Most bioinformatician posts are based in Universities and often require a PhD.

I did my PhD because it helped me get the job I wanted, so I see them as the graduate training scheme for working in scientific or medical research.

I didn’t really know what a PhD was until I did mine, so I admit I went into it slightly clueless and picked up what it was I was supposed to be doing as I went along. This blog post should help anyone thinking about a PhD but not 100% sure what exactly that means.

Firstly, some technical points:

  • The end point of your PhD is a written thesis (~50,000-80,000 words) of original research conducted by you, which you have to defend (or convince that you did and understand) in front of two examiners at a viva.
  • They can be started straight after an undergraduate degree,  but if your degree wasn’t in a relevant subject, you didn’t do as well as you should have, or you are not 100% sure if 3+ plus years in a research environment is for you a Masters program in between may be appropriate.
  • You will be assigned to a supervisor, or more likely multiple supervisors, who will guide you and are responsible for ensuring you get your PhD.

Every PhD is a unique experience, however there are many commonalities. They are designed to be challenging, primarily educationally but also personally. The idea is to study something novel, so as you follow the road not previously traveled,  it is inevitable that there will be problems or challenges along the way where the answer is not obvious. For some some problems there may be no solution (and part of your research is to develop the answer) or there may be multiple paths and you have to decide which one to take.

So why do it? It is a great addition to your CV, even if you don’t see yourself staying in academia. You are recognized as an expert in your (perhaps niche) field of study, and have demonstrated the ability to manage and complete a project over a specific period of time. It is perhaps underappreciated how hard they can be to finish as while the broader research project may go on, the PhD is finite has a clearly defined end goal. Depending on your personalities, it can be either the student or the supervisor who struggles to make the distinction between the end of the PhD and the end of the research project. Ultimately, as the student you have to have to the tenacity to put in the work to meet the requirements and achieve the degree.

Essentially a PhD should be seen as an opportunity, you are a student (and in the UK paid a stipend to support your living costs and not a salary) and therefore should take advantage of learning as many skills, going on as many courses as possible even if they are not directly relevant (think of it as personal development) and generally maximizing the opportunities presented. You should also get the chance to present your work outside of your day to day environment at conferences, so depending on a) your consumables budget and b) reach of your research you may get some chances to travel to all over the world. As an informatician, my only real expense was a computer so the rest of my budget enabled me to do a lot of travelling compared to fellow students who had expensive experiments to fund. There are lots of funding opportunities available to PhD students for travel, so even if your scheme doesn’t have much money available for this, you should still be able to identify sources of money to help with this.

Communication skills are very important and inevitably will be developed throughout your time as a PhD student. You will need to be able communicate effectively with your supervisor and colleagues, to put together your thesis, to present your research internally and externally either as talk or poster and finally to explain and answer questions about your work in your viva. You shouldn’t be afraid to disagree or follow your own intuition, but it helps if you can explain why.

Ultimately you need to be self-motivated, resourceful, and open to new experiences. You will learn a lot about your area of study, yourself and how research/academia works. It can be highly rewarding and set you up with a range of skills applicable to many careers.

If you would like to read more, take a look at this blog post which may be particularly relevant if you are based in the US.


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