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Offline Urbanium

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Another PhD question
« on: August 11, 2013, 08:59:52 PM »
Hello, I have a dilemma and would appreciate some advices/experiences:

I have completed my MSc with major in organic chemistry approximately half year ago. I applied for a couple of PhD positions outside my country and was accepted for one, and will be starting with it in october (if I accept the offer). From the beginning I should be involved with attending graduate courses + guiding lab courses for undergrad students + doing the project lab work.

I am seriously considering this offer, however, I have a doubt: the chemistry I did for the MSc thesis which also resulted with one CC published paper is quite simple, nothing special (biological part of the paper is more exciting, but I won't be doing any biology in the PhD project, only physical organic), plus while I was doing the labwork I wasn't quite independent, my ex-supervisor gave me all structures of compounds that had to be prepared, and one guy who actually was doing some postdoc research on his own was ALWAYS in the lab and helped me to set the apparatus for the first time, gave me reagents, controlled if I assigned spectra correctly etc.

Now, I am enthusiastic, am good at planning things, love to present things and work with undergrad students, but I got the feeling that during the MSc work I was not working independently, in fact I was quite dependent.

What does it mean to do research "independently" when it comes up to PhD in organic chemistry? What is the degree of that "independence"?

Offline Dan

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Re: Another PhD question
« Reply #1 on: August 12, 2013, 01:43:22 AM »
I don't understand the dilemma exactly, is it:

1. You want to do a PhD but you're not sure you can handle independence

or

2. You want independence but you're not sure you would get enough of it in a PhD

It depends on the supervisor, but in my experience you will generally have as much independence as you can handle.

I expect 1st year PhD students to be dependent for direction and ideas, but as they move into the second year they have the experience to start to take more control of their project(s). I expect them to be able to carry out the major lab techniques (chromatography etc.) unsupervised within a month. That said, there are plenty of people who coast through a PhD simply by doing what a PI or postdoc tells them to do at every turn.

From what you say there is nothing that seems to suggest you would not be able to do a PhD, many students start with very little or even no real lab experience, and sometimes surprisingly poor general chemistry knowledge. The degree of independence is quite dependent on the PI, but if you are talented and driven you will pick up more and more independence as you move forward.
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Offline Urbanium

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Re: Another PhD question
« Reply #2 on: August 12, 2013, 01:37:02 PM »
Hi, my dilemma is the first one.

I am not sure if I am ready to handle that level of independence. Whenever I read about PhD studies, everybody writes about and mentions the big level of "independence" in your work.

I personally have no problems with chromatography, in fact I used column and TLC really a lot during my MSc research. On the other hand, I had a couple of analytical exercises in HPLC and GC, but have never used the instruments personally.

The instrumental methods are not the issue, the issue is that I do not know what to expect when doing PhD specifically in organic synthesis, will I be obliged to propose new compounds' formulas, know all the reagents I need to use before I start working, nature of all the reactions I will be doing?

Maybe my comment sounds silly, but this is why, in my previous post, I wrote that "the chemistry I did before was quite simple, no special reactions and techniques (e.g. I never used Schlenk, performed Heck reaction or anyth complex), the chemistry was mostly to make some libraries of simple-substituted heterocycles, and the postdoc guy was always in the lab, i.e. there was always, form first to last day, somebody who had helped me, and he was "entitled to watch over me". I was never alone in the lab.

That said, there are plenty of people who coast through a PhD simply by doing what a PI or postdoc tells them to do at every turn.

That sound too good to be true, although I really want to develop independence gradually, it would be stupid to do like some robot and then to want to continue the scientific career after the PhD.  :-\

Offline Archer

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Re: Another PhD question
« Reply #3 on: August 12, 2013, 03:11:06 PM »
Go for it, you will mostly be working from literature procedures at the start so this is pretty basic stuff. If it's anhydrous work someone will show you how to so it.

Buy this book: http://www.amazon.com/Advanced-Practical-Organic-Chemistry-Edition/dp/1439860971#_

I went from undergraduate to be the sole organic chemist in a small company and it was a steep learning curve but I read books and journals and that's how I learned.

