The highs and lows of a PhD

The life of a chemistry postgraduate is hard work but ultimately rewarding, says Sanjida O'Connell
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The Independent Online

"I see what others don't see: its elegance, and room for creativity. It's almost like an art." Gavin Henry is describing why he is attracted to chemistry and conversely, why other people aren't. Henry, a postgraduate from Northern Ireland at Imperial College London, is an endangered breed. Although overall numbers of students taking postgraduate chemistry have increased very slightly since 1995 (1,270 students graduated last year), the percentage of students taking chemistry at postgraduate level has declined.

"Undergraduate numbers have gone down dramatically yet ironically job opportunities are better than ever," says Dr David Giachardi, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry. A further irony is that chemistry has become a crucial part of our everyday lives and is at the forefront of many cutting edge technologies.

In recognition of its importance, the University of the West of England has developed a new undergraduate course in biology and medical chemistry because, the university claims, "chemistry is being applied in multidisciplinary groups that are working at the interfaces of biology, chemistry and medicine."

Chemistry is a well-balanced discipline, Dr Giachardi insists, requiring high levels of both numeracy and literacy. As a result, jobs exist for students ranging from academic research posts, through to work as a professional chemist in industry to city stockbrokers. "You won't see many unemployed chemists," adds Dr David Alker, discovery recruitment and academic liaison manager for Pfizer Global Research and Development Ltd. So why are students not beating down the doors of the country's chemistry departments?

The problem, as Dr Giachardi sees it, is that departments are under threat. The pioneering work that enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to uncover the structure of DNA was carried out by Rosalind Franklin at King's College London. The renowned college, headed by Professor Susan Gibson, who recently won a DTI award, is being closed. It's not the only one: Essex and Aberystwyth have already shut.

"The smaller universities are struggling," admits Professor Graham Richards, chairman of the chemistry department at Oxford University, who says that the closure of these departments has had an impact on other universities. "We've become a big department and we attract more students," says Richards, who has 256 chemistry postgraduates. The reason departments are struggling is plain lack of funding, says Dame Julia Higgins, a professor of polymer science in the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London. She adds that Imperial, a world-class university, is running at a loss. "Every new student we take on costs us money."

In addition, chemistry has a particularly negative perception, which may be responsible for the lack of students. "We have a dearth of good national students," Dame Julia says. "We could fill our places three times over with overseas students, but students here don't feel that academic careers look promising and the salary is low when you get there."

Donald Craig, a professor of organic synthesis in the chemistry department at Imperial, says: "It is clear that the chemical industry has a negative image. Chemicals cause harm to people, animals, the environment; it's a negative word, and the subject is perceived as not being modern enough. Of course, chemistry is applied all around us, but we're not getting the message across. We need a much more hard-hitting campaign. People are ignorant of the role that chemistry plays in our lives. We need adverts that say 'Your grandma would have died if it hadn't been for chemistry'."

However, people like Gavin Henry are clearly delighted to be studying chemistry. He chose Imperial as the university allows him to pursue his love of languages: he studied for a year in France and takes German classes at lunchtime. "I've been able to enjoy all the university has to offer," says Henry, who hopes to become an entrepreneur, albeit one attached to the chemical industry in some way.

Although new departments are not springing up, some departments are making real innovations. Katy McKenzie is in the second year of her PhD at Loughborough University. She describes her supervisor, Dr Frank Marken, as "fantastic, approachable, inspiring, helpful and encouraging". She also believes the university department buys the best equipment possible and facilitates postgraduate trips to worthwhile conferences.

Henry and McKenzie both think potential postgraduates may be put off by the rigour of the work. "It is extremely demanding mentally and intellectually," says Henry. "You are at the mercy of your project. If it's going well, you're on top of the world - and if it isn't, you're miserable. It's a rollercoaster, so potential students need to be able to cope." But it is precisely this kind of mental excitement that attracts students. "If you're a crossword kind of person, you'll get a lot out of chemistry," says Henry. "It's mentally stimulating."

Doing a PhD is completely different from a chemistry degree, says McKenzie. "You have so much time to go off and explore different avenues within your project - you really have a lot of freedom." McKenzie for example has helped design a robot that carries out tests she perfected in her first year. And clearly, she adds, you would only do a PhD if you were interested in your project.

So how do students know what to study and where? Dame Julia Higgins believes it's very straightforward: the university careers adviser should be able to help locate a suitable university for carrying out a PhD. In addition, university websites and prospectuses are an easy and usual way of finding out. Both Henry and McKenzie were inspired by projects they carried out in their final undergraduate year and this persuaded them to look further.

Most universities advertise funded PhDs, so for many students it's a matter of searching the Web or speaking to one's lecturers to discover which projects could be for you. Dr David Alker stresses that his company, as well as most major pharmaceutical industries, does its best to support undergraduates in addition to postgraduates financially and runs a summer scholarship scheme in organic chemistry. "We give money to academics to identify a student who wants to work over summer. It's subsistence money, but it's much better than stacking shelves. That student will get a taste for research and, we hope, will go on to pursue it at postgraduate level."