Sunday, 13 April 2014

Unfinished Business : An Experience from PhD in Plant Science

Sarah Shailes
Post Doctrol Scientist, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK
@SarahShailes on twitter

I recently submitted my PhD thesis, survived my viva (thesis defence) and have just submitted the final version of my thesis to my University. To all intents and purposes my PhD is done and dusted. However, my PhD research is not quite finished with me yet. To publish research in a journal article you usually need a story to tell, but mine still has a few gaps that I would like to fill. These gaps currently contain some preliminary experiments that need to be repeated and some experiments I didn’t have time to attempt before writing my thesis.

During the final year of PhD study, my supervisor and I both realised that it would not be possible for me to finish all the experiments we would like before I would need to leave the lab to write my thesis. I’m sure many other PhD students experience this as there are always more experiments that can be done. In my case it was perhaps more of an issue because some experimental results I got only a year before I had to finish in the lab opened up a whole new range of experimental options. There was absolutely no way that I could investigate all of them, so together with my supervisor, we decided on a plan with a set of “essential” experiments to include in my thesis with some additional ones that would need to be finished later if I ran out of time.

Science research under a tight deadline is tough and as the weeks passed by and my thesis submission deadline approached I had to adopt the attitude of “if the experiment doesn’t work this time, then it will not be in the thesis”. Before I knew it, the day came when I had to put down my pipette to complete my thesis in the library. I really enjoyed thesis writing and was fortunate to have two supervisors who were both willing to read my drafts.

I submitted my thesis in January and had my viva (thesis defence) just 3 weeks later. I wasn’t really sure what to expect so, except for checking the literature to see if there were any recently published papers relevant to my subject area, I didn’t spend much time preparing for it. My examiners mostly focused their questions on details about particular experiments. Even though I clearly had some gaps left in my experimental work, I didn’t get asked too many questions about them. I think this was because in my thesis I had discussed the future experiments I would like to do. I must have answered their questions sufficiently well because after 3.5 hours they decided that I had passed my PhD pending minor corrections.

After a brief holiday, I completed the required thesis corrections and turned my thoughts back to my unfinished experiments. Fortunately, my supervisor has been able to employ me for a few months to finish these experiments and I was able to do a lot of work required to set them up (e.g. cloning, cross-fertilising plants) before thesis submission so they are more or less ready to go.

Once the experiments are done, after almost 5 years of research in this area it will be time for me to move on to something new, although I think it will be hard to let go. 

Author has recently completed her PhD at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK. She studies the symbiosis between the legume family of plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobia).She also writes her own science blog (

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