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Why you shouldn’t do a PhD

16 August 2018

Why you shouldn’t do a PhD

What’s next for your future?

August and September are traditional times (in South Africa) for thinking about what’s going to happen next year. For academics, it’s the time that we finalise projects and advertise them online. Interested to see what I’m thinking about? Then you can look here and here. For students, there are much bigger questions because deciding to do another postgraduate degree will likely change the course of your life. We all hope that this would be for the better, but that’s not always the case.


If you are currently a third year undergraduate, you should now be deciding whether you want to do Honours next year. Honours is super hard work. It’s also a great fun year. Your first real exposure to a research project that is yours, and a super intense course with people who all share the same goal. It’s a year of great camaraderie, and you are likely to significantly enhance your chance of employment as well as your starting salary. For most undergraduates who decide to do Honours, the main problem will be ensuring that you get the grades. Most schools require good marks for undergraduate degrees, and with good reason. Not everyone will survive the Honours course and a good undergraduate degree really is the best indication of whether or not Honours is for you.

Honours students

Should you do a Masters degree? A MSc will again enhance your chances of getting employment and you will again start with a higher salary than someone with an Honours. It’s important to know that there are two types of MSc, one that is taught (with a project component) and which is over in 12 months. This taught masters is like a super intense Honours degree at a much higher level. It is not for the faint hearted and if you struggled in Honours then this is not for you. The other type of MSc is by research. If you loved doing your Honours project and really enjoyed the writing and researching side, as well as the practical doing of research, then a MSc by research might be for you.

Masters students

Are you getting ready to submit your Masters? Do you feel that you could do it all over again? Really? Well, I’m still going to say that a PhD might not be the right choice. This might seem surprising as so far I’ve been encouraging you all to do more and more education. Why would I not want you to do a PhD?

  1. Doing a PhD actually reduces your chance of employment, and over the long-term your pay will be lower.

The reality is that most employers don’t want someone with a PhD, because it is a very academic qualification. It should have taken you so far down the rabbit hole, that there’s very little left for employers to use. Employers who want people with PhDs (and there are a few) generally want professional researchers who are essentially academics. Good work if you can get it, but it tends not to pay well. You might end up only being fit to be an academic, and that life is getting increasingly harder without any end… like doing a PhD every year. Very hard to enjoy.

  1. Doing a PhD is really hard work.

It’s not a MSc with an extra year. It really is much harder and tougher on you mentally and physically. The chances that you’ll end up jaded and malcontent with the entire academic system are very high (maybe even obligatory). You are probably not going to be very happy while doing it (there are some exceptions of course), and it will likely have negative impacts on all the good things that you currently have in your life (think family, friends & relationships, as well as free time and fun).

  1. Any PhD has to be yours.

It’s entirely useless to do a PhD for someone else. You must take complete ownership in order to do it. In fact, you need to be obsessed with the PhD subject and really want to do nothing else at all. A PhD is an obsession where you can be unwavering and manic in your fascination with a subject. Very few people really understand what a great privilege this is. If you don’t feel like a total maniac for learning, a PhD is not for you.

There follows a great video by Simon Clark (except I suggest you stop before he tries to sell you something). It is well worth watching, especially if you are wondering whether or not to do a PhD. If you totally identify with Simon, and you already know what passion and fanaticism he’s on about, then maybe you should do a PhD. But you must have an exit plan. What will you do if you can’t finish it, and what you will do if you can. Please don’t do a PhD if you have no idea what’ll come next. You must have a clear vision of how you will use it to go forth an conquer the world.

If this sounds scary - it's because it's meant to! 

...and if I haven't put you off, then the next question is what project and supervisor should you look for. This is of course super important, but I'm not going to blog about it now. Maybe make an appointment to chat with me instead.

  Lab  Writing

Opportunities and issues associated with vertebrate biocontrols of invasive species in South Africa

03 August 2018

What is a vertebrate biocontrol?

This would be a vertebrate that you could use to control an invasive species. An example might be using cats to control rats or mice, or cane toads to control cane beetles. Classically, this strategy has gone terribly wrong for a number of reasons. Typically, there are lots of non-target species that are impacted by these predators, which can breed and have severe impacts. The pathway of biological control is at the root of many classic invasions.

