The Doctor Andy Stapleton Session
In this Career Session, Dr Andy Stapleton talks to us about why he decided to undertake his PhD in Australia (hint, it was much easier than applying for any other visas); why it took so long for him to quit academia and set up as his own boss; and the importance of science communicating, and how universities can do better at promoting the research going on in their institutions.
I think I’ve always been attracted to learning. I think that’s one thing I have learned about myself is that I just enjoy learning and I think, if you stop learning, that is the end of growth. Even if you are stationary because of what you know, you are going backwards because the world is progressing. You have got to at least learn enough to keep up. And so, I think I would always be learning. I don’t know what that would be. I don’t know if science necessarily would attract me back to it, that was my only thing. But I certainly feel like science or music? Those were the two things. So, if I didn’t do science, I reckon I’d be a happy but struggling musician…
Listen to the Interview with Dr Andy Stapleton
Q&A with Dr Andy Stapleton…
What is the title of your PhD: Nanoparticle Based Organic Photovoltaic Devices.
Where did you complete your PhD: Newcastle University, NSW
What year did you graduate: 2011
What undergraduate degree/s have you completed: MChem
What is your job title, today: Founder of verbalize.science
Interview with Dr. Andy Stapleton
Tamara: Dr. Andy Stapleton graduated from Newcastle University in 2011. He undertook his doctoral project at the school of chemistry and physical sciences. The title of his thesis is “Nanoparticle Based Organic Photo-Voltaic Devices”. Andy took sites for living and in 2015 delivered a TEDx talk at Flinders university entitled The Illusion of Progress about the experience and his experience as an early career researcher. These days you’ll find him behind the mic of his own podcast, Publish, Perish or Podcast. Welcome Andy, we’re really looking forward to hearing your story.
Andy: Thank you, Tamara. Did I get that right?
Steph: Absolutely. What are you doing right now? So, what is your current role and what is your day look like?
Andy: Yeah, that’s a great question. Do what? I don’t even know. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to both of those questions, firstly, as were like, what’s my current role. I guess broadly it would be, I hate this term, but it’s the closest but entrepreneur, right? So, at the moment I am currently starting businesses. I’ve got Verbalized Science, which is a platform to help scientists communicate more effectively. Also, I’m starting, kind of a content strategy consulting thing. I’ve got a couple of the little side projects with friends. At the moment I have chucked everything at the wall and like a handful of spaghetti chucked it at the wall and I’m seeing what sticks. I’ve got like a five-year plan to go crazy on all of the things I actually like doing. See what sticks and hopefully at least one of them will. What an average day looks like is, so, I normally meet up with my Verbalized Science team.
Andy: I’ve got a small team of content, producers, scientists, project managers, user interface, people, we just stand small.
Tamara: Do what I swear? I’ve been saying small team for a little while and then I’m like, Oh shit.
Andy: Yeah. We meet up a couple of times a week with those just typical stand-up. Like what are you doing while you’re up to let’s move on. That’s quite easy and it’s a nice kind of start to the day. Apart from that, I am either putting out fires with clients. Verbalize is entered into its client phase. I’m either squashing fires or working towards like laying the foundations of a few other businesses. All online or scalable and that’s because my dream is to be able to travel while working. That’s the goal is to have the freedom of movement. I don’t have to go into an office space. Now probably in about five years’ time. When I when I listen back to this podcast, I’ll be like, did I do it?
Steph: You said it here
Andy: But, yeah, so that’s the end goal is to launch a number of projects that I actually enjoy doing and hope that one of them sticks and then I’ll end up doing something I like for a very long time,
Tamara: It’s a very brave move but has huge potential to pay off and really rewarding. We want to go back to the beginning and days even before you went to university and ask about your family and did your parents go to university and when did you decide you wanted to go to university? And did you go straight after school?
Andy: Yeah, that’s a great question. So my family are, high school dropouts. I think my mum did very good like GCSE level in the UK. That’s what HSC here maybe before or year 10 certificate. My dad always used to joke that he got one qualification and that’s because he pissed off the teacher enough that they just gave it to him to like get him out of the classroom. I think it was in history. Anyway, so like I am the first person in my extended family even to go to university. It was something that I think was always just earmarked. I’m not sure whether it was for me, but my auntie always used to call me her little professor. Now. I don’t know what this is weird, doing some reflection. For my fifth birthday, I got a scientific calculator.
