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.

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There is life after academia…how choosing to leave research is not a failure!

This editorial on the Nature News website discusses how scientists are often judged as ‘failures’ for deciding to leave the traditional research career path – and how this just isn’t so.

It’s becoming more and more common for people with science degrees and PhDs to decide to leave the research world behind to pursue different career paths, some outside the area of science altogether. This is hardly surprising, I know many of my peers who chose to do Chemistry degrees or PhDs without ever planning to have a career in the field, and even for people such as myself who want to pursue a career in the chemical sciences, can be put off by the sheer difficulty of landing that academic role.

While some news stories complain that the sheer volume of PhD graduates and Post Docs around are causing difficulties with getting into academia (and so students having to ‘drop out’ of research into other careers), this editorial suggests that the PhD should be celebrated as the path to a wide variety of livelihoods. Indeed, some organisations are actively advertising this fact as a positive when recruiting PhD students and Post Docs. Here at the University of Nottingham, we have career events with non-academic speakers, and are given the opportunity to take part in several training courses and modules outside of our area of research, so that we’re equipped with a wider range of skills for employment when we graduate. However, this isn’t the case at every institution, and more universities need to make it clear what options are available to graduates once they’ve finished their three or four years of research.

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collin phrases the prospect of a life outside of academia in a very succinct and positive way, simply stating that ‘they are not alternative careers, they are just careers.’ Very well put.

Following on from this, the website also have this great article describes the success of several ex-researchers who have led fulfilling lives in other sectors. It makes for a very interesting read!

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Thinking of Postgraduate Study?

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Following on from my guide to applying for a PhD, I have found a nifty little guide to postgraduate study by Prospects.co.uk, which gives a general overview of postgraduate study, and advertises a few open days you might find appealing.

This blog tends to aim some of its posts towards those who are studying towards a PhD, or those who have already begun a career in chemical research, but this is for you readers who have an interest in chemistry, and may be studying it or something similar at the degree level, and are wondering what to do next.

Postgraduate study can be a confusing and daunting option for some students, and it’s important that you know all the facts so that you can make an informed decision. I don’t necessarily mean PhDs specifically – there is a whole host of postgraduate options a chemistry graduate could take, whether you’re continuing to study science or want to use your skills in another field, such as law or medicine.

I only graduated 2 years ago, and I’m fully aware of how scary your final year at university can be. Suddenly, what you’ve been involved with for 3 or 4 years is coming to an end, and you have big decisions to make about your career and your future.

Postgraduate study can seem appealing because it puts off getting a job and making some decisions for a little bit longer, but this shouldn’t be your reason for carrying on at university. Don’t continue studying because you’ve been rejected from your current job applications and you’re scared you’ll be left with nothing at the end of your degree. Don’t panic. A lot of final year students feel they need to have their graduate job sorted midway through the year, but you really don’t – a lot of people don’t get jobs until around the time they graduate, so try to remain calm, keep at it, and you will get something eventually. If you’re continually turned away from jobs, try talking to your university’s career advice service – they might be able to help you improve your CV and sell yourself at interviews that little bit better.

If you know you want to keep studying because you have a passion for your subject, or you know you need to for your dream career, make sure you use the time you have finding out as much as you can about your options, and don’t make any decisions too quickly. You’re about to commit to something for one to four years, so it’s definitely worth making that extra effort to get yourself on the course that will benefit you the most.

The Prospects magazine linked above is a great start on your route to further education. I suggest you take a look, and see where it takes you!

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A Quick Easy Guide to Applying for a PhD

Are you thinking of doing a PhD? Now is the time to be applying! Choosing to continue your studies in chemistry is a big decision in itself, but once you’ve made your mind up to delve further into research here a whole other set of decisions to be made. As a second year PhD student myself, I’ve gone through the application process, and seen many of my colleagues make a few mistakes along the way that may have been avoided if they’d have had someone to guide them through a little bit more. Here, I hope to give you a quick guide to the process, and hopefully steer you towards the right PhD for you.

1. Chemistry

One of the most important decisions you really need to think about is what area of chemistry you want to study. You’ll be working in this area for at least 3 years and, although it is possible to move into other areas of research afterwards, it will be easier to progress through an academic career if you apply for positions afterwards in a field you already have expertise in. Don’t feel that you have to continue what you did in your Masters – it may be the easiest option, as you already know the chemistry fairly well, but if it doesn’t really interest you, you might tire of it during the next few years. Remember, you’re going to have to do extensive literature reading, presentations, reports and finally a whole thesis on this work, so if you find it boring you’re really going to struggle. Think about what lectures and labs you’ve really enjoyed through your undergraduate years, and what you feel you could talk about with real enthusiasm.

If you feel really unsure about what area you’d like to do, try talking to current lecturers and postgraduate students in your department. They’re a little bit more experienced than you, and might be able to paint a picture of what to expect from a certain topic. You might have gotten the wrong impression of some areas of chemistry, and having a quick chat with someone who works in it every singly day might help you decide. Also, speaking to your personal tutor could help you realise what you excel in already, and what they personally think would be best for you. Whatever you do, don’t rush this decision – it’s very important and needs careful consideration.

