By Simon Wyatt |

Two years into my physics degree, I got stuck in a rut. The enthusiasm  I once had for my subject had dwindled into an obligation to attend the lectures I was paying for. While my friends who would go on to undertake PhDs chose their specialism within the discipline, I found myself choosing options from all over the shop. Particle physics, astronomy, nuclear power, cosmology. No one subject would hold my attention enough that I could say to myself: “This is for me. I want to spend three years working on a PhD in this field.”

My breakthrough came quite by accident. Nurturing that most important of skills for a PhD student, the sixth-sense that detects free food, I came to a presentation for the SEPNet summer internships, lured by the promise of freebies. After receiving the list of places for that summer, I applied to the ENGIN-X neutron facility on the off-chance that I could spend a summer working while staying with my parents.


free food has inspired many a career change

I got the position. After two weeks of programming in Python, it was suggested that I spend the rest of my time with them working on an idea which could potentially involve publishing our findings. This would involve several weeks of studying the fundamentals of materials science. I immediately accepted.

I felt as though I’d found my calling, and as it came to my final year at Southampton, I applied for a PhD with the Imperial College Department of Materials. I was very surprised at how nonplussed my supervisors seemed with the idea of a physics student changing discipline. When I asked the ENGIN-X scientists why they had chosen to advertise their position to physics students, they laughed, and replied: “You have a particular set of skills. The way a physicist thinks is different to how a materials scientist thinks.”

I hadn’t expected to hear that. I don’t know what I was looking for when I asked that question, but the answer resonated with me. Since my conversion, I have found myself believing that the main purpose of education is not to learn, but to learn how to think. While the details can always be gleaned from this textbook, or that paper, studying for degrees and listening to conference presentations changes and grows the mind.

Beginning my PhD, I found it relatively easy to adapt. For the most part, I owe thanks to my supervisor, and his attitude towards the needs of his students. Like a new puppy that had just been adopted, I began my PhD eager to impress my peers. I learned more about computer science than materials science, as I had to embark on a labour of love with Linux in order to install some software which I would be adapting. After two months, I was sent to America, to learn from other experts and work with their group.

It was around this time that I began to feel a little out of my depth. Discussing this with some of the other “migrants” has repeated the same story. Coming into a new field devalues the jargon which the student has spent four years learning. As someone new to a discipline, the challenge of finding one’s feet and routine is amplified.

At seven months, all the students were required to hand in a report detailing their progress and plan for the duration of their studies. True to form, I started writing much too late, tried to cover it up in a blind panic, and had a humbling conversation with my supervisor about a week before the deadline. This was something of a wakeup call. I worked thirteen 12-hour days in a row to ensure that I would finish within the extension I was granted. At times it felt like I had a mountain to climb, that I didn’t know enough of the field to adequately tackle the task before me.

As those days of work – eat – sleep went by, something changed in me. I finally delivered a thirty-page document and went to the pub. In the viva examination which followed, I was pressed on several of the mistakes I had made, assured that my approach to the plan for my PhD was sufficient and praised for the quantity of work I’d done in 7 months. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.


There are five lessons that I feel I’ve learned as a result of changing discipline between my Master’s degree and my PhD.

The value of education is learning how to think. Facts are quickly forgotten. Encyclopaedias, journal articles, textbooks and databases are how we store information. Minds, primarily, are not. What we store are the connections between facts which allow us to form arguments. When I listen to a speech or talk, I no longer take notes. Instead, I try to recognise and understand the connections which form the argument and engage with that argument.

You’ve been taught a different way of thinking to the norm for your new discipline. You will have been trained to construct arguments in a particular manner, and you have been selected for your PhD because your supervisor would like to include that way of thinking within their research group.

You won’t know the things you don’t know until you find out that you don’t know them. You are not going to be expected to have the background knowledge that your peers from within the discipline have. But sooner or later, this happens to all PhD students. You are simply developing the skills you need earlier than some of your contemporaries.

You’ll need to depend on others, so don’t be ashamed of doing so. Academics aren’t islands. Your ideas don’t just exist by themselves, but in the wider context of those of your collaborators. One’s own way of thinking complements that of others, and by asking for help when you need it, you will achieve more than you would alone. Don’t hide away from that reality, and use your colleagues as an asset, and not just a measuring-stick to compare yourself against. That’s not the point of a team.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. It is so easy to obsess over creating a perfect work. It becomes a problem when you fail to use your time effectively and waste it by continually refining work that is already sufficient. When you begin a task, you should set yourself a standard that you expect in order to declare it finished, and work only to that standard.

Cover image © flickr; image1 © Wikimedia; image2 © pixabay