Archive Chris Cole

We need to talk science…

By Chris Cole

Over the past few decades, support for the concept of communicating science and research to the public has exploded. Gone are the days of scientists being largely able to stay locked away in the labs doing their research and having little regard for the world outside. Instead we are now actively encouraged to try and communicate our research when possible and always think on how our research can affect society. For some in academia, this push to share the concept of their work and engage in dialogue with the public is frivolous, but I would argue that given the past decades it’s now more important than ever that we as scientists do not lock ourselves away in labs (however tempting it may be!).

You may ask why I think it’s particularly important? Well, not to flog a dead horse (excuse the macabre expression) but I’d like to briefly visit the MMR vaccine scandal of the late 1990s. No doubt most (or hopefully all) of you reading this will know of the scandalous (and now revoked) paper in The Lancet in 1998, which falsely claimed a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Now, this has already been tackled by countless people far smarter than I, so I will not be ripping this shameful aspect of medical history any further. But why do I bring this up?

Well, simply put we are now seeing a resurgence of measles in the western world thanks to parents, even today, not vaccinating their children. A debilitating disease that should rightfully be eradicated is still afflicting children 20 years on from that paper. Clearly many people have engaged with the public trying to explain why they should obviously vaccinate their children, but even today there are charlatans posing as experts pushing this dangerous misinformation. More and more it seems like there is growing distrust of scientists, doctors and experts by vocal parts of society (e.g. the flat earth society) who, thanks to social media, can spread their ignorance far and wide. So, I ask, isn’t getting a better dialogue going between the scientific community and the public one of the best ways to remedy this?

For examples of organisations and events both here in Newcastle and on a national level who are engaged in getting science out to the public visit:
– Bright club
– Pint of Science
– Soapbox science

Alethea Mountford Archive

Preparing for your first research cruise

By Alethea Mountford

On the 16th November, I travelled from Newcastle to Cambridge, from Cambridge to Brize Norton airport in Oxford, and from there I flew to Mount Pleasant airport in the Falkland Islands. After a few days in Stanley, I boarded the RRS James Clark Ross, and so began my first research cruise (JR17001), travelling south from Stanley with a stop off in Rothera, and back to Stanley towards the end of December (or at least that was the plan). I had little idea what to expect, or what to pack, so in the months and weeks leading up to my departure I spent a long time on the Internet searching for packing lists and other people’s experiences. These are a few things I wish someone had told me before I left, and things that I learned while I was away…

  • Make a packing list and actually stick to it – I made a list, but ended up doing the majority of my packing a couple of nights before I left and realised when it was too late that I had no idea what I had actually packed 

  • Seasickness tablets can make you feel really awful – I took a couple of seasickness tablets when we first started steaming, as I wasn’t sure how I would fare at sea, and I wasn’t prepared for how out of it I would feel because of the tablets. It’s obviously best to take them as a precaution but be prepared for the side effects!  

  • Things will most likely not go to plan, try to be as flexible as you can – bad and unpredictable weather can lead to changes in plans at a moment’s notice leading to changes in timings, direction and science schedules.  

  • Be prepared for every eventuality, particularly when it comes to your journey home – I had anticipated getting back to Newcastle a few days before Christmas, so had a train ticket booked from there to my parent’s a couple of days after I was scheduled to get back. I ended up arriving back to Heathrow on Christmas Eve, so ended up having to book new train tickets back up as I hadn’t taken my train tickets with me.  

  • Speak to as many different people as you can – you never know who you may end up on a cruise with; people from other disciplines may be able to offer a perspective on your work that you hadn’t considered, people from the same discipline may be able to offer advice on your methods or make you aware of new pieces of work.  

  • Take earplugs and an eyemask – depending on if you’re bunking with other people, you may have very different shift patterns (I was working midnight-noon and my cabin mate was working noon-midnight), so getting a decent amount of sleep might be a challenge! 

