A PhD – the bridge to business?

Whilst one again sampling the Nature Jobs website, I came across an interesting and very relevant article on how a PhD can, surprisingly, be the gateway to a career in business.

As someone who is due to jump ship from academia shortly, and into the world of corporate R&D, I can fully appreciate how a PhD offers you the skills to take a leap into the business world. As the article points out, as PhD students we are analytical, can gain insights from our findings, are resilient to problems and failures, have been part of a research team and most likely taught younger students. You’re constantly involved with new technologies and new ideas, and regularly have to think up new ways of getting results.

Really, and most importantly, a PhD is very much like real work experience, and prepares you very well for the world of business. Although I won’t be going down the academic path I had planned, I do not regret doing my PhD. Around 80-90% of the experiences I discussed during the interviews for the job I start in September were from my PhD, and I’ve gained skills and confidence that I never would have had after my Masters degree. I’m positive I wouldn’t be starting the career I’m on now if I hadn’t gone through the PhD process.

A problem that the article does point out is that there are very few opportunities to learn about business during a PhD. If we were to be offered a small amount of tailored training during our graduate studies, we should be able to walk into business roles and demand the higher salaries that we really deserve. However, the biggest barrier remains with the individual – you need to know that you’re capable of a much greater variety of careers than simply a research chemist, and be confident enough to pursue roles in business.

Here at Nottingham we do have some links with business, as our School of Chemistry has a Business Partnership Unit which is a popular career choice for PhD graduates who still want to work in chemistry, but from the business side, rather in the lab. This is a useful bridge between the two disciplines, and could easily springboard chemists into a business career. There are also courses offered in business-related skills, such as management and negotiation, but these are generally only open to staff, and PhD students need to have access to such resources to really build up their transferable skills and make themselves even more employable.

A PhD isn’t just a ticket into post-doctoral research and academia, it’s an experience which can build you up to be a highly sought after candidate for a vast array of careers and students, universities and the private sector need to realise this.


Could biodiesel production finally become completely renewable?

As the world’s oil resources continually dwindle, the need for more renewable sources of fuels is apparent to all. What isn’t always obvious to the general public, however, is that we also need to look for renewable and sustainable sources of the basic chemicals used to manufacture not only these fuels, but all the of the fine chemicals in production today.

This article on the Chemistry World website describes a new chemical reaction which converts the waste glycerol from making biodiesel into methanol – one of the starting materials required to synthesise biodiesel in the first place. In the production of biodiesel, naturally-sourced oils are broken down via transesterification of methanol into glycerol, which then requires refining.

Researchers at the University of Cardiff found that, using magnesium oxide, they were able to reduce the glycerol back to methanol, effectively “closing the sustainability loop” on this process. The work is still in its very early stages, being published in Nature Chemistry only today, but it’s a very exciting and unexpected development in this area, and could really set the stage for a truly renewable process for the production of a biofuel.

Methanol isn’t only used for the production of fuels, and there’s the possibility that this process, or one similar, could lead to the production of other highly sought after chemicals being made more sustainable in the future. There is still a lot of development left to do on this reaction, but it is certainly intriguing, and worth keeping an eye on!


Lego of the Chemistry World – The Story of Nano Machinery

Nanoscience has been an up and coming area of research for quite some time, and research groups have been developing various components which they hope to combine to make molecular machines. This article on the Nature News website describes how this area is finally coming of age, and the machine parts are being put into action.

It’s a very complicated area of chemistry, with molecules having to be precisely designed so that they can work together to produce a macroscopic effect. The simplest, and possibly most effective, applications will involve using these machines as switches for such important applications as drug delivery. Many of these switches have been developed over the years, many of which build on the axle-ring design of the rotaxane, first developed by Fraser Stoddart in the early 90s.

Research has continued to develop since then, with molecular motors and even molecules which are able to walk being synthesised. The sky appears to be the limit, and now chemists are on the cusp of proving to the world that these nano-machines can and will be useful.


Should graduate students be required to reproduce research?

We’ve all had the problem arise where you try to repeat work that has been published in the literature just to find that it seemingly isn’t reproducible. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of tweaking the prep a little to make it suit you better, but others, no matter what you do, just can’t be repeated. What is there to be done about this?

Well, in the field of psychology, they are currently undergoing what they call a ‘irreproducibility crisis’, whereby confidence in the field is being lost by the findings of many studies being unable to be repeated. This article, published on the Nature website, highlights suggestions by experts which suggest that PhD students should be required to reproduce work from the literature before being allowed to graduate.

