To Dr or not to Dr: the post-PhD conundrum

Doctor PhD is not Doctor MD

Part of the triumph of finishing a PhD, beyond the well-deserved rest and graduating with a poofy hat, is legitimately being able to put ‘Dr’ in front of your name. Of course anyone at any stage can just click the ‘Dr’ option when filling out a form but it is more fun when you know that it was earned. And yet there are times when it probably shouldn’t be used.

Having a title of Dr as a female can be useful. It’s surprising how much attitudes change once people, particularly salespeople, realise your pay packet might be larger than their pre-conceived stereotype.

It’s also a great comeback to the oft-asked question “Is that Miss, Mrs or Ms?” I got this repeatedly when disconnecting/ reconnecting the utilities after moving house for my first post doc position. Top customer service tip: always presume Ms. It’s just polite.

But since they asked, I took enormous pleasure in replying “Actually, that’s Doctor.”

Such enjoyment carried through to my first overseas conference as a post doc. There was no way I could resist booking flights as Dr M. This was particularly rewarding when busting the flight attendant’s own pre-conceived stereotype.

Flight attendant, looking at the random old guy next to me: Doctor M?

Me, looking at the gluten-free meal she was bringing: That’s me.

Flight attendant, frowning, looking at the guy, back at her list, back at the guy: Doctor M?

Me, looking amused and vaguely triumphant: That would be me.

On the return flight, the attendant had a different attitude.

New & Improved flight attendant: Dr M?

Me: Yep.

N & I flight attendant: Excellent! I know who to call in an emergency.

Me: Um, actually it’s a PhD doctor.

Rapidly-Downgraded flight attendant: Oh, so not a real doctor.

Being confused with a medical doctor is hazard for PhD doctors. How do you explain to someone in an emergency that no actually you’re just not that kind of doctor?

It is for this reason that I don’t use Dr for any situation that may require a medical doctor. Particularly, for example, the half marathon I ran a couple of years back. In this instance there needed to be no mistaking my lack of medical knowledge. Most likely it would be me having the heart attack half way through while onlookers made encouraging comments like “it’s ok, she’s a doctor.”

This is also why I no longer run half marathons. Just to be absolutely certain that I’m not confused with a medical doctor. You can never be too careful.

Once the Dr title has been earned there is nothing wrong with using it wherever and whenever possible because at some stage it will no longer be a novelty. Nowadays, more often than not, I go by Ms M not Dr M.

But it’s still good to know that at some stage, if it was ever needed, I can pull out that trump card and insist on being called Dr.

Life learnings beyond a PhD

paper towel

Refilling the paper towel dispenser. Nailed it!

Q. How many researchers does it take to fill an empty paper towel dispenser?

A. None. Purely because we don’t know how and are too embarrassed to ask. Elucidating the chemical structures of unknown compounds? Too easy. Elucidating the workings of a paper towel dispenser? That’s just crazy-hard.

The PhD has taught me a range of skills beyond research but sometimes I think I missed out on some essential learnings.

In the PhD days I joined a speaker program promoting the benefits of learning maths to high school students. Great for logical thinking I would say. And logical thinking Is great for solving problems.

I firmly believed that until the day I tried to use logic to find eggs in Woolworths supermarket. Near the fresh produce? Or the baking aisle? Um….breakfast cereals? No, I found them next to sauces. Obviously.

Which is when I realised that life functions in a realm beyond logic, sometimes entering into the world of black magic. This is clearly the case with any administrative task. After getting some samples were analysed externally, I tried to fill out the forms using logic instead of chicken bones and failed.

Me: So, I don’t need to fill out a good received form, right? On account of there being no actual goods received?

Chicken bones: Yeah you do.

On another occasion one of the forms called for a ‘Brief description of goods.’

Me: Um…Acetonitrile?

Chicken bones: Nope. Catalogue number. Obviously.

See? Voodoo.

I tried to use a stapler the other day. These staplers haven’t work since the administrative assistant left a couple of years back but I thought I might give it a go. Of course it got stuck. I spent the next half hour trying to prise it open again.

By comparison, HPLCs are not a problem. I can easily to pull one apart and put back together. Other mechanical devices are also fine. One time I even built a fully functioning rotary evaporator from spare parts found around the lab. But staplers are just something else.

There have been some small triumphs. The printer has gotten stuck so often that now, with the help of the large diagrams and step by step guides, I can confidently retrieve a jammed piece of paper. The dishwasher is also no longer a minefield of indecipherable buttons and dials thanks to the guidance of knowledgeable tech experts.

The PhD has taught me much but there is still so much to learn. Fortunately, the real world has many amazing people – admin masters, tech experts and lab specialists to name but a few – from whom I can learn new and useful skills.

In time, with patient tuition and the development of standard operating procedures that contain detailed diagrams, I may just be able to master the paper towel dispenser. Maybe.

Science communications starts with understanding the language

Scientific theories are not the same as conspiracy theories

Communication between American, Australian and English people can be difficult. Like when I ordered a lemon squash in England and was given some sort of dishwater containing fluorescent yellow dye. Or the reactions of hostel roommates in the USA when I spoke of the benefits of wearing a thong in the shower. Turns out I meant flip flops.

These differences are frustrating and occasionally hilarious but the confusion of science English and English English has more serious ramifications.

