Monday, 8 October 2007

Anatomy of a PhD

Most PhD vacancies in the UK come with 3-4 years funding attached; even if you haven't written up your thesis in that time, the research council will stop paying you.

Now the layman might reasonably assume that this structure suggests that the student spends 70-90% of the available time gathering data, and the remainder writing this* up in the form of papers and a thesis. Fourteen months into my lab-based PhD, I'd like to suggest an alternative structure:

Year 1
Month 1
- Learn where stuff in the lab is kept.
-Try to understand the title of your research project.
Month 2-12
- Learn the basic techniques for your research. This may involve having them demonstrated, trying them for yourself, then repeatedly needing reminders of the finer points of which you forget a different one each time you carry out the experiment.
Month 2-8
- Potter
Month 8-12
- Feel like you're starting to get some command of what you're doing. Then learn a whole new bunch of techniques and feel like a newbie again.
- Have an unsettling conversation where someone says to you 'Oh, did nobody tell you that X is done like this...?' Feel a bit peeved/confused/stupid.
- Be told that something is easy/straightforward and then come up with every mistake in the book.

Year 2 Getting down to some serious work. This may involve:
- Generating weird data that prompts every senior/more experienced person you consult to say, "Ooh, that doesn't look good. I don't know what's causing it though."
- Fail to find any helpful advice for your problem in the literature. Know deep down that your bizarre data is ten thousand times more likely a glitch in the experiment than a significant discovery.
- Develop a force field that causes every piece of equipment you want to use to break or malfunction.
- Write 15 drafts of your transfer report (to have your study upgraded from 'MPhil' to 'PhD' status)
- Have serious doubts about (i) your research methods (ii) the validity/importance of your overall study (iii) the purpose of your own existence.
- Discover that coming in on a Saturday is no longer a weird concept.

Year 3 (please, God)
- Finally get some of your experiments going.
- Bid farewell to any residual social life
- Generate that much longed-for data.
- Write up.

So I'd estimate around 6 months of useful data generation in the whole process, and a few marbles lost along the way. I hope the taxpayers are happy.

*Yes, I know 'data' is a plural, but talking about 'these data' sounds a bit unnatural and poncy outside of the context of a research article.

1 comment:

SC said...

For some of us, Saturday is the main working day! I have 4 full Saturdays ( including travelling to Cheltenham and back ) this year!

Hoping it comes together for you.

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