It’s certainly an interesting prospect. Although the article focuses on the field of psychology, it does bring about the idea of requiring chemistry and related PhD students to successfully repeat a published synthetic procedure or analytical study before they are deemed competent enough to be able to graduate.

In a way, I can see the merit in this idea. If a reliable set of published work can be found, it could be a useful way of testing a chemist’s practical ability before they’re able to gain their PhD and go out into the world of research. However, how can we be sure that the problem of irreproducibility may be down to an unskilled researcher, and not just the unreliable work that has found its way into the literature?

Furthermore, comments in the article suggest that the task of reproducing work should go to more senior researchers who have the expertise to carry out research with a higher level of skill, and who have the experience and background knowledge to know why it may not be working. Also, experts are wary that forcing students to carry out this work will make it appear as “grunt work” and just be taking advantage of the cheap labour offered by graduate students.

There is also a suggestion that reproducibility work should be more widely published, so as to encourage researchers to carry it out, and should be more highly regarded on CVs and by hiring committees. If this was the case, perhaps it would pave the way for researchers to “clean up the literature“.

This is definitely an interesting topic, and one which will certainly divide opinion. What do you think? Have you had experience with poor reproducibility in the literature?


The Post Doc Problem

Anyone working in science at the moment will know that the academic career ladder is becoming increasingly difficult to climb, as positions become fewer and the pressure for results gets more intense. The number of students undertaking PhDs is growing, but postdoc positions are increasingly insecure and are more often than not leading to careers outside of academia through no other reason than the lack of opportunity to move up. Without landing yourself top world-leading publications, you simply can’t get that lecturing position or assistant professorship, and researchers are finding themselves trapped in permanent postdoc positions.

This article, published in Nature, explores this problem, and what may be done to help postdoc researchers and reward them for their hard work and level of expertise.

It certainly makes for concerning reading. Scientists around the world are finding themselves driven out of academia because their career prospects, salaries and job security are being squeezed until they simply can’t take it any longer. PIs are being forced to rely on a large number of low-paid trainees and graduate students to get results, as they simply aren’t given the funding to pay for experienced postdocs who would undoubtedly do a better job. Well-trained postdocs with valuable expertise aren’t being rewarded for their hard work.

Many institutions are attempting to battle this by limiting postdoc contract lengths, with the hope that this will encourage career development and progression through the academic profession, but will this really help? Will this simply lower the level of job security available to postdoc workers, forcing them out into other jobs as they seek competitive salaries and security in their working lives?

I have witnessed the drop-out from academia personally throughout my time as a PhD student, and can see the appeal in a better paid, secure career which doesn’t involve constantly scrabbling for external funding and watching the clock tick down to the unavoidable job search at the end of a short-term contract. Many universities want to keep postdocs on in permanent staff positions, but simply cannot provide the funding, and so many talented individuals are being lost, and science and research as a whole are missing out.

One thing we can all agree on is that something needs to happen to prevent us from driving out skilled researchers whose contributions to the scientific community may be lost forever.


Developing world: The minority minority : Nature News & Comment


It’s International Women’s Day, and it only seems apt that we consider the difficulty faced by some women trying to reach success in the physical sciences. It’s widely known around the globe that we have a significant gender gap in academic science which widens as you move up the career ladder, and this article explores how severe this is in developing countries, where women in general often experience higher levels of prejudice than we are used to.  It makes for an interesting read and tells the story of three extraordinary women who have bucked the trend and are standing out at the top of their fields.


200-word papers – game changing or gimmick?

This post from the Nature News website describes the interesting new science publication The Journal of Brief Ideas – which limits its articles to only 200 words.

The sites owners state that they think there is an ‘inherent inefficiency’ in scientific publishing right now, with the minimum material required for publication being considerably large, and ideas often getting forgotten or pushed to one side in favour of more publishable material. They want to appeal to researchers by offering somewhere for them to receive feedback on their research ideas and gain citable publications which they may not have gotten otherwise.

The publications aren’t peer reviewed, as the site says that would be ‘impractical’ – instead, a post-publication voting system is in place, where readers can rate ideas, meaning the best rise to the top and the worst are ignored.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, and I am keen on the idea of scientific ideas being put out into the public domain, rather than being forgotten forever. However, I’m sceptical of how successful such an endeavor can be. With impact factors ruling publication at the moment, many academics are reluctant to publish anywhere other than the top journals, even if only a 200-word brief idea. Researchers are often keen on holding back golden ideas in the hope of one day cracking into a top journal, and will keep the rest of the scientific community in the dark until they eventually publish.

Right now the Journal of Brief Ideas is still in its infancy, and only time will tell if this sort of radical publication will prove popular. It’s worth keeping an eye on!