Students have often said to me "it's ok for you, you are intellegent" I always told them that this was not the case, I have just read more books than they have.

Once again my adivce is go for the PhD it is a very rewarding experience.
“ I love him. He's hops. He's barley. He's protein. He's a meal. ”

Denis Leary.

Offline Urbanium

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Re: Another PhD question
« Reply #4 on: August 14, 2013, 07:08:09 AM »
Okay, thanks for the positive opinion. Anyone else with some opinion/advice?

Dan, what do you think about my last reflection above?

Offline Dan

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Re: Another PhD question
« Reply #5 on: August 14, 2013, 07:39:47 AM »
I agree with Archer, I see no reason why you can't do it. If you are already familiar with basic techniques that is a major plus.

The situation is not that you are thrown in the lab and nobody will help you. The level of independence will increase as you become more experienced and confident about making decisions. Nobody ever stops discussing synthetic challenges with others and asking their advice. You'll probably be on a pretty tight lead, similar to your Masters, to begin with, but you will gradually get more and more slack to take up. Once people see that you can handle chromatography etc., you will not have the hovering postdoc situation.

I was actually just reminded of something early in my career. I think it was the first month or so of my Masters research year, and I overheard two junior PhD students chatting in the corridor. One of them was explaining some kind of intramolecular tethering strategy that he had come up with to control the diastereoselectivity of a reaction he was doing. At that time I was considering doing a PhD and when I heard this  thought, "Christ, I'm not sure I could be like that in a year". In the end I did stay on for the PhD and actually found that the rate at which you gain knowledge and experience is very high. I was surprised by how much I learned so quickly (I was a good student, but I wouldn't say exceptional), and with that a transition to "independent" research was natural over the first 1-2 years of study. Obviously I discussed ideas with my supervisor and colleagues, but I would still try things even if my superiors were unconvinced by the idea (they were usually right, but you still learn from that), or explore solutions to problems without seeking approval if I was confident the idea was good (provided the experiment was cheap/safe).

I think it's hard to know how well you will respond to PhD study, and the environment varies enormously from lab to lab, but there is nothing you have said that makes me think, "Urbanium should not do a PhD". If you already know you enjoy lab work and are good at it then why not.
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Offline Corribus

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Re: Another PhD question
« Reply #6 on: August 14, 2013, 09:44:39 AM »
I think a better way to answer this is: if you don't want or aren't sure you can handle a high degree of independence, then you've got to ask yourself why you're thinking about a PhD in the first place. The whole point of the PhD is to teach you how to become an independent scientist capable of coming up with research ideas, planning out how to execute them, and actually doing the work, all by yourself.  No matter what job you land in after a PhD, you're going to be expected to do this kind of stuff on your own. You're going to be running a lab, or managing a research group, and that takes independence. If this doesn't sound attractive to you, if you want to be told what to do on a day-to-day basis, then you have no business getting a PhD. Yes, there are, as someone above mentioned, some people who slide through a PhD with their hands held the whole way, but my general impression is that these people make poor PhD-level scientists even if they have the degree to their name, and usually they end up either failing in jobs they're not qualified for, or stuck with jobs that don't really require the PhD skillset.

Ultimately this is only something you can answer, because it depends on your personal preferences.  Nobody else can tell you whether you enjoy being an independent scientist. And yes, the first year or two can be rough, especially if the lab you're in doesn't have much of a support network outside of the PI. This is why I encourage students to actually spend some time talking to people in a lab before they commit to joining it.  In the end there's nothing wrong with going for a masters or sticking with a bachelors and getting a bench job, if this is what makes you comfortable. There is plenty of need for those kinds of positions out there.  Honestly I think too many people go for PhDs without thinking whether this is really what they want/need, and most labs could use more high quality, intelligent bench scientists and less PhDs. There's definitely a case of too many generals and not enough foot soldiers in science today.  From experience I can tell you that capable and motivated bachelors and masters level chemists are more valuable than gold. I wish payscales were better for this level of scientist and I also wish Universities did a better job of selling the value of these positions rather than pushing terminal degrees on everyone... but now I'm coming dangerously close to going off on a rant about the high education system so I'll stop before I work myself into a lather.
What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?  - Richard P. Feynman

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