Vicky – PhD student

Vicky spends a lot of time in the lab carrying out experiments to help us learn more about reproductive health, and when she is not in the lab she is out and about educating young adults about the importance of sexual health. Does this sound like something you could do in the future? If so, read on and let Vicky tell you her story.

What attracted you to this job?

I was always interested in the way the body worked, even as a young kid I loved reading books on the human body and wanted to be a doctor. By the age of 14 I realised I was more interested in research than medicine and it went from there. I love research because I just need to know how things work and I also like the idea that my work might someday help people who need it.

What does your typical day involve?

I wake up at 6:30am and drink copious amounts of coffee before heading to work for 8am. I can start work when I want but I work best in the mornings so I like to get in early. When I arrive, I read my e-mails, check my calendar and read my lab book from the day before. My lab book is my bible, it contains all the experiments I’ve done, how I did them, and notes on the results. I then have a list of things to get done that day and it can range from writing a report or presentation, analysing data or performing experiments in the lab. Experiments can last a few days and most days I have to look after my cells, this includes weekends. I also spend some time each week teaching undergraduate students and in the summer I organise the Egg and Sperm Race, which is a public engagement activity aimed at teaching young adults about the importance of sexual health. Basically Gemma (another PhD student) and myself get to go to music festivals all summer for free to race toy sperm. It’s a good perk!

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

The best job satisfaction is when an experiment works and gives you the results you were hoping for. This doesn’t happen all that often in science and sometimes it can be very demoralising, especially when you don’t get a result for months. The feeling of achievement when something finally works can be amazing.

What do your friends and family think about your job?

My friends think I’m a massive geek and laugh at some of the things I get up to in the name of science.

Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance

Right now I’m studying for my PhD, so I’m turning into a bit of a work-a-holic. Everyone says that a PhD takes over your life and its true. Although I don’t dislike it, I love my research and I’m driven by the project. I can spend up to 60 hours a week working on my PhD, but I make sure I play just as hard as I work. To balance it I do all my work during the week and make sure I have Friday night and all of the weekend free. Although sometimes I need to go into the lab to look after my cells but this only takes an hour at most.

How did you get to where you are today?

Well, nothing in my career was really planned as such. I started by studying microbiology at university, because I was really interested in pathogens and I knew I wanted to be a researcher. When I graduated I found it difficult to get a job and after 2 months of being unemployed I started to look at Masters degrees. That’s when I got a place on a Masters course in Biomedical Science with Drug Design. It was a quick decision but the area was great as it allowed me to move in a more medical direction with my qualifications. I had to self-fund the masters and for that I needed to work full time while studying full time. It was the hardest year of my life and I had to work without a day off for months at a time. It was worth it in the end and I graduated with distinction.

That’s when I got a job at Lab901, a small start-up company in the biotechnology industry. I worked as a research and development technician for over two years before applying for PhD projects. I applied for over 20 projects in cardiovascular science, reproductive science and infectious diseases. I was offered my first choice of project which happened to be in reproductive science and that’s how I ended up in reproduction. Then just before I started, my supervisor asked if I wanted to apply for an MBA scholarship, which I jumped at, and successfully won the scholarship.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

Get work experience. I learned more skills from the time I spent in industry than I did in both of my degrees. My degrees were good in teaching me the knowledge, but key lab skills and experimental design was ingrained in me from working. Learning science is very different from being a scientist; you need to make sure you enjoy being in the lab because you will spend your life in the lab repeating the same experiments over and over again.

How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field, and how much can this be expected to rise?

Science isn’t the best-paid industry, most of us get into science because we are passionate about it and this compensates for the lower wages. The starting salary can be hard going but it gets better. I had to look this up but the starting salary wage for a graduate scientist is between £16k-£21k depending on the job, location and qualifications. However, if you hold in there, wages can increase to £28k-£37k after training and professional registration and lab managers can earn over £50k a year.

What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax?

I love dinosaurs, food, 80’s rock music and old Nintendo games!

Have there been any embarrassing moments?

Working in reproductive biology can be more than embarrassing. There are times when friends in the centre have wanted to collect and test my urine and other fluids. We have been in the pub talking about our research and then suddenly realise everyone is looking at us because we are talking about giving mice smear tests, and one day I even found a bucket full of used sanitary towels in the lab. Maybe that’s more gross than embarrassing but it makes me laugh in retrospect.