Elizabeth Stout, PhD Candidate
A Day in the Life of a PhD Student: What do non-scientists think we do?
One of the things I commonly hear amongst PhD students is that they struggle to have their family and friends relate to, or understand, what they’re doing whilst working towards getting a PhD.
Or why we do it.
Unless you are one, I feel that it’s difficult to imagine what any scientist is doing at work every day.
And so, like anyone would, I’ve been quizzing my loved ones about all things PhD.
First, I asked my siblings what they think a PhD is like.
Although, we wear lab gowns in biology nowadays, Elle’s statement perfectly aligns with what I think most people outside of science think we do – experiments, lab coats, probably also some Einstein hair moments.
My eldest sister Jacq’s answer was also similar – crazy clothes and quirky people. She did mention the mouse work angle – although it’s not a part of my current project, it’s worth observing that biology is often associated with mouse work. Jacq got a bit ‘deep’ towards the end there with her comment that a PhD student enjoys a ‘constant fear of failure’ – there are elements of PhD life where this fear gets the better of you. I think an entire blog post can be written on imposter syndrome and fear of failure in your PhD, so I’ll leave this point where it is for now.
Next, I asked questions about what I’m studying for my PhD. My sister Jessica said I study ‘genetics and the biology behind cell performance’, which is what I’d like to think is in the right direction.
Some later discussion highlighted that she believes a PhD student “wakes up tired, yet [full of] courage, optimistic”. She also summed up lab time as being a routine of “test, analyse, multiple moments of frustration”, whilst office time was full of “campus coffee, more testing, more highlighting” with time to summarise the findings of the day, and to “focus on the chance of tomorrow”.
Next, I asked my friends who have known me since before the day I stepped into the lab for the first time. Tess described my research as “broadly stuff with genes and blood disorders”, whilst Rachel said that I “study science to do with genetics.”
Tess specifically refers to my work as being related to “on and off switches for genes“. Although I believe Merlin spoke at a recent third year Nucleic Acids course saying that transcription factors are like control dials but not like light switches (Perhaps a later blog post Merlin?), it’s clear that I have used this analogy before. Tess is also ‘cheating’ as she studied Science at UNSW at the same time as me, albeit in pharmacology. Rachel, responded with what I’d call the classic ‘who cares’ factor, specifically the “make the world a better place and find cures!” comment.
So, what can we surmise from all of this? First, I think it’s fair to say that I’m not doing my job properly when explaining what I do for my PhD. There is a question of whether scientists across the board are achieving this.
And so, I made this meme (not original, check google for related memes). I think it highlights that the ‘What’s Lab Life Like?’ of a PhD student is not getting through. We’re not talking ‘the masses’ here, we’re talking my own family and friends.
Dear Family and Friends,
I start every day in the office with a coffee, answering or skimming what feels like endless emails – just like you! There’s always a scientific article to read, a presentation to prepare, or an email to reply to.
Although I’m in the lab a lot, a lot of my experiments can continue without my help once I’ve set them up, and so throughout the day I go back and forth from the lab to the office, and back. I guess it’s like cooking or building a model plane or something. I do a lot of steps, mostly mixing tiny volumes, incubating mixtures or cells in body temperature ‘ovens’, separating the components of cells on gels. I see daylight maybe once a day. But there is lots of back and forth between the lab and the computer as things sit in the oven. Some experiments work, others fail, and my coffee gets cold. I rarely finish my morning coffee before 3pm. 99% of my experiments don’t move us forward since they are inconclusive – but that just makes success all that much sweeter.
For me, at this stage of my PhD, I work a lot of long hours – but it’s worth it. I get a lot of satisfaction out of a long day with just me, my pipettes, and a few plasmids which refuse to clone. Despite these hours, my hair refuses to channel Einstein.
This is the day in the life of this molecular geneticist. When your friends ask you what I do – tell them that I wear a lab gown, not a lab coat. I do wear my hair up, and I do have enclosed shoes – but they are the only rules on attire – wacky isn’t part of the brief. Because of the nature of my research, I will hopefully contribute to the understanding of mechanisms that can be exploited for therapies, but the path to a cure is a long and arduous one. So, what do I do? I work with the genetics of blood disorders such as sickle cell disease. Throughout my PhD I have tried to understand why some individuals exhibit severe clinical symptoms of the disease, whilst others do not. It’s hard work, but it’s important work.
Thank you for putting up with all my questions this past week.
PhD Candidate | Crossley Lab