The start of a real education? Differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study

A friend who is considering a PhD at Imperial recently asked me what I thought were the key differences between being an undergraduate and a PhD student. We had a good chat over a cup of tea about it and I thought I’d share my thoughts here as I’m sure other people considering a PhD are wondering the same thing. I’m only seven weeks in but this is what I reckon so far.

You no longer learn for the sake of doing well in exams

I feel that I’m now under much less pressure to assimilate information. As an undergraduate, my sole aim was to cram everything I needed to know into my head for the exam. Post-exam, I forgot nearly everything.

I feel that I rarely ever appreciated the subtleties of a reaction mechanism or generally knew why something was the case (unless I was especially enthusiastic about the topic). Since it probably wouldn’t get me any extra marks, there wasn’t any point spending the time learning details.

Furthermore, as an undergraduate I never had the opportunity to explore anything in depth because the sheer volume of information I needed to know was already overwhelming. Now I can read the literature and listen to lectures or presentations without thinking “what do I need to know for the exam?”. It’s quite liberating. Reading literature is a now a pleasure.

Work is now endless

As an undergraduate everything you need to do is a discrete, self-contained project with a specific start and end. You get given most of the information you need and usually you can find answers in the literature. Once you’ve done everything you need to do, you forget about it and move on to the next lab report or problem sheet…

As a postgraduate this isn’t the case. You’re meant to be finding out new things that no one else knows or has done before. There isn’t a definitive start and end; you don’t know what you’ll find or how long it’ll take. ‘Answers’ don’t exist yet.

I love that I’m doing things that no one else has tried before, but it’s also slightly scary and a little overwhelming. You have to decide what is the best problem to tackle. I don’t really know how long things should take, so sometimes I worry I’m not making progress fast enough, but I think I’ll get used to this eventually.

No one will tell you how to do your PhD

My supervisor gave me a couple of papers and basically said “make these nanoparticles”. If you don’t know what to do, you have to sort it out as no one else knows. If someone else does know, then your work might not be that original.

I think this is the biggest change from being an undergraduate and I know a couple of people who seem to struggle with this. They aren’t used to being so independent and I think they really want their supervisors to give them specific instructions rather than guidance and a general prod in a particular direction.

Miscellaneous perks

You get a desk so you no longer have to work in undergraduate work areas and access to a kettle, microwave and fridge means you can avoid overpriced, depressing campus food. You get access to the senior common room (insanely cheap cooked breakfast) and PG bar where you can drink too much and embarrass yourself in front of your supervisor and other staff. Not that I’m speaking from experience.

Managing your research budget means you can buy things like a new Mac Mini and a enormous display! I’ve also been helping in a undergraduate quantum mechanics workshop and will hopefully start demonstrating in physical chemistry labs soon—extra money and valuable teaching experience. Soon I’ll get to go abroad to conferences and I’ve looked after a visitor from my previous supervisor’s group at ETH Zürich already.

Do I recommend it?

Definitely. I’m under no illusion that my PhD is going to be easy. I’ve been working hard the last few weeks and I think it’ll get tougher over the next few years. Undoubtedly I could earn more in a ‘proper’ job, but I really enjoy it so it’s all worthwhile

If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.

Update (27 November 2011): Inspired by David Smith’s tweet I changed the title from “Undergraduate/postgraduate differences” to “The start of a real education? Differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study.”

Questionable research practices, peer review and an open access future?

Blimey—it’s been five weeks since my last post and I’m now a five weeks into my postgraduate studies. It’s gone quickly and I’ve been very busy.

As part of the doctoral training centre’s new/modern/[positive adjective] approach to a PhD we get (well, have) to take courses that ’round us out’ as modern researchers. A few weeks ago, we had a course on research ethics taught by Marianne Talbot. I did Philosophy A-level and especially enjoyed moral philosophy, so I was looking forward to it.

The course was attended not just by PE DTC students but also the CQD and TMS DTCs. Rather unsurprisingly (but disappointingly) there was a bit of a unfriendly vibe between the different DTCs. “We get MacBook Pros!” said one, “we don’t have to do experiments!” said another, to which we all replied “we get £18,000 to spend and we like lab experiments!” The conversation never progressed any further…

Overall the course was excellent and very enjoyable. I loved how Marianne dealt efficiently and firmly with the few people who wanted to deny the existence of everything! One of the afternoon sessions was on open access publishing, a topic I already had an interest in. I’ve read about it before but have never been entirely convinced (I’m not sure why). Marianne gave a strong case for open access is good. She referenced this website as a good overview. If you don’t know what open access is, then it’s worth a quick read. There was unanimous support of the open access concept.

Marianne then introduced a distinction I had never heard of before: green and gold open access methods. In the green method, papers are deposited in a public online repository. Papers are not peer reviewed prior to being published and anyone can upload an article. The most famous example of this is probably arXiv. In the gold method, you submit a paper to journal, it’s peer reviewed, and if accepted it’s published in a journal that is either entirely open access or permits some open access articles. An example of the former type is PLoS ONE.

The question Marianne asked us to discuss was “Do you think it is acceptable for scientist to self-archive pre-prints in repositories with peer-review?” The answers from students were quite vague. But generally it seemed that peer review was held in extremely high, almost reverent, regard.

I found this odd considering we had just been discussing questionable research practices. One example of a questionable research practice that stuck out to me was:

leaving important information out of methodology section of a manuscript or refusing to give peers reasonable access to unique research materials or data that support published papers.

One would expect that if peer review functioned as well as my fellow students said then readers would rarely come across this practice in the literature. Yet in my field of research, I encounter it all the time! Authors brag that they’ve found the way to make the biggest, smallest, longest or generally ‘best’ nanoparticle but then fail to tell you crucial information such the number of moles of reagents, reaction times and temperatures that allow you to repeat the work. I spent an unbelievable amount of time last year trying to figure out the required conditions to synthesise heterostructured quantum dots. If peer review did it’s job, then things like this wouldn’t get through.

Other students were arguing that because anyone can publish a paper in a green OA repository that there is no quality control. I disagree. I think a lot of students are assuming that readers are idiots and need peer review. If you uncritically read a paper or think that because it’s in a journal it must be true then you’re at best naive or at worst incompetent. Decent researchers will spot questionable claims and results.

Is peer review even really that good a quality control method? Typically you only have two reviewers. Can you be sure they read the paper instead of give it to a PhD/postdoc?

Imagine that rather than submitting papers to traditional peer reviewed journals researchers published their work in open access green repositories. No real scientist is going to post rubbish because their reputation is on the line. Rather than having only two reviewers as with traditional journals, you could have tens or even hundreds of reviewers. They could post their comments—the peer review—publicly on the repository article page (I’m thinking more along the lines of threaded discussions rather than linear blog-style comments).

I think it would be awesome. The authors could respond to readers’ questions, for example, asking for clarification of an experimental technique or reagent used, or post new versions of the article correcting mistakes or providing further information.

At present, reviewers’ comments are made privately and anonymously. These comments would be useful to the scientific community. There’s no reason why it should stay private. Science is all about debate, questioning and (a moderate dose of) scepticism. At conferences and in department presentations, researchers handle criticism and questions. There’s no reason why journal articles should be any different.

I do wonder whether I’m being overly optimistic or if I’ve missed out something crucial. What do you think? I’d like to know…