2. University

So, now you’ve decided roughly on what area of chemistry you’d like to work in, what next? This tip ties in very closely with the next one, but you need to think very carefully about what university you want to apply to. Although overall university rankings can be swayed easily and don’t always accurately represent the quality of a university, you can view tables judged only on the research quality, such as this one for UK universities, which is the most important area to consider when applying for a PhD. Obviously, this isn’t everything, but it is definitely worth thinking about. A university that is well regarded for its research quality will definitely help you move forward in your career.

Furthermore, as you did in your undergraduate studies, you will have other factors which matter when choosing where to study. Which city you’d like to live in, for example, can make a huge difference. I personally don’t like big cities, but some students thrive in a buzzing city atmosphere. Other points such as the the campus, facilities, support available and accommodation will no doubt come into play, and you have to think about them just as much as you did for your Masters degree.

If you can, try to take a look at the universities you’re considering in person. Some chemistry departments organise tours if you show your interest in studying there, so you can get a good feel for the place and if you’ll like the school.

A PhD is more than just working in the lab, so you might want to find out about what other training and educational activities you’ll have access to, in order to supplement your lab work and bulk out your CV. Furthermore, if you have particular hobbies or interests you’d like to continue at your new university, you might want to take a look on their Students Union website and see what they have to offer. You might even spot new societies or interest groups which you’d like to take up.

3. Supervisor

This is a very important thing to consider, and possibly not for the reason you are thinking. Of course, for some the biggest appeal for some would be to work for a highly successful professor, with high impact papers and a well-established research group which will help you gain recognition and springboard you into your career. If this is what is really important to you, by all means take this route, but be careful. Remember that supervisors such as these will be incredibly busy – they are often heads of school, have to travel a lot, have many commitments, not only in their teaching, and you might find it difficult to see them when you have issues. You might find yourself spending more time with a lab manager or post doc, so bare this in mind. For some, more independence is a good thing, as you get to organise your research  and make decisions about what to do next yourself. For others, you might feel lost and confused about what to do next, especially if your results aren’t quite what you expect. Before applying to anyone, try and think which would be you. If you think you’d appreciate more time and attention from your supervisor, an up and coming researcher with a reasonably new research group may be for you. They’re often hungry for results in order to gain their reputation, and so won’t become indifferent or complacent, like some professors.

If you’re trying to decide between a few supervisors always try to meet them in person. From my own experience and those of many PhD students I’ve met, a good relationship with your supervisor is critical to your mental well-being during your studies and, ultimately, the success of your research. I’ve seen students who severely dislike their supervisor, and it’s made every day a struggle for them, regardless of how well the research was going. You need to think you could easily spend the next few years working with them, and if your personalities clash, it really won’t be easy. I personally suffer from stress very easily, so I needed to know I would get on well with my supervisor, to help me relax and work at my best.

4. Personal Statement

Almost every university will ask you to write a personal statement to support your application, so you might want to start thinking about that. You don’t have to write a novel, just explain why you want to do a PhD and what you hope to use it for in the future. If you want to work in academia or industry, for example, explain why that’s your goal, and how a PhD will help you get there. The key is to be enthusiastic. You might also want to point out some of the modules you did in your undergraduate degree which might be relevant to the work you’d be doing, or go into some detail about lab projects you did which show off your practical skills. Make sure you mention any extra experience you have such as summer lab projects, time in industry, etc. Don’t panic or stress about writing your statement – just be honest, and let yourself shine through.

5. Make Sure It’s What You Want

My final, and most important, piece of advice is to make sure a PhD is what you really want to do. The drop-out rate for PhD students seems to be on the increase, as students realise they don’t have to stick with it if they really don’t want to. PhDs are hard work, and if you’re not sure if it’s for you, you might struggle with it. For example, a girl in my year had already decided 2 months into her PhD that she wanted to quit, and has now moved on to train as a teacher, which she loves. Don’t do a PhD just because it’s the easiest option. Yes, it means you don’t have to try and find a job, and you can just stay at your current university with some of the same friends, and not have to meet new people, but is it what you really want? Do you want to work in the lab every day, doing research that may or may not work? Can you handle the stress of reactions not working that chemically should work perfectly? Can you handle long days, possible weekend work (depending on who you work for) and having to take home with you, particularly towards the end? I’m not trying to put you off here, a lot of people enjoy their PhD, but I think a lot of applicants really need to consider if they’re up to it before they take the plunge.

Also, bear in mind that you may have to keep working after your funding has ran out, to make sure your thesis is complete, so be prepared to spend the next few years saving for those months with no income. A lot of people think a PhD is the financially safer option, which it may seem at first, but months of writing up with no income isn’t ideal!

 

So, that’s it! A quick and easy guide to getting started on the PhD process. My goal wasn’t to scare you or put you off, but I think it really helps to be fully informed before making a big decision like this. Now, you know everything you need to start preparing for your postgraduate life, and I wish you all the luck in the world!

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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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