Steph: They were determined, they were going to get you there.
Andy: Yeah, it was insane. Look, I don’t know whether or not it was just a family like push to get me there, but I, I really liked chemistry. I really liked science when I was in high school and it was just a natural progression for me then to take that onto university. And I had ultimate support. The one thing my parents said to me was deliver the grades. Cause it costs a lot of money, like they weren’t very well off. They just said like, we’re willing to let you focus completely on your studies, just make sure that you make the most of this opportunity. And that was it. It was that in the UK, that was in the UK in Swansea. Okay. Yeah. In South Wales, I loved it. I love it. It’s like Swansea is such a rubbish place, but for a student it’s incredible.
Andy: It’s by the ocean. It’s cold, it’s dreary, but there’s such a great community or revolved around the university and the campus life is what I absolutely loved.
Steph: You knew you wanted to be at uni, but did what you wanted to study at uni?
Andy: I think, I was tricked into doing chemistry from a really nice teacher who was encouraging. I was good at two things, music and science. I think science was something that I had convinced myself would result in a stable job. Having never actually looked at what a scientists job looks like. Whereas music was always something I kept as a hobby. I thought, okay, based on that and based on how much support I got from my chemistry teacher, chemistry was the natural choice. Yeah.
Steph: So what was your undergraduate degree?
Andy: Chemistry? It’s weird, isn’t it? Yeah.
Andy: In, so in the UK you actually specialize straight out from university, so you choose biology, chemistry, physics, whatever it is. I actually did like one physics module, one psychology. Like I had a bit of pick and mix in there, but largely you just choose a subject and you just plow on through and just hope you like it because in Australia it’s obviously a bit different when you do science. Yeah. You broaden and I think that’s much better. It is much better. Would I have chosen chemistry? I think so. I don’t think I regret choosing chemistry, but I would have loved to have done more like broader science stuff and also a language. I think that would have been cool.
Tamara: Did you go straight from school to uni?
Andy: I did. Yeah. No gap. Only posh people do gap years in the UK and I wasn’t one of those.
Steph: Then, so after your undergrad, did you do honours or masters?
Andy: It’s weird. My like, looking back, this is I’ve like broken the mould for nearly everything. Yeah, my, undergraduate was a straight up masters so I didn’t actually do an undergraduate. I had to be it’s an all in one, it was a four-year course. It wasn’t quite an MSC, which is the Master of Science. It wasn’t quite a bachelors, it was somewhere in the middle and it was called an MChem. It was a Master of Chemistry and it, I don’t, I’m not even sure if they offer it anymore, to be honest. It’s like a post grad and an undergrad all rolled up in one it’s four years. You do an honors year, like as your last year where you do a project with a scientist and, yeah, so, yeah, so that was my first four years of university was my MChem.
Andy: That was enough to springboard me into doing a PhD. If I was to have finished at the end of that fourth year, I got nothing. Do you want me, like, if I didn’t do the last year, I wouldn’t have been able to get a bachelors even, so yeah, I had to stay in the top 10%.
Andy: I think when the government said, we’ll give you some money to study. I was like easy.
Tamara: When did you know you wanted to do a PhD?
Andy: My undergraduate was with a year abroad, so it was MChem with a year abroad. You could also do MChem with a year industry that sounded boring. Like I don’t know, I want to be industry. I did MChem with a year abroad and the government was paying for a return flight to anywhere in the world, as long as there was a partner uni. I was like, let’s go to Australia. It’s really far away. It’s the longest I could ever go. And it’s hot and Kylie Minogue lives here. No I think she’s in England now.
Andy: So yeah. Did chemistry with your abroad chose Australia? And I remember sat on the flight, no friends, no family, no connections going to the other side of the world, sat being jet lagged, tired being like, what have I done? This is the worst decision ever. After about six months here, I fell in love with it. I actually got more homesick for Australia when I went back then the UK, when I first came out. So that Newcastle is Newcastle. Yeah. New South Wales. Yeah, ever since that moment, I was like, I’m going to come back and don’t tell ScoMo, but I came back because it was the easiest way to get a visa. I didn’t even know. I didn’t even think I wanted to do a PhD. I was just like, it’s more study and I just have to fill out like five bits of paperwork as opposed to like residency and other things. So, ScoMO No, you can’t chuck me out.
