Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Pros and Cons of doing a PhD - Part II

Check out Part I of this post (if you haven't already!). 

Although much emphasis is placed on the technical training during a PhD: how to run an experiment and all the techniques that may be useful in assessing a hypothesis, the real benefit of a PhD is in the softer skills that one acquires during the training. Although having a strong technical skill set is crucial to be able to execute good (and publishable) science, anyone who has run hundreds of PCR reactions or spent hours buried in a tissue
Photo credit: Unhappy big gorilla eating
 via photopin (license)
culture hood knows that a trained monkey can go through many of the physical motions of carrying out an experiment. We are more than trained primates (no offense to our fellow hominids)! Firstly, to construct a hypothesis (a scientific statement or question that we aim to answer or conclude using experimentation), we need to know what to ask. For this, we need to learn how to research - how to find out what has been done previously and identify the gaps in the scientific knowledge so we can answer them. The vast majority of this is done by reading the scientific literature - which is often hundreds if not thousands of scientific articles and not one paper will answer all of your questions or provide you with your own question to solve. We learn how to best digest all of this information to identify the gaps and formulate a question. This involves processing a lot of information and drawing relevant ideas and conclusions from them (much like analysts do!).

 Once we have a research question, we can then can then identify how best to answer that question. There are a myriad of factors to consider and nearly 100% of the time you are unable to answer your question directly. Our current technology does not allow us to be able to and we may never be able to. Think about a simple question: why is this pen blue? To be able to answer that question you need to understand some assumptions you make: is this pen really blue? What constitutes as “blue” and then to the actual mechanism – what
Do you see a blue or gold dress?
Originally posted to Tumblr by Caitlin McNeill
makes this pen blue? We can hypothesize that it is due to the dye, perhaps from the leaves of a plant, that is giving that colour, but then how is that happening? What is it in the dye that is causing our eyes to see blue? Luckily, we safely know the answer to the question. There are photoreceptors in our eyes that detect colour wavelengths and this information is relayed to our brain that interprets “blue”. But do we know what is blue? Some people perceive colours differently (as brilliantly demonstrated by “the dress” controversy!), so what causes people to observe different colours? Now our answer is not quite so simple and involves neuroscience and physics! Now imagine trying to ask questions in areas where we don’t have as much background knowledge and need to make many more assumptions!

In addition, science is often answered by negatives. That is, you judge an effect by what it may NOT do and well as what it does. When we make a hypothesis, we try to assault it from all corners to try and identify the bigger picture of what is happening and whether we have assumed correctly. Often, we are wrong and our experiments present contradictory and confusing results! So we refine our idea, tweak it so it fits this new data and start the process again, pushing in this new direction, identifying what we have assumed correctly and changing aspects that we have assumed incorrectly. Science is in constant and dynamic flux. It is a chaotic battle between what we do know and the limitations of how we have asked our question and new technologies and ideas that question and remodel our research hypothesis.

This can be extremely exhilarating (albeit also incredibly frustrating) and knowing that you are effectively doing something that no-one has done before and contributing to human knowledge and the betterment of mankind is what drives many scientists. We walk on the moon on a daily basis and endure all of the failures and successes that come with setting forth in unknown worlds.

Although I have managed to write more about negatives than positives, I truly believe that doing a PhD was the right thing for me. I have learnt valuable skills such as the ability to analyse data and the world around me, to manage my own projects and lead people. It has given me the chance to do research and potentially contribute important information on how an aspect of the world works. It was the right choice for me – but only you can decide if it is the right choice for you. If you have read this article and cringed at the negatives but haven’t been excited by the positives, it may not be the right thing for you. I hope I haven’t sugar-coated it: Research and Science is hard. It is likely to be the hardest thing you do in your life. It becomes your baby - which is very difficult if you have your own babies and/or life outside research! It is truly a rollercoaster ride capable of many horrible downs and some incredible highs. The ride each person takes will be different – and not everyone should be riding it!

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