students often find themselves unable to take part in such crucial activities because their supervisor expects them to spend 100% of their time in the lab. Unfortunately, this is extremely common, but it’s important that students make it clear that professional development is crucial to enhance their career prospects, and make their PhD a ‘ticket to everywhere’.

Time to Reflect – should your group try a lab retreat?

I found this article to be of particular interest, and I think any PhD student or post-doc should read it. Eleftherios Diamandis here suggests research groups take part in a ‘lab retreat’ in order to re-evaluate the projects being undertaken by each member, and give the group as a whole more focus.

It’s really a great idea. Rather than undergoing the usual group meetings, where students and post-docs discuss recent experimental issues and methodological confusion, the group stands back and looks at the long-term development of each project being undertaken. This allows them to look at the big picture, even to the extent of questioning the validity of the project itself.

Students are able to question what impact their work might have, should it be successful, and what limitations their current strategies appear to be having. Working on day-to-day issues can often make students forget about what actually motivates their project – I.e. why are they doing this research in the first place? – and a retreat can allow the entire group to put their work into a fresh perspective.

Furthermore, this sort of thinking can allow each member of the group to suggest new ideas, strategies, innovations and methods which might not be realised during the usual hubbub of lab work and group meetings. Lab groups can sometimes find themselves in a lull, where the supervisor and students are ticking along, continuing with the work they’ve been doing for years, and not appreciating what they’d set out to achieve and how they’re going to get there.

A lab retreat is a great idea both for mature research groups which have lost their initial excitement and drive, and newer groups who are perhaps just missing some focus. Plus, it’s always great for students to remember why they’re doing the work they’re doing, and this could really renew their motivation and passion for their research.

On My Way to Being a Scientist – one man’s path to a research career

This is a delightful article by Thomas M. Schofield, where he details his choice to change his career, and how he ‘accidentally’ became a scientist.

I always find it useful finding out how people find themselves in the career position they’re in, particularly if it’s one I’d like to pursue myself, and Thomas’ story is a particularly interesting one. He describes how his sister being rushed to hospital caused him to question the point of his current career, which led to him undertaking a masters degree in neuropsychology.

Thomas goes on to describe how his career passed through four stages, from wanting to know the truth about your topic, to the fact that scientists can’t decide what’s true, then realising no one knows what is true, to realising that science isn’t about finding the truth, but is about finding a less wrong answer. As uninteresting as that may sound, it’s actually a fascinating journey through Thomas’ career and how his constant search for answers led to him wanting to be a scientist, without even knowing it.

What makes this article so great is how relatable it is. For example, Thomas describes his discovery that published papers are simply polished and perfect versions of research awash with confusing and contradicting data and work that conjures up more questions than answers. I remember being in the first few years of my undergraduate degree, and assuming that everything we were taught was the result of science that just worked every time, and that research always made perfect sense. Obviously, as a PhD student going into my second year, I know this to be completely untrue, and it’s reassuring to see Thomas went through the same transition out of ignorance as the rest of us do.

I find this article to actually be really uplifting, shining a new light on what research really means, and why we might want to be scientists. I recommend that anyone involved in research takes a look at this, it’s really worth a read.

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