Tamara: I wonder if they changed that rule. We let Andy in quick. So you did that at Newcastle. Was your project part of a grant? So were you, did you tack onto a grant or did you, get free choice?
Andy: No, I think so. My position was part of a larger project, which was a collaboration between, a surface scientist, a physicist and an organic chemist. So, I had three supervisors during my PhD, which was a nightmare.
Tamara: All coming from different disciplines or slightly different.
Andy: Yeah. Everyone had their own, you know what academia’s like, everyone’s got their own castle, they’ve built, and they protect. If you’re not in it, they, you’re against it. It was a bit of a balancing act, I guess, a really good lesson in politics, academic politics. Yeah, so it was a project that they had set up between themselves. I don’t even know where the money was coming from, but I, it was a project that they were looking for PhD students to come in on and I was lucky enough to get accepted.
Steph: What was your project? And please explain it like I’m five.
Andy: My project was creating a solar paint. Imagine at the moment that a solar panel is made of Silicon, which is hard and brittle, and it’s hard to kind of manufacture cheaply. The idea was that we would create an ink or a paint so that you could paint it onto your roof, connect it up and generate electricity. Now did we get there? A little bit. Are they still trying to get there? A little bit. But, we did actually better the world record for that type of solar cell at the time, which was fantastic during the three years. So, to get a little bit deeper. The paint consisted of tiny balls of semi-conducting material; what that means is it conducts electricity. Imagine like a, a big, kind of bowl with ping pong balls in it. Just shrink that down, shrink. You can no longer see the ping pong balls. And that was the paint. It had like water in it to in between the ping pong balls to hold it together. That’s right. We’d literally just paint it onto a surface. And then we generate electricity from it. I guess I’m much guess what? 0.0008%.
Steph: Okay. Maybe it’s not going to change the world, but it worked.
Andy: It worked, and that was the main thing. Actually, we got that up to 0.8 throughout the course of my PhD. To put that into perspective, a solar panel at the moment is about between 13 and 25% efficient, so a long way to go, but it had other uses. A solar panel at the moment is a panel that’s rigid and you can put it on a roof. And that’s it. The idea with the solar paint is that you could paint it on any surface, a much larger surface area. Even though it’s, let’s say 1% efficient, but if you can cover a hundred percent of the area or increase the area by a hundred percent or a hundred times, sorry, then you’d start seeing the benefits of that technology. Exactly.
Tamara: Did someone else pick up that and keep traveling with it?
Andy: Yeah, as far as I know, so the results of my PhD were presented on the New Inventors. The ABC’s new inventors by Paul Dastoor who was the physics component of my leadership team. And yeah, they continued with that. They were looking for partners with Dulux and other paint manufacturers. I’m not sure where that ended up going, but, yeah, I believe it’s still continuing because I look at my H index and every soft and it goes up.
Steph: How did you actually, like, what was your methodology?
Andy: The great thing about physical chemistry, you just try stuff and if it doesn’t work, then it’s also a result and you can report it. Yeah. Yeah, look, we just, that the methodology was to create a stable ink, which was our first issue. That was really about, using different types of soaps surfactants in the ink to make sure it doesn’t crash out and just look rubbish. And so that was,
Steph: It’s not enough to just actually be efficient, it has to not look horrible to get people to use it.
Andy: Yeah. It has to stay stable so that when you put it on a shelf, but it’s still an ink and it’s not just like, it doesn’t separate like oil and water. So that was the first stage. And look, that’s really quite simple. We just relied on the literature, looking at what worked in other colloidal suspension as a core to keep them stable and just applied that to our inks. The next step, which was the most annoying was getting that ink onto a surface nicely, because I don’t know, like, there’s this huge like surface energy thing where if there’s a small mismatch between your ink and the surface, it will just bead or it will wet properly, or it, like it’s not just a matter of just getting a paint brush and slapping it all. So that was a huge part.
Andy: That’s probably my second to third year. The final kind of six months to a year was that, testing of a solar panel. So, the methodology really, yeah. Just took us through making sure that paint was on the ink was stable, then it would actually wet onto a surface and, like everything you’ve got leavers, you can pull to achieve those. We just pulled them at different amounts in different ratios. If it didn’t work, we scrapped it. If it did work, we honed in on that. It really was, using the literature to inform our methodology, implementing it, looking at work, moved on. Really basic science, right? It’s like the scientific process.
