When a PhD doesn’t lead into “academia”

Tucked away toward the back on each issue of the journal Nature is a regular column offering diverse views on Career development. It is often an interesting read. In the 2nd August 2018 edition, the focus was on the thorny topic of attitudes towards PhD students who do not follow the traditional route into postdoctoral research and (potentially) a lectureship.

academiaIn his article, Philipp Kruger, an Oxford research student in the latter stages of his Immunology PhD, challenged the persisting notion that a decision to pursue alternative career paths after completion of a PhD was tantamount to “failure” (interestingly the original title, still the title for the PDF version, was You are not a failed scientist which has been altered to the slightly less accusatory Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia for the online version).

Kruger was keen both to challenge supervisors who send out the message that completion of a doctoral degree was about “academia or bust”, and to promote opportunities for PhD students to develop a broader range of skills and experiences. Some of this will be about greater awareness of the transferable skills that are naturally being accumulated during the course of one’s research. These likely include:

  • Teamwork
  • Time-management
  • Project management (including prioritisation of tasks)
  • Written and oral communication skills
  • An ability to evaluate evidence
  • Resilience

These are skills that would be welcomed and appreciated by a broad range of potential employers.

On top of this, enterprising and pro-active students have the opportunity to garner a broader range of experiences, for example organising a small-scale conference, blogging or taking part in other public engagement activities. There are also more formal internships and placements, such as three month fellowships with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) or with the BBC.

Supervisors are encouraged not to stand against their students taking up these opportunities, but rather to actively encourage and facilitate them to do so. A “pure” research careers is not for all (not least because there are fewer postdoc positions than there are graduating PhD students).

During a decade of running careers talks for undergraduate bioscientists, I have regularly included examples of alumni who have found fulfilling roles in “Careers from Science” as well as “Careers in Science”. Several of these have actually completed a PhD between their original degree and their current role. A consistent theme has been the fact that they enjoy their present work, despite in many cases not initially envisage this being where they would be focusing their labours. Flexibility and adaptability are important skills. Kruger would encourage supervisors to engender an atmosphere where students can push on different doors and see what might open up for them.



Questions at the Edge of Consciousness: A review of “Into the Grey Zone”

Imagine (and I hope this is a theoretical scenario rather than a real experience) that a friend is involved in a road traffic accident. The collision leaves them in what neuroscientist Adrian Owen terms the “grey zone”; the patient is alive (and does not require artificial ventilation) but they are in a “vegetative” state. Their body has periods when they appear to be awake, but they do not demonstrate any awareness of their circumstances. In the absence of intentional movement, how can we be sure that they are not, in fact, conscious – hearing the conversations next to their hospital bed, maybe even experiencing pain?

ITGZFor a long while this question seemed unanswerable. However a flurry of scientific papers, published about a decade ago, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it was possible to communicate with some patients in an apparently vegetative state. Now Professor Owen has published a memoir Into the Grey Zone capturing his experience at the heart of that groundbreaking work. (I couldn’t wait for publication of the Anglicised version, so I actually have “…Gray Zone“, but am assured that aside from spellings and the occasional idiom, the contents are the same. I notice on social media that Owen himself refers to the book at ITGZ which not only saves a few characters but neatly side-steps the issue of the different title.)

Whatever we choose to call it, this is a remarkable and moving read – I cannot think of any other book that has simultaneously thrilled me with the clear and logical presentation of scientific experiments and moved me to tears with their implications of the experiments for patients and their families. What follows is my rather lengthy summary of the book, followed by some specific reflections. If you want to skip directly to the latter, click here.

The book follows a general pattern in which each chapter introduces us both to the individuals who had slipped into the grey zone, and to the emerging tools of neuroinvestigation which enabled Owen to demonstrate that many of these patients, perhaps 15 to 20% of those previously considered as “vegetative”, do in fact retain some level of consciousness.

The first chapter The Ghost That Haunts Me is slightly different. It features two central characters who slip into the grey zone, but neither is a patient of Owen. Instead they are his mother, who developed a brain tumour, and his former lover Maureen who suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage that left her in a vegetative state. Continue reading

When is the right time to stop taking antibiotics?

Press coverage has picked up on an interesting paper The antibiotic course has had its day published in the British Medical Journal (online 26th July 2017). The paper was of interest to me as I studied antibiotic resistance for my PhD, and this topic was also the theme of (to date) my only appearance on TV news.


As anyone who has ever been prescribed antibiotics ought to know, current clinical practice from the World Health Organisation and others recommends completion of the course (often 7 days), even if the patient feels better sooner. The justification for this strategy has been concern that premature ending of treatment might allow the disease-causing bacteria to recover and continue to wreak havoc, possibly in a newly-resistant manner.

