PhD student in Chemical Engineering
Skils required: HA! If I had real skills I would have gotten a job when I finished college instead of going to graduate school! But in all seriousness, you must be self-disciplined/self-motivated and patient. That’s really about it.
The only education needed to enter a PhD program is a Bachelor’s degree in a related field. I had a BS in chemical engineering, but it is common for people to have undergrad degrees in things like chemistry, physics, materials science, or mechanical engineering to name a few.
My father is an engineer, and he was always fixing stuff. Everything from printers to cars to the washing machine. But even when I would talk to him about other problems I was having– like maybe with a teacher at school– he always would have an interesting angle. Have you thought about this? Could it just seem like this is the problem, but maybe that’s because of something else? And usually, it was really good advice. And I thought to myself, that’s a cool life skill. I want to be a problem solver. I want to be an engineer. My research focus is on carbon nanomaterials for applications in human health and the environment.
I like that every day is different and it’s really up to me to plan my day– which is why self-motivation is so important! Usually every Sunday night I outline a plan for the week. I figure out what experiments I want to run and what I need to prepare for them. I find that doing this the night before means I am ready to start working when I get in the door Monday morning and saves me from wasting a lot of time. It also helps me use my week more efficiently. Typically, you and your adviser have some sort of research question in mind. The first step is to go to the published literature and figure out what other people have done. Then, you need to figure out something new and interesting you can do using the resources available to you. The first experiments on a project are the most fun and the most miserable. It’s a lot of “shooting in the dark”- you mix some stuff together and then analyze it using whatever cool science-y toy you have handy, like a microscope or spectrophotometer. No one’s ever done your experiment before, so you don’t really know what to do, so you make some educated guesses. But really you are just throwing stuff together into a beaker and trying to get something that resembles data. The data is never what you are expecting. (Which is why what you do is interesting!). So you scratch your head for a while, and try something new. Did you not use enough of something, so the science-y toy can’t detect what’s going on? Did you use too much and overload your signal? Did you forget about some small thing that interfered and ruined all your results? (This is the hardest one to answer, but ends in the most interesting results.) I work with nanomaterials, which are waaaayyyy too small to be seen by the human eye. Sometimes I use really powerful microscopes and look at things that have been magnified over 50,000 times from their original size (sometimes over 100,000 times!). And you know what? At that magnification, stuff looks weird. And a lot of times I sit there and ask myself- is that something I made? Or is that a fleck of dust? So you go back and try more and more things, and eventually you get some vague idea about what’s going on. But you must be patient, because it’s really easy to get the wrong idea. I would guess 80-90% of my time spent on the bench is figuring out the right way to run the experiment in order to get the information I’m trying to get, and only the last 10% or so of my experimental work will be of interest to the rest of the scientific community. So it’s important to be patient. And then, when you have some vague notion about what’s going on, you write it up in a paper and try to get it published. (And let me tell you, there is nothing as exciting as the first time you see your name in an author byline.) And maybe you travel to conferences (which can be all over the world, in really cool places) and talk with international experts about your work. And then, you start over, with a new project.
The hardest part is that you never know what you are doing. If you know what you are supposed to do, it’s because someone already figured it out—and then you are wasting your effort. You always have to start at square one- or even square zero. As soon as you feel like get a good understanding of something, it’s time to move on, to find something else that you know nothing about.
You never know what you are doing. But it’s totally okay to not have any idea what’s going on. You are the first person to do this work, and it is YOUR work. You get to figure out something new and unexplained with every project, and that’s really exciting. It will never get old or humdrum or boring, because you always are working on a new puzzle.
I work in what’s typically referred to as a “wet lab” which means stereotypical benchtop experiments (as opposed to things like theoretical or computational work). Mostly I work sitting in a chemical hood, but depending on what equipment I need I may have to go to a different lab (which may be on a different floor, or a different building, or a different university.. and that university may be in another country). I get to move around a lot- I’m not stuck at my desk, which I really like. When I’m not doing experiments (like when I’m analyzing my data or writing up reports) I can work from home or from my favorite coffee shop, which is nice too.
Be patient. You have to keep at it, even when everything seems to be headed to a dead end. But you will never regret your hard work, and there is no better feeling when you’ve persevered through all that frustration. Stick with it, and be proud of what you’ve done. It’s worth it.
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