Tamara: You alone in the lab doing it by yourself or was it always a group of people that were there?
Andy: I was responsible for the ink on my own. I handed it across to other colleagues. I had help with the solar panel creation and the testing of the kind of solar panel aspect. Yeah, everything else, it was just me in a lab with a Sonicator with like a wand that admits a high, was it a ultrasonic radio frequency. Just like (buzzing noise). Going insane. Podcasts, though, kept me sane. This is why I’m hoping, when would it be brilliant? All right. If you’re sat in there in ultrasonic wand right now. Good luck. Yeah.
Steph: So you didn’t just do your project. You had other things going on, at the same time with your PhD. Did that help you deal with some of the challenges of a PhD is to have those distractions or alternative avenues? I shouldn’t call them distractions.
Andy: Yeah. Like during my PhD, I just focused on really on the PhD thing. It wasn’t until my postdocs that I really started exploring other opportunities, mainly because I was just not convinced it was for me. The life of the scientists, the life of, yeah. Luxury, my PhD was very much focused on, drinking, lots of alcohol in moderation and then listening to buzzy machines. I’ve worked hard and played hard. When I came out, so I did a year in industry. I don’t know if I’m jumping ahead from your schedule right now, but I did a year industry because I thought, well, academia is not for me, maybe industries for me. I was an explosives chemist in the mines.
Steph: That sounds amazing.
Andy: Well it is until you realised you don’t have got to stand there with a wand, you’re in a big filthy hole all day with men that really sweat a lot. I tried it once, right? Like the working like mine site is so blokey where at least the ones I went to and they were all talking and swearing, and I tried swearing once like them. I dropped the C bomb. Right. I don’t, I don’t use it. I don’t do it a lot, but they looked at me as if like a toddler had said it, like Oh, bless him. He’s trying to swear. I never did it again.
Andy: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Like that year, made me realize that maybe it wasn’t for me because I, didn’t really like academia. I didn’t really like industry. So, I went back into academia. Sonicator, which is so bad. Isn’t it so bad? It sucks people back in.
Tamara: Maybe was it the actual subject that is, or still chemistry celebrate love of your life?
Andy: It’s Stockholm syndrome where like, I’ve done it enough that I think I love it. It’s abused me enough that I think I love it. Chemistry is actually it was like; they call it the central science. Right. I had a little bit of physics. I had a little bit of biology; I had a little bit of everything. It was really great subject, but I don’t think it was the subject that pushed me away from academia. I just think it was academia. And there was a huge part. I went through this horrible stage where I was trying to control it or trying to fight the system. I caused loads of scenes in my last postdoc. I caused a lot of scenes. All right. Looking back on it was just not a cry for help, but just me trying to be like, what, how can you control this thing? It’s not nice. I think then just going, what, I’m not gonna fight the system. I have to accept that I have to fit in it or not be in it. That’s when I was like, okay, I’m jumping.
Tamara: Was that about the time you delivered your TEDx?
Andy: Yeah. Well that’s strange that no, Stockholm syndrome. So I just stayed in after that. So TEDx…
Steph: It’s like a cult. It keeps you there. Yeah.
Andy: Yeah. Like ‘The Illusion of Progress’ was fantastic because it allowed me to express all of the things I was feeling. And I had great reception from it. I actually gave that talk at a Wiley seminar series that was invited to talk about three or four years later, which was excellent. Yeah, I stayed in, like I, I was like, fight the system, stay in, stay and keep going. You realize it’s, I it’s so many times you can bang up against that wall. That’s right. Yeah. And, there’s a quote that I read recently, which I really like, which is you can fail at doing something you don’t like doing. Why not try to fail at something you do like doing? And I was like, what, that’s the mindset I was in. I was like, well, I can stay in this and hate it and still fail still before state, because I didn’t get the funding or the blow, whatever.
Andy: Or I can just try to do stuff. I like all the time. If I fail, yes, it hurts even more. With the payoff that eventually, maybe I’ll be doing something that I like forever. Failing is, Oh, there’s also there’s “Flearning”, fail and learn. There’s also First Attempt In Learning is what’s people are like, Ooh, it’s not failing. It’s your first attempt. Like, and so yeah, as long as you fail and learn and move forward, I think that’s all you can hope for. But yeah. That’s where I’m right now.
Steph: Just to plot out the timeline, when did you finish your PhD?
