The 1st Year of a PhD - The Benefits (and Stresses) of a Multidisciplinary Project |
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Posted on 20 Apr '18

The 1st Year of a PhD - The Benefits (and Stresses) of a Multidisciplinary Project

Are you interested in two different disciplines? A PhD could provide a way to combine the two. Here in the second edition of special blog series, Kirsty Smitten details speaks about her experiences as a first year PhD student working across Chemistry and Molecular Biology & Biotechnology.

A PhD is a specialised piece of research and it’s easy to assume this means your project will be very separate from work in other disciplines. In a Medical Science field like mine, for example, you might expect the process to involve chemists synthesising compounds, biologists testing them, and doctors conducting phase trials.

However, the system isn’t necessarily that rigid – particularly if you study a multidisciplinary project. During the first year of my PhD I discovered first hand that it is possible to gain experience across every stage of compound development. In fact, to design effective compounds, you need some experience in the other fields.

For example, my project is on metal based antimicrobials, however I soon found that some of the bacteria I was supposed to be treating exhibited a resistance to the metal I was going to use. Without the microbiological knowledge I gained working within MBB (Molecular Biology & Biotechnology) I wouldn’t have known that research would reach a dead end. There are lots of other reasons I’ve enjoyed working across disciplines during my PhD.

Learning an array of new skills

During my integrated Masters and PhD, I have developed and improved upon my laboratory Chemistry. However, most of the techniques I’ve used in the first part of my PhD were those I was already familiar with. Having a second discipline has allowed me to see a completely different side of science.

I have been able to test the antimicrobials I have developed, seeing my compound combatting multi-drug resistant bacteria first-hand. In addition, I have been able to visualise the compounds on super-resolution microscopes, which was pretty cool.

Working in different disciplines has resulted in me learning many new techniques, which is something a single discipline PhD may not offer. Developing this wider skill-set has allowed my research to go in new directions and is also good for future careers.

Improved communication

Working on a multidisciplinary project also means working with supervisors from different fields.

I’ll let you know one of my top tips for this: make sure your supervisors establish a good relationship with each other. There is nothing harder than trying to work for two supervisors who have completely contrasting opinions - it becomes very difficult to satisfy both. And, if you think effectively communicating your new ideas to one supervisor is difficult enough, trying to mediate between two is a refined skill.

But once you generate a good rapport you will benefit from the ideas of two experts in their own fields, this has proved invaluable to my research and has also helped develop my own communication skills.

Multiple research groups

Working with multiple research groups, means more of those daunting research presentations at group meetings. This has actually been helpful to me as I’m not the most confident public speaker. However, over the course of my PhD I have seen this improve.

This working environment can be beneficial for your project in general. You will benefit from two different sets of opinions on what future experiments you can run, or improvements to your original work. You’ll also have access to different processes and tools. I’ve been able to run different experiments and use equipment I wouldn’t have had available to me when working in Chemistry alone.

Unlimited exercise opportunities

This may put a few of you off, but it isn’t as awful as it sounds. During my first year, I spent quite a few months working in four labs, across three departments. As they weren’t in a close vicinity this involved quite a lot of speed-walking/running. You may have seen the suggested number of daily steps a person should take is 10,000; I have seen my Fitbit get past 25,000 on a good day.

This does hold a brilliant benefit though (besides the fitness): it means you get to explore new, interesting parts of the University. I got the opportunity to see what it was like to work in the medical school, which has been a highlight of my PhD.

Broader range of knowledge

I have found most departments offer departmental seminars, where a guest speaker, usually an expert in their field, discusses their group’s research. The nice thing about these lectures is they’re not compulsory, so I pick and choose which ones I attend, depending upon the content.

Having access to both Chemistry seminars, and Molecular Biology seminars has allowed me to learn about current ground-breaking research in both fields. I was worried when I began my multidisciplinary degree that I wouldn’t have a good knowledge of the second discipline, however the departmental seminars allowed me to learn a lot of what I needed to know.

Balance is key

Despite all the benefits, working on a multidisciplinary project can also be quite stressful. You may be doing a lot of work, trying to juggle research in two departments, possibly more. I certainly experienced this, I was trying to run simultaneous experiments in multiple labs (hence the step count overload).

I have found that balance is the key in this case. Try to work in one discipline at a time. In my case I was trying to synthesise new compounds whilst still doing biological testing on my old ones. I quickly changed this plan, and worked on synthesis, then moved onto the biology.

I would certainly recommend multidisciplinary projects to prospective students. You’ll gain a lot of experience and knowledge, even if the process can be slightly stressful at first. If you’re already considering this option, hopefully this blog gives you an insight into the potential benefits.

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Last Updated: 20 April 2018