Sarah Jose is third-year postgraduate researcher in plant science. Her research focuses on how plants limit water loss by producing a waterproof coating and pores that can close to prevent water from leaving the leaf. She spends a lot of time looking down the microscope at nail varnish impressions of leaves!
Go to lab. Learn new techniques. Network at conferences. Write a thesis of epic proportions. Survive viva. Graduate.
Before starting my PhD, I expected that I would learn new research skills, improve my written and oral communication and leave as a fully-fledged scientist. Along the way there have been so many other fantastic things that add a deeper meaning to my time at Bristol. Here are some of the unexpected benefits of doing a PhD:
Surrounded by great ideas
I had a year away from academia between finishing my Bachelors and beginning my PhD. One of the things I came to miss most was the constant transfer of knowledge that goes on in universities. There’s probably a seminar or research talk underway at Bristol every working hour of the day. While attending every single one isn’t likely to please your supervisor, picking one or two relevant ones each week really enhances your work by broadening your horizons and saves you from becoming too blinkered around your tiny little piece of the research puzzle.
Be a mentor
Sure, I’m still a PhD student, but I’m also a mentor for undergraduates. Most graduate students work with undergrads at some point, either as a teacher, laboratory demonstrator or supervisor of research project students. I absolutely love using the knowledge I have gained to help enthusiastic people work through problems they encounter in my field, explaining difficult concepts with clarity. The students pay you back too, by getting you to think about your work in new ways, which is often a great idea generator.
Spread the word
The fundamental importance of our own research seems obvious to us, but think about it from another perspective. The average taxpayer hasn’t heard of the genes that I am researching, so why should they pay to fund my work? Even if you self-fund your studies, you need to be able to explain the relevance of your work to the broader society. During your PhD you’ll develop your own answer to this question, and come to realise that getting people excited about your research and field of interest will enable you to inspire others and become a leader. I’ve done a lot of different types of public engagement, from Bristol’s Festival of Nature, to blogging, to being questioned about all things food by teenagers, and each one develops a unique skill-set to promote academic research in different ways.
Meet amazing people
Bristol has an international reputation, which is why amazing people are drawn to it. Some of the big names in my field have visited the University either as visiting academics, invited speakers or simply attending conferences, and it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to meet these inspirational scientists. During my time as a Press Gang member for the University’s Cabot Institute I’ve met an entirely different set of influential people and received invaluable insights into the inner workings of science policy. There are a lot of opportunities for PhD students to meet leaders in their field and have in depth discussions about shared interests and ideas. You just have to speak up!
We are all presented with a multitude of amazing opportunities as PhD students. You need to filter out those that matter most to you and grab them with both hands. These experiences are valuable both for career development, but they also enrich your time as a postgraduate and get you thinking more deeply about the world around you.
What have been the unexpected benefits of your PhD? How do you make the most of them?