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  • Elena Cerdán

Dining hall chats while sailing: PhDs and the transition into a science career

Social bubbles on ships allow for the coexistence between individuals of all sorts. Such a dynamic environment onboard is also a good opportunity to bring thoughts and ideas together. Last evening, after dinner, all the scientist scattered the chairs around the dining hall to sit down and discuss about PhDs and the transition towards a scientific career. Despite being on a Spanish research ship mostly full of Spaniards, we took advantage of many international experiences in education and scientific institutions that many of us have been involved in (US, UK, Australia, Italy and Belgium).

A PhD: Spanish vs international systems

To put this into a wider perspective, we can first bring some data on the table. For example, only 0.7% of the adult population in Spain have PhDs, slightly lower than the 1.1% average of the European Union, leaded by countries such as Slovenia (5%), Switzerland (3%), Luxembourg, Sweden, UK or Germany (2%) (OECD Education at a Glance 2021). Further, despite around 70% of PhD graduates would like to continue in academia, it is only 10-30% of these who end up staying. Why those numbers and why such differences between countries? Resources, culture, and the already stablished national educational systems from bottom levels are probably few of the main factors driving such differences.

Chatting between us, we mentioned three main common factors (well linked between them) given in some Spanish universities, that may explain why we are somehow behind in this transition between university education and senior research positions. First, it is the (1) learning methodology. In general terms, currently there is a lot of importance given to written exams, text books and imparting a specific closed subject programme to evaluate the student’s learning process. As a result, this produces masses of students repeating the same concepts, course after course, without innovating or creating, or developing any critical thinking. Most students do not know what they are doing, they just know they will have a degree after 4-5 years, just because society told them to do so. It is left up to the cleverest and/or resourceful students to look beyond the methodology and for example become involved in research projects with some teachers. This methodology starts to become a bit archaic, and need to be re-considered. Instead, other educational systems in other countries choose to give more independence to the students. Researchers that studied abroad shared examples from their experiences where universities offer more practical courses (field work, research project development), organise oral presentations/exams, or promote learning though scientific literature review. These methodologies force students to leave their comfort zones and find their own tools to become independent and develop a skill set that could be applied later on in their professional career.

But are students really aware of what’s next? Is there enough (2) visibility of the research field while at university? Researchers that studied in Spain raised up that during their undergrad studies it would have helped to know what a PhD is, that there is actually a path to follow to become a researcher, or that university exam scores are important to apply for PhD scholarships. Additionally, one of the professors added that roughly 70% of his students do not know what CSIC is (main public scientific institution in Spain). Why and who is responsible may be left for another day, but what is important is that there is not enough visibility, or that it is being poorly focused. The solution is to raise awareness of the existence of research institutions, and for our own benefit, specially from the field of oceanography. I mean, what other field would have it easier than us, when you can walk into a classroom with few presentation’s slides full of pictures of penguins, ships, marine robots, submarine volcanoes… and all the many other amazing things we witness along the way… Wouldn’t that excite and motivate kids to join us?

This leads into the last issue: (3) motivation. Whose fault is that students come to class to “pass” the test and not to learn? We would be lying if we said we loved every single course of our university degree, as we always have more affinity for one type of subjects than for others. But what cannot be debated is that if a professor comes to class motivated with motivating material, you might learn more or less, but that class will always be more enjoyable, and it will be more likely you’ll end up finding it interesting. Part of the problem is also a consequence of university researchers being "punished" for not being productive in science and having to teach more hours of classes the following year, a burden to carry on their shoulders. This could change if we go back to the beginning of this post, and talk about a potential flexibility on teaching methodologies. This could be leaded by the university professors themselves who could start to innovate new teaching techniques, instead of following a pre-determined syllabus.

With these three aspects linked, a change of methodology, more visibility of science and promoting motivation, perhaps then many more students will become aware of what it means to be a scientist, to get involved in projects, and to start their career with a PhD.

Supervisors – key to guide future scientists

To finish off, Javier brought up a book called “How to get a PhD” by Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh, a useful handbook stating general roles and responsibilities of both PhD student and supervisor. Practical support, frequent communication, work commitment… all these are known, but the challenging part comes when doing science while having fun, finding the right balance to work hard and enjoy what you do. Understanding that not all students and supervisors like to work the same way… supervisors: you got a tough one there! I guess the most successful one will be the one that adapts the best to what he/she has. So, I wish you all patience and good luck!

And after all, is the “Dr.” worth it?

Well, overall, a completed PhD is surely going to add up to your career no matter if you leave or stay in science. Whereas it is true that depending on what year you ask a candidate the answer varies, it is also true that it is common to hear recent graduates say that although it took tears and effort, it was way worth it (although they would not start another one again). And this is interesting, because the PhD should be taken as a kind of learning process, where one evolves to move on to the next step – whatever it will be – and not the ultimate goal, as one of the professors said. Putting it in other words, it would be ideal, if you knew why you are doing your PhD, and that you are not doing it “just because it was what followed your Masters”. Other than the qualification on your CV, there are multiple transferable skills learned along the way where you start becoming an independent researcher, but also an individual with critical thinking skills that can help make economies more innovative.

Last thoughts

As it is challenging to come up with solutions to find the optimal educational system that fits all sorts of students and professors, and benefits the path to become a scientist, there are definitely little steps forward we can take by looking around us. Different countries will never have the same exact educational systems. Though, something one Postdoc mentioned and we all definitely agreed with was that the “internationalisation” is key to grow as an individual scientist, as a research group and as a field in general. Doing studies abroad, bringing foreign students in, and receiving part of your education in English are just few of the musts needed to achieve this enriching environment.

Who to blame for the current situation is just another topic for another post… But it is pointless to think that it’s all on others “above” us. Independently if you are a student, scientist, supervisor, or professor, we are all to some extent responsible of changes to happen. You can start with education, raising awareness or using your managing position to find gaps, suggest and start proposing changes. The ball is on you now.

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