  • Don’t spend the whole time looking through a camera – of course taking photos is important, particularly if you’re somewhere beautiful, but make sure you spend time in the moment appreciating what’s around you. 

If you want to read more about what me and the rest of my team got up to on JR17001, check out the Drake Passage blog

Archive Emma Kampouraki

Christmas quiz? It reminds me of something!

By Emma Kampouraki

The ICM (Institute of Cellular Medicine) Christmas meeting took place last Monday, 18th December 2017 and was a great success indeed, more than any other Christmas meeting in these three years I have been around. What made it a success? The Christmas quiz of course!!! ICM staff had organised a great quiz for the festive period of Christmas with lots of questions and activities. They included photos of celebrities dressed like Santa, questions about Christmas traditions (some of which I had no clue about), Christmas movies, Christmas songs, an activity with logos and lots of nibbles and mulled wine.

This was the exact time I realised how much this whole quiz experience resembled my experience in science during the PhD. First of all, the idea of taking part in a quiz for some reason creates an unprecedented excitement. It drives you to the point where you try to remember previous quizzes you’ve participated in and predict the questions you’ll have to face in this one. It never works like that – admit it – but there is always a hope. At this very point, it reminds me of something…

And then the next stage comes… Teams formed, seated in circles, starting conspiring and ready to fight! It’s really like a race and the team with the most Christmas fans is meant to win. Slides and projector are sorted, questions start to appear one by one and we all look each other deep in the eyes, trying to guess who knows what. This is when you start having those thoughts that you don’t know anything and you should probably commit suicide for not remembering this and that, which are all so simple and easy otherwise. Ah, it reminds me of something…

But the thrill is about to begin when you know this detail from that popular movie and you are sure like hell, because you actually watched the movie, as tradition wants, last weekend.  You know you can’t scream but you know that you know it and all you can celebrate with is the mulled wine. You announce the answer with the speed of light and then glasses up and a big sip of well-deserved wine goes down, as waves of happiness flow inside you. It truly reminded me of something…

Nevertheless, it has its downs too, when you have absolutely no clue about what the question is about. When you don’t know the answer and it matters; that kind of thing. You are pissed with everyone, but can’t change much (no, phones ARE forbidden!) so you have to live with the loss. Yeah, I know, it hurts. And guess what; it reminds me of something once again.

You know what it reminds me of. It’s my PhD, your PhD, everyone’s PhD that has its successes and its difficulties, like all situations in life. You might ask why it reminds me of that and not anything else in life, right? Well, if you are “sailing” towards a PhD yourself, you know exactly how things get magnified during this era of your life. If not, “don’t try this at home” (just kidding!). If not, at least you know the sadness of not winning the chocolates at the end of the quiz as well as the absolute madness when you actually end up winning and you feel like hero.

For the sake of my story, my team won this quiz and we got the delicious choco candies. Let’s see what happens with my PhD now…

Archive Leonie Schittenhelm

Perceptual Load and the magic of Science Podcasts

By Leonie Schittenhelm

One of the many joys of being a PhD student? Data analysis. Endless hours of data analysis. During the last year of my PhD I have progressively become quicker and also slowly coaxed my computer to do more and more of the really boring stuff, such as ordering things and applying the same analysis over and over, for me. But still, I spend about 1-2 days of my week coping with the data my experiments generate. And with that I’m not even at the top end of what a lot of my PhD pals have to deal with on a weekly and monthly basis. So what to do when a hard drive full of data, a noisy office and the knowledge that you will have to sit at it until you’re finished because you want to have something to show to your supervisor the next day await you? Easy: Podcasts, especially of the scientific variety.

