PhD training gives you so much more than just a PhD

Daniel thinks he’s just painting a fence but Mr Miyagi is teaching him so much more.

Studying for a PhD in anything makes you an incredible expert with a very narrow field of expertise. Fortunately, like Daniel painting a fence and waxing Mr Miyagi’s car, doing a PhD gives you far more useful skills than just the direct project outcome.

My PhD was in natural products chemistry. This makes me an absolute gun at evaporating solvent from column fractions and dissolving them in the smallest amount of liquid possible. Yet there were so many other useful skills that I learned during my studies that I didn’t really appreciate at the time.

Here are just some of the useful things that can be learned from a PhD.

Writing science

Writing research papers is not a natural way of communicating. The writing style is concise and precise with no wasted words but enough detail to make sense to someone outside your project. No pressure.

The hardest part of writing a paper is being able to convert all the reams of data into a single coherent story. A big part of this comes from knowing what to leave out. You can’t do everything at once which is why Future Research is one of the most important sections of the paper.

Being able to do this well is highly valued amongst researchers and the skills only come from practice writing up your own data.

Working smarter not harder

It is easy to become so completely ensconced in the research that we forget to take a step back and have a broader look at our results.

My attitude was always to plough through work in the hope that one day I’ll get it all done or at least under control. This doesn’t work with research. The harder you run at it, the more work you have to do and the worse you do it.

Time is much better spent in planning at the start and then assessing the data at the end of each section before moving on. This sort of information would have been incredibly useful at the start of my PhD.

Public speaking

After almost having a nervous breakdown before my Honours presentation, I set out to learn all about public speaking and how to do it. Turns out that the more you do, the easier it gets. Teaching in tutorials, labs and eventually lecturing knocked that fear right out of me. Nothing like giving a two hour lecture to make a ten minute conference presentation seem like a piece of cake.

This is an insanely useful skill for researchers. Not only do we need to know how to present our work to our peers, but also to the broader public, who fund our research often through taxes if not donations. Being able to tailor how you describe your research based on the background of your audience is a brilliant skill that well worth practising.

It can take you a lot further than just being good at science.

There are incredible opportunities available during a PhD and these will give you many more useful skills than just the project outcomes. And, ultimately, that is what makes it all worthwhile.

Lab music: Finding the balance between motivation and manslaughter

Research can be inspired by rock music but not always

Should music be allowed in the lab? This quandary has plagued researchers for eons. Humans are renowned for disagreements and music tastes are a great example of how something so simple can end in tears – or worse – if not handled with finesse.

On one hand the upbeat tempo can make mundane tasks infinitely more enjoyable. On the other hand there is the gratingly repetitive commercial radio station playing the same songs every day accompanied by the inane chatter of popular DJs that make even the simplest calculation a chore. Can there be a balance?

Firstly we have to agree to disagree. Musical taste is very personal and rarely changed simply by subjecting someone with sufficient quantities of your favourite songs.* The widespread use of headphones in the lab mitigates the need for musical compromise but it does raise safety concerns. Particularly with the few times that I’ve taken my IPod into the lab.

My particular brand of dancing could be incredibly dangerous in a lab environment that has lots of glassware and hazardous substances. I thought I was able to get away with this dark secret. Yet one Sunday, when busting some pretty awesome moves waiting for the centrifuge to finish, I looked up and realised that I wasn’t the only one working on a weekend. I just hope the footage ever made it to YouTube.

And dance music simply does not help lab with lab tasks. Try as I might, there is no way of accurately weighing out 10 mg of sample to a beat. But I digress.

Secondly we have to admit that if we’re listening to our favourite music on the radio for a whole day, chances are we are the only ones enjoying it. There are exceptions, of course, and who doesn’t love 70s rock or 80s power ballads? Ok, probably a lot of people, but that just highlights how weird some people are.

Everything from death metal to some soppy love songs that are currently flogged to death by radio stations, basically we just need to mix it up. Some days of silence, some days of commercial radio stations and some days of personal IPods. But definitely no dance music. Unless it’s a lab clean-up day or a mutually-agreed-to afternoon of filling tip boxes.

When it comes to playing music in the lab, what we really need is some tolerance, patience, acceptance, and, if all else fails, headphones.


*Surprising, I know. But I can provide reproducible results from my own experiments if required.

Tips for surviving the peer review

The peer review can be one of the most gruelling processes in science. Months of writing, redrafting, coercing your co-authors to actually read the manuscript and then getting them to actually agree on each other’s changes, before finally, somewhat anticlimactically, submitting it to the journal.

After all that you get some unappreciative reviewer slamming your work from behind a veil of anonymity. But this objective criticism is just what science needs. Here are some tips to make the process go a bit more smoothly.

  1. It’s nothing personal

I got my first masterpiece back from the reviewers and it was destroyed like a 5th grade teacher would mark the bad student’s paper. It was demoralizing. I was convinced the reviewers hated me and wanted to see me fail.

But on a re-read I realised that their comments were fair enough. I needed to add a lot more details for a reader to get why I had used those methods. Some mistakes were just an oversight and were impossible to see when I was in the depths of the manuscript re-drafting.

Look upon the peer review as a great opportunity for objective error-spotting. I’d prefer to see these errors picked up in the review stage than in the published paper.