However, it is not necessary to introduce breeding pairs of vertebrates, single sex animals will often have the same effect but are unable to have a lasting impact as seen in invasive populations that result from the biological control pathway. This workshop was convened to brainstorm ideas of what vertebrate biocontrol agents might work in South Africa.

 Left to Right: Ben Allen, John Measey, Alwyn Marais, Justin O’Riain, Riaan Van Der Walt, Dave Richardson, Sarah Davies, Chris Wilke, Debbi Winterton,  Chandre Rhoda, Nicola Bredenkamp, Jaco Van Deventer, Gavin Bell, Khathutshelo Nelukalo & Mfundo Tafeni.

In the workshop ran by Ben Allen (see here) and myself, we brought together government, non-government, university and agency practitioners and researchers involved in the control and management of invasive species in the Western Cape to discuss opportunities and issues associated with the potential use of vertebrate biocontrols. The intent of the workshop was to provide an overview of invasive species issues in the Western Cape, learn about recent advances in invasive species management in Australia, and discuss how these new tools and approaches might be useful to South African situations. The goal of the workshop is to identify any issues that may arise from the use of these tools and identify possible applications (if any) in the Western Cape.

There were some great discussion points from the participants, and we all left thinking again about the potential for using vertebrates as biocontrol.

MeaseyLab Retreat

03 August 2018

The MeaseyLab Retreat – 2018

Once again, it was time to head to the wilds of Kleinmond to all work together towards a common goal, while at the same time contemplating where we’ve got to in 2018.


It was a great space to reflect and plan for the next lab project (MeaseyLab projects). We’ve come up with a really interesting take on looking at the end of the pet trade: the fate of pet amphibians. This will be the focus of our joint activities moving forwards. Looking forward to linking this post to the coming publication (watch this space!).


This year we were joined by Drs. Morne du Plessis and Moeti Taioe from the Pretoria Zoo (now in SANBI). Both researchers are interested in the skin microbiome of frogs, and we were helping them swab both Xenopus species as part of their project.


Left to Right: Damian Van Aswegen, Reesher Kearns, John Measey, Carla Wagener, Nitya Mohanty. Nolwethu Jubase and Natasha Kruger missed the team photo - maybe next year!

Just to show that we did actually do some real work, here's a short video of our activities:

Thanks to all lab members who took part. To those who were away, we look forward to retreating with you sometime in the future.

  Lab  meetings  Xenopus

Learning about animal control on Robben Island

27 July 2018

A Night on Robben Island 

Robben Island is known as the place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of the 27 years he spent incarcerated. But Robben Island, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been used as a leper colony, an animal quarantine station and a prison island. During World War II, the island accommodated guns to sink potential invading ships.

Robben Island has amazing wildlife. Although named after a Cape fur seal colony, there are now only a few around. But there are lots of penguins (seemingly everywhere), seagulls and many other marine birds. As well as the amazing indigenous wildlife, Robben Island has a darker invasive side. The population of rabbits that once turned most of the island into a sandy desert have been reduced to a very few individuals (we didn’t see any), cats are nearly gone, but herds of fallow deer are still impacting what remains of the native vegetation.

From Top Left to Bottom Right: View of Table Mountain from the boat, doing another tour of the island but during the day, a WWII lookout installation, Ben behind bars for the night.

CIB visiting fellow Ben Allen and I were allocated a prison cell for the night to observe some of the animal control program in action. Ben has worked on control of mammals in Australia for many years, and he had some interesting ideas for helping to improve the control effort on Robben Island. The native birds and steenbok certainly make the control effort far more complex, but we believe that given appropriate effort to remove the last individuals, lasting control is possible.

Thanks to the Robben Island museum for making the trip possible.


Story telling in science?

21 July 2018

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin

I started thinking about this topic some years back as I often need to write popular articles that make some of the science that we do more generally accessible. But then a few days ago, an article popped up in The Guardian (see here) by Nick Enfield that made me think again.

