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Oct 30 2009

Who Dr.?

After the big and shiny experience as an undergraduate I went off to do a PhD., to make me into a Dr. This was something I’d intended to do since a visit to the Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Centre as a school student; there we were shown around the labs and I was convinced that a career in science without a PhD. was going to be a serious uphill struggle involving the cleaning of much lab glassware.

The exact nature of a PhD. varies from country to country and from subject to subject. In the UK a PhD. in physical chemistry is typically 3 years long and the supervisor will usually have a big say in what the student does.

I did my PhD. at Durham University in the Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Polymer Science, supervised by Prof. Randal Richards. Prime motivation for this particular PhD. was the cash, it was funded by Courtaulds Plc and paid a research assistant salary. It also got me back to more big and shiny science, in the form of the neutron source at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory  (RAL) and with the added benefit that a very skilled technician made my polymers for me. This was good because I’ve never been “at one” with synthetic chemistry, the untidiness of the process didn’t suit my temperament. Apocryphally the start of polymer science was a bit slow because the early polymer synthesisers couldn’t crystallise their material, this led to much derision from other synthetic chemists who made lovely crystals from their materials, rather than black sludge that polymer scientists made. The molecular nature of polymers wasn’t appreciated until the 1920’s which is really rather recent.

So for 3 years I slaved away: I prepared samples – spinning thin films onto lumps of shiny flat silicon, I went down to the RAL for 48 hour experimental runs, I wrote FORTRAN programs do do data analysis, I read journal articles, I attended conferences, made posters and gave presentations. I observed, from a small distance, the activities of synthetic chemists.

The chap over the desk from me was a historical re-enacter, I watched as he made his own chain-mail.

It was whilst I was writing my thesis, entitled “Surface composition profiles in some polymer mixtures”, that I first met with the elephant of despair. The elephant of despair lived in the library, he was made of a transparent material so you could scarcely see him and he was only about 6 inches tall. He stood in the gaps between the journals, waiting for when I would arrive to find an article and discover on the way a paper published 10 years ago which captured most of what I’d slaved over for the last three years. His plaintive trumpeting has haunted me on and off through the years.

I think the day I decided I wasn’t going to make an effort to get “Dr.” onto all my paperwork was the day I was in the bank the man in front of me was having a lengthy discussion with the cashier because the printed numbers in his saving book did not line up with the ruled lines. After he’d left the cashier turned to her colleague and said: “He had to complain, he was a doctor”. As it stands the only people who call me “Dr Hopkinson” are my parents, one of my credit cards and the odd polite student.

For reasons I don’t understand medical doctors appear to refer to PhD’s as “proper doctors”, whilst I’ve always considered myself a bit of fraud since I was not a “proper doctor” – who could potentially save your life. Perhaps they’re just being polite.

And now I’m nearly a PhD. grandfather, I supervised three PhD. students of my own and one of these has a student who is about to do her viva. I don’t have children, but I feel very ‘parental’ about my students – I’m immensely proud of them and their achievements.

6 comments

  1. Nora Lumiere

    You're like a surgeon then, very much a doctor but known as Mr.
    I enjoyed the chain-mail maker and the "elephant of despair" – will steal.

  2. SomeBeans

    Dave the chain-mail maker was a good bloke, a Viking re-enactor, he very much looked the part and was into historical accuracy. He was also the one who calmly put the fire out in the fumehood whilst PhD students and postdocs scattered willy-nilly.

  3. VP

    I don't believe it – I've heard/seen absolutely no mention of Chorleywood for years and then two come along within the space of 2 days…

    Nora's remark's reminded me of the dental students I shared a flat with in Newcastle. They were very particular that they were far superior to the medics because their studies would take them way beyond PhD territory into surgery and so they'd be called Mr. at the end of it all.

  4. VP

    Oooh – I've just thought of another 'elephant of despair' – 3 years of intensive research to achieve a negative result. Just as valuable as finding a positive one, but somehow just not as exciting or sexy.

  5. SomeBeans

    VP – must admit I'm deeply suspicious of people who put letters after their names!

    Presumably your other ref to Chorleywood was Jimmy's Food Factory: http://www.jimmysfoodfactory.com/ which we're rather enjoying.

    I spent my first year or so getting a negative result, bit boring but I did it very thoroughly.

  6. VP

    Spot on Somebeans. I'm enjoying it too – the amount of perfectly good looking bananas used in the production of tomatoes was a bit of an eye opener though!

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