What do you feel are the most valuable lessons that you are learning through carrying out a PhD?
Organisation and planning skills are probably the most important. It is imperative to make sure that everything is in place, and that you have a plan for how your project will go. As a chemist, you generate a lot of spectra and data, so keeping these organised is really important. The earlier that you can get to grips with this, the better.
I would also say perseverance, and learning how to fail are both quite important. Despite how hard you try, things aren’t always going to work the first time, or ever going to work! Coming to terms with this early on is important, and can save a lot of time and heartache.
My final one is humility. Personally, whenever I attend symposiums and interact with top researchers from around the world, hearing about genius approaches that they have taken towards solving a problem, I always come away feeling humbled. I think realising that you’re not the best at what you do is important, but also realising that you are not an imposter and that your place at the conference is valid - your research is important at any stage of your career.
What has been the most exciting moment of your PhD so far?
I’d say getting my first paper accepted was definitely a highlight. There was a big feeling of validation when a journal said, yes this is good, and we’ll take it. Seeing my name as an author on a published paper was really exciting.
The other highlight of my PhD was my 6-month placement in St. Andrews as part of the CRITICAT Centre for Doctorial Training (CDT). CDTs are a source of PhD funding, where you join a cohort of other PhD students with a common research theme – in my case: catalysis.
What has been the most challenging moment of your PhD so far?
My first paper acceptance was a challenge as well as being a real highlight for me! As soon as it came back from reviewers, I had a very intense few weeks of carrying out revisions. There were a lot of long nights involved in trying to get the revisions through in time.
Also, COVID has obviously been a huge challenge. You have to try and keep busy, and think logically about how you can come up with a new research plan and timeline. There is potential for there to be some issues in having our grants and funding extended, so we’re just trying to plan for every possible outcome and maximise our research efforts as much as we can. This is definitely an on-going challenge.
What are the most difficult challenges that you feel graduate students face?
I would say COVID in general terms for those currently completing a PhD. The biggest thing that I’ve actually noticed is COVID’s implications on mental health and stress for graduate students. Also, due to funding restrictions that have come into place as a result, I think a lot of students feel as though they’re going to miss out on some of the best aspects of their PhD that they would normally be able to take part in, such as in-person conferences, industrial placements, and placements abroad.
Another challenge is around the competition in academia. You always feel that you need to really excel beyond what is expected to have any kind of hope of standing out against the crowd. There’s always someone with more publications than you, so you need to find ways to make the most of any opportunity available to you.
What would be your three top tips for anyone looking to complete a PhD?
I highly recommend looking out for CDT schemes. The CDT systems are scattered across the country, and provide a great opportunity to gain unique skills you might not have otherwise gained. This is also a great opportunity for networking as I mentioned before. You’re able to build up a network of people, both with academics and with other PhD students.
My other tip would be to make sure that you find the right supervisor for you – one who meets both your needs and ambitions. I was fortunate to pick two supervisors that take active roles in my projects and have complimentary skill sets for me to learn from. When looking, be open and honest, and make sure to speak to other members of the research group. Make sure that you’re in a group that you will be comfortable to be with for a number of years. It’s also important to try and obtain skills and knowledge from as many people as you can, as often as you can. Utilise the postdocs in your group. This also feeds into your network.
My final tip would be to try and get involved in as many opportunities as you can to improve your soft skills. This will help you to stand out. For example, I started learning Python over lockdown, partly inspired by Andy Cooper’s robots! Also make sure to get as involved as you can in any outreach programmes, and in organisation committees for conferences etc. Have an active role in writing your own manuscripts, and take any opportunity to see how the academic sides of things work. I’ve been helping my supervisor with grant proposals, learning how those systems work. This is definitely advantageous if you are considering pursuing a career in academia.
You were picked as one of our poster prize winners for the Chemical Science Symposium in 2019. What would you say were your highlights of the symposium?
I rated the symposium so highly in my feedback that a quote of mine was used when the 2020 symposium was advertised!
The whole thing was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Just being at Burlington House was really special. I loved the small scale of the symposium, as the whole thing felt really intimate and it was much easier to get to speak to most of the attendees. I was able chat with lots of people, even including Cathleen Crudden, who is world leading and an inspiration. It was actually my first time in London since I was young, and being in London was great. I was lucky to receive a travel grant from the RSC that allowed me to attend, so overall I just felt really grateful to be there.
The other highlight was to be able to present my poster and give a flash presentation in front of so many world leaders in the field. To be honest, this was probably more terrifying than amazing but I really enjoyed it! To top it all off and be awarded the poster prize as well, that was amazing. My hope had been to get a poster prize at some point during my PhD, although I knew it was unlikely, so I was definitely over the moon with that.
What goal would you set yourself for the next 10 years of your career?
I’m very much inclined to do some postdoc positions. If possible, I’d love to have the opportunity to go abroad and experience research environments in different countries and cultures, but these are highly competitive so we’ll see how that goes. I’m inclined to stay in academia if I can, because I really enjoy teaching. I love seeing the lightbulb moment when you’re explaining a subject to someone and they are able to understand it. The idea of having my own research and advance science with my own ideas is definitely an interesting prospect for me. But we’ll see where things go!
10th anniversary collection
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Chemical Science we are publishing a number of special birthday issues, to recognise and thank members of our community who have been supporting the journal and publishing in Chemical Science since we launched ten years ago.
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