To PhD or not to PhD?


I believe PhD fellows are wrongly thought to be students. I argue that, given our responsibilities, PhDs are early career researchers.

Ok, so here is some quick thought. The other day, I received a nice mail from a Nature Staff member asking me whether I’d like to take part in a blogging initiative they had about PhD. I accepted with great pleasure: this is an excellent opportunity to talk about important things and to reach a huge amount of people. Whether they would agree with what I say or not is secondary. Nobody asked for. To me, the crucial thing was to tell about what people can live through their years as a PhD. My answers are here.

This is not all. Nature has a dedicated issue on PhDs this week.

Living the PhD life

And this is still not all 🙂 There were seven PhDs in total (including me) who participated. (Indeed, I also blog at Nature Blogs, not just here.) You can read their answers below:


Student #1: Richard Alun Williams

Student #2: Paige Brown

Student #3: MuKa

Student #5: Ian Fyfe

Student #6: Tine Janssens

Student #7: Marcel Pawlowski

As you may imagine, I asked about female participation in the answering stuff before handing in. I was happy to read that three female and four male bloggers participated! Thanks to Nature Staff bloggers to have thought about it 🙂

Well, this is still not all 😀 I was wondering about something I didn’t write about since it did seem out of scope for this Q&A session. Indeed, is a PhD really a student?

The words we use to describe the world are the ones that determine how we perceive it, what it is for us. Words are therefore essential, they define how we get into the world and into the interactions with other people. In the lines below, I discuss the meaning of “PhD student”. From my point of view, this is important as it defines the place a PhD fellow has in the lab.

Is a PhD a student?

What does it mean to be a student? From what I remember, it is going to class, doing the homework, studying for exams and working part-time to pay tuition fees. For me, it also meant to be interested in possible careers and be informed on how to achieve this. That is, what internships I needed to learn more on the topics that I was passionate about and to understand what I was doing.

The most difficult thing was to rule out how to rally all I know and make it useful for the given practical question. All this time of constructing oneself, not only at the personal but also at the knowledge level, is for me being a student.

What does it mean to be a researcher? From what I have read and seen, a researcher is capable of defining a scientific question and designing the experiments to test it–that is, creating a research project. Since experiments are expensive, the researcher should be able to write a high-quality grant proposal to obtain sufficient funding. Also, a researcher should be able to oversee eventual coworkers, be critical and supportive toward their efforts and establish collaborations.

Furthermore, the researcher goes to conferences to present his/her work; also, he/she attends workshops to improve his/her expertise on a given topic or acquire a new one. Of course, a researcher is expected to publish results in a nice journal. Additionally, the researcher is a peer-reviewer for some journals and is thus an active member of the scientific community.

Last but not least, if the researcher is a professor or likewise, he/she should demonstrate subsequent pedagogical skills to transmit the knowledge to young science enthusiasts. From a more practical point of view, a researcher has a salary and pays taxes.

So, are PhD students or researchers?

As a doctoral candidate—that is, 20 months already—I participated in an ongoing project and in the paper that came out of it. But I also designed my own research project, namely the one I am currently working on. I have a Master’s student who works on it with me; I oversee what she does and writes for her thesis. I established a collaboration with a team from the NIH all by myself; the first-author paper for me is in preparation out of it.

Several months ago, I initiated a collaborative project involving other PhDs from the Graduate School. I then presented it to the faculty members and wrote the major part of the proposal. One of the professors even suggested that, in the paper, my name had the PI’s place.

I go to conferences and workshops as well and teach bioinformatics tutorials for undergrads.

I am certain that there are many other dynamic, creative, self-motivated and critical PhD fellows around the world; this holds even if we are still young and may lack some experience. But I am also sure that experience comes with practice and rich interactions–so we cannot screw it up. Finally, a PhD fellow receives a salary and pays taxes.

Time for a riddle then: to which profile – the student or the researcher – am I closer to?