In my last entry I described how I ended up doing chemistry at University and a couple of the lessons I learned that shaped my attitude to science and my career. Continuing in a similar vein, I carry on writing about myself by moving on to my Ph.D.
When I was younger, I didn’t really have my career planned out and this was still the case as I approached the end of my degree. It wasn’t until about six months before I graduated that I started to seriously consider doing a Ph.D. What persuaded me that three years of hard graft in a chemistry lab would be such a good idea? First of all, I wanted to stay in science rather than enter one of the many graduate schemes that dominate the post-degree employment landscape. Looking at the job opportunities for graduate scientists, nothing appealed to me and I had heard about the glass-ceiling that exists in industry for those without a Ph.D. Plus, after a taster during my undergraduate project, I actually wanted to do research. So, despite the disapproval of my then girlfriend (“Why not get a proper job in the real world?”) I signed up for a Ph.D.
My Masters research project had been with Martyn Poliakoff but despite it giving me my first paper, I chose to work with a new academic at Nottingham, Pete Licence. Pete had worked with Martyn, already made a name for himself in the Green Chemistry community and his research area– ionic liquids- was a rapidly growing and exciting field. As his group was small and the particular topic he offered me was quite broad, I felt that studying with Pete would provide me with plenty of creative freedom. There was a downside. Pete is a huge Welsh rugby fan, and the timing of my Ph.D. seemed to coincide with a period of Welsh dominance over England in the Six Nations.
At the time, ionic liquids were making waves in the Green Chemistry community, although some of the early “green” claims have now been tempered with better understanding of their toxicity and biodegradability. (Pete once quipped that the only thing “green” in his lectures was the colour of his laser pen.) Nonetheless, the field was fast growing and there were plenty of opportunities for me (and Pete) to make academic headway. Also, I wasn’t stuck doing the same experiment every day, which probably kept me sane. This isn’t to say it was all plain sailing- there were tough times and moments when I questioned why I was doing it all. These darker periods seemed to coincide with the traditional second year blues, when it feels that your Ph.D. is going to stretch on forever, and the end of the third year when you realise how little time is left. As it was, I had plenty of results, which sounds great except it meant I took ages in writing a behemoth of a Thesis.
I also saw my Ph.D. as a second chance. Looking at my CV at the start, it was clear I lacked those “extra-curricular” activities that you are told makes you stand out from the crowd. I’d never really rolled up my sleeves and got involved in student societies or played Uni sport. Since I started my Ph.D., I’ve tried to take advantage of the lectures, training courses and networks available. Universities are unique places of learning, but it’s easy to forget that when your head is stuck in a fumehood. It is a privilege to be able to see, for free, Nobel Laureates, politicians, millionaire entrepreneurs and industry leaders talk in your place of work. When sitting in a lecture theatre didn’t appeal, I volunteered to do a few outreach and public engagement activities or learnt kung-fu. I’d advise anyone doing a (science) Ph.D. to avoid becoming a lab rat- you actually have more time than you ever realise (assuming your supervisor is amenable!).
What about after my Ph.D.? Whilst I’d enjoyed most of the work, the project had been pretty fundamental and a long way from any “real” world application. As I came to the end I was more interested in seeing how research can be translated from the lab to make a difference economically, socially or politically. More on this in my future posts.