Many people think that doing a PhD is simply a case of working at a lab bench or computer desk all day every day. However, there is a lot more to PhD life than just experiments. There is a multitude of opportunities available outside of the lab, both here at the John Innes Centre as well as across the country. It is up to the individual student to decide which of these (if any) take their fancy, and to take part as they choose. As with many aspects of PhD life, taking part in these events is often down to managing your time and finding the right balance. This can be tricky – as you can see below, there are a lot of options.
For most PhD students, it is expected that they will get the chance to attend at least one international conference. If you are lucky, it will be somewhere exotic; if unlucky, you may end up only traveling across town to the local football ground. Students will often get the chance to present their work at conferences, either as a poster or spoken presentation, as well as get the chance to network with others in their field. You might also get the chance to be involved in the organization or running of a conference or event – something that can be harder than first appears!
Interest in science is not limited to scientists, and many of us working in science want to be able to share our fascination with the general public.
Young people are the next generation of researchers and scientists, and it can be very important to show them the fun side of science, rather than the curriculum-based learning of the classroom. Many children have never met a ‘real scientist’, and imagine them all to be old men with white hair, but it is important to show them that anyone can be a scientist. Getting involved in school outreach can be as simple as contacting a local school and going in and chatting to a class, or setting up a regular visit. It can be pretty challenging for us to be able to communicate our science to audiences of such varying age and knowledge, but this can be a great skill for the future. We are lucky here in Norwich to be linked to the Teacher Scientist Network, which helps connect teachers to scientists and organizes events.
Children aren’t the only members of the public who have an interest in science. Students have also been involved in national events, where they can interact with public of all ages – such as science festivals.
Science policy covers many laws and regulations regarding science, both determining scientific research and practices as well as it’s funding and the way that science affects other policies such as education. Getting involved in science policy can be easy, for example contacting your local MP and telling them what you do. There are also country-wide events run specifically for students to get involved. One of these is the Voice of the Future event, which you can read about here. Another is SET for Britain, a poster competition judged by MPs in the Houses of Parliament. Students could also get involved in schemes such as Sense About Science and their Ask For Evidence campaign.
Many funding bodies such as the BBSRC now make it a requirement for PhD students to take part in a 3-month long internship. These internships can be in any area of their choice, as long as it is not directly related to their research or in an academic research lab. Other students with other funding are also welcome to take advantage of the internship opportunities available to them. Examples of internships already carried out include working in an intellectual property firm and working in the Government Office for Science.
Some studentships are also co-funded by industry, in what is known as a CASE partnership. These students get the chance to work with their industrial partner and get experience of working in a different setting and from a different perspective.
Sometimes a scientist will get lucky and discover or create something that could lead to a business start-up. Awareness of this has led to schemes being run to give PhD students an insight into the world of commercialization and business. A national scheme, BiotechYES, gives teams of up to five students the chance to create a business model with advice from experts from many fields. Universities also may run their own versions, such as the UEA Eureka Business Plan Competition.
Science communication covers a huge range of activities, and you could fill an entire blog post with the opportunities available for communicating our science. An obvious (hopefully!) example is this blog, where any of our students are welcome to try their hand at writing. Guest-blogging for other sites is also a good way to get some valuable writing experience. Twitter is also a great platform for us to communicate with the public, as well as find out more from scientists that we may be interested in. As well as writing there are also opportunities for editing and getting involved in publishing, such as The Biochemist magazine’s student competitions.
Students here have also been involved in other science communication ventures, such as the RSC Take 1 competition, speaking on radio or appearing on television.
Another popular PhD competition is Dance Your PhD. Check it out here.
There is a really active student community at the John Innes Centre. The Student Voice Committee is a group of students who run careers, social and training events for the student body. This includes parties in the summer and at Christmas, away days and speakers/workshops. More recently we have grown our student community by forging links with the University of Cambridge Department of Plant Science, organising a joint student symposium to share and showcase the science between the two locations.
Of course, these are not the only opportunities out there for PhD students to take part in. Students here are also active in many other activities and societies around the area, including triathlons and bell-ringing to name a couple. Increasing importance is being placed on creating well-rounded academics with real life experiences – and the opportunities are definitely there for us to get involved and gain some great future skills.
By Jo Harrison, a 3rd year PhD student in Dr Steph Bornemann’s lab, and Izzy Webb, a 2nd year PhD student in Prof Phil Poole’s lab.