I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. ? During my final-year project I spent a few hours each day in a lab full of busy yet generally calm postgraduates who made doing a PhD look like a relatively straightforward task. Although they often appeared puzzled and quite stressed, they seemed to overcome their problems without much difficulty in the end. Now, however, I am in the final year of my own doctorate, and I realise how ill prepared I was for this fascinating, but strenuous, experience.
The truth is that I never asked those postgrads, "How is life as a doctoral student?" And the question, "What are the advantages and disadvantages of research training?" was one that I also should have addressed more directly to careers advisors, who didn't bring it up in our endless discussions about doing a PhD. Instead they were more focused on giving me advice on how to write my CV and covering letters to potential supervisors.
The truth is that most of us start our training as PhD students with the hope that we will make an important discovery. However as time passes and experience is gained, all we dare to hope for is some decent results to put in our theses! So while it is normal for a new graduate to be full of drive and enthusiasm, I'd advise anyone considering a PhD to make sure that they keep their feet firmly on the ground.
The most important factor in the life of a postgraduate student is your relationship with your group leader, many of whom appear to be unable to strike a balance between inadequate and over-controlling supervision. There are some postgraduates who feel that they are being 'spoon fed' by their supervisors. One friend told me, "Although I have some interesting ideas about my project, I cannot put them into action because I have to do exactly what my supervisor tells me to do."
However, the majority of students complain that their supervisor has no time for them. Comments such as "I haven't seen my supervisor for ages" and "My supervisor is interested in my research only when I present him with results, and not with technical difficulties" are very common.
PhD students from around the country that I've met at scientific meetings agreed with me that we would like to meet with our supervisors every 2 weeks throughout our doctoral training, and not only in the first year. However, it seems that the busy schedules of academic supervisors make it difficult for them to maintain a good professional relationship with their students. Usually, because supervisors have busy schedules, it is expected that they are the ones who set dates for meetings with their students. However, students should not feel inhibited from taking the initiative if they feel they need to speak with their supervisor, and this approach is strongly recommended in the guidelines for research students and supervisors given by most universities around the UK.
Of course sometimes there are added complications. A colleague has found that supervisors who are clinicians find it harder to cope with the demands of a research trainee, and not only because of time pressure. "My supervisor is a clinician and although he has every intention of helping me, he can't really, because he is not experienced in research," he explained.
To the average PhD student, then, the need for supervisor training courses organised by all universities is more than obvious. These should help academic and clinical supervisors manage their time, mentor, and properly support their students. Another effective measure that could be taken at a university level is that postgraduate departments should impose a limit on the number of students supervised by an individual lecturer, especially when the latter has increased teaching and administrative duties.
For the PhD student, choosing a supervisor can be a risky business as it is very difficult to assess someone's organisational ability and interpersonal skills in the course of a brief interview. However, the potential postgraduate student should be cautious when the supervisor emphasises how important it is to work independently, and checking with the other students and staff how much they interact with their group leader is surely a good idea.
At the end of the day, though, it is students themselves who must overcome the common obstacles of research training, such as experiments that refuse to cooperate, communicating with all sorts of people, and learning to present and justify our research in public. It seems like hard work and it is a long and demanding process. But a good working environment with the right supervision can lead to a much more productive and less stressful PhD and a much more fruitful cooperation between research groups.
And despite the fact that a doctoral degree is not easy, there are many benefits, apart from the title, that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. You learn to be independent in pursuing research, you become more responsible for your own actions, and you develop the ability to cope with difficulties more efficiently and quickly. What is more, completing a PhD builds character! I have heard many PhDs who, having made it, say that they feel more mature, patient, strong minded, and more aware of their inner selves!
Nonetheless, it is also easy to expect a lot after working so hard for 3 to 4 years, and postdocs should be warned not to expect 'the world at their feet' at the end of it all. The starting salary for postdocs in the UK is around £17,000.
So we shouldn't choose to be doctoral scientists for the money or the social status. Vincent McDonald, an immunology senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, agrees: "I certainly did not choose my job for the money. I enjoy the freedom of carrying out research, the pleasant surprise of new findings." And Mona Elliot, a gastroenterology nonclinical lecturer at the same institution, adds: "It is the creativeness and the freedom of trying out your own ideas, it is the challenge that keeps you going, the thought that you offer a minor contribution to society and the well being of people." And Mona continues, "After saying all that, I would like to ask potential PhD students, why do you really want to do it?"
If you are among the hundreds of scientists thinking of undertaking a PhD in the UK this year and are not sure about the answer to this question, it would be better to think about it very carefully. Question postgraduate students in different years of their research--as well as careers advisors--so that you can gather and consider as many useful opinions as possible. And once you are determined to go ahead with it, do it. It is certainly a mental journey, full of surprises!