Okay, bear with me on this one. ‘I can’t concentrate when I’m listening to people talk on the desk behind me, why should it be different when I’m listening to people in my headphones?’ I hear you say. And – while I do get your point, office gossip is the best and worst at the same time – to that I have just one answer: Science proves me right. Before I explain that a bit further we have to go back to roughly last year, when I hadn’t quite figured out yet how to make my computer do the really boring stuff for me yet. And by really boring I mean resizing tiny pictures of my data so they tidily fit into a grid and in line with a lot of other tiny pictures of my data. What I didn’t get was that even though I was staring for so long at this data, I still made a lot of silly mistakes that would usually occur to me only when presenting my data to others. And even worse, everything took me hours upon unenjoyable hours. All of this because I kept getting distracted from the task at hand: analysing my data quickly and accurately, formatting it in a logical way.

In comes perceptual load theory, a term coined by the psychologist Nili Lavie in the mid-nineties. The basic gist of perceptual load theory is that you have a certain amount of attention to give at any one moment. If you perform tasks that are termed ‘High load’, such as giving a presentation or doing a really difficult reagent calculation in your head, all of your attention is taken up by this one task, meaning there is little to none that can take your attention from this task. One of the most famous experiments on this involved a person in a gorilla costume and countless test subjects who, when tasked with a high-load visual task, could simply not remember even seeing the brown fluffy individual walking right through their field of vision. On the other hand, if the main task at hand is low-load, for example me when formatting my data so it fit a grid, your mind diverts the rest of the available attention to other less important things. This not only makes you less competent at the task at hand, it also means it takes you longer to complete because you become constantly distracted.

And why podcasts, you may ask? Okay, here this becomes less science and more personal preference. I did find that listening to people talk, often even learning something new in the process, provided exactly the right mix of attention to data versus attention to listening to keep my focus and enjoy myself in the process. And with so many science-themed podcasts to choose from, you’re really spoiled for choice. Here a short list of my absolute favourites:

  • Babes of Science – Ever wanted to know more about all the kick-ass female scientists your science book forgot to mention? This podcast by Poncie Rutsch is your fix – the only criticism I have is that the episodes are much too short because I enjoy them so much, but if you start now you will have a rich library of episodes to go back to and explore.
    Listen to under, on iTunes or anywhere else you find your podcasts.

  • The Story Collider – A colourful mix of science-storytelling. While not all people will be from your field, it is great to hear stories about life in science and how not getting results is hard for everyone. It is also a great learning utensil for preparing talks – as all science stories are recorded in front of a life audience, you can get a really good feel for what types of jokes work with audiences. And even better, it makes you think about your own science-story and how you would tell it to other people
    Listen under, on iTunes or anywhere else you find your podcasts.

  • No such thing as a fish – while not strictly about just science, this podcast by the QI elves talks about a different surprising fact each week. And while learning some new things I definitely always have to stifle a laugh to not alert my desk neighbours as to why my data is being so hilarious.
    Listen under, on iTunes or anywhere else you find your podcasts.

Archive Emma Kampouraki

Good people skills; ticket to a successful career

By Emma Kampouraki

Professor Sir John Burn has been appointed the new chairman of the Newcastle upon Tyne NHS Trust a week ago. Immediately after reading the news, I felt that great satisfaction flowing inside me, like I’ve always wanted to see this happening. Then, I remembered. The first day I met him after an honorary lecture he gave in a meeting. I was impressed!

I have met loads of successful people so far in my life. And I consider myself lucky for that. I always take some time to observe them before I talk to them. While introducing myself, I look them deeply in the eyes and try to understand what they might be thinking. However, I’ve never managed to read their minds as they end up saying exactly the opposite to what I was thinking.

I’ve spent a few hours trying to understand what makes them so successful and influential at the same time. I know their secret now; among being clever and hardworking and lots of others, they also have good “people” skills!

This may be the biggest asset in someone’s life, both personal and professional. Studies show that when a person is speaking, over half of what people understand is coming from body language and particularly the expressions of the face. Another 40% or so comes from voice and tone, with the actual words falling under the remaining one tenth. Without wanting to underestimate words, the picture always counted more anyway. And the picture we are making, while smiling, speaking passionately or transmitting our best energy to the audience is what impresses and convinces people about the real truth. Successful people have a unique way of communication; full of experience, knowledge and expertise without pretending to be robots and forgetting to be humans.

