POSTGRADUATE BIOLOGY: `This Is Biology's Golden Age' ; Most UK Biology Students with a Good First Degree Go Straight from Their BSc to Postgraduate Study. CAITLIN DAVIES Finds out What's Attracting Them
Davies, Caitlin, The Independent (London, England)
This is the golden age of biology: just ask postgraduate biologists using cutting-edge technology to investigate the world. "The first part of the 20th century was the golden period for physics: we had Einstein; we had atomic physics. We can explain the whole workings of the universe with very few laws of physics," says Professor Mustafa Djamgoz at Imperial College. "Biology is going through that revolution now. This is its golden period."
For many undergraduates it is the novelty of today's research that draws them into becoming postgraduates. But while the latest technology means cleverer, faster ways of looking at things, basic questions such as how cells work remain the same.
The primary requisite for postgraduate biology is, simply enough, an interest in the subject. "We are hard, research driven and cutting edge," says Professor Djamgoz. "Money doesn't come into it. I tell my students that with a PhD you're not likely to sweep the streets, with a degree you could."
In the UK, most biology students go straight from their BSc to a PhD, as long as they have a good first degree. Those who do choose to do a Masters often want to top up their first degree or spend a year studying fewer topics in more detail.
There are 12,000 new biology graduates each year, but few jobs for which a biology degree is the only appropriate qualification. No wonder, then, that about a third of biology students continue with further study.
John Phelan at University College London (UCL) did his Masters back in 1995, but unlike most students he decided to get some work experience in labs before returning to academia and a PhD.
The 34-year-old is now investigating a protein called FAB. While the research involves computing programming and robots, Phelan says his real interest has always been nature and the world around him.
"People walk straight from a BSc to a PhD and three or four years down the line when they're doing a post doc they don't always enjoy it," says Phelan. "I'm doing this because I massively enjoy working at the bench."
Anne Stephenson, Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at The University of London's School of Pharmacy, says PhD training is quite formal, covering lab work and generic skills such as problem solving.
In essence a PhD is a doctorate in philosophy in which students are trained in the logic of thought. First they are given a question or problem, usually by their supervisor. Next they design experiments to find answers. And finally, having got an answer, the student analyses it and, says Professor Djamgoz, "communicates it to the world as the best truth at that time".
PhD training in the UK means a very condensed three-year programme. Biologists are firmly accountable to the system and need to publish research regularly. They can no longer spend as much time drinking and discussing as Crick and Watson.
The majority of PhD students are committed scientists, says David Saggerson, Professor of Biochemistry at UCL. Many undergraduates already know that they want to be research scientists, driven by natural curiosity and cutting- edge equipment.
After completing a PhD, many students go into academia. Other options include publishing, working for research councils or new biotech companies, as clinical research assistants or in the city doing venture capital. …