Andy: 2011 or something like that.
Steph: You went straight into an academic?
Andy: No. PhD finished then that year I spent in the mines. 13 months in the mines, trying to fit in with the big sweary man, and then, about seven years then in post-docs. Once it just like, it keeps you in because it’s like, okay, I got a postdoc, so I had three years. Great. Then, why don’t you apply for this funding? Okay. Well and then I was lucky, right. Nothing more than like, I got my own funding for a year, so that stretched out a year. I got on this other project, I was co-supervising someone and then they wanted to keep me on. One of my friends calls it scrunge money or scunge money, which is like, where people just go, Oh, we need this person around because they’ve got all the skills and all the information. We’ll drag some information from sorry, some money from here.
Steph: That sounds familiar.
Andy: This position, but it’s only for three months or six months, or if you’re lucky, two years, you know and that’s where I found myself is that I was always, there was like, Oh, but we’ve got this for you or, Oh, you’ve got your own money. And.
Steph: Yeah, the bird in the hand.
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I was ready to leave. I just got a, an award, which was the unsung heroes. It’s just like such a humble brag.
Steph: Go ahead. We want to hear it.
Andy: While I was at anyway. I’d won this award, important and famous I am, but anyway, so yeah, it was. What that did is it put me in a room with a load of important people because I stood up and shook her hand and got my award and walked away. And I was ready to leave academia. Right. I was like, right. My up my contract’s up in October, I’m out of here after this. In that meeting or in that event, I met someone and they went, Oh, what are you doing next? Instead of saying, I’m leaving academia. I went, I don’t know. And they went, Oh, I’ve got a contract for you if you want it. And of course, like bird in the hand, I went Okay. I’ll do that. I always think in my, always telling myself, you know what, I’ll do this, and then I’ll do something else. There’s always something to keep you three months, six months.
Andy: And that was a four. They offered it to me and I was like, I’m going to play hardball. Right. I’m going to go in because I wanted to work four days a week. I was like, I’m going to go in. If they don’t give me four days a week, a pay increase from what they’re offering me. I don’t know something else, then I’m not going to take it. They caved, they didn’t cave. I was like, they give me everything. I didn’t work Fridays for, but like that whole time I was anyway, so yeah, that did give me Fridays to find things I like.
Steph: So you weren’t stepping into nothing you were stepping into a plan.
Andy: That’s right. That’s when I started doing a lot of science communication stuff, started writing for Australia Science Channels, started writing for, Australian Quarterly. I was their science communication columnist. What that did is give me a portfolio then where I was able to show that I was at least interested in producing this content and use that as a springboard to get out. In hindsight it did work, but, there’s never a good time to leave.
Tamara: It was, I suppose you didn’t have the push pull factor. You kind of had a split whereas now there’s a lot of people having to leave academia just because of the fact that there’s no money and there is this push now to discover what it is they can do.
Steph: It’s a little irrelevant now, but the focus of our questions is very much on your PhD, but why was your research important? Like what was the value that you got or that the wider community got out of the PhD and actually perhaps the value is more what you’re doing right now. But.
Andy: Yeah, I look value for the research project was very much that it was low cost solar. Solar panels are made in like batches. That batching process means that it’s a very expensive, like you cut out a bit of silicone and you move it across to the next thing. The idea was to produce solar panels in a, what they call a roll-to-roll process where you imagine a roll of plastic one side and it gets like, it’s like the newspapers, how they’re printing it all. Australian money is printed that way as well. You get a roll of plastic; you send it through these rollers up and down. You add, take things, spray things, print things emboss, and they’re all in one go and it’s continuous. Yeah. The idea is you turn it on in the morning and it just prints and prints. The idea was to produce solar panels using that process, spray on our Encora paint, a spray on the other protecting layers and the other buffer layers and everything else it needs.
Andy: At the end have a roll of solar panel that you could cut up. So, yeah, that, really was the low-cost solar dream. In terms of value to me is that it just taught me project, like all those transferable skills, project management, and also now starting businesses. I’m amazed at how close starting a business is to doing a science project. You make an assumption, you test it, did the customers, instead of like, the universes laws deciding whether it works, it’s a person or a set of people or a customer or a client. You say, Hey, do you want this? And they go, no. Why? Because it’s too expensive. It’s rubbish. Actually, it doesn’t solve the problem I actually have got, well, what’s your actual problem, this other weird thing. Great. That’s a new business. That’s what I’ll do. Yeah, so that, I think without my PhD background, the art or the science of starting a business and growing it to revenue would be very much harder for me.