In the new paper, Martin Llewelyn (Brighton and Sussex Medical School) and colleagues from a number of institutions in South-East England question the basis of this recommendation. Whereas the link between exposure to antibacterials and the development of resistance is well documented, these authors wondered about the origins of the original advice. They suggest that the requirement to “complete the course” probably stands on little more than the anecdotal experience of some of the antibiotic pioneers. Continue reading

“My brain made me do it”: are we ready for more Neurolaw?

I’m excited to say that my book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from Genetics and Neuroscience is being published this week.

determinism cover

There are 5 chapters, in which I have attempted to pull together threads from moral philosophy, from law and from neuroscience to examine the growth of Neurolaw. Around the world, notably the USA and Italy, an increasing number of defendants are appealing to their genes or issues with the structure and function of their brain as mitigation for their crimes. To what extent should we allow this, now or in the future?

Chapter summaries:

  • Free will and determinism: an overview of some of the main schools of thought regarding the “free will problem” – Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism.
  • Existing legislation on mental disorders and criminal cases: automatism, criminal liability, diminished responsibility, “disease of the mind”, insanity, mens rea and M’Naghten.
  • Biological basis of behaviour: background on behavioural genetics and the use of various brain imaging techniques to investigate the extent to which our behaviour might be “hard wired”.
  • Use of genetic and neuroscientific evidence in criminal cases: a brief history of neurolaw. Summarises many of the key cases in which scientific evidence has been proffered by in criminal cases as (partial) justification of the behaviour of the defendant.
  • Are we ready for an expanded use of neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom?: In which I caution that the current use of genetic and brain physiology evidence is, at best, premature and uncertain.

My unexpected debut on BBC TV


My day was not scheduled to include a spot on News24

As I headed into work on Wednesday 2nd July, I had no idea that by the time I came home that evening I would have done two live interviews at New Broadcasting House, headquarters of the BBC.

I’ve done several radio interviews previously and have been in discussion with makers of The Big Questions on at least three occasions about appearing on that show (one of which, tellingly, ended when the researcher declared I was “a bit too in the middle on the issue”). However this was to be my first experience of being on television.

I was due to have an admin splurge in my office, before a scheduled trip to London in the afternoon for a trustees’ meeting. The news that morning had included an announcement by David Cameron that there a new review was to be set up, looking into ways to tackle antibiotic resistance (see Antibiotic resistance: Cameron warns of medical ‘dark ages’).

I give final year undergraduate lectures on antibiotic resistance, so it is a topic about which I maintain an active interest. I was piqued by this announcement since it smacked of the Prime Minister climbing aboard the growing movement to tackle the problem (which IS serious, in case you were in any doubt), and because a call for a review inevitably means it will be even longer before actual steps are taken. The need for new antibiotics was known 20-odd years ago when I was doing a PhD on resistance to a major class of antibacterials and since then the situation has got worse, not better. Continue reading

One day in Alzira…

It seems that November is shaping up as a bit of a European tour for me. Trips later in the months to Naples and Edinburgh have been on the cards for a while, but my friend and colleague Salvador Macip and I ended up popped to Alzira, Spain on November 8th for 24 hours. This unusual behaviour was prompted by our success in winning the European Prize for the Popularization of Science.


This was the 19th year that the European Prize for the Popularization of Science has been awarded

Continue reading

The “cutting edge” lecture for schools: help or hindrance?

Like many colleagues, I quite often give talks for sixth form groups about recent developments within my subject specialism. There are plenty of good reasons for doing so: sharing enthusiasm for your discipline; encouraging prospective students to go to university (ideally your University); bring students, and their teachers, up to date on the latest developments in the field.

However, it is in regard of the last of these points that I’ve had increasing concern. These worries are prompted by my experience marking past papers completed by my son during his recent round of exam revision. In science subjects in particular the markschemes are very prescriptive and inflexible, they don’t seem to allow for a candidate to expand upon the expected points. There is no room for crediting knowledge over and above faithful regurgitation of the core content. That would be bad enough, but my bigger concern is that introducing the students to knowledge which more up to date than the specifications might actually lead them to give a rich and factually correct response penalised because it disagrees with the anticipated answer.

What content might fall into this trap? The most obvious examples would be developments in stem cell biology, especially innovations associated with induced pluripotent stem cells. Granted this work has now led to a Nobel Prize, but I expect many markers will not have kept pace with the field. Similarly, other areas of genetics may have moved faster than the “official” A level line.

I will continue to give lectures for schools, the benefits definitely outweigh the risks, but I do carry this gnawing worry. Maybe an examiner out there can put my mind at ease about this (maybe not).