In order to convince your audience, you definitely need to present your logic and data upon which you based your conclusions. Or, you can simply allow your audience to trust you. Those two are linked, of course, but the latter required a lot more effort. Trust is something we achieve, it’s never given for free. It’s always connected to sincere people that present facts as objectively as possible and never fall under promises they can’t keep. If you say, it’s worth the money I’ll spend on it, you have to prove me wrong when I say I am not paying. Or vice versa.

People make mistakes. Those who know that, also know that mistakes, excluding only but a few, can be reversible one way or another. As always, you need time to assess what is right or wrong though. And this is where patience fits. All you have to do is concentrate, think clearly, act slowly and give it some time to “cook”. Like you do with your delicious cake. Or employees. Or PhD students.

This is the last, but maybe the most important. It defines the connection you cultivate with the people that surround you. Empathy can be demonstrated when you show pure interest in others’ lives. For that, you can be as open-minded as it takes. A detail from a conversation you had last week, that concert ticket they wanted and you found it, the name of their pet or even the last time they said they needed your help. (Try not to freak them out with the last time they popped into the loo.) These little moments are all important to them, as it is your children for you. They show you care.

I hope it’s clearer now what the title was about. People skills make us inspiring. Success is mainly demonstrated by loving your whole life as it is today. Don’t forget to be human, kind and have a bit of humour as well. It might not be necessary, but it helps making each and every day special.

Archive Cassie Bakshani

Pioneers for Women in STEM

By Cassie Bakshani

Last week we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Curie, the first person in history to become a double Nobel Laureate. Remembered for her discovery of polonium and radium and her contribution to development of cancer treatments.  It was deflating to read in the same week that only 47% of respondents, from a 3000-person survey conducted by YouGov, could name any woman scientist. In light of this, I thought I would share some of the incredible women- some you will (hopefully) know and others you may not- who have amplified my interest in STEM fields and reinforce my aspiration to pursue a career in science.

Rosalind Franklin: British Chemist
After attaining a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University in 1945, Franklin was appointed at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris. Here she worked with Jacques Mering, who taught her crystallography and X-ray diffraction. Franklin developed an expertise in X-ray diffraction and in 1951 began applying these techniques to the study of DNA fibres. This ultimately led to her discovery of the structure of DNA, documented in the famous Photograph 51. Unfortunately, however, Franklin was never truly accredited for this monumental discovery.

Grace Hopper: Mathematician, Military leader and Computer Programmer
Hopper was responsible for the compiler, which is a precursor to the universal Common Business Orientated Language (COBOL) and translates worded instructions into code, so that they can be read by the computer. Hopper was instrumental in revolutionising computer programming and thus the development of modern computing.

Shirley Ann Jackson: Theoretical Physicist
Jackson’s 1950s research led to the development of caller ID and call waiting. This technology laid the foundation for solar cells, fibre optic cables and portable fax machines. Interestingly, she is also the first African American woman to achieve a PhD in theoretical solid state physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An outstanding achievement, made even more impressive when you consider that of all physics PhDs given in the USA, only 19% of these are awarded to women, and of that, only ~2.5% go to women of minority groups.

Peggy Annette Whitson: Astronaut and Biochemist
Whitson achieved numerous firsts for women astronauts, being the first woman commander to lead a space exploration and the first woman to command the International Space Station- not once, but twice. Not only this, but Whitson also surpassed her predecessor Jeff Williams’ record for most days spent in space by a NASA astronaut, creating a new record of 665 days.