Tamara: Do you use many of those … well, maybe you do use those transferable skills, but do you use any of your science skills in your current roles?
Andy: Not directly. No direct, writing, I mean, writing is a science skill, documentation, which I hate, filling in forms.
Steph: Now you regret it later if you don’t do it properly the first time. That’s right.
Andy: Yeah. Let no hard science skills have come across, but definitely, I mean, transferable those transferable soft or essential skills. Yeah.
Steph: Yep. Would you do the PhD again knowing what now?
Andy: Yes. Yeah. I would, I would a hundred percent do the PhD again. I would not do as many postdocs.
Steph: Yeah. You ready to get out early?
Andy: Yeah, get out earlier. But hindsight’s 2020, isn’t it?
Tamara: That experience of sitting in the lab with your want has not deterred you in any way?
Andy: It, a PhD, you build up friendship groups, you do all these awesome things. You, you’re still pretty young, so you kind of still finding out who you are as a person and a PhD. Also, there was a moment where I was a bit of an asshole and I just loved being Dr. Stapleton. But then you’re hanging out with everyone. Who’s got a PhD and you’re like, Oh, it is nothing special. Yeah, you know, there is ego thing. I think that goes along with being Dr. Something…
Steph: Maybe thinking more generally, how do you think academia can more, better promote the value of research and translate the research that lives in universities into outcomes in the real world
Andy: Get rid of the marketing teams at universities. They, yeah. They ruin everything,
Steph: All those headlines that take this really complex idea and turn it into a click bait.
Andy: So, yeah, so now having launched, verbalize and working closely at the interface between scientists and marketing teams, remember scientists want to actually promote the research. They want to show that they’ve done this, and this is the results marketing teams wants to make the institution look great. Right. They don’t always go hand in hand or there is a conflict of interest on what is the important part of the story. In my opinion, it should always be the science, right. Let’s highlight the science, but unfortunately marketing teams, their key performance indicators, are get you into advertisers space like into the advertising channel seven, or pick it up. What can you do? Spin it up, make it a bit weird. Like like I, I understand, and it’s not their fault, but if universities were to completely dissolve marketing teams or spin a second science marketing team, that’d be so much more benefit to collaboration, transfer of information, that stuff.
Andy: But at the moment you’ve got yeah. Marketing teams that are trying to balance attracting students with getting people, getting the science into which is essentially just to attract more students, right. Getting the science out into the Advertiser or make it sexy. What’s sexy science, right. It’s not sexy. I did it topless once. All the hair got into the Sonicator wand. It was gross. Yeah, so it’s a whole PhD, topless science. That’s what, that’s what can happen. It’s easy to get rid of them.
Steph: Do you think we can maybe science it’s a bit harder. We’re in a health field, and communicating research in health is not everybody knows what the organs are and you can explain no, actually I’m making assumptions based on like, everyone has the same knowledge I do. That’s obviously not the case, but is it harder for science? Could we ask scientists to explain their research to people and have them be able to do it effectively?
Andy: Yeah. Okay. This is what I’ve learned over two years is that you’ve got scientists that give no. Can I say shits, no shits about communicating their work 100%. I know that because we forced them into our process using Verbalized Science and they hate it. They don’t do it. They don’t care. No, we can’t rely on those scientists. Absolutely. Because it’s not, it’s, we’re asking scientists to be super introverted and do like science.
Steph: Work alone on this complex thing for five years. Right. But now be a total people person.
Andy: Be the next Alan Duffy or whatever, just put on a bowtie, slick your hair back. If you’ve got some, I slipped my beard to the side and also, like be attractive, look at science communicators. Like if you don’t follow,
Steph: There’s like so much competing ideas and everyone has a platform, Twitter and whatever. You might not use it really effective, but everybody can have one…
Tamara: There’s all that there’s also that whole, making it more accessible and that there’s certain in certain areas, people who don’t want to make it accessible because that’s their thing. Their thing is being super intelligent and more intelligent than the rest of the population. We, I don’t want to dumb it down for you.
