My PhD Advice, Part 4: Fortune Favours the Brave

Apologies for last week’s blip in this series of posts – the events of the last week have been a little distracting.  Let’s keep going with my pearls of wisdom.  This week’s one is quite general, and the title says it all.  There are several things you need to be brave about – the first is bravery in research itself.

My experience has taught me that boldness is important in your own research.  The more confident you are about your own ability, the more likely you are to explore avenues of research that are high-risk & high-reward.  Quite often, the avenues are a dead end, but every now and then the gamble pays off, and the result is a significant boost to your career.  I took something of a risk quite early on in my PhD, and it paid off pretty well.

It’s quite easy to choose the low-risk options – the easy projects that don’t require too much effort on your part, but the payoff is relatively low.  It’s especially easy in Science, where the low-risk projects result in quick papers that fill out your CV, and improve your chances of getting another position.  But the high-risk projects can have even better pay-offs.  You could find yourself developing a whole new field of science, where you are the world’s foremost expert.  That’s an even better position to be in when you’re looking for a new job.

You shouldn’t just be bold about what projects you choose, but how you communicate your work.  Academia is a marketplace of ideas, “marketplace” being the operative word.  In Science, we attempt to assess ideas objectively based on evidence, whether those ideas are analysed datasets or theoretical constructions.  Ideas which pass the obstacles put in place by the scientific method are given merit according to their ability, and another chip is made at the rock face of cutting edge research.

This is how Science works in principle – in practice, Science is undertaken by humans, and humans respond better to ideas if they are packaged correctly.  Presenting your work confidently and effectively will help your ideas go further, and boost your profile amongst your peers.  Forming and maintaining a network of collaborators and colleagues is probably the most important part of being an academic (and very rewarding in its own right).  Even if you don’t want to stay in academia forever, the business world operates on very similar principles – effective networking is part of any successful career.

OK, so this week’s advice is a bit of a grab-bag, but there is a general message – be as confident as you can be without being arrogant.  Be bold – take risks with your research.  Take on some low-risk stuff to keep your PhD ticking over, but don’t be afraid to try something that could change your field of Science (and your career with it).

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My PhD Advice, Part One – Choose Your PhD Carefully

OK, here begins my pontification about my experiences of the last three years – hopefully it’s of use to you. This is almost too obvious, but the most important part of any PhD is picking it.  You need to be absolutely sure that you even want to do a PhD in the first place.  Ask yourself why you’re doing it – is it three tax-free years? Can’t live without that student discount? Attracted by the laissez-faire academic lifestyle? If these issues are more important than the research itself, then you better think very carefully about doing a PhD at all.

How about the subject matter? Did you really enjoy doing it as an undergraduate? Are you willing to become completely obsessed about the minutiae, create, innovate and invent fundamentally new things and opinions? Perhaps most importantly, will you argue your position coherently and logically when there is no consensus, and stand up to criticism?

And the institute? Is it in a city you think you’d like to live in? Are the facilities good? Will there be a language barrier? Will you have a decent social life when you leave work for the day?

If you do decide to apply, make the most of the interview process.  Be proactive – don’t just sit there quietly.  Talk to as many people as possible: students, postdocs, staff, even the administrators – they’ll be a lifeline in the coming years.  Get an honest account of the PhD experience from current postgrads – it might change your perspective drastically.  The next batch of PhD candidates are visiting my institute over the next few weeks, and I’m looking forward to a good discussion about anything and everything connected to the postgraduate experience.  Remember – academics don’t bite!  Ask us lots of questions, chat to us about your interests.

Of course, these are just my thoughts.  If you’re reading this as a former PhD student, and you think I’ve missed anything else, feel free to comment below!