Catie Lichten graduated with a PhD from the Department of Physiology in 2012. She is currently a Scientific Writer at the University of Oxford.
Q: What made you interested in doing your PhD in your field?
I studied math in my undergrad, and wanted to do something in applied math. At the end of my degree, I got interested in the links between math and biology, and did an undergraduate project in that area. I liked the idea that you could use mathematical tools to make sense of biological systems. The professor I worked with for the project invited me to stay to do a PhD, so I did that because I liked working with him and was excited about the project. Although I went on to different things afterwards, the PhD made sense to choose because that’s what I was really interested in at that point in my life.
Q: During your PhD, what challenges did you face?
A big event happened in the middle of my PhD— the lab moved to the UK because my supervisor took a job at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and so another PhD student and I moved with him. It was challenging since my whole life was in Montreal and I didn’t know anyone in Scotland. But because I had moved, rather than staying in Montreal and changing supervisors, it wasn’t really an issue in terms of my PhD work, aside from some logistics. I think I was actually pretty lucky because it gave me the chance to experience a completely new environment. There’s a cliché about how moving to a new country widens your horizons, but it’s true. There are slightly different ways of living and working, and it forces you to adapt and grow, and see things from a new perspective.
Another challenge was simply that my PhD took a long time and I think sometimes I lost sight of the big picture along the way.
Q: What kind of support did you receive during your PhD?
My supervisor was very supportive. I think I was lucky because I was one of his first students, so he was able to spend a lot of time with me, especially at the beginning. That helped me understand my project and different ways to approach problems. There was actually a time, around two years into my PhD, when I thought I would quit. I think I just couldn’t see anymore why I was doing the PhD. We had a discussion about how things were going that really helped get me motivated and back on track. I never brought up the quitting, but if he hadn’t been so approachable, maybe I would have quit at that point.
Q: How did you get where you are now?
I went into my PhD not having any kind of grand plan. Becoming a P.I. just wasn’t something I wanted to do. So I was always thinking about what other things I could try.
Just before I left Montreal, I took the opportunity to do two writing courses for graduate students to learn about how to write scientific articles. And I really, really liked them. It made me think, this is something that I’m interested in doing, that I enjoy doing. It seemed important to me the ideas that the teacher was talking about in terms of the value of writing clearly and effectively for science. Everything, all of that struck a chord with me. So I started looking for opportunities to do more writing. When I moved to Edinburgh, I got involved with the university student science magazine and ended up doing a lot of writing and editing for that, becoming the editor-in-chief and doing other writing and some public outreach activities. In the course of doing these different activities, I got in my head that I would really like to do something with writing or publishing.
After my PhD, I worked as a reporter for a niche publication in London that reports news about research funding and research policy. I did that for about a year and a half. I thought it was interesting and I learned a lot about how research funding works in the UK and Europe, but I realized I didn’t want to be a journalist—it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to go back to something a bit more analytical and research-oriented.
Next, there was an opportunity to do public policy-related research for a non-profit research institute, which I did for five and a half years. They are contracted by governments, research funders, and other organizations to do research, such as reviewing evidence about a particular issue, evaluating research funding programs or surveying researchers about a specific topic. I liked this job because it was directly linked to policy, and involved a mix of project management, writing reports and proposals, editing, doing interviews, and some quantitative analysis.
At a certain point I was ready to do something else and my partner had a job offer in a different city, and I came across researchers in biophysics at the University of Oxford who were looking for a scientific writer to help write and edit funding proposals and manuscripts. That appealed to me because it was a mix of everything—what I’d done in my PhD and funding knowledge, and writing and project management experience I have from my past jobs. So that’s what I’m doing now. I really enjoy the work and being back in an academic environment.
Q: Is there any other thing from your PhD that helped you in your job now?
The physiology department had a weekly seminar, and all the PhD students had to come together beforehand to discuss a paper that was written by the speaker. We’d have to be ready to discuss any aspect of the paper, and our names would be pulled out of a little box to decide who would describe each part. It was really terrifying, especially when I first started, because there were much more senior PhD students in there with you. Also, coming from math, I didn’t know what half of the words meant, so it took me ages to get through those papers at the beginning. But I think it was actually one of the most useful things I did for my future because by the end, I could look at a paper, pick out the main findings and methods, and be able to say something intelligent about it. That’s the kind of skill you really need—to be able to digest information quickly. I have used that constantly in my jobs.
Another helpful thing was going to career events with speakers from outside academia. Hearing about what they liked about their job, what they didn’t like, and what sort of character traits are needed for different kinds of work was helpful for understanding where I might fit.
Q: If you could go back to before your PhD, is there something you would tell yourself?
I think the earlier that you start taking ownership for what you’re doing and stop waiting to be told what the next step is, the easier it is, because that’s when you start doing original work yourself. Very rapidly, you become more expert than your supervisor in your topic—you’re actually the best person to make decisions about what you should do next. I could have shifted to that attitude faster and stopped worrying that I didn’t know enough; I spent too much time trying to learn more and not enough time just moving forward.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?
I’ve wondered sometimes, if I could go back in time, would I do my PhD again? At first, it felt like I wasn’t really making use of that experience. The science from my PhD is useful now, but until I started my current job, that wasn’t the case. What has always been useful from the PhD was learning to think rigorously about problems and to ask questions.
That period was also a really good time to simply explore things. The writing experience was really important for where I am now, but I also got to do wet lab experiments and fluorescence microscopy and computational work, and live in two different fantastic places, and meet many different smart, creative and also eccentric people. It was an incredibly rich experience, and of course it had ups and downs, but I am glad that I had the chance to do it.
Many thanks to Catie for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on Linkedin.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.