Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Enriching the PhD experience

After several years of hard work, I have just been awarded my PhD and look forward to “walking the stage” in December. My research topic was patient monitoring in anaesthesia with head-mounted displays – one that turned out to be fascinating, challenging, and amazingly rewarding.

When I first started, however, I had thought that the process would be relatively unexciting – enrol, work on your own for a few years, submit, and graduate – but soon discovered that Australian programs are actually remarkably flexible. In fact, your advisers and the university are often willing to help you “enrich” your education.

Enrichment involves participating in activities that, while not strictly necessary for completing your PhD, provide complementary educational experiences that help you become a better scientist. These activities include the summer schools, theses-by-publication, and science communication activities recently described on this blog, plus many more.

If you’re a big picture type of person who likes to take on challenges, then you’ll probably enjoy working on interdisciplinary research projects. For my thesis, I brought a background in software engineering to a team of psychologists, doctors, nurses, and biomedical engineers, and investigated fundamental problems (such as inattentional blindness with HMDs) in the exciting and dynamic environment of operating rooms.

Collaborations are the foundation of academic research; take a look at any journal article and you’ll probably find several co-authors. You can work with your fellow students on side projects (in addition to your PhD), and even expand your professional networks through collaborations. Hosting academic visitors in your lab and going on academic tours is a great way to find future collaborations and job opportunities. The global academic “family” that develops throughout your career is one of the greatest perks of academia.

Other opportunities for travel include internships and fellowships. Internships give you the opportunity to apply the research skills that you learn during the PhD to practical problems in industry. Research fellowships, on the other hand, let you collaborate with internationally renowned researchers and may be part of prestigious scholarship programs such as the Rhodes and Fulbright.

The gap between the academic and corporate worlds can be dramatic at times, but research commercialisation bridges that gap for the benefit of both. Your hard work and expertise helps the wider community, while industry provides funding and support to enhance or continue your research. It also happens to be a great way to supplement your scholarship and travel funds.

Beyond work-related activities, the flexibility of PhD programs also lets you cultivate hobbies that might otherwise be impractical or too expensive if you work in a typical corporate environment. I enjoyed surfing California’s world-class waves during an internship and went snowboarding in the 500+ inches of annual snowfall while on a fellowship in Utah… almost for free!

Enrichment activities are a great way to learn new skills, build up your CV, and enjoy the PhD journey. While there are many potential opportunities available for every student, you’ll have to take the initiative to find the right ones for you.

Dave Liu

PS: I’ll be giving a more detailed talk to HFES-UQ members about my own enrichment experiences in the near future. If you’re a prospective or current PhD student and would be interested in attending, feel free to contact me at naskies@acm.org

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