The PhD thesis and how to boost its impact

Podcast: Working Scientist (LS 31 · TOP 5% what is this?)
Episode: The PhD thesis and how to boost its impact
Pub date: 2019-12-06

The thesis is a central element of how graduate students are assessed. But is it time for an overhaul? Julie Gould finds out.

How do you decide whether or not somebody is a fully trained researcher? Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, a non-profit that supports the professional development of researchers, tells Julie Gould that it’s time to be “really brave” and look at how doctoral degrees are examined.

But what role should the thesis play in that assessment? Does it need overhauling, updating, or even scrapping?

Inger Mewburn, who leads research training at the Australian National University in Canberra and who founded of The Thesis Whisperer blog in 2010, suggests science could learn from architecture. Student architects are required to produce a portfolio, creating a “look book” for assessors or potential employers to examine as part as part of a candidate’s career narrative. For graduate students in science, this could include papers, journals, articles, presentations, certificates, or even video files.

“The PhD is meant to turn out individual, beautifully crafted, entirely bespoke and unique knowledge creators,” she tells Gould. “And we need people like that. We need creative people with really different sorts of talents. We don’t want to turn out ‘cookie cutter’ researchers.”

David Bogle, who leads early career researcher development at University College London, tells Gould that UCL’s three-pronged mission statement includes impact.

“We want our research to make an impact, and in order to support and reinforce that it is now mandatory to include a one page impact statement at the front saying ‘this is the difference it will make in the world,'” he tells Gould. “Any impact — curriculum, society, business, anything. It might not end up making that difference, but we want people to think about it.”

What about the pressure to publish? In October 2019 Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of UK and EU Research Landscape at the Wellcome Trust in London, argued in a World View article published in Nature Human Behaviour that PhD merit needs to be defined by more than publications.

She tells Gould that the experience of getting published is a good thing, but making it mandatory is not. “Learning writing skills is a hugely important part of PhD training. Should it be a requirement that all students publish in peer reviewed journals in order to pass the PhD? My answer is absolutely and emphatically no.”


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Episode 52: The Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative

Podcast: Voices from DARPA (LS 43 · TOP 1.5% what is this?)
Episode: Episode 52: The Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative
Pub date: 2021-12-01

In this episode of the Voices from DARPA podcast, listeners will learn about an emerging component of DARPA’s institutional culture for delivering technologies that strengthen the nation and redefine what is possible. Called the Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative (EEI), this effort is designed to help creative scientists and engineers usher their new high-technology visions all of the way to real in-field, hold-in-your-hand, useful-in-the-world technologies. The mission of EEI, now entering its second year following a pilot phase, is to provide early-stage technology-development teams with veteran innovators who bring with them the proven business savvy it takes to make it through the proverbial Valley of Death. That’s when anything from insufficient funding, missed deadlines, unexpected supply-chain issues, intellectual property disputes, market fluctuations, a federal policy change, or any number of other hazards can kill off even the best of technology ideas. Listeners will hear from Kacy Gerst, DARPA’s Chief of Commercial Strategy; Scott Cunningham, a Senior Commercialization Advisor with In-Q-Tel-Emerge, a technology-acceleration organization that is partnering with DARPA to make EEI work; and Jeff Conroy, CEO of Embody, an emerging biotechnology company that credits EEI with accelerating its success in launching what is now its first FDA-approved biomedical technology for improving ligament and tendon repair, a common need for athletes and military personnel. Gerst is happy to note that EEI already is working with more than 50 entrepreneurial teams and she expects the initiative to ramp up over the next few years to a portfolio of 150 such teams. 

The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from DARPA, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


086. Five Resolutions for Happier, Healthier Scientists (R)

Podcast: Hello PhD (LS 45 · TOP 1% what is this?)
Episode: 086. Five Resolutions for Happier, Healthier Scientists (R)
Pub date: 2022-01-01

Turning over the last page of the calendar seems to naturally invite some reflection on the previous 365 days. When you look back at 2021, what went well? And what do you wish you could change in the coming year?

This week, we take the opportunity to reflect back much farther – to our days in graduate and postdoctoral training!  With years of hindsight, we offer advice and perspective to the scientists we were, and devise some resolutions you can adopt in your scientific training.

Grad School Resolutions

 1.  Remember that training is temporary

When you’re ‘on the inside,’ graduate training can seem like an endless tunnel – the light at the end just a distant pin-prick.  For many, the daily stress of lab life closes in and we begin to feel trapped and hopeless.  This year, pause to consider that your training is just a brief step in your scientific career, and that people do finish! We promise!

2. Be mindful of your unique skills and motivations

Many students wait to think about a suitable career until they have a degree in their hands and a PI’s foot on their backside.  We recommend taking stock of your natural motivation and skill patterns early AND often.