Andy: It really is seen as dumbing it down by a lot of people. It’s not, it’s make, it’s like explaining to a five-year-old, you wouldn’t go, you’re dumb. I’m explaining a level which is appropriate for my audience. Yeah. But, yeah, but on the other side of that is that you have got early career researchers, PhD students, and others that are so engaged with the communication aspect. I think there’d be, they’re the people that will be taking the reins of communication so they can help people, the old crusty, scientists that don’t want to communicate because let’s face it. Scientists are not rewarded for communicating. They are rewarded for bringing in money to an institution that hates them and producing papers. Their H index goes up so they can further their careers. Communicating does help with those in a way, but because there’s no direct link, scientists will not be doing it.
Andy: Whereas you need to rely on, scientists that have a desire to communicate. I’m finding with verbalize that the emails I get back from older scientists are leave me alone. Why do I have to do this? Go away?
Andy: Yeah. I say that a webinar.
Andy: This man, he was like, how long is this going to go? I was like an hour. He was like, well, I’ve very important. I’ve got about a hundred emails. I was like, well, would you like me to stop? And he said, no, that’s it. Yeah. On the other side, you’ve got, I think we’ve got a lot of really great early career researchers and they need to be supported, funded, and rewarded for communicating. That’s something that I feel really lacks in universities is that they’re not rewarding early career researchers for, putting their stuff out there. If there was like, I mean, there’s Altmetric. If you started promoting people based on that Altmetrics score, boom, clever people, altmetric to game, they’re going to start communicating. Yeah.
Tamara: So you enjoyed your PhD experience. What, what do you think you would be doing if you didn’t discover chemistry or do you think you would’ve taken an academic path anyway?
Andy: I think I’ve always been attracted to learning. I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned about myself, is that, I, I just enjoy learning and I think, if you stop learning that just the end of growth, like you just, even if you’re stationary in what you know, you’re going backwards because the world is progressing, right. You’ve got to at least learn enough to keep up. I feel like I’d always be learning. I don’t know what that would be. I don’t know if science necessarily would attract me back to it, if that was my only thing. I certainly feel like science or music. Those were the two things. If I didn’t do science, I reckon I’d be a happy, but struggling musician.
Tamara: One of our guests this morning is a composer. You should listen to her podcast. So to you, what is a PhD?
Andy: A PhD is a time where you get to flex your academic muscles all on your own. You set a project. Like I don’t know. It depends on the research team and the supervisor, but it really is a time where you get to discover a lot about yourself. It’s a time when you get to explore new ideas with like a safety net. Unfortunately it’s a time where I think people can get too focused on that where I wish, I think that this kind of idea of, okay, 80% of your time should be on your research 20% of your time, let’s try other things, lets spread the wings. It is a time to find out what you like doing as well. Yeah, PhD, it’s all about independence is that first time when you step into an academic, the academic world and you’re like, Oh, it’s up to me.
Steph: Yeah. I have to make the decision of what’s going to happen.
Andy: Yes. I have to do things. It is a.
Tamara: It is a big step from being an undergraduate to being a PhD student where you walk in and you expect on day one, somebody is going to hold your hand and take you there, but you go, they go, no, you’re a PhD student. You’ve got to sort it out now. It’s a difficult path to navigate when you don’t know what you’re doing either. It’s like, it’s an interesting, that’s a whole learning curve.
Andy: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It is the best opportunity for growth.
Steph: What would you say to undergrads who might be contemplating a pathway to PhD? Is it something you would suggest or recommend?
Andy: Blindly, no. There’s this path of least resistance, which is rubbish. It’s so rubbish. Remember, and this comes back to my TEDx talk, which is, it’s a big old pyramid scheme, right? The academic at the top relies on your labour to further his career, right. Or sorry, their career. They rely on a huge number of people coming up beneath them to produce papers, produce science, produce novel work, to promote their career for a position that they will never leave. Right. You’ve got to go into it knowing that, is that a deal breaker? I don’t think so. If you go in knowing that, and you go in with this split of I’m going to do some science and I’m going to explore other options, what do I like? Do I like project management? Am I a details person? Do I like communicating? Am I an extroverted kind of scientist? Do I want to do that stuff? and have an exit plan? So the kind of, analogy I gave my TEDx talk was, musicians all want to be a rock star, well, or want to be famous and known and be like, wow, there’s that person that plays blah.
