Now that I’m in the hopefully fairly short final straight of my Phd, I’m feeling a bit reflective. Whilst I’ve been writing up, I’ve been reading around the science behind my project in some depth, and only really now starting to get a grip on the theory behind the experiments. Unfortunately in some cases, this has meant that I’ve learnt that some of the experiments I’ve done probably weren’t going to work the way we intended, and probably weren’t worth the struggle. I always knew that when you came out of a PhD, you were supposed to be an expert in that tiny subfield. With this in mind, I started to wonder whether when my supervisor set me on an experiment, I was supposed to go away and understand the problem before I even started on it. What I usually did was understood the problem enough to see the rationale behind the experiments, did them, then went to my supervisor with the data. It’s only now with reading and writing up I can see all the potential problems.
I’ve been worried that I’ve left what feels like the bulk of my PhD to the end. The experiments were just things that I did, but the learning and understanding is what the PhD is about, surely? I felt like I’d missed something. It’s made worse by the fact that I came to a neuroscience PhD with only AS-levels in biology and chemistry, straight from a psychology bachelors degree unfortunately lacking in in-depth neuroscience content, without any intervening masters. I was fortunate to be ably taught how to do extracellular electrophysiology by a patient post-doc who started in the department at the same time as me (thanks Lio!) who was replaced by his partner in crime from his PhD, who was equally helpful (thanks Nico!). But I was worried I’d skipped the theoretical fundamentals behind neuroscience and electrophysiology.
Fortunately I’ve been reassured by older colleagues that it’s pretty common to have reached the end of a PhD before you have learned enough to realise that you should have done things differently, and that a large part of a PhD is learning where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and not knowing them at the start and be done with them by the time you’ve finished. I feel a bit happier about it all, but like with many things in life, I still sometimes wish I could do it all again with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes I wish I’d come to the PhD from a neuroscience skewed biology degree instead of psychology, but then I wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time to have the fantastic opportunity I have had.
I envy the guys in the States who do PhDs for something like 7 years, with lots of studying before getting stuck into a project. Three years seems pretty inadequate compared to that. Cardiff seem to have it down too, their neuroscience PhD program consists of three years of experimental project, but first a year of study which is half modules explicitly teaching you how to do a neuroscience PhD (the nearest thing at UoS – MSc Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience – seems to try to cover too many bases at once) and the other half completing three practical lab rotations. I tried to take some second year undergrad biology neuroscience modules as extra credit, but I was told that they had to be masters level or above to qualify. This is in spite of the existence of accredited modules which are designed for the extra credit system which involve taking a first year undergrad psych module, or even having a discussion group about your PhD in a coffee shop…
Ignoring the green-eyed academic in me, I’m glad I know what the educational known unknowns are for me. I’m just dying to make them known knowns, and I hope I get the chance to do it.