Tuesday, 23 July 2013

What can a science PhD do?

Polish version of this post soon to be done. I’m exhausted.

In time of worldwide crisis, an increasing amount of people turns to PhD studies. Some do it for practical reasons: work is hard to find, PhDs get some money - little but still; pretty much everybody has a MSc right now, so PhD is at least some distinction. Others want to derive sheer intellectual satisfaction from it, and there are also some noble souls fired up with Science. There is a caveat however. From what I’ve heard, some employers think that PhD studies are just another step in education; what I mean is: they think that PhD studies consist of slacking, drinking, having social life, and developing their intellectual potential, ie. not working. This is not true. While we can certainly include some of these in a doctorate student life, a typical day of a molecular biology PhD candidate consists of pipetting, drinking coffee and performing a lot of routine, long and demanding experiments that fail 90% of the time. Until they start to work. Then you analyze data and move to another one, that is still not working.

Because not all employers read “PhD comics”, for their convenience I will give an exemplary short list of skills that a life science graduate must develop in order to survive.

- focus and attention to detail. An example: try to pipette a reaction mix into 96-well plate while listening to the sound of impact drills on another side of the building.

- fortitude: run an experiment that demands moving your equipment three times across the institute and ends up in the cold room for an hour. Sustain yourself with candy bars and coffee when there’s no time for lunch. Tame a mouse and let it pee all over your lab coat.

- physical strength: take a rotor out of an old Sorvall centrifuge. Bring 10L distilled water containers from another lab, because your distillation machine is broken. Force down the lid of the old centrifuge with your knees and some pressure in the right points in order to close it.

- courage: work with concentrated acids under a hood that has 30 square centimeters free (there are bottles everywhere else). Work with carcinogens under a hood that is broken (not in my lab, fortunately…). Explain to a supervisor that the experiment didn’t work for the third time.

- resourcefulness: ordered reagents did not come in time, a new law requires an environmental control before you can import an antibody, your control mice fell victim to a random disease in the animal house and the equipment broke with a bang, while you were just looking at it. Borrow the reagents, force all documents through the environmental control by going around the city in buses and taxis, find other control mice, find similar, though older equipment, still do the experiment. Mark on your “to do” list pestering the officials until they get bored with you and change the law back.

- solving puzzles: This equipment is new, and everybody using it has no more knowledge that you do. The software has gazillion buttons, and you need to setup a custom experiment in half an hour, and hurry, because others are waiting too. Hey, this is actually exciting! Still you have to figure out why this experiment isn’t working.

- humility: this experiment did not work for the fifth time. The mouse has peed all over your lab coat and bit your finger. You have to clean the centrifuge because the probes broke and stinky bacterial culture medium spilled out. Sure you’re smart, but that guy from Harvard was ahead of you since he was born, because America. You were late five minutes the day everybody subscribed to the confocal microscope. The construction worker came earlier to the lab and dropped wet plaster on your lab shoes and the centrifuge. Just live with it. Yes, you’re really smart, but remember to clean that centrifuge.

- sense of humor: self-explanatory.

- analyze data: this experiment looks too ugly to ever show it in public, but it finally works! Let’s repeat and pursue this line of thinking to see what happens.

- presenting data and socializing: put a poster together, make a presentation, rehearse a talk. Then go to a conference, answer some uncomfortable questions and eat up all the macaroni cookies!

- writing up large reports: never forget that we eventually have to write that thesis. And some papers too.

- cooperation: borrowing and lending reagents that cost approximately 1000 euro per vial. Planning and putting together a publication (in a scientific paper, usually not all experiments are done by the same person). Exchanging protocols. Exchanging equipment. Exchanging bad puns about molecular biology.* Hey, the times of XIX century solitary geniuses are long over. Nowadays it’s teamwork.

As you can see, a PhD can fill a variety of jobs, from a cleaner and a porter, to a marketing specialist. Soon overabundant science graduates will crowd the job market. They can think and they are always hungry. Please use us; we are useful.

*a polish word for running a gel or a reaction, “puszczać” means also promiscuity in another grammar form. Thus, horrible puns ensue.