Embracing the permanence of change


Managing change can be the mental equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Image: cleveland.com

The truest of truisms is that everything changes and nothing is certain. Except, of course, for death, taxes and the alignment of grant application deadlines with the busiest times of year.

Change is a permanent state of being in research, where topics can switch direction on the whim of a funding body embracing a new buzzword, and everything that you’ve been working towards for months or years becomes suddenly irrelevant. It’s enough to drive anyone under their lab bench in a foetal position.

Change-management needs to be considered an essential ability of researchers and yet this is one skill that’s not usually part of PhD training. During a PhD, there is one project that continues until completion, regardless of any shifts in research interests. Even when the entire topic disappears, like when a government stopped global warming, the PhDs continued.

And as tough as PhD research is and as many problems that crop during this research, it is nowhere near as psychologically traumatising as shelving all your research just before the project bears fruit.

Shifting project directions on a proverbial pin-head takes a kind of mental dexterity that would make any Cirque-de-Soleil performer jealous. Developing these abilities should be encouraged more during PhDs but probably not to the extent of forcing major change onto students.

With experience and practice in research skills, suddenly changing topics is not only possible but also potentially exciting. But only after the researcher has been coaxed from under their bench. There must be an adjustment phase. Usually involving both chocolate and wine.

Shelved research doesn’t have to die and so there’s no need for an extended period of mourning. With proper labels* and document management, such research can be put into temporary stasis from which it can be reborn. Probably in a new and improved format with a funky new buzzword in the title.

In the meantime, there is opportunity to take on another challenge and a new topic full of exciting problems to tackle. The new collaborations formed and approaches developed may even assist in solving past research problems.

With change comes opportunity and with the right skills and sufficient supplies of chocolate, it can be embraced.

*A hard lesson well learnt!

The great research swap


Transitioning into different research topics is like leaping from Halo to reality. Completely different terrains but some skills are similar. Image credit: forbes.com


Changing research topic is a big challenge in research. A PhD is like being completely absorbed in particular online role-playing game where you know all about the allegiances of other players and the strengths and limitations of your character.

And then after the PhD, it’s expected that you side step from your PhD topic into a completely new topic. Much like launching into a whole new game where you don’t know the landscape nor what you have to work with to navigate the terrain. The whole process is disorientating and yet it’s absolutely essential.

Conquering a new world can be exciting and it’s great for boasting a new post doc’s CV. But organisational restructures can also leave experienced researchers with years of research suddenly shelved and a directive to tackle a whole new topic. This is where those that are most flexible in their research will survive.

Luckily there are some skills that are universal for all research topics.

The most obvious is how to conduct research. No matter what the topic, solid experimental design underpins everything in research. These skills are invaluable and can go anywhere. Much like a foldable bicycle.

Secondly, there are enough processes in research that any self-respecting scientist with OCD can use to cope when faced with a new project. Here’s a summary of some of the processes for conquering the new research topic:

  1. Scour the literature and get up to speed with the field. Definitely check out the latest review papers and follow the papers references there.
  2. Learn methods and practice them til confident of reproducible results.
  3. Design some experiments and get that science happening.
  4. Write up a paper. It’s like putting a flag up and staking your claim on the new topic.

One thing to remember is to keep tabs on the former topic just in case the wind changes and the old topic becomes new again. Writing a review paper is great motivation to keep up with the literature in that field. The additional citations that inevitably follow are just a bonus.

The shift in topic is can be invigorating when it’s planned and can be frightening when it isn’t. Happily, the new world can be conquered in a systematic way and, if successful, the skills of project transitions can be added to the list of transferable skills acquired in research.

Of course playing different online RPGs is sure to help as well.

Dancing science


Dancing is the next level in science communication. Image: nytimes.com

Dancing is not a required skill for studying science. In fact, whole science degrees can be awarded without assessing a single pirouette. And yet recent years have seen a groundswell of people attempting science communication through dance. Can this really be good for science?

Science communication is a growing field with more people talking and writing science than ever before. Explaining complex concepts in short and easy-to-understand formats is an important skill for scientists and some brilliant competitions have been set up, including Fresh Science.

While the idea is to encourage PhD graduates to distil the key messages from their research for a non-expert audience, this can be demoralising for a new PhD graduate. Having years of challenging and detailed research condensed into a three minute presentation is heart breaking.

Can there be another way? Bizarrely, yes. But it’s not necessarily more satisfying.

Instead of explaining your thesis using something practical, like words, there is growing interest in Dance Your Thesis competitions. This takes science communication to the next level. Not only do researchers need writing and speaking skills to do better science, it looks like we’re going to need to be good dancers as well.

I am not a coordinated dancer. Not that I let that stop me, but generally it’s in the public’s best interest to keep such urges behind closed doors. Without any background in formal dance training, I struggle with why anyone would think that dancing a thesis would be a good idea. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with mine. Aside from tap dancing the names of bioactive compounds in Morse code.

And yet the idea is has resonated with people around the world, including Sydney and Munich. Last year’s winner has over 160,000 views on YouTube, which is at least 159,998 views more than my thesis. This idea has merit.

Dancing science may or may not be bringing science to whole new audiences. But it is getting a lot of public interest and it certainly helps scientists think about the bigger picture about what their results mean. And on top of that, it’s a lot of fun.

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.

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.