Mary Anderson: Businesswoman and Inventor
It’s likely that you have used Anderson’s invention countless times without realising. In 1903, Anderson was awarded a patent for the development of a windscreen wiper, which would alleviate the dangerous and highly impractical need for a driver to lean out of the cabin to clear the windscreen. Anderson showcased her invention to numerous car companies, but it remained unpopular due to the perception that it would ‘distract drivers’. The windscreen wiper later became standard in car design and manufacturing; however, Mary was never recognised as the inventor and thus never profited.

Rosalyn Yalow: Nuclear Physicist
Yalow developed radioimmunoassay together with Dr Solomon Berson, which can be used to measure small concentrations of bioactive molecules in the blood, including hormones. Using this method, Yalow and Berson tracked insulin, by injecting radioactive iodine into their patient’s blood. In doing so, they found that type 2 diabetes can be attributed to an inefficient use of insulin by the body, rather than a lack of insulin.

Esther Lederberg: Microbiologist and Geneticist
Lederberg was true trailblazer in bacterial genetics, responsible for the discovery of the lambda phage. The lambda phage is a bacterial virus with a mechanism of virulence which differs from other viruses; it doesn’t destroy cells, but rather integrates its DNA into the bacterial DNA, thus ensuring it is spread to subsequent generations. It is still used successfully as a tool to study genetic recombination and gene regulation. In addition, Lederberg invented the replica plating technique, which can be used to isolate and analyse bacterial mutants and monitor antibiotic resistance.

Josephine Cochrane: Socialite turned Inventor
Cochrane was known for hosting many dinner parties at her home with husband William Cochran. Due to frustration with inadequate cleaning of her fine china by their housekeeping staff, she endeavoured to create a machine that could clean her dishes more effectively. Whilst at this time she was successful in producing a prototype, the machine was never put into construction. Following the death of her husband in 1883, Cochrane was left with $1,535.59 and crippling debt. This instigated the commercialisation of her invention and following collaboration with mechanic George Butters, to optimise construction, Cochrane was awarded a patent for her Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine in 1886.

Amy Cuddy: Social Psychologist and Harvard Business School Professor
Along with Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, Cuddy developed the Social Content Model and The Behaviours from Intergroup Assect and Stereotypes Map, which are used to make judgements of individuals within social situations in two-trait dimensions, warmth and competence. This is now a universal framework which can be applied across different cultures, historical and modern-day cases to predict stereotyping and intergroup prejudices. Cuddy also delivered the second-most viewed TED talk of all time, with over 32 million views.

May-Britt Moser: Professor of Neuroscience and Founding Director of Centre for Neural Computation
Moser’s work, along with husband Edvard Moser, focusses on the neural basis of spatial location, including the discovery of grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. Her research group is working to elucidate the functional organisation of the grid-cell circuit and how this contributes to memory formation within the hippocampus. She shares a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe, which was awarded in 2014.

Ellie Cosgrave: Lecturer in Urban Innovation at UCL
Cosgrave is a civil engineer by training and works now as a lecturer in urban innovation within STEaPP City Leadership Laboratory, where she is also Deputy Director. This initiative focusses on inclusive engineering, with three different target areas: gender, the smart city and how the creative arts can influence design processes. One aspect of Cosgrave’s research addresses how urban design can be improved to tackle sexual violence in cities. Cosgrave is also a Director at ScienceGrrl, a grassroots organisation which showcases the work of women scientists from diverse backgrounds.

Masayo Takahashi: Ophthalmologist and Project Leader in Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration at RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology
Until recently it was assumed that the adult mammalian retina was incapable of regeneration, however research conducted within Takahashi’s group has shown that new retinal neurons can be generated following damage. Using these insights, Takahashi developed a new approach to produce retinal pigment epithelial cells by reprogramming mature cells back into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). In March of this year, Takahashi’s iPS cell protocol was deployed in the world’s first successful retinal cell transplantation to treat macular degeneration.

