Women in Technology and Science

Reflections on the PhD

  • 10 December 2022

My Career Journey: Reflections on the PhD

Dr Jane O'Hara writes: On 21st November 2022 I was delighted to be invited to give a talk to the Women+ in STEM Society at UCD Dublin, as a STEM PhD graduate. The Society members are undergraduates and postgraduates studying STEM-related courses. Thank you very much to Sinéad Marsh and to all the attendees!

The talk was "My Career Journey: Reflections on the PhD". I presented my experience of applying for PhD positions in 2006, as well as some of the highlights and potential pitfalls to watch out for when doing a PhD.

My key insights for choosing a suitable PhD lab and advisor are:

  • Narrow down which fields of STEM/topics of research you are interested in
  • In an interview, demonstrate your knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic. Mention some of the lab techniques you are familiar with, although don’t worry if you haven’t got experience in particular techniques, as the lab should train you in!
  • Asking questions of a PhD advisor before agreeing to take on a PhD can help you determine if the advisor and environment will be a good fit for you. Some questions that will help you figure this out are about:
    • Advisor style and expectations, e.g. “How often do you meet with your students and are these meetings as a group or 1:1?
    • Research fit and projects, e.g. “Do you tend to give your students projects or have them develop their own ideas?
    • Funding, e.g. “Would I have grant funding for a project or would I need to apply for scholarship funding?
    • Lab culture, one of the most important areas to enquire about! Questions here could include “How many hours per week do you expect students to work?”; “Are students encouraged to attend conferences (and are these trips funded?)?”; and “How often are students expected to be contactable by their advisor – such as via email/Slack/other?”
  • I would also advise you to ask about the publications produced by the lab – how many publications they aim to produce annually, and how many each student is expected to write (and whether students are encouraged to be first author on these publications)
  • Lastly – try and talk to current or former students from this lab if you can, as they will have valuable insights into the expectations and culture! Also talking to any other PhD students you know (current or already graduated) about their experience will give you some insight into the realities of research and whether it would be a good fit for your life at this point in time.

Beyond my advice about looking for a PhD, I also shared a tip to help you while you’re in the throes of one. This was to try and ensure you have a good work-life balance by prioritising time for friends and family, and hobbies, particularly anything that helps you bust stress.

Since completing my PhD, I’ve had a really varied and enjoyable career in research, project management, education and outreach. Building networks of people who work in interesting areas was a key way for me to find some of these roles. I’d advise anyone doing a PhD or early in their career to get involved in volunteering for associations or groups that they’re interested in. For me it was the Postgraduate Students Union at RCSI, the Postdoctoral Association in Vancouver, and of course Women in Technology and Science (WITS). In fact, connecting with WITS while I worked in Cork led to the WITS Cork chapter being set up in 2016 - a great network of women in STEM are still running the show very impressively there.

The bottom line for me is that a PhD can be a great experience and can open many doors in your future career, but it’s worth first asking yourself what topic, research group and environment would be right for you to explore and how they might lead you to where you want to go.

Reference: The Definitive ‘what do I ask/look for’ in a PhD advisor guide, from Columbia University (www.cs.columbia.edu).

Dr Jane O'Hara did a PhD in Molecular Biology of Cancer and graduated from RCSI graduate in 2011. Jane is a STEM project manager and educator, as well as a WITS member and formerly of the WITS Executive. She helped set up WITS Cork chapter in 2016 and led WITS Book Club, now WITS Reads, in 2018.