  1. Reviewers are not always right

Early in my publication career I would always believe everything the reviewer said. Everything. They were all-knowing oracles and I was a mere PhD student. If they said something was wrong it was my comparatively inferior knowledge of the literature that made it so.

Of course, more often than not, they were right. But not always. PhD students also know all the latest literature. It’s important to stand by your knowledge. Reviewers are only human after all.

  1. Reviewers are not always wrong

Researchers are great at details and that makes us awesome at flagging errors in someone else’s work. Not necessarily so great at spotting mistakes in our own work.

Before going down the rebuttal road of “Please refer to ‘Thermodynamics for Beginners’ to explain why we did it that way” or “Actually we already explained that in the introduction, Table 2 and half of the discussion”, have another look over the manuscript.

That screamingly obvious point that dominated the discussion may just need to be reworded to explain the point more clearly. Particularly if the journal of interest is multidisciplinary.

One of the great advantages of the peer-review is getting the input of the journal readership before publication.

  1. We’re in this together

Reviewers are donating their time for the support of science. Their opinions are invaluable for making the conclusions hole-proof. Likewise, the researchers submitting the paper may have just missed something in the document that gives the required clarity.  Mutual respect is what makes the peer-review process much less arduous.

There may be many faults with the peer-review system. But it’s still the best process for keeping science honest.

The art of publishing ‘Stuff That Doesn’t Work’

Sneeze-plot correlations are important too

Sneeze-plot correlations are important too

What do you do when your plotted data looks more like a sneeze-splatter than a straight line? Publish it anyway! The current dearth of Stuff That Doesn’t Work in the scientific literature dooms researchers to repeatedly try and fail over and over again. It doesn’t have to be this way. Publishing null results is possible. It just takes a bit of creativity.

The scientific literature is full of papers with the same format: “Based on the current understanding of this topic, we formed a hypothesis, tested it and it worked”.

Anyone deviating from this formula would be shot down by the peer review process. This leaves many a researcher abandoning reams of data just because the magical statistics program didn’t find the expected correlation.

There is nothing wrong with burying a sentence or two in another, related, paper that says “by the way, tried this and it didn’t work”. It has bought me great joy when I’ve happened upon these little gems of knowledge so I am fully supportive of this strategy.

And yet it can be gut-wrenching that, after months of data collection and interpretation, your whole project is condensed into a single sentence just because A did not lead to B after all.

Things not behaving as expected yield amazingly useful data and as such can and should be published as a stand-alone paper. What these sorts of results need is re-wording the story that the data actually tells.

Firstly revisit the knowledge gained from your experiments. Why have the data not produced the expected result? Maybe current knowledge is based only on model systems and your results are from complex real-world samples. Or perhaps you used a new and improved technique that shows something in more detail than has been previously possible.

Then, with that story in mind, it is easy to alter the wording of the project title to give it a more positive spin. So “Does A cause B?” where the response is “Actually no. It doesn’t.” becomes “Investigation of real-world samples using state-of-the-art technology.”

Writing these sorts of papers can be much more difficult than writing the standard “Oh look, it did exactly what we expected” paper but it can still be rewarding. At least then your data can contribute to the current state of knowledge on a topic and that’s really what research is all about.

And if, after months of work, your results aren’t showing what you expected, then undoubtedly you are operating at the cutting edge of science where the literature is insufficient to properly explain the phenomena. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Embracing the scientist stereotype

Being a scientist is cool. It means you know absolutely everything there is to know about anything across all disciplines without having to even glance at the latest literature on the topic. At least that’s according to movies, and movies would never lie.

This ridiculous stereotype is so often regurgitated that non-scientists are starting to think it’s true. But to be able to do their job, a good research scientist needs to be a “T” person. We have a breadth of knowledge sufficient to understand how our research fits into a broader context and the depth of knowledge to advance scientific understanding in our particular field.

Which is exactly why the scientist stereotype doesn’t make sense. Science has been studied in so much detail across so many different topics by some many people for so long that it is rare to find anyone across more than one discipline, let alone a true polymath who knows everything about all disciplines. The last true polymath to make any significant scientific discoveries was maybe Da Vinci.

I understand that a movie audience is supposed to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. It’s just that the story would be a whole lot better if the writers bothered to spend two minutes on Google to discover that measuring the purity of a chemical is not done with a light microscope. (Yes, really. That one still makes me cry a little.)

But if we were to look at a movie as just a story, the scientist character is useful. They enable the writer to explain the goings on at a particular point in the tale or unveil a discovery that leads to a new twist in the story.

Overall it’s the story matters, not the details.

The limitations of budget and script-writing prevent the more accurate depiction of different scientists from different disciplines solving the range of problems required for the movie or TV series.

In terms of the eccentric or socially awkward stereotype, it could be worse. Accountants are always boring personality-vacuums and police must suffer the continual humiliation of having amateur detectives solve their crimes for them.

If a stereotype has to exist for scientists I’m glad it’s one of a knowledge-laden virtual superhero.

But just once I’d really love to see the scientist character roll their eyes at someone and say, “Why are you asking me? I’m an organic chemist. You need to ask a microbiologist. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to rewire your house, why ask a chemist about biological systems?” and then march out of the room. Ah, nerd fantasies.