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Jai Matharu – PhD Chemistry – University College London

Case study, Chemistry, Materials Science & Technology, Further Study May 20, 2009

Jai Matharu - PhD Chemistry - University College London

Age: 25
University and Degree: University College London, PhD Chemistry

What is the title of the course you are studying? The proposed title of my thesis was ‘Single Molecule Vibrational Spectroscopy of Molecules on Oxide Surfaces’, but seeing as none of the equipment has been working it will be something more like ‘Catalytic Behaviour of Thin Film Metal Oxide Systems’.

What interested you about this field? I enjoyed the practical lab-based components of my undergraduate degree course. I suppose I was drawn to the area of catalysis because it has a directly discernable link to industry and technology. For instance, a lot of my course has focused on a similar system to that found in catalytic converters (found on all modern car exhausts). I like to be able to see how what I am studying can be used in the real world.

I also spent part of my Masters course doing a research project on novel materials and enjoy the challenge of making new nanomaterials tailor-made for a particular purpose. Although my current work is with established materials, it is through their modification that I can continue this interest.

What do you see yourself doing with the PhD afterwards? I have a number of ideas! Ideally I would like to stay in science but I see myself away from university, having spent seven years in further education. I am attracted to the materials industry and would quite like to work in research and development. I have some work experience in a medical environment and I’m really interested in the production of new materials for medical use.

I feel strongly about the environment so I’ve also considered going into the energy sector. In particular I would like to be involved in the development of viable alternative energy production (solar, hydrogen fuel cells, wind).

Throughout my education I’ve been quite interested in getting into teaching and have already been involved in some tutoring at various levels. Tying into my concern over the environment I feel that there is a lot of disinformation relating to green matters and unnecessary dumbing down. I feel scientific communication needs to be improved and that this could be a field I might enter.

What is it like day to day on your course and what is the work load like? I’m expected to work a 9 to 5 although it is not strictly regulated. Work load is very variable and at times I may have to stay later or come into the lab at weekends. My time is split between being in the lab and at a desk in the office. In the lab I am in charge of acquiring my own data and then I will use office time to write up results and process/manipulate data. I tend to work alone although I do see other members of my research group from time to time.

Do you have enough time spent with more experienced scientists/ supervisors?
I think this varies a lot between research groups and supervisors. The composition of a research group is usually a principal investigator (supervisor), post-doctorial staff and students. At the beginning of my PhD there were 3 post-docs to 3 students and whilst I didn’t see my supervisor that often the post-docs were always available and their knowledge and experience a valuable resource. However, now there is one post-doc to 5 students, not ideal as resources are stretched and the knowledge base of the group is narrow. With 2 years of experience I need less help, but when I do require assistance it’s frustrating when the post-doc is unavailable or doesn’t have the knowledge to help.

How are you funding your PhD? I receive a standard PhD studentship from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC). In sciences studentships like this will be acquired by supervisors who find suitable students to fill the positions, so I wasn’t involved in applying for funding. However, I have also received supplementary funding from my university to assist in a research trip to Italy. I’ve earned money for marking and teaching and I’ve had two part-time jobs throughout my university career.

What is the biggest difference between your undergraduate studies and your PhD studies? Definitely the independence – in an undergraduate course there is structure: lectures, deadlines, exam dates and students fit into the schedule. With a PhD there is a very vague path set out at the beginning and whilst the supervisor will guide you along or suggest you do certain things, the actual work is very much individual.

What would be your best piece of advice for undergraduates considering a science PhD? It is really important to choose the right supervisor and research group. Most groups have a webpage and will have a list of recent publications – read these and if they are of interest then contact the group leader and ask to see the labs. Most supervisors will be happy to do this for potential students. It is crucial that the group and area of research are right as most PhDs are funded for 3 years – that’s a long time if you are unhappy and I know of many people who either dropped out of a PhD or changed groups because it didn’t work out.

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