A PhD is a selfish experience

I laughed when I was first told that a PhD is a selfish experience – but one of those knowing, “yes it really is true” laughs, mixed in with a bit of sheepishness for doing something like that in the first place.

I was at my College’s first Engineering Alumni Breakfast, listening to Dr Nick Brown, Performance Science and Innovation from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). He was a great speaker, and the gourmet breakfast burgers with a brioche bun didn’t hurt either! Nick was talking about all the super fancy advances they have made at the AIS to make their athletes better, faster, stronger. He had a huge focus on focusing on the actual user needs, and not just designing a cool product for a cool engineering problem (well, cool to us, anyway).

This perspective really resonated with me. I’ve had those angst-y periods that every PhD student experiences, multiple times throughout our candidature: “I’m not having an impact on the real world”, “my research won’t ever escape the ivory tower”. Particularly in my field (tissue engineering for the central nervous system), we see a lot of ‘cool’ research but not much of it leaves the lab. It seems a combination of the researchers not caring about translating the work, and the unsuitability of the research to be translated. As someone at a conference I attended said: “We are getting great at curing cancer in mice”. And so, to join the millions of tortured young researchers:

My work only counts if it becomes a paper and gets lots of citations

Have you thought of translating a treatment strategy for traumatic brain injury? Well, I have, or at least, have started to, and then stopped due to the million brick walls that appear when anyone contemplates an escape from the ivory tower. It is so much easier to just make an ‘academic impact’ with papers and presentations, and I think that is what perpetuates a disconnection between researchers and user needs (because what user needs a great h-index?). Have I ever talked to a surgeon who works with traumatic brain injury? HA! Of course not, my academic bubble is restricted to those above me deem worthy of collaboration (and who can get them more papers, as some seem to approach collaborations).

Only once I started to doubt my existence in academia did I actually think about the user needs and subsequent design, or lack thereof. So I asked Nick when he learnt to think that way, because God knows it has been beaten out of me since I finished my undergrad. And for someone who earnt his PhD 16 years ago, he said he learnt the focus on user needs in the last five years.

What?!

So I guess, yes, a PhD is a selfish experience. And I would say, the traditional academic path is also a selfish experience. Not an experience, an existence. A selfish existence, because the traditional academic path values papers, grants, and PhD completions.

Even though it may reduce my standing in my supervisors’ eyes, or mean that I’m not going to get those quick papers (churning out iterative research that will not even affect the lives of the mice we use), I want to focus on what actually affects the world around me. Academia is often criticized for being insular, but more and more of us are doing a Rapunzel and jumping out of the tower (or being thrown out, either way works!), to take into account the users of our research – in most instances, the public. Whether we mobilise our research effectively to have an effect on the public, or being more cognizant of the impact of our research and therefore better designing our research questions and experiments – that’s where I want to be.

Wish me luck?

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