From PhD to Parliament: What I’ve Learned Since Finishing My Science PhD
Before I begin, I’d like to share some disclaimers. I know I’m in an extremely privileged position to have gained a PhD and experienced the opportunities that I had. I realise these following reflections and observations might seem trivial in other contexts and perspectives. This is written with the intention of providing some insight for those in similar situations, transitioning from the lab-bench to the reality of post-PhD life outside of academia.
To start with some background: I completed my PhD in Medicine at the University of Nottingham, UK, based at the Royal Derby Hospital. At the end of September 2019, I handed in my PhD thesis. Four days later, I started a Schuman Traineeship at the European Parliament (EP) Research Services in Brussels, Belgium. I was excited for the move, for the new role, and was very optimistic. I wasn’t prepared for the shock of the transition.
To summarise: what WASN’T difficult was moving country, settling in, the language change, or getting to know my way around. This was all fine, and exciting, and wonderful! What WAS difficult was the office culture, the 9-5 (or rather 08:30-17:45), establishing colleague relationships, and the workload (or rather, the lack of!).
Your PhD gives you excellent foundations
I wasn’t far into my PhD when I realised I’d hit the jackpot with my lab group and supervisor. My PhD topic on the other hand, was just OK. I spent four years establishing whether a bone hormone affected cardiovascular disease, and essentially found that, well, it does not. But, I didn’t mind this at all. Even if first year PhD students don’t want to hear it – I truly think your project topic is the least important thing in your PhD. The cliché is true – it’s a learning experience. The goal isn’t really to find the cure or blockbuster finding (but kudos if you do!) – it’s about embracing the experience as a whole, taking all the chances you can get to grow, and becoming an independent researcher.
This was the case for me, at least. Critical thinking, analysis, scientific writing, independent working, communication, RESEARCH… These are all skills you can take anywhere. With them also comes some confidence and wisdom, which you may not realise until you find yourself in another environment and context. My PhD supervisor pushed these messages, perhaps especially with me after months of (just as valid!) negative results. But the lesson was true. There is an undeniable determination and resilience that you can see in PhD graduates, that can only appear after many (many) failed experiments and troubleshooting. Being able to handle things when something goes wrong, or when you don’t even know what’s going on, is a highly valuable life skill.
A major benefit I gained from the traineeship at Parliament was how it solidified all the transferable skills (and attitude) I had gained during the PhD, and how much it had been worth it. It gave me a wider perspective and confidence which otherwise might have been lacking. This was a really nice, unexpected realisation: the confirmation that taking a PhD experience outside of academia is, in fact, amazing and rewarding.
Personally, I don’t think I would have had the same gratitude if I had stayed in academia and taken a postdoc as my first graduate job. So, push your boundaries! Within my first month or so at the EP traineeship, it slowly, naively occurred to me: “WOW, there’s a whole WORLD of research out there that does not involve a lab bench.” I felt re-energised with science, and the experience rekindled the motivation that had dwindled in the last two years of my PhD.
Don’t underrate how hard you work
One thing that becomes a LOT clearer once you’ve left the lab space is that PhD students work hard. Very, very hard. And we kind of take it for granted that this level of hard work is normal. When I started the EP traineeship there was a strange realisation that there was no cell culture to attend to, no going in at the weekends, no 12-hour experiments, no crazy planning to get results in time for a conference abstract, nothing messing up so that you had to cancel evening plans… This might seem like a positive but in reality, I was left feeling useless. I had been expecting to be pushed hard, challenged, given too much to handle even, and I had been looking forward to that. I had grown so accustomed to the pace of the PhD and the lab work, that the ‘chill’ office culture I had landed up in was almost incomprehensible.
Workin’ 9 to 5 and missing the PhD
The hardest aspect of the transition from PhD to office life was the hours. I was lucky in my PhD that my supervisor allowed us complete control of our time. If the work was done, there were no complaints. There was no expectation to be physically “at work” late (or early). I absolutely loved managing my own time. In the EP, feeling obliged to be in the office morning till end felt so counter-intuitive (and I finally understood why people are obsessed with coffee).
I spent some time researching why working the “9-5” is normal practice, and how it is so inefficient. (If anyone is interested, check out this article, study, and infographic.) By the end of the four-and-a-half months I had accepted the office working times, grudgingly so, and now I’m hoping I am a bit more prepared for the next role I take.
