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PhD Inspiration - Sir Paul Nurse
Posted on 14 Oct '16

PhD Inspiration - Sir Paul Nurse

Considering a PhD, but wondering what you'll actually get out of it? We've sat down with some of the UK's top academics to hear their experiences and thoughts on postgraduate study. Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel Prize winner and Director of The Francis Crick Institute. Here he shares some advice for new students.

Why did you choose to do a PhD?

I chose to do a PhD and - I have to admit - quite a long time ago now, because I’m really curious about how the natural world works. Particularly life: living organisms.

I thought a PhD would be a wonderful opportunity just to follow my curiosity and to carry out research into something I think is interesting and hopefully might have been important. I thought it was one of the great opportunities of my life.

What did you get out of doing a PhD?

What I got out of doing a PhD, I think, was mainly how to do science.

I learned how to do experiments. Experiments I could trust, experiments that were reproducible, which actually meant something and which gave me the data on which I could build ideas on as to how the real world worked.

It was really the mechanics of doing experiments that I learned as a PhD student.

What was the biggest challenge during your PhD?

The biggest challenge for me doing my PhD was not getting data – actually that was OK. Not even getting reliable data – which was also OK. It was trying to fit that together into an idea, or a hypothesis, that could explain something interesting.

In some ways I seemed to be just sort of wandering around, perhaps a bit aimlessly - collecting observations, doing experiments, getting data - without having a true picture of how to proceed to getting a good idea.

That took me a little longer to acquire. I actually got it when I was working as a postdoc, after I read a bit of philosophy, to be honest: philosophy of science, largely to do with Karl Popper. So I recommend reading that too!

Why should people do a PhD?

I think that if you want to do a PhD, the main reason for it has to be an intense curiosity in doing what you’re doing.

Don’t just think about it in terms of a career: “am I going to get a good job, am I going to get paid more”, those sorts of things. Of course they’re important, but really, what should drive you is wanting to know the answer to a problem. Hopefully an important problem. That should be your main motivation for doing a PhD.

What is your top PhD tip?

Something you have to really think about when you’re doing a PhD – a hint I can give you – is do take your data seriously.

Quite a few times I had a preconceived idea about what result I was expecting to get. I didn’t get it and I always thought I was getting the ‘wrong’ answer.

If you’ve done the experimental protocol well and you’ve got certain observations and results that don’t agree with your hypothesis, challenge it. Be sceptical. Think about what the data might mean, even if it’s different from your own idea.

So the main hint is: be sceptical. Be critical of what you’re doing. That way, you may really find out what’s happening.

Interested in pursuing a PhD like Sir Paul Nurse? Why not take a look at current Medicine or Physiology PhDs on our website. You can also check our advice section for more information about studying a PhD.