‘Theory’ is a big one. Einstein’s theory of relativity is not actually on par with Joe Bloggs’ theory about how aliens have invaded Earth and are masquerading as our leaders. Although, based on how our leaders behave, Mr. Bloggs may have a point but it is yet to be demonstrated mathematically.

Scientific theory needs to be taken a bit more seriously than conspiracy theories on the grounds that they have been proven to occur in every case that has been tested. That’s pretty convincing. It’s also pretty confusing. We really need a different name for ‘Theory’ so it better resembles its significance.

‘Hypothesis’ refers to a testable idea and not at all a gut feeling or hunch as it seems to suggest. More confusing terms can be found here.

When it comes to communication, clarity is everything. If I order chips, I may receive hot chips or packet chips depending on where I am in the world. Science communication also needs to factor in perception and use unambiguous terminology. Which may mean that it’s time to find some new words.

Making abstracts less abstract

Abstracts are Mini-Me research papers

The abstract is the most important part of any research paper. Ok, yes, the data is also important. As is the experimental design. And the interpretation of results. And conclusions. But in terms of people reading, understanding and citing your research, it is the abstract that needs to be first rate. This is worth spending time on because, in reality, it will be the only part of the paper that most people ever read.

The abstract is meant to be a Mini-Me version of the entire paper. The story of the data should be presented there in all its 150 word glory, enticing readers to delve into the 10,000 word masterpiece that is the full paper. This is certainly not an easy thing to do and I do not at all claim to be a master of the art. Many of my papers, particularly back in the early days, have glossed of the abstract as an annoying and unnecessary add-on to the paper. It’s only now that I have read many hundreds of research papers that I see the value of the abstract.

Here are some points to consider for writing a clear and concise abstract.

What’s the problem?

We as readers need to know why we should care about the data. This is like your 15-second elevator pitch for the project. An opening sentence that states what you’re working on, why it’s important, and what problem this project tried to solve.

What strategy was used to tackle the problem?

The experimental design is critical to the project. Anything that happens downstream of that can be rendered irrelevant if there are not sufficient controls or sample replicates. This is also where peer-reviewers will be most critical and a great deal of details should be included in the paper. The paper, not the abstract. The abstract only needs a sentence naming the methods used and the samples analysed.

What happened?

Really make the findings and novelty of the work stand out. If the title of the paper was “Effect of something on something else”, include that effect in the results. Did it increase the concentration of something? Decrease it? Cause a side reaction? Readers probably don’t already know what effect was expected.

Draw a conclusion

This is the part that is infuriatingly-often excluded from abstracts and yet this is the key to making people understand your data. What do your results mean in the context of the original problem? A concluding statement goes a long way to generating citations. The conclusion also makes for a strong title. Consider something like “A causes B” rather than “the effect of A on B”. Much catchier and again helps readers understand your findings.

The best test of the abstract is to get someone outside the group to read it and tell you what it’s about. It’s amazing how something that makes so much sense when you’re so close to the data can make absolutely no sense to someone not too far removed. All this may seem so unnecessary when the great big paper is finally written, but it is certainly worth the effort.

Funding science through sport

The Socceroos are not making nearly enough money. And neither is research.

It has been said that it’s a shame research doesn’t draw the same financial interest as spectator sports since it gives so much more to communities in the longer term. But maybe research can rely on sport for funding.

Spectator sports know how to draw the crowds. A clear conflict, clear rules and a clear winner. Not to mention the inherent comradery of team supporters. It unites people. It moves people. And so many people are willing to spend their hard-earned cash in exchange for a couple of hours of entertainment.

Research, on the other hand, is not a spectator sport. At least not when things are running smoothly. Can sport be a way of funding research?

Different research teams around the world are so often competing against each other to achieve a Greater Goal – a new vaccine for malaria, a low fat cheese that actually tastes good, and so many more. Is it therefore an oversight that SportsBet have no tally for these groups? To be fair, this is hardly a quick flutter for punters. Any winnings may only be paid out in retirement. Or bequeathed to their grandkids.

Many research teams in the same country are also vying the same meagre pool of research funds. Betting on which of the massive number of applications will actually go ahead will provide a better chance of collecting winnings in the same lifetime. Of course the odds of winning are only slightly better than the lottery in some cases and with potentially less payout.

This still doesn’t address the issue of science not being a spectator sport. Unless it is an episode of Mythbusters where Big Things Are Blown Up in spectacular fashion for the good of science. Or one of those science shows where the genius presenter can only possibly explain that particular phenomenon by travelling to Madagascar. And Brazil. After a quick stint in Canada. Brian Cox has this gig nailed.

This still lacks the necessary team factor to move and unite an audience. So we need another strategy.

How about funnelling some of the millions of dollars spent on sports players each year into a research fund? A new fund that could provide ongoing support for important research that doesn’t inspire donation drives, like the increasingly desperate need for new antibiotics. It need only be a small percent of the team salaries to produce a decent-sized pool of funding because, despite what the Socceroos have been saying this week, players get paid very well compared to the rest of us.

Research is for the benefit of people and funding largely comes from passively from tax dollars. Linking research to sport provides a more consistent, reliable and active* contribution to research funding. It may even give people more awareness of the great research that being carried out for their benefit.

*See what I did there?