It was a big jump coming from a PhD, where you obsess over one tiny thing for four years full-time. Then suddenly you’re somewhere else, you no longer have to think about your one project, and everything else compared to that seems a bit meaningless. So, this was a big personal adjustment. I missed the purpose the PhD gave me to get up in the mornings, even if I was counting down the final days.
It’s also not something I’ve heard people say – that they miss their PhD. People react to you handing in with: “Congratulations, you’re finally finished!” But stepping out from your PhD and leaving it behind – after it overwhelmingly encompasses you for a significant amount of time – is a massive step. This is what motivated me to write this piece – not to scare people who are about to finish but to say, basically, it’s OK not to feel immediately rejoiceful.
The work I did during the traineeship was enjoyable though. I wrote some journalistic articles on topics I was interested in and did a lot of English language editing and proofreading (which was actually quite a nice change). I got great exposure to how the EU works, and met some interesting people.
Blood, sweat and tears: why PhD colleagues become your family
One thing I missed (and still miss) dearly is my PhD colleagues. There is no underestimating how much stress the PhD can put you under (and there are plenty of articles on this topic, and the possible implications for mental health). Being put in this environment with, in my case, a couple handfuls of other post graduate students, friends, and other colleagues, really ties you together closely. You go through a lot together, and love and support each other through it all. There is an unspoken understanding.
We would joke when showing a new person around saying: “And this is the cupboard you cry in when your experiment fails.” It was a bit of an exaggeration. No one (I hope) cried in that cupboard – but instead in the shared kitchen over a cup of tea surrounded by nodding heads saying “Yup, that really sucks,” knowing that, sometimes, you just need to feel miserable for a few moments before overcoming and working through it. I missed the closeness, the understanding, and the many cups of tea and chats about science. I guess this is normal for everyone moving to a new job, but there is definitely something special about the people you did your PhD with.
No longer being your own boss
Another aspect that was new for me was working under superiors. Everyone I worked with was friendly and I enjoyed meeting them all and working with them. It was also fantastic to experience such a multicultural environment, and I highly recommend Brussels to everyone by the way. The shock in this case was realising that again I no longer had my project. The PhD is YOUR responsibility. If you don’t show up, no one else is going to care very much. You are accountable. You take control. As the years progress, you become the director of your research, you decide what to do, you find the solutions. You are your only team.
I am very grateful to have had a brilliant, balanced supervisor during my PhD who was supportive at the same time as shaping me into an independent researcher. And although I had occasional teamwork opportunities with colleagues, I wasn’t used to working in a team (asides from some extra-curricular stuff), and I wasn’t used to not being able to do what I wanted, which makes me sound very spoilt. But I loved the independence the PhD allowed, to follow where the results take you and adapt. This is what’s wonderful about academic research, the creation of new knowledge and following where it leads you. I miss this, but for me it doesn’t weigh up against other negatives I believe are in academia (I’ll need another blog post for that).
Hopefully this blog post hasn’t included too much doom and gloom, but rather serves as insight for people soon-to-be embarking on the adventure after the PhD. Overall, I am thrilled with post-PhD life, it simply just took more time to adjust to than I expected! I thought I was ready for anything, but leaving four years of work and a familiar environment behind was harder than I thought.
I definitely recommend exploring outside of academia however, my eyes have been opened wide and far! I have rediscovered my motivation and love for research and science in a new context, one that is more suited to me than lab-based work. It’s so important to try new things. You never know until you try, and you could be very pleasantly surprised with what you find. For me, I have become engrossed in clinical trial design, promoting patient-centred outcomes and patient-centred drug development, and also the sustainability of healthcare systems. In March 2020 I’ll be starting an internship at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) to learn more about this. The Brussels adventure continues…
Sophie Millar completed her PhD in Medicine at the University of Nottingham. After experiencing the lab bench side of research (all the good, bad, and ugly) she turned her attention to policy and science communication. Sophie recently undertook a five month internship at the European Parliament Research Services where she worked within their scientific foresight unit and their European Science Media Hub. Now in her emerging career, she remains in the Brussels bubble to continue embracing the exciting opportunities outside of academia, and in the wider field of healthcare.
Follow Sophie on Twitter @millar_sophie
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