To PhD or not to PhD?


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

This is not all. Nature had a dedicated issue on PhDs this week. You can find the thoughtful opinions here and here.

And this is still not all 🙂 There were 7 PhDs in total (including me) who participated. 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 3 female and 4 male bloggers were contacted! Thanks to Nature Staff bloggers to have thought about it 🙂

Well, this si 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?

If we admit that 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 because it defines the place a PhD fellow will have in the lab.

What does it mean to be a student? Well, from what I remember, it is going to class, doing the homeworks, studying for exams and working part-time to pay the tuition fees. For me, it also meant be interested in possible careers and be informed on how to achieve this. That is, what internships I needed to do to learn more on the topics that I was passionate about and learn how 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 doing experiments is expensive, the researcher should be able to write a high-quality grant proposal and obtain a sufficient funding out of it. Also, a researcher should be able to oversee eventual coworkers, be critic and supportive toward their efforts and establish collaborations. Furthermore, the researcher is supposed to go to conferences to present his/her work and to attend 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.

PhD writing

So, what about PhD fellows? Since I am a doctoral candidate – that is, 20 months already, – I participated in an already 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 and I oversee what she does and writes for her thesis. I established a collaboration with a team from the NIH all by myself and a 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 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 convinced that there are many other dynamic, creative, self-motivated and critic PhD fellows around the world even if we are still young and may lack some experience. But I am also convinced that experience comes with practice and rich interactions, so we cannot screw it up. Finally, a PhD has a salary and pays taxes.

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

Images from Flickr (1st licensed under CC-by-NC 2.0; 2nd under CC-by-SA-NC 2.0; 3rd under CC-by-NC-ND 2.0)