A PhD allows us to specialise in one area of research, this can often be something very niche; my particular topic is trials recruitment – a tiny part of the trials methodology remit. By the time we get to the end of our studies we’re constantly told we should be experts in our field, “no one will know your subject better than you” is something I’ve been told multiple times since starting my research project; on some days this seems reassuring, on others it’s terrifying.
A few weeks ago I went through the official PhD induction at my university – it was refreshing to meet other new students experiencing the same hopes and fears as I have been over recent months. The induction process also emphasised that whilst you should be confident and comfortable with your own specialisms, learning outside of your PhD research is important too. In fact, a viva examiner at my university said the one question he always asks is ‘what do you know aside from your thesis?’, so even if you don’t change your research plans as a result of exposure to other fields, it’s worth learning a bit about how other research can be relevant to yours for the viva alone!
Following that advice, recently I’ve actively tried to branch out and ensure my learning encompasses multiple areas of health services research and life sciences on the whole. I’ve attended seminars and listened in on webinars to allow me to broaden my scientific knowledge and skill. The most important seminar I attended was actually not related to my field of research at all; the speaker works in my department, but her work focusses on Philosophy. I found this invaluable; she spoke at length about how seemingly unrelated fields could and should work together to ensure the research we produce is ‘as good as it can be’. That stuck with me; ‘as good as it can be’, not as good as we can be – it’s our job to be flexible, learn new skills where necessary and do the research justice. After the seminar had finished I re-read my PhD protocol and made tweaks where I think it could be improved. These tweaks covered fields of research I’ve never had any experience of, but I’m now confident that the work I’ll produce will be well rounded, and indeed, as good as it can be.
Sometimes a research project has a mind of its own – your idea can, and usually does, raise more questions than it answers. Looking at our plans for research from different perspectives before we even embark on the project can be hugely beneficial, and gives us the opportunity to answer at least some of those additional questions through the scope of our work, rather than scratching our heads once the work is deemed complete.
A few starting points for places to broaden your horizons:
- Your institution – most have their own regular seminars, this will also give you the chance to find out what your colleagues are up to
- Cafe Scientifique – cafescientifique.org, a grassroots public science initiative running across more than 40 towns and cities in the UK
- The Conversation – theconversation.com, an independent news source written by academics and researchers, and covering everything from health to technology, business and the arts. The events pages are also a great starting point for finding out more about meetings, conferences and seminars near you