Tamara Rogers: Reader in Computational Astrophysics
Newcastle University’s very own Dr Rogers specialises in numerical simulation of hydrodynamics and magnetohydrodynamics of giant exoplanets, also known as ‘hot Jupiters’. Dr Rogers used an unusual observation, that atmospheric winds on planet HAT-P-7b are variable and can move uncharacteristically from eastward to westward, to estimate the strength of the planet’s magnetic field. This ground-breaking research was published in Nature Astronomy and provides a new foundation to explore the formation and evolution of our solar system, as it can be used to elucidate size, formation and migratory paths of far-off planets.

Within the UK, the contribution of women to the total STEM workforce stands at just 21%. However, these examples highlight, that despite women representing a minority within STEM careers, we are continually at the forefront of innovation and discovery. So, just imagine what could be achieved with fair representation of the sexes in STEM.

Archive Jess Leighton

Newcastle University State of the Art Lectures

By Jess Leighton

Less than 15 years since the first human genome was sequenced in its entirety, the UK Government is deep into the most ambitious genomics project ever- mapping out the DNA sequences of around 70,000 NHS patients with rare diseases and cancers. Newcastle one of only 13 ‘Genomic Medicine Centres’ in the UK, with services based at the Centre for Life covering the North East and North Cumbria. The Project and its impact so far is the topic for the final talk in the Newcastle ‘State of the Art’ lecture series.

The 100,000 Genomes Project aims to bring Whole Genome Sequencing into normal NHS treatment. At present, genetic testing usually just looks at a few sections of a person’s DNA. While testing all of a patients’ genes could find surprise results, the Project aims to make this a normal part of a healthcare, so doctors and nurses know how to explain these results and focus on conditions we may be able to test for and treat. One example is the BRCA gene, which Angelina Jolie was famously found to carry, leading her to choose to have a double mastectomy (breast removal) in light of her risk of breast cancer.

Newcastle has long been a hub for genetic medicine, and since opening in 2000, the Centre for Life has been home to both cutting edge research and engaging exhibits to bring science to children and adults of the North East. The Centre was home to the first cloned human embryo and over 4000 babies have been born thanks to the NHS fertility clinic there. This year the IVF team hit headlines by receiving the first license for mitochondrial replacement therapy or ‘three parent babies’.

The 100,000 Genomes Project is demonstrating a different side of genetics- looking at how rare diseases and cancer come about. For many patients, knowing the DNA changes which caused their illness may be a huge comfort, but it could also lead the way to new therapy. Because the project is the only one of its type in the world, the results are likely to be ground-breaking and potentially kickstart new streams of medical research. All from only a few vials of blood!

Dr Paul Brennan and the 100k team will be speaking in the David Shaw Lecture Theatre from 4-5 pm on Tuesday 21st November.

Archive Jess Leighton

Newcastle University State of the Art Lectures

By Jess Leighton

The stereotypical neurologist and psychiatrist couldn’t be more different- one looking down a microscope at brains and nerves and the other asking questions about childhood traumas. However the two fields are coming crashing together to ensure patients receive the best possible care.

To ensure trainee psychiatrists are up to date with the biomedical science behind disorders of the brain, the Gatsby Foundation and Wellcome Trust have funded a review of the curriculum, and Professor Wendy Burn (consultant old age psychiatrist) and Dr Gareth Cuttle (Project Manager of the Gatsby/Wellcome Neuroscience Project) will be talking about this project and its progress so far.

Research at Newcastle is at the forefront of this innovative approach, with the Institute of Neuroscience having a research strand on Neurodegenerative, Cerebrovascular and Psychiatric Disorders. The Northern Centre for Mood Disorders has a particular focus on the essence of this project- improving clinical care, cutting edge research, and education of health professionals.

The future of psychiatry- from mood disorders to dementia- must consider both the brain and the mind, and the Gatsby/Wellcome project will lead this unification.

Prof Burn and Dr Cuttle will be speaking on Thursday 16th November from 3-4pm in the David Shaw Lecture Theatre.

