Posts Tagged ‘Mentor’

Now that you have no doubt whatsoever that you were born to do a PhD, and because you know oh-so-well how intimate you are going to be with the topic of that PhD, you probably want to be extra-careful with the choice of that topic, leaving nothing to random. So how to chose that topic? That’s simple: you don’t. Let me tell you about that, through a little story.

That’s the story of a little cute rabbit (yeah, I know, it doesn’t start so well) who gets caught by a mean hungry fox. The fox is about to devour the poor rabbit, when he (the rabbit) starts pleading “you can’t eat me, I’m about to defend my PhD Thesis, and it’s been almost one year of hard work (in rabbit years, that’s a lot, believe me). Please let me defend, and eat me tomorrow”. The fox is not entirely stupid – as is to be expected of foxes – and knows well that he shouldn’t let the rabbit go, but he is also well educated and pretty curious, so he ask about the thesis subject. “Oh, that. It’s “Demonstration of the superiority of rabbits over foxes through non-linear models of inferred non-Bayesian statistics”. The fox is very doubtful, but as he is also, logically, very respectful of science (and impressed by big words even if they are nonsensical). So, he asks the rabbit to show him his PhD, and if he is convinced, then he will let him defend; otherwise, he will eat him. “Fair enough, says little rabbit, let’s get to my burrow and fetch my manuscript”. When the fox enters what is eventually a much, much larger burrow than would be expected for a rabbit, especially a graduate student one, he comes face to face with a mighty lion. “There, goes little rabbit, this is my supervisor, who will be making the demonstration”. The lion grabs the fox, and eats it in one bite. End of story.

The moral of this story is that the topic of your PhD student is not what matters.

What does matter is who you supervisor is.

Now that may seem a little far-fetched, but this is really what I do think, but not in that cynical denier-of-fairness way. In a much more positive way. If you are really into scientific research, you will be interested in your research, regardless on the species and the precise question. You may now think that you could never ever work on something else than those stupid birds or those puny ants, but believe me, if science is what moves you deep down, you will get interested in microbial interactions and plant adaptation as well. I know. I was first rather disappointed by my own PhD topic, about domestic cats and viruses (don’t laugh please). Far from the glamour I was then hoping for. But I rapidly got caught by the amazing studies existing in epidemiology as marker of population processes, by host-parasite relationships and the esthetical esotery of their dynamics and by the plain fun of nocturnal field work in the undergrounds of Lyons’ hospitals… And I learned a lot.

Eventually, what really matters for you is who you supervisor is, not because he will pull strings for you, but because he will be providing you with a sexy project (regardless of the species), an enriching scientific environment and a robust formation that will help you make an enjoyable, successful thesis and a prolific carrier afterwards. And how do you choose that supervisor? That’s the topic of my next entry. But not before a while, now I’m going to take care of a few foxes that my little rabbits just brought me…



If you are doing a research Master, you may be wondering whether or not to do a PhD Thesis next. If you don’t wonder, you can skip this entry and spend all the saved time to indulge in some more Flappy Bird. Otherwise, here is what I tell those who ask me about it.

For some reason, doing a PhD is increasingly seen as the logical continuation of the university programme you are following. Consequently, and because there are more student finishing a Master than PhD fellowships available on the market, not everyone will get to that next level. And this is increasingly seen as a failure, and a source of frantically, desperately seeking what in the end many of you should not be looking for.

And that’s for two reasons. First, not everyone can do a PhD. It is more than one level higher than the Master; it is doing something radically different, and very demanding, very stressing and very difficult. Second, and this is the key message of this entry, not everyone would like doing one, just like not everyone would like being a lawyer or a movie star. Doing scientific research is something quite specific, and it’s not because you have successfully completed five years of scientific studies that you will like doing scientific research, even if you were good in scientific classes. And that’s because there is one compulsory ingredient that you must be sure to have before committing to that 3+ years of misery: passion.

That’s the main point here so I’ll emphasize it: scientific research can’t be done without passion. You can be very rigorous, you can be very intelligent and knowledgeable, quantitatively or experimentally skilled, hard-working, creative even, that will be needed, but that will not be enough.

Like many other jobs, scientific research is a very stressful activity. Doing a Master Sc project is stressful, you are just starting and you know almost nothing and already much is expected of you. Doing a PhD is a lot more so, for a lot longer, and if you can’t handle stress, well, learn to handle it. Doing a postdoc removes some (not all) of the “I don’t know if I can do it” stress, but replaces it by a stronger dose of “will I ever find a job afterwards?” stress. I guess being a non-tenure staff stays quite stressful until you get tenure. In France, the few lucky that get tenure get it from the beginning (more on that later). But when you get your tenure position, you constantly strive to get good papers, good grants, good staff/postdocs/students, in one word, a good lab running smoothly and productively. That involves of course some stress, and naturally, little rewards. We don’t get large pays (especially in France), we don’t get fame, we don’t get even the simple recognition from the society (well, depends on the country, US citizen are better for that). What we get is the recognition by our peers, and the satisfaction of having worked well. Plus, that little detail of… enjoying doing scientific research. And that’s why, if you don’t have passion for scientific research, if you don’t get excited by unexpected findings, if you don’t get challenged by seemingly unresolvable questions, if you don’t get motivated by original approaches and novel methods, then you are missing the single ingredient that allows you to cope with all the stress, the bad results, the frequent rejections, the endless little failures and the plain difficulty of working long hours when you’d rather be doing something else. In that case, I guess you’re not ready for that long journey into a PhD and you most probably should do something else.

If you feel you have passion – and you should have done at least two internships in different labs, on different approaches to be sure – then you should try your hardest to find a PhD project and fellowship. Do not be discouraged by the odds of finding one, by the first few negative answers or even by the unemployment rate at the end. I loathe those teachers/researchers that discourage impassioned student – and I’ve seen that many times. It’s fair to warn you that it is tough and not guaranteed at the end, but many succeed, so why not you? If you are really motivated, impassioned, you are increasing much your chances to be among the lucky ones. And anyways, if you have scientific research under your skin, there’s nothing else you’d rather do, so it’s not like you have much choice…

Now, if deep down you’re convinced that you were born for that, remains the question of how to find a good PhD. More about that soon. Ish.