Andy: Most of them won’t get there, but that does that put them off? Like, absolutely not. A lot of the, like then you’ve got to have a backup plan. Make sure that you do build up other skills so that when the ideas of becoming a scientist rockstar drop away, you at least have something you enjoyed it back out, could be teaching. It could be accounting, whatever you actually like, and that’s up for you to decide. So yeah. Is it, should people do PhDs? Absolutely. Go into them with their eyes wide open.
Tamara: Also thinking about kids who are finishing school, or maybe kids are considering subject choices for year 11 and 12, what, and all the pressures that is as a really high-pressure moment to make decisions. What do you say to them?
Andy: You can only make the decision based on the information you’ve got at that time. Today, what is it? They say three careers. I’m on my second as a business starter. I don’t even know what that is, but, and then I’m sure that there’ll be one later on in my life, 50, 60 plus where I’m like, Oh, should I just want to paint? I don’t know. So it is daunting, but you remember, you can only make the decisions based on the information you’ve got. What do you like doing? And also, there are so many external factors about what you should be from society. Quite often our dreams are hidden with this kind of veneer of practicality. I don’t want to be, a musician because if I’m an accountant, I’ll earn more money. I’ll become; do you want to be an accountant? Really? Does anyone really want to be an accountant?
Tamara: I can’t think of anything more stressful.
Andy: Yeah. And so look that’s it. It’s, it comes back to one of those things, which is, what would you do if money was no object? And I wish I’d asked myself that very seriously, very early on, because I think my answers would have been maybe similar. I did it. I did like science, but you have to ask yourself if money was no object, what would you be doing?
Tamara: I’d be laying on a beach somewhere. Cocktails
Andy: There we are. Instagram influencer. That’s the advice I’d give and don’t focus too much on the, what ifs, maybes buts of the future. They’ll work themselves out. As long as you are happy with the decision you made right then and there.
Tamara: So where is your thesis today? Yeah.
Andy: It is so I I’ve got one in Plymouth with my dad. I’ve got one in my spare bedroom, and, there’s one in Newcastle University’s archive. So yes, it’s at home right now. Like I could go get it in 20 minutes. I know where it is. Yeah.
Steph: Surprisingly not everybody can say that.
Tamara: Did your dad read your thesis?
Andy: No, he said he read the acknowledgements right. Where I said thanks to mum and dad. He said he got bored after the first page.
Tamara: Yeah, I think that’s what my mum read. Okay.
Steph: Have you ever gone through this process of reflecting on your PhD journey before? You’ve have looked back and thought this was what it was.
Andy: Yeah. You start a business, so your business can only operate as well as you can. There is a lot of weird self-help stuff that you find yourself doing. Part of it is working out your strengths, what you did enjoy didn’t enjoy and reflecting on my education was a huge part of that. So, yeah, it’s look, it’s a fantastic time doing a PhD is great. I just wish that someone had sat me down and told me everything about what it was really like honestly. Yeah. At the of the PhD you get out and you go, Oh, Oh, is that what I was training for…
Steph: Well, that does lead to our final question, which is about myths. What’s the myth you want to put a pin in and say, that’s not true about PhDs or about academia.
Andy: Mm. People think that a PhD is like more study. Do you have like, it’s like, Oh, you’re still in uni.
Steph: Oh, how many times. I had a t-shirt, which said, don’t ask me about my thesis. Because they’re like, you still doing that?
Andy: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Cause they, cause they just see it as an extension of like more uni stuff. The biggest myth, I guess, is externally, which is, yeah, it’s not more study it is really, it’s a job and you have to approach a PhD like a job, even though it does, even though you’re left to your own devices and it’s good to turn up at 10 or 11 or 12 and leave at two and go get drunk in the uni bar, like responsibly.
Tamara: Oh, I had to go and pick-up kids, so my story was a bit different.
Andy: Yeah, a bit different. You were just drinking wine at midnight, alone. So yeah, the biggest myth I think is that it’s not further study, that it’s a job and that you have to approach it like a job. Do your nine to five, get there, do it. Even as, even though Facebook is distracting, even though social media and friends are distracting, you’ve got to say…. Yeah. Do what my hand I, so I left Facebook a year and a bit ago and my hand still goes FACE automatically on the keyboard to bring up the prompt. Hey crazy is that? Stupid!
Tamara: Well, this has been a really entertaining, very entertaining, discussion. We’re really very grateful for your time and your generosity. Thank you so much for coming and talking to us on our very first series of our podcast.
Andy: An absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me.