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Things you should know about doing a PhD in science

May 15, 2012

Chris Chambers over at the blog NeuroChambers has a great post up with some advice about doing a PhD in science. It’s a long post with a long list of tips/advice, but well worth reading in my opinion. First, a reality based statement about getting a PhD:

… a PhD is hard. It’s meant to be hard, not because inflicting pain is necessarily fun, nor because some scientists are ‘dementors’, and not because your PhD is expected to solve the mysteries of the universe. It’s hard because it is an apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster.

I think those words — frustrating, triumphant, and exhausting — are well chosen, but I would also add ‘rewarding’. And doing science after a PhD, regardless of the path of one’s career, is challenging. The endeavor of science is inherently challenging. This is what makes it awesome and useful.

The list of advice in Chris’ post has tons of practical stuff that I would’ve liked to have read when I started graduate school. Here’s one piece of advice that I think is very important:

Don’t expect every experiment to work, and don’t persecute yourself or others if your experiment fails. In short, figure out why, suck it up, and move forward. Nature does not reveal her secrets easily.

Very few research projects turn out exactly as they were conceived. Failures of various degrees of significance are part of the process. Finding out what doesn’t work is finding out something valuable! Over time, I’ve become more accustomed to sometimes stumbling my way through a problem. In some cases, it’s that stumbling that reveals something important. The key is to learn from the things that don’t work.

Discussions about doing a graduate degree in science inevitably lead to commentary on the ills, inequities, and absurdities of academia. And it’s healthy to continue to have that discussion, in an effort to hopefully improve things over time. The fact that I think a post like this is worthwhile information should not be confused with a blanket endorsement of the current state of academia. I simply think that having commentary out there about how things are, in addition to how things should be (or how screwed up things are), is valuable.

Lastly, there are petulant and petty people everywhere. There are nonsensical, even detrimental, processes and bureaucracy in all venues of research. Contrary to what some academics think, academia is not the only place where one has to run through a gauntlet of idiocy impeding your progress. I’ve worked for a mega-corporation and I can assure you it exists there, and I had a taste of doing research in government and, why yes, it’s there as well. Scientists in these various institutions might say ‘But where I am is the most ridiculous and the most broken!’. Okay, fine.

Again, pointing out reality isn’t an endorsement of it. If you’re a grad student, think about the battles you want to expend the effort and time fighting. Some may be important and worthy, others may not be.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2012 5:12 am

    A great post as usual, Brian. The quote about experiments not working (imagine if they all did!) makes me want to remind students that there is no ‘scientific method’ as such. As a student, I think I sometimes got the idea that I was doing it wrong, or didn’t know what I was ‘supposed’ to do. Science is nothing more than justifiable, curiosity-driven insight. Do it your way.

    As for ‘idiocy everywhere’… yes. But there’s genius everywhere too!

  2. May 16, 2012 5:06 am

    @Matt yes, you’re right … I guess I ended the post on a downer, ha … the nonsense and idiocy is there, but the opportunity to do some really cool science and interact with students makes up for it

  3. August 20, 2012 1:08 am

    Hi Brian, this is a very nice post.. thank you for posting it.

    I have been following your blog since I started my degree in Geology. Now I\’m doing my Honours and I\’m faced with many decisions to make… I would love to work in Academia in the future, I love researching and teaching people.

    Mining is by far the biggest opportunity for geologists down here in Australia, I guess I could do more and I want to do more…. I just dont know how. Your post was good to show that academia is like the private sector; it has its screwed up areas and its rewarding side as well.

    Thank you again!


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