A PhD in isolation.
A PhD is by definition a degree that represents anywhere from three- to four years of original research, well, at least by principle. A large chunk of that time will be following through the footsteps of the many others that have passed through this journey, before you are expected to specialise on something very specific, but which has a significant implication in a broader topic. You may feel like a PhD project is like throwing a pebble into the ocean, meaning that its contributions will not largely affect the broader context. A PhD requires a high level of maturity and professionalism, and its outcome will not only depend on your ability to collect results, but on the ability to be productive even in challenging situations. A PhD requires frequent planning and re-planning, as well as commitment. But this commitment comes at a cost. As you progress through your specialism, your knowledge will become very specific and while you may know basic concepts, you may become isolated from knowledge and skills that are obtained by other means.
How can I overcome the isolation?
There’s two types of PhD isolation: 1) personal isolation, which means being isolated from everything and everyone and 2) intellectual isolation, which I will explain later. Let’s talk about the first one: personal isolation. Here I refer to physically becoming isolated from other people throughout the duration of the PhD. This might not be a problem early on when the PhD project hasn’t really started. During this period, you might be getting to know your lab and office colleagues, or get to know your way around the departmental building or do the admin work that needs to be done. This is by nature the time to know your surroundings and get a general idea of where you will be working and the type of people you will see on a day-to-day basis, however they are not necessarily the people with whom you will be working. There’s several approaches to interacting in the workplace, from eating lunch together, casual or formal meetings, collaborations, asking for help, helping others, attending presentations or seminars, etc. However, as you become more committed to your work and dedicated to obtain results, the little things such as interacting with other people doesn’t seem so important anymore.
The quick turn-around at this point is to understand what the PhD project means to you and how you can balance your activities. While at first this may be very difficult, time management is the best skill you can learn from a PhD. If you have poor time management skills, you may not be optimising your time efficiently, which in the long term would relate to performing several experiments without obtaining good results and isolating yourself from other people and friends, as you are fully committed to the PhD project. However, this commitment is negative, since it is valued as a result of poorly planned workloads. And thus the repercussions will also be negative and more attempts to continue this cycle may prove to be futile. It is therefore important to self-identify the degree of isolation. This can range from occasionally seeing other people in a non-work related context to never interacting with anyone at any point. This might stem from various reasons such as stress, people skills (or rather lack of), the inability to open-up to your supervisor and how much time your supervisor has for you and your project. It is important to note that it is perfectly acceptable if you want to be independent, but that independence can quickly turn into isolation and could make things complicated at a later stage. Once in a while you will depend on someone else. You might be looking for a very specific piece of equipment or wanting to ask a general question of something you are unsure about. There’s times when academics have called the lab and asked if a certain person was there, and I am unable to respond because I didn’t get to know anyone. And this was more because of the lack of an opportunity rather than personal choice. And yes, perhaps meeting people wasn’t my priority. The lab environment constantly changes, such that the turnover of researchers is high enough to not bother about new people after a while.
And then the extremes possibly involve the start of rumours about you. And let’s be honest, no one likes to be talked behind their back. And if you expected that academics are more mature and professional, well, it is not really like that. Let’s be clear about this here, you will find bullies or people with bad attitudes in academic research, as frequently as you will find them outside of academia. This doesn’t change. And I think it may be even worse in academia. Academics must continuously fight for funding as well as maintain their stance in a world where everyone has an ego that they wish to express. But it is not the academics or rather PIs that will be seen as competitive. That falls over to the PhD students, post-docs, research assistants and technicians. The ‘researchers in the lab’ are like the fish the follow sharks and eat the leftovers. They can be opportunists and use the stance of their project supervisor to express their own egos. Some may even go an extra step and assume the superior role in the lab. It is important here to note that this is exactly what academic research trains us to do. It trains us to take command of research. However, this does not imply taking command of other researchers or research projects. As a PhD student, you are not required to be the boss or supervisor of other projects. You mustn’t think that being a PhD student somehow gives you the seniority over an undergraduate student. Everyone should work collectively and for the good of the entire lab. You can become isolated if you assume to be more important than any other person.