It can be as simple as reflecting at the end of the day or on a Friday afternoon.  What did you accomplish this week? Which activities left you feeling energized?  Which left you drained? When did you lose track of time because you were engrossed in the task? Jot each item in a notebook or on a post-it and save them.

After a few months, you’ll have a detailed list of skills and activities you like to use and those you’d like to avoid.  These patterns can persist over a lifetime, so spend some time examining the notes and identifying the common themes.  That way, when you’re reading job postings, you’ll know exactly which positions fit your personality.

3. Push beyond your comfort zone

Starting a graduate program often means moving to a new town, meeting hundreds of new people, and dropping the support networks you enjoyed in college. That makes many introverted science-types turn further inward as we try to avoid the stress of new situations.

But remember that many of the people you meet feel exactly the same way.  Push yourself to engage, and you’ll be rewarded with new friends and colleagues that will last a lifetime.  Graduate training is full of never-to-be-repeated opportunities if you’re willing to step up and take them.

4. Make science fun again #MSFA

Don’t forget that you chose a career in science because science is amazing.  Maybe it fascinated you as a child, but we quickly lose that child-like curiosity the moment Figure 4 of our paper is due.

Every once in awhile, it’s okay to let loose and try an experiment because you think it’s fun, or you just can’t predict how it will turn out. This will not only stoke your love of science, it may lead to your next line of inquiry.

5. Find emotional support before you think you need it

Graduate training may be one of the most stressful periods of your life.  That’s not unusual. But too many of us try to ‘power through’ on our own.  Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and worse are the rewards.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Your mental health is as vitally important as your physical health.  If eating right and going to the gym are admirable,

The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Joshua Hall and Daniel Arneman, PhDz, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


146: Skills pay bills

Podcast: Everything Hertz (LS 42 · TOP 1.5% what is this?)
Episode: 146: Skills pay bills
Pub date: 2021-12-27

We answer a series of questions from a listener on whether to start a PhD, what to ask potential supervisors, the financial perils of being a PhD student, the future of higher education, the importance of skills, what keeps us going, and more.

Here are the specific questions that we answered in this episode (the background to these questions is shared in the episode):

  1. Would you have any advice on how I can even decide whether to commence a PhD?
  2. Are there any questions in particular that you think are important to ask prospective supervisors?
  3. How do people make PhDs work financially? You are supposed to treat the degree like a regular 40 hour/ week job (and students commonly fail to do so). However, what full-time job pays ~$540 per week and expects this?! You are not supposed to work > 8 hours/ week outside of this?! I thought I could at least work 2-3 full days a week if I needed to.
  4. Why do people generally leave academia, or not continue, after their PhD, despite obvious potential?
  5. In what form do you think universities will be around in 5 and 10 years?
  6. Are one-year progress reports from the PhD committee enough to stay on track?
  7. What utility do PhDs hold inside and outside of academia? Apparently, skills matter more than a topic, and you have a better chance of getting a postdoc etc… if you have worked on a hot topic with a well-known supervisor.
  8. How can one start the PhD prepared enough to finish it on time and earlier?
  9. I am wondering what keeps academics going. I may be jaded, but lab environments don’t seem collaborative, and academics seem to be ruled by the admin people and hedge fund managers (or whoever). They also seem to make their money off students (i.e., the customer). I see a reverence for science and people trying to game the system, but not people wanting to seek truth in science. I now wonder how much of academia is motivated by pride, comfort, and not knowing what else to do. In my mind (and I am exaggerating a little), the PhD journey is coming to resemble an abusive relationship between the student and the uni, facilitated by the supervisor who hopefully gets something out of it. I assume it only gets worse from here.
  10. I have been told that the PhD is the only program that offers solid research training and the ability to do your original research (something an industry job does not offer). Even if I accept those premises, I now wonder what it is all for.
  11. Where do you both see yourselves in 5 and 10 years?
  12. What keeps you both going?
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Episode citation

Quintana, D.S., Heathers, J.A.J. (Hosts). (2021, December 27) “146: Skills pay bills”, Everything Hertz [Audio podcast], DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/PUW6N

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The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Dan Quintana, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


UnDisciplined: Let’s Talk Toads

Podcast: UnDisciplined
Episode: UnDisciplined: Let’s Talk Toads
Pub date: 2021-12-02

They’ve got warts, they sometimes smell like roasted peanuts, and in Wyoming, they’re changing how they move because of a fungus. This week, we’ll be discussing a concept known as behavioral fever in boreal toads, and how this fever is helping toads fight chytrid fungus.Dr. Barrile studies how individual toads’ movement and habitat choices scale up to influence population growth and demographic rates. His research uniquely documents toads altering their behavior to cope with chytrid fungus, a concept referred to as “behavioral fever”.

The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Matthew LaPlante, Shoshannah Buxbaum, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.