What is a PhD student?
A PhD is a post-graduate research degree, which is normally done after an undergraduate degree.
PhDs take three to four years of research, with the majority of students writing up and submitting their thesis within a year of completing their lab based research. During your PhD you have complete ownership of your work and you become an expert in your field.
What do you do in your job?
I have spent three years researching artificial photosynthesis, developing a material that will capture as much of the energy in sunlight as possible. This energy will then be used on water molecules to drive a water splitting reaction, forming hydrogen which can be collected and used as a clean fuel. A typical day early on in my PhD involved heading into the office, and spending a large amount of time in the lab, either synthesising or analysing my samples, with lab report write ups happening at the end of the day or over the weekend. Later in my PhD spare time was at a minimum, as lots of data was analysed in order to determine which experiments would be done next. I occasionally have to travel for my PhD, particularly when attending conferences, or meetings with other members of the research team. My PhD was a joint project between UCL and the University of Strathclyde, so there were many trips to Glasgow for meetings. I also attended and presented my work at two conferences in Glasgow and I was lucky enough to present a talk on one of my research papers at the American Chemical Society Spring Meeting in Anaheim, California. This was a fantastic opportunity for me to meet others that work in the same area of research, and discuss face-to-face the problems that we are facing, and how we may be able to overcome them.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
While the technology I am researching is of global importance there is the potential for it to be used within 10 to 20 years, and it is the relatively short time from research to reality that drives my passion for the subject. While there is some repetition and duplication with experimental parameters and techniques, the results can vary from one day to another, and further research must be planned based on these results. It is this dynamic path of research that I am thrilled by. During my PhD I have had research papers published based on work that no one else has done, and I feel that I have contributed something to science. I have also had an area of my research patented by UCL Business, which thrills me as I am now officially an inventor.
What attracted you to becoming a PhD student?
Science has always provided the answers to the questions that I have asked out of sheer curiosity. I am fascinated to find out how things work, and the secrets behind things. I wouldn’t give up my career for anything - I love what I do and no two days are the same. I am always taking in new information and learning new skills, pushing the boundaries of my knowledge. I hope to continue with a research career, whilst also working in science communication in an attempt to ignite sparks of interest and encourage others to follow a career in science.
How did you get in to your job?
I took A-levels in chemistry, mathematics, biology and geography. I went on to study Chemistry at university as I felt that this was a subject that would keep me fascinated, whilst allowing me to improve my numerical, analytical, presentation and report-writing skills, which are transferable to any job in any career. After a year on a graduate scheme working towards becoming an accountant, I took the brave step of returning to University and chose to do a one-year post-graduate MSc, to get a taste of what a research degree would be like, before committing to a minimum of three years for a PhD.
What are the opportunities for career progression?
With a PhD, you can go on to get a postdoctoral position where you continue in research. You may get a lectureship which would allow you to teach, and the further up the career ladder you get, the more people you have working under you and you can have your own research group. Many people decide that academia is not for them, and use their skills in teaching, city trading, or the financial sector. With a PhD in a subject like chemistry, you have so many transferable skills that it can be difficult to decide which path to follow, but you will never be short of options.
What advice would you give for people wishing to enter your career area?
If you are unsure about whether it is for you, go along to an open day and have a chat with current students. If this is not possible, contact the post-graduate admissions tutor or a potential supervisor whose work you are interested in for more information about the department, the other students and staff, and the projects. While you are the one interested in doing the PhD, it is important for them to choose the right person for the job, as they will want you to be happy and working to the best of your potential. It is important to shop around for a PhD that suits you. Many people are content with working on something that is simply a curious phenomenon, whereas I was keen to research something that is highly topical and I could see being used and applied within a couple of decades.