The second type of isolation is intellectual isolation. This is when you centre your skills and knowledge around one specific subject. By the end of the PhD you should be an expert in all related research in your area, which might theoretically be everything that has led to the start of your project. But what about other areas of science? This all comes to personal preference and how much time you wish to spend on other research. I think it is important to stretch your knowledge outside of your own field. A lot of good science is being done elsewhere and a little knowledge of something that may not initially seem relevant in your project might help you form ideas for future discussions. For example, I worked on the regulation of proteins in plants and in my viva I was asked whether I think the regulation of plant proteins would be affected by the increase in leaf temperature, partly because of climate change. Based on my review of the literature around my field I was able to acknowledge that an increase in global temperatures could in fact increase the leaf temperature and there are some examples in which temperature could affect enzymes and enzymatic activity. That would be an adequate response, but I decided to add a counterargument to my own answer, for completeness. In certain aquatic microorganisms, especially those that live in close proximity to ocean thermal vents possess heat-resistant proteins, which allow these organisms to live and replicate in high temperature environments. If you do molecular biology, then you might know that the polymerase from Thermus aquaticus (Taq polymerase) is heat-resistant, which for this reason has a very important role in polymerase chain reaction (PCR), when temperatures are increased to allow the DNA to unwind in vitro. Heat-resistance could also be important in immune responses when dealing with infections in your body. The point of this is that a little bit of knowledge outside of your main field of study could result in being able to answer with more scientific complexity.
Intellectual isolation can also limit what you can do with your PhD. I estimate that no more than 10% of all PhD graduates continue to work on their projects. At the end of the PhD, the first challenge that you must pass is to dig yourself out of the PhD pit where you spent the last three to four years, or even more in some graduate schools. What you don’t want to do is to finish the PhD and feel like you could have done more. I made the mistake to focus too much on learning the protocols that I needed for my PhD without thinking about learning more about what I could have used after I finished the PhD. Everyone will finish their PhD thinking that they could have done more. Some who have more open, interdisciplinary projects may not appreciate the luxury of using a wide range of methods and having hands-on experience in various applications. The more equipment you can be trained on during the PhD, the greater chances you will have in finding employment within science later. While your skills may be important for seeking employment, familiarity with specialist equipment such as microscopes, can set you aside from other candidates. It is these aspects that you cannot learn by simply reading a book and must have had actual use-time. But don’t get me wrong. Industry starter jobs for example will ask for several skills, some times more skills than an actual person could have (unless they are very experienced, but then again a very experienced person might not be searching for these kind of jobs). That’s what they ask for on paper, but in reality they want someone who has a great grasp of basic, fundamental knowledge most likely acquired from their first degree, with application knowledge acquired during a postgraduate degree, postdoc or industry-related experience. I don’t believe that the concept of interdisciplinary work exists outside of academia (bear in mind that interdisciplinary study is still quite limited in practice, in my opinion).
Employers do not care how extensive your knowledge is and will prefer candidates with specific knowledge about the subject field of the company with shown success of thinking through complex problems. I however, don’t agree with this, and have the ideology that a scientist has the capability to engage in professional discussions about any scientific related fields, if they choose to have an open mind about global research interests. A true interdisciplinary work atmosphere would promote the presence of various scientists with different backgrounds working together to solve problems related to one specific field. Several scientists from the same background that have worked on similar applications during their postdoctoral research will not bring the level of innovation and creativity to solving problems. They might be able to better understand each other, but they might just go around in circles without appreciating the nature of the problem.
Isolation during the PhD can affect everyone differently. A PhD is all about exploring through the unknown and learning what results are important. This doesn’t mean that these results must be on paper. I wish I had spent more time on smaller projects during my PhD and taking extra courses to learn more about related subjects. A PhD is also about freedom. You might not appreciate this aspect until the PhD is done and when you realise you cannot freely conduct your choice of experiments. That is why learning to explore outside the grasp of your project and being an active member of the scientific community will give you a sense of security, a feeling of belonging part of something special. Yes, the scientific community is sometimes selfish and egotistical, but you can’t let a few idiots ruin the experience. For the time being, fighting to remain in academia is the norm, with this changing very little in the future. But don’t fight with bad attitude or by bullying, instead fight with knowledge and be curious.
Edited on August 27, 2022 12:15 PM BST: Content editing.