Underqualified or Overqualified? Finding jobs as a PhD graduate.

There comes a time in every PhD student’s academic life when they wonder if doing a PhD was the right thing. To outsiders, a PhD seems like it would be an automatic ticket to a good job upon graduation, but those of us reaching the end of our course have witnessed a very different reality. I’ve seen PhD graduates have to sign on to receive benefits, as they simply can’t find work after graduating. Does what we hope will boost us into a career in science actually give us the opportunity to overspecialise, and lessen our chances of finding work?

This article on the Science magazine website explores this idea. A PhD looks impressive on paper, of course, but many students have specialised to such an extent that they may not hold the ‘transferable skills’ employers are seeking in their new recruits. Some employers would prefer to hire someone fresh from their undergraduate degree, as they’re ready to be trained from scratch.

One shocking story from the article states that the HR department of one company screen candidates by throwing out the applications of PhD graduates, as they would want to leave the position they were actually overqualified for as soon as a better opportunity arose. This is very troublesome for PhD graduates – if there isn’t a position available at our level, how are we supposed to work if we won’t be welcomed in lower positions?

So, how can we fix this problem? The answer lies with how you present yourself. When applying for academic jobs, you would of course focus on your publications and the scientific merit of your research. When applying elsewhere, however, you need to focus on the other skills you have developed throughout your PhD experience. Employers want to hear about your experience outside of the lab, and know you’re capable of carrying out tasks outside of your field.

There’s also that piece of advice no one really wants to hear – you need to network. So often, it’s not about what you know, it’s who you know – so make sure you’re speaking to people as much as you can as the job hunt is creeping closer.

This all sounds very doom and gloom but don’t despair! Many employers are learning that a PhD isn’t a one-track course any more – many of us are taking part in activities which give us a wider range of skills than the lab-slaves of the past. The best thing you can do is go out there and prove to employers that we do have the skills they’re looking for, and that our PhD is a symbol of this, not a ball and chain.

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Companies on Campus

This interesting article on the Nature News which explores the idea of academia and industry being brought together under the same roof.

Anyone working in research will have noticed that academia and the chemical industry have been coming closer and closer together in recent years. Many of my fellow PhD students at Nottingham are at least partly funded by a chemical company, and there are more and more seminars and events being centered around forging links with industry. With academic careers becoming increasingly difficult to land, and long-term funding being like gold dust, careers in industrial research are becoming more appealing to PhD graduates and post docs.

Companies often want to enlist leading academics in order to provide themselves with expertise that they just don’t have access to, and will gladly forge relationships with universities in order to improve their research. Chemistry departments have in turn have developed their own business partnership units in order to establish strong links with industry that benefit both parties.

This article suggests pushing this even further – moving industry into universities so that both parties are within easy reach of each other. A whole raft of benefits is possible – with everyone in such close proximity, academics and industrial researchers alike can bounce ideas off of each other, give students a broader experience of chemistry and work together towards an end goal of creating something which can benefit the world.

Of course, there are many factors which must be considered with such ideas – intellectual property ownership, funding sources, integration into education, etc. – but it is a very interesting idea, and many institutions may want to consider it in the future.

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Fluorescence Microscopy Bags Chemistry Nobel Prize

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Every year the chemical sciences community holds their breath as we all wait to find out who will be honoured with the coveted Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and this week Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner were jointly awarded the prize for their work developing super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

Optical microscopy has long been limited in its resolution by the wavelength of light, and so often techniques such an electron microscopy were the only way of ‘seeing’ samples smaller than the micrometre range. This is widely known as Abbe’s diffraction limit. However, Betzig Hell and Moerner broke down this barrier and have since allowed scientists to peer into the before unseen nanoworld.

Firstly, stimulated emission depletion microscopy was developed by Stefan Hell in 2000, which utilised fluorescent molecules to allow a nano-sized beam of light to scan an image in nanometre-resolved detail.

Then, Eric Betzig and William Moerner separately used this technique to develop single molecule microscopy – switching the fluorescence of a few individual molecules on and off each time an area is mapped, allowing for super-resolved images.

Years of painstaking theoretical and experimental work by these three great researchers has led to this ground-breaking work, which has since been adopted worldwide. It is widely utilised for the study of individual molecules in biological systems, allowing scientists to study processes in detail which had never been thought possible before.

If you’re interested in this work, you can find an excellent review of the science behind the prize here on the Nobel Prize website,.

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NMR – Atom by Atom

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This interesting post on the Chemistry World website describes a very exciting piece of research published in Science recently that describes a new technique which may allow us to ‘see’ individual spins of electrons and atoms in a molecule – possibly leading to atom-resolved NMR spectroscopy.

The technique utilises a a STM set up which is sensitive enough to detect the flipping of spins within atoms of the molecule being probed. They managed to use a radiofrequency wave, such as those used in NMR or EPR, to induce transitions between the two spin states of the nuclei being analysed, which alters the current in the STM and leads to a peak in the detection.

The team were able to probe a terbium sandwich complex, and were even able to monitor several hyperfine transitions due to couplings between the spins being observed.

The work is still in its early days, and more depth is definitely needed, but it’s interesting and exciting research which could not only lead to atom by atom resolution in magnetic spectroscopies, but also allow for manipulation of nuclear spins on the road to spintronics and quantum computing.

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