Archive Jess Leighton

Newcastle University State of the Art Lectures

By Jess Leighton

The days of the barber surgeon are well and truly gone in Newcastle; not only do our hospitals provide more surgical services than anywhere else in the North East, but are striving for even better results with ground-breaking research.

Newcastle has long been at the forefront of surgical development, from first single lung transplant in Europe (in 1987, before Google even existed!) to the Freeman Hospital’s Institute of Transplantation- the first in the UK. Newcastle doesn’t limit itself to transplant technology; 2 of only 10 surgeons in the UK who can teach laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery are based here, and the RVI was the first centre in the UK to offer ‘iodine seed localisation’ surgery to allow women with breast cancer to keep as much breast tissue as possible.

Research and training are central to Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals’ services, ensuring patients get the best possible treatments from competent staff. The Newcastle Surgical Training Centre allows training for groups (which can include videolink around the world) right down to one-to-one teaching of highly specialised procedures.

Mani Ragbir is a consultant plastic surgeon with almost 30 years of experience, spanning head and neck cancers, microsurgery and facial palsy. He is the Northern Deanery’s Degree Programme Director for Plastic Surgery, and is actively involved in research. He will go through the current cutting edge technologies being explored in Newcastle, including robotic surgery, stem cell research and tissue engineering.

Mr Ragbir will be speaking on Thursday 9th November from 3-4pm in the David Shaw Lecture Theatre. Find out more about the surgical services in Newcastle here.

Archive Philippa Rickard

(Not) climbing the academic ladder

By Philippa Rickard

As early-career researchers we navigate uncharted waters in the pursuit of a PhD. Really, that is the whole point of a PhD; to train us to push the boundaries of knowledge, and to ultimately produce a novel piece of work that expands current understanding and provides a stepping stone for further exploration (of a very niche area). All sounds very noble, doesn’t it?

In reality, postgraduate research is a juggling act. We are the whole package: laboratory technician, data analyst, teacher, writer, presenter, administrator, marketer… to name a few. And all of this before our career actually begins – make no mistake, a PhD is the bottom rung of a very rickety academic ladder. What awaits on the next rung is more of the same, yet with (hopefully) somewhat more attractive remuneration.

So, what? What about the next rung, and the rung after that? Where does your ladder lead?

In their 2017 Graduate Survey, Nature found that the future of early-career researchers is uncertain. It is well known that worldwide there are more PhDs produced annually than academic jobs available, but 75% of the 5,700 respondents stated that they will likely pursue an academic career anyway.

The sad reality is that only 3-4% of us will land a permanent academic position in the UK, even less in the US. A fact to which we seem blissfully unaware; nearly 60% of respondents see themselves finding a permanent non-trainee position within 3 years of completion. It is heartening that we remain passionate about what we do and want to continue doing it – that’s why we got ourselves into this in the first place, right? But do we need a reality check? Truthfully, the next rung is as wobbly as the one before.

Despite the insecurity, only 20% of respondents feel less likely to pursue a research career after embarking on a PhD. I am one of those 20%. I don’t have a postdoc plan. I’ve been told I should, but I don’t, and I like it that way. Right now, I am concentrating on the job in hand. Writing up my thesis. After that I will see where I am, how I feel, and what opportunities have come up along the way. Am I just another disillusioned PhD candidate or am I being realistic? After all being a scientist does mean having a healthy relationship with scepticism and evidence. Either way, don’t let me put you off. If you dream of that professorship, then get your head down, work hard and be lucky. But beware of tunnel vision. Gaining a PhD opens so many non-academic doors, there are other options and opportunities out there. Just look through the list of skills you have gained training as a researcher. Don’t be scared to explore them.

Nature articles:
Nature, 550, 429 (2017) doi:10.1038/550429a
Nature, 550, 549-552 (2017) doi:10.1038/nj7677-549a