SIUOXford: Have PhD Students Become ‘Human Pipettes’?

Author: Emil Fristed Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones

What do you want?

Prof. Stephen Caddick’s opening question was answered by silence from the full room, who had gathered to discuss the future of PhD education at the tellingly named event “Have PhD Students Become ‘Human Pipettes’?”, hosted by the Science Innovation Union. Professor Caddick’s question is crucial, because it reframes our discussion as a fundamentally different question. Because if you don’t know what you want out of it, how would you expect to get it?  Prof. Caddick continued with what turned out to be a very personal account:

“If doing a PhD is not special to you, you need to change something. Time is your most precious commodity.”

He recounts his own PhD studies, done at the University of Southampton, which he describes as the best years of his life - having total freedom and working until 2 AM, being surrounded by the most brilliant peer group he will likely ever experience. He tells his story of how he “wasted” his entire PhD, not getting any useful results for the first three years. Some of this time he spent trying to reproduce a bad experiment from the literature - which wasn’t all bad: His failure to do so, eventually led him to co-found Synthetic Pages, a freely available, interactive database of synthetic chemistry. And then, as in the fairy tale no PhD student dare to dream of, during the last three weeks of his experimental work, the tides suddenly shifted, and he got enough data to publish three papers. As great a story as this is, it also highlights the amount of drive and grit PhD students need to have to enjoy their studies. The constancy of failure is something the most imaginative entrepreneurs couldn’t imagine. Stephen highlights that we need to recognise that failure is an important part of anything that happens. How many things that turned out truly great, didn’t at some point look very grim? Returning to his opening question, you need to decide: What are you doing a PhD for?

So what is Caddick’s answer to the ‘exam question’ - have PhD students become ‘human pipettes’? It is a clear “No… unless that’s what you want to do.” In this he tried to highlight the ability of the PhD to give you options. A PhD is an important investment of your time in your future. It’s not just about your PI, CV, and career. It’s not simply about the body of knowledge to which you will contribute. We talk a lot about training. But the PhD is about education. It’s about discovery. And it’s about personal advancement. It’s your most precious time. You’re surrounded by smart people who are likely to be some of the future leaders of society. So a PhD is about you. It’s a personal matter.

You should lead

In another argument, turning common thought on its head, he explained how the PhD can give you the time and context to develop into a leader. You can do this in a number of ways. One is to become an ‘university leader’ (more commonly called a PI). Few other jobs will allow you to be surrounded by brilliant, young people in the same way. For Stephen, himself a group leader at UCL, one of the greatest things about working with PhD students is the constant challenge and influx of new ideas they bring. Another way is to make a transition from academia into entrepreneurship. Starting up a company can be a great way to impact the world. Caddick states that the world is ‘hyper-liquid’. No one knows how to invest in a way that gives good, sustainable returns. Google (as an example) have large amounts of money, and are looking for brilliant new companies to invest in. In this search it is not just about the money; they not only invest in the business plan - they invest in the people; they invest in you. You need to convince them that A) you know what you want to do, and B) that you have the persistence to do it. He argues that these are some of the core skills one can develop during PhD studies. As a PI at UCL, co-founder of several companies, and current Director of Innovation with the Wellcome Trust, these thoughts echo the turbulent path that Stephen himself has taken.

He ends again on a more human note: Don’t make a business just to make money. It’s not the most important thing. It’s to do something where you know you can make a difference. The big problem we face today is sustainability. How do you build a sustainable model that allows you, for example, to make new therapeutics that can be employed by society? Which one of you, who reads this, is going to be the one to make a pharmaceutical company that spends 1.5 billion on developing a drug, and then gives it away but finds another route of monetisation?

The beauty of the PhD is that it gives you time to think, develop, and grow within a peer group that will likely never be matched again. You need to actively engage in how you shape these important years of your life. What do you want out of it?

Stephen’s talk was followed by a panel discussion, where five current PhD students at the University of Oxford, Professor Caddick, and the audience, engaged in a discussion on how to shape the PhD education of the future. The main points of the panel are summarised here:

Robert Oppenheimer

Why are we surprised that science is involves so much failure? Because we are educated with successful experiments (in science classes and textbooks) throughout most of our education. How can we change the way we teach science to better prepare people for the challenges it entails? Let them “ride the bike”, let them work towards a project/thesis/experiment on a question that has been bothering them for a while. Let them experience the failure, and the triumph when they succeed.

Nesrine Ramadan

We need to recognise that women in science (women of family-starting age in particular) face difficulties which can affect their careers; they are less preferred for senior positions and face more challenges in entrepreneurial ventures. Despite there being STEM programs that empower women, there is still much to be done. Platforms that address these women/female PhD student issues can help them to better anticipate challenges and can motivate them to be more verbal about their difficulties in the scientific sector. We must address the current limitations that sometimes prevent women’s career evolution to leading and senior positions. By creating and encouraging “double programs” such as a combined Phd-MBA, women can gain more confidence in leadership and entrepreneurial skills alongside their scientific training, which will no doubt foster innovation.

Dr Martine Abboud

Being a brilliant academic doesn’t necessarily mean being a great manager. Early career researchers/first-time supervisors, appointed on the basis of merit, might not be ideally prepared for the mentorship/management role that the job also entails. Similarly to industry, personal development is key in supervision of students; PIs should be encouraged to to go through team management trainings, to better provide personalised supervision to enable their students to thrive better.

Archna Shah

Scientists need to be trained on how to write grant applications and how to manage money, especially in the transition from PhD student and postdoc (mainly individual/knowledge-based job) to PI (management-oriented, with demands on the ability to write grants). Have management and finance courses for PhDs. Have internships at companies as part of your degree.

Teodora Trendafilova

The point of science is to innovate. This can happen in academia (allows for risks), in industry (allows for high-throughput), and start-ups (allows for enthusiasm and risk). Transitioning from academia to industry is too difficult, mainly due to the perception of academics in industry (thought to lack skills acquired through working). Rebrand PhD education so it meshes better with high-ranking positions in industry: PhDs are innovators - professors, founders, industry executives, the future of science.

The panel set the scene for a lively discussion throughout the rest of the night. The night ended with networking over wine and light food.