“No story telling” is a comment that I sometimes make when reading drafts of manuscripts, chapters, and even when editing for journals. What do I mean by this? Stories are deterministic. That is to say that the story teller has an end in mind when they start telling the story, and the telling is a way to get to their goal. A story that’s ‘pointless’ will frustrate the audience and won’t engender them to listen to that storyteller again. In a good story, reaching that goal will often result in lots of twists and turns with the goal shrouded in mystery until it is revealed. In a teaching story (like a parable), the goal may be overt, such that the audience relates to the narrative and buys in to the same conclusion.

If we did science like we tell stories, we would decide on the way the system works before we studied it, and then design the experiment in order to reach our desired goal. You should have recognised by now that this is not the way we do science. This is clearly an undesirable way to go about doing science because we should never prejudice the result that we’ll get from a study before we do it.

We need to approach science in a very different way to storytelling. When I was doing my PhD I was very frustrated as I had the impression that my supervisor knew what result he wanted and designed the study to show it. This is known as “confirmation bias”. When an experiment failed to meet the expected result, he declared that it had failed.

In our studies, we read other studies and observations to formulate a question that we frame as a hypothesis. We then devise an experiment that will test this hypothesis in the most objective way, so that we can fairly accept or reject our null hypothesis (see blog on hypothesis forming here).

Thus our studies are the very opposite of story telling. Or are they?

I often tend to think of the answer to the question as the goal of the study. That I don’t know what the answer is, doesn’t spoil the story for me. The important thing is asking the question. An unexpected answer might send us back to thinking more about the system that we are studying and result in a greater revelation.

A really good example of this is the study published earlier this year by Becker et al (2018). Francois found a strong relationship between probability that Rose’s dwarf toadlets survive and rainfall in the breeding season. More rainfall equals greater survival is what one would automatically think, but that wasn’t the result obtained. Francois found that survival increased with less rainfall. It wasn’t until we made the connection between the fact that increased rainfall during the breeding season meant that the toadlets spent more time in puddles, decreasing their survival. As the toadlets aren’t feeding during this time they lose weight, and also expose themselves to more predation pressure. In a dry year, the toads will head back to their subterranean refuges much earlier and continue to pursue ‘safer’ feeding and hiding habits. While we might intuitively feel that a ‘safe toadlet’ is a better life-strategy, reduced rainfall means reduced reproduction, and so results in a failure for toads that don’t manage to pass on their genes that year. The result is a variable life-history with the weather, something that was previously unknown. To me, that’s a great story!

But the scientific paper that was written about this ‘story’ (Becker et al 2018) doesn’t have a narrative style, and doesn’t fit the description of a narrative that we discussed above. Instead, it follows the formula that we set out way back in the blog (Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results and Discussion: see here). This style does not treat the experiment as a complication on the way to the story’s goal. The structure introduces the rationale behind conducting the experiment, then objectively explains the findings, and lastly discusses their meaning in relation to what is already known. The key differences in the storytelling style from the scientific formula are the absence of a known goal at the start of the process (see a more detailed discussion of this by Yarden Katz here).

But there is a role for stories when communicating science as this increases interest, facilitates understanding, and enhances memory. This is particularly true when communicating science to the public and making it more accessible, but it also applies to interactions between scientists, for example at conferences. The presentations that tell a story and entertain are those we tend to remember. Not easy, but if we do want to communicate well with each other, then we need to learn the art of story telling, without compromising our scientific objectivity.  


Having written the above, I've made a point of reading more posts and opinions on story telling in science. Watch out, because this subject is fraught with the multiple ways that people interpret the meaning of a 'story'. Above, I've taken the deterministic interpretation of story telling (a story with a known ending), and I've used this to argue why it is not a good tool for science.

However, there are other fundamentals in stories that are particularly useful and should not be ignored. One notable feature of stories is that they make facts easier to understand and remember. Indeed, there is even the idea that this is why story telling evolved in human societies. For example, most religions are based on stories that are geared to understanding of societal morals and rules.

Can this principle that stories for human memories be used in science?

Some argue that it can, and should be an integral part of scientific writing. In her blog post, Anna Clemens argues that stories should be used within the scientific context. I'll let you read this for yourselves (here), and ask you to make up your own minds. Next time you hand something in, please add a comment if you've decided to take this route!

  Lab  Writing