PhDs: Figure Out What Future You Want for Yourself, and Start Building It

Expanding the Footprint of Science in Society

Jiska van der Reest is a PhD Researcher at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute. We’re interviewing Jiska as part of our series on science funding at Lyrical Science.

Jiska discusses the importance of funding early career scientists

Q: Jiska, how difficult is it to get a lectureship or open your own lab after the PhD? What do you think accounts for this difficulty?

Judging from the success rates, this is extremely difficult. It differs a bit between fields, but less than 1% of PhD students eventually become a professor. This means it’s hugely competitive to get a lectureship or open your own lab: there are multitudes more PhD holders than academic jobs, and we are all competing for the same pots of money. At the critical step in your career when you will or will not progress to having your own lab, you’ve been working in science for 10–15 years to get to this stage. Yet the vast majority has to drop out there. These are pretty sad statistics!

Q: Are you interested in an academic career? How can we better prepare PhD students to face a hyper-competitive job market?

Yes — probably pretty delusional to be aiming to be part of that 1%! But even with a 99% failure rate it’s not impossible, right? However, I think these statistics do show that the vast majority of PhD students will not have an academic career, and our training should reflect that fact. Luckily, many students don’t want to be academics, and find that they enjoy related fields such as entrepreneurship, science communication, or publishing. Other students are more interested in translating knowledge into benefit for society rather than generating that knowledge, and move into industry, innovation, or technology transfer. Clearly, having well-trained scientific minds on board in all of these fields will be hugely beneficial to society — especially in areas that are notoriously low on scientists, such as politics and government. Unfortunately this coin has not quite dropped yet in the academic field. Surrounded by senior academics that all made it through the academic jungle, it’s difficult for students to get perspectives on other opportunities. For many supervisors, everything outside academe is seen as a plan B for when you fail plan Academia. Clearly this is mental when 99% ends up doing something else — the academic path is the alternative career instead!

I’d like to see all of academia get on board with the realisation that society needs scientifically trained people that can apply their skills to a wide variety of issues, and that the PhD training starts to reflect that. We need to be honest with students from the start about their career perspectives, and encourage exploration into other careers during their PhD years. In my opinion, PhD programmes need to be designed so that they produce well-rounded, versatile individuals. And supverisors should support their students to become independent professionals — regardless of what that profession may be.

The academic path is the alternative career instead!

Critically, I wish people would realise that this doesn’t have to compromise a student’s productivity and dedication to research during their PhD! But while that’s not yet the case, students should create their own opportunities. I’ve never been involved in so many diverse things as during my PhD, and everyone else can, too. Your PhD does not entitle you to any job — you will simply not qualify if you have not gathered any other experience than your PhD project. Figure out what future you want for yourself, and start building it! I’ve spent my entire PhD advocating for this in my institute and university, and we have definitely achieved meaningful change in our local environment. This gives me hope that academia will become a happier place for students in the future.

Q: What’s your experience in science communication and entrepreneurship?

I am currently funded by the charity Cancer Research UK, which is ultimately supported by public donations. Therefore, our institute holds lots of tours, open evenings, and other opportunities for people to engage with our work. Being a scientist can be quite a solitary exercise and we can literally work on the same tiny issue for years on end. Talking to strangers about your work and seeing how interested they are can be really fun and rewarding. Especially kids are awesome — everything is cool to them, and they come up with amazing questions!

Science is fantastic, but it can’t benefit society if it just stays in the lab.

As a PhD student, there are many opportunities to get involved with that are not related to your daily laboratory work. I’ve participated in a conference about economic, political, and societal issues, for example, and founded a personal development retreat for students. I’ve written for a popular science magazine, been an advice blogger for my university, and won a national science journalism competition last year. I’m involved in several initiatives that aim to make science a happier and more inclusive work environment, and volunteer for cancer charities. My university and other organisations offer loads of courses and workshops aimed at PhD students, from business to philosophy, which are usually free of charge. For example, I competed in a biotechnology start-up competition and in the past months I’ve been to Singapore and Bangkok to be part of a global innovation lab to develop solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals and a leadership symposium at the United Nations! These are such fantastic opportunities to develop yourself personally and professionally, and I’d encourage every single student to participate in such initiatives.

I think it’s hugely important to broaden your view in life and look outside your direct field. Science is fantastic, but it can’t benefit society if it just stays in the lab. Learning how to speak the language of other people in society, liaising with them, understanding science commercialisation, collaboration, and communication are all essential skills if you want to make an impact. I always encourage science students to explore these avenues — and their supervisors and universities to allow them to engage in these experiences.

Q: What do you think scientists can gain from communicating their work to the public? Why should the public care about science?

Science communication is hugely important for many reasons. In the current “post-truth” and “alternative facts” climate, it’s important that the public regains their trust in experts. Most issues that our societies face are hugely complex and we simply cannot personally develop expert opinions on all of them. We need to trust that when a huge group of people from all over the world who have dedicated their entire lives to studying such phenomena all agree on an issue — we can trust that judgement. Only by engaging with others in society, and listening to their worries, can we start to build that trust relationship.

In the current “post-truth” and “alternative facts” climate, it’s important that the public regains their trust in experts.

I think this is partly because scientists and society don’t interact much, and there are lots of misconceptions. Everybody I meet is hugely surprised when I say “I’m a scientist” — presumably because I don’t look like Einstein?! The scientist in movies always speaks in ways that nobody understands, only interacts with inanimate objects, and often develops some virus that will destroy the world.

Nobody thinks of the girl next door, or the guy that plays in a band, or someone’s mom, or your friendly neighbour. But that’s us! On the other hand, scientists often think our science is boring to other people. But science is involved in every aspect of life and touches everyone. I always find that people are hugely interested in what I do, once we do start talking. Also, the public actually supports a lot of science with their tax money, and they are also beneficiaries of science through improvements in healthcare, for example. This makes them huge stakeholders in science, so they should care! And scientists owe it to the public to explain what we do with their support. Creating dialogue will always benefit us all, but it requires skills that do not always come natural to scientists, so we need some help and training from communication experts to start the conversation.

Follow Jiska on Twitter to continue the conversation!

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