If you only read one book during your PhD, make it this one

By | November 4, 2014

Review of A Phd Is not enough

The book A Phd Is not Enough! by Peter Feibelman is a survival guide for people embarking on a career in science.

Before reading the first edition I naively thought that it was possible to drift through science without giving too much thought to such lofty notions as ‘career planning’. This book, now updated to account for the internet, ended that naivete.

The key idea behind this book is that success in a science career need not be a Darwinian process, where only the ‘best’ students make it through to becoming a full professor while the others flounder. Rather, Feibelman sees the elements of success in science as being as learnable as being taught how to use a new piece of equipment.

Romance-Free Science

In expounding this view Feibelman isn’t scared of leaving out any romantic notions of what it is like to work in science. From the outset he makes is very clear that hard work is a necessary, but unfortunately not sufficient condition for success.

The book goes through the skills and approaches needed to make it through every stage of an academic career: from choosing a PhD supervisor and then picking a postdoctoral supervisor, through to working out a career path and establishing your own research program.

Admittedly the book is rather USA-centric, but for the most part this just means using slightly different naming conventions for different academic career levels.

One thing I am a bit wary of, however, is the encouragement to publish without mention of the impact factor of the journal you are publishing in. This is a controversial issue, but it is nevertheless part of the universe a young researcher must operate in, and I thought a book which otherwise offers such useful and direct advice might have made mention of it.

Five steps to a successful career in science

That one gripe aside, for me the main ideas of the book could be boiled down to five, ‘easier said than done’, points:

1. Find a mentor

Finding a mentor to some extent obviates the need to read this book. Find an experienced person, with no authority or vested interest in you, who you can trust to advise you as you work through your scientific career. Don’t be afraid to ask, and listen to their advice and learn from their mistakes.

2. Know the big picture

Knowing the significance of your work and how it fits within the wider scientific community will help you at every stage of your career. Even when you have the close support of a PhD or postdoctoral supervisor, it is still important that you know why it is that you are doing what you are doing. Ask yourself: what problem or controversy is my project hoping to solve?

3. Be problem oriented

Be problem oriented, rather than technique oriented. This means getting to grips with the big and interesting problems in the world. It means taking risks and going beyond your comfort zone and picking problems and projects not immediately soluble to your current skill set. Approaching your work in this way is much more likely to set you up as a ‘scientific leader’ than merely chasing after other peoples interesting problems with your increasingly irrelevent set of skills.

 4. Have an inner scientific compass

This goes hand-in-hand with knowing the bigger picture and being problem oriented. You will enjoy your work much more, be much more appealing to potential employers, and have much greater chance of long term success if you can develop your own personal interests and goals. Yes, you may have to put them on the back burner whilst you fulfil your other contractual obligations, but you will be much more useful and interesting to have around if you can offer a different perspective.

5. Know what your job is

This is perhaps another way of saying know your limits, and focus on reaching the next rung on the academic career ladder. As a post-doc, you need to focus on getting that string of good publications that demonstrate your competency, independence and ability to deliver. Before you’ve reached this goal, contributing to grant applications, accepting journal editing positions and sitting on committees will only get in the way of acquiring the only currency that really matters to you: your list of papers. This pragmatic approach to career progression applies too as you become a more established researcher: the priority has to be successful grant applications. Without this your research career can only stumble.

Now then – if it’s that easy, why isn’t everyone doing it?