Some PhD students and early career academics feel that the demands placed on them are so intense that they can never devote time to ‘secondary’ activities. Research comes first and last, and the doctorate ‘grind’ is something that has to be ‘got out of the way’ before they can focus on anything else. In contrast, Hayley Teasdale argues that PhD studies are an ideal time for developing your research communication and impact skills and growing your entrepreneurial and organizational capabilities.
I am a neuroscientist by training and my PhD was undertaken in the Faculty of Health at the University of Canberra (UC). My research focused on improving proprioception (which is the sense your body has of where it is in space) and balance in Parkinson’s disease. I submitted my PhD thesis in December 2019, and at the time of writing I’m awaiting the results of my examination.
This ‘inter-regnum’ period has been wonderful for reflecting upon the hectic, exciting and stressful moments of my PhD, all the wins and all the losses. Many people I meet and see on social media talk about how excited they are to ‘be done’ with their PhD. But if I had the chance, I would live out my PhD candidature (or at least aspects of it) over and over again. The way I see it, you can come into your research degree with the intention to write your thesis, ‘nose to the grindstone’-style and get out. Or you have the choice to try and squeeze every single opportunity you can out of your period of doctoral studies, and build up a stock of resources and experiences useful for your academic career to come. I believe it’s in your best interest to chase those opportunities. It’ll keep you motivated. It’ll give you a sense of connection. It’ll also put you in a better position in terms of employment when you graduate. And to be completely honest, I think you’re a lot more likely to get to the finish line if you seize all your varied opportunities along the way.
In the first few months of my PhD I participated in a competition that UC Researcher Development runs, called ‘Pitch for Funds’. This was an in-house competition for any academic in the university to pitch their research to a panel and an audience for the chance to win some funding. I’ve had a lot of later successes with science communication and pitching since, but this first attempt was a complete disaster. I totally lost the plot and rambled on for a bit about where I thought my research might end up going. But let’s be honest, I had no idea because I had just started my degree. It probably goes without saying, but I didn’t make it to the finals for that competition. I know now, that those science communication competitions aren’t there to be won, they are there for you to learn from and to help you grow.
A month later, I got a call from the UC media team at the university. They had heard me speak at the event, thought my research sounded interesting, and asked if I’d like to go on ABC Radio in Canberra (the state broadcaster) to talk to them about it. I did, even though it scared me. That radio interview, and the subsequent web story put up by the ABC, took care of all of the recruitment of people with Parkinson’s disease for the first trial in my PhD.
It also drove me to synthesise and clarify the aims of my research. Putting yourself out there in competitions, science communication forums, or just simply having to talk about your research in public, can give you a huge advantage in this way. The opportunity to explain yourself to an audience can really improve your own understanding of your research, which was something that was brought home to me, when I took part in UC’s ‘Three Minute Thesis competition’. Building on these opportunities, I later gave a TEDx talk in Canberra, in front of a bigger audience, a year later I went to TED HQ in New York. The trouble is before you take part, you aren’t always able to see exactly what these advantages might be, especially at the moment, when you are looking at your unread email count and piles of data that needs to be analysed. At times like these, any advantages can feel very far removed, and it is understandably a deterrent.
As one researcher described to me, one a way of overcoming these barriers to consider the value of science communication as part of your job. They were under pressure, like many of us are, to use our precious time to do things like publish papers that will improve our chances of getting that next grant, or even keeping our job. They had a strategy to combat this pressure, one that I had never heard of before. They approached the media and communications department at their university and asked them to calculate the monetary value of all the exposure they had given their university and faculty by interacting with the media so frequently. The final figure was greater than the researcher’s salary. They then took that information to their next performance review and negotiated a pay rise. The impacts of embracing science communication are therefore not immeasurable, and they are not irrelevant to your job as an academic.
Developing an entrepreneurial skill set during your PhD is likewise an asset. Becoming a medical technology entrepreneur has made me better at being a scientist. I was able to learn about entrepreneurship through programs like the ‘ON Prime’ program run by CSIRO, the Australian government’s scientific research centre. This is a pre-accelerator program designed to take researchers out of the lab and to find the markets fit for their products. I also competed in the Australia – France 24 hour Entrepreneurship competition, run by the French Embassy to Australia. As part of the competition you are locked in a room with a handful of other PhD students and have to create a new business idea in 24hours. (If you are lucky, you can even win a trip to Paris).
I was also a Startup Catalyst Future Founder which took me to Silicon Valley touring the headquarters of companies like Facebook and Google. Each of these opportunities seemed to build off one another. I went to Seoul and carried the Olympic torch for Samsung and even got to meet the CEO. I went to Berlin and competed for young innovator of the year at Falling Walls Lab. Back home I sat on UC’s Student Representative Council. It felt like I was being offered another opportunity every day, and having observed the impacts it was having on my research I couldn’t stop saying yes.
Thanks to my varied PhD experiences, I don’t just know how to deliver quality research, I also know how to communicate clearly and how to take my research out of the lab and use it to positively impact the world. Not all of this was built into the PhD curriculum at the outset. Saying yes to ‘other things’ took energy, it took time and it meant taking risks. But it led to me to a huge range of career options that I am now qualified for and will undoubtedly love. I feel I have grown to be more than just the title of my thesis – I am a scientist.
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About the author
Hayley Teasdale is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Health at the University of Canberra and founder of tech company Equilibri. She is a passionate science communicator, most recently representing Australia at Falling Walls Lab in Berlin. She has big dreams of using science and technology to improve global health outcomes and achieve equality.