Careers, Guest blog

Guest Blog – The many hats of a dementia researcher

Blog by Beth Eyre

Reading Time: 7 minutes

If some of you read my monthly blogs, you may have thought, hmmm we’ve not heard from Beth for a while. And, you’d be correct. It has been a tremendously busy time for me, with finishing up my PhD, whilst also starting my new researcher job, in addition to giving talks at conferences and even teaching abroad! So yes, it’s been a very busy period. But this made me think it would be a nice idea to write a blog about some of those hats that researchers wear, and how many plates we end up spinning – as this is something I had no idea about before I began my own research career. So, if you’re wanting to learn more about the multitude of roles you may play during your PhD then this blog is for you!

As I knew no one who’d done a PhD, or even anyone who worked in academia before I started, I had no idea what it meant to do a PhD and had zero idea of some of the roles you may take on when doing a PhD. I knew you did some research, maybe did some experiments and then wrote up your work and got that “Dr” title – but let’s be honest, that is a very reductionist explanation of what people doing PhDs do during their actual PhD. Disclaimer, every PhD is different (the beauty and potentially worst thing about doing a PhD) so some of the things I mention may not be applicable to you. But I thought I’d highlight some of the main hats I’ve worn, and many of you will/may wear during a PhD.

The designer and project manager – Okay, so this one may not be that surprising to you. But, at the beginning of your PhD one of the most important jobs is the design of your overall project. What will your research question be? How will you answer this question? What techniques will you learn and then use? How many experiments do you need to complete? How many subjects will you need to include to get substantially powered results? Not only do you have to figure out all of the above, but you also have to figure out how all the potential experiments will fit into your PhD timeline. You also have to figure out how long all the analysis will take, the write up, the conferences you plan to attend. It is A LOT when you first begin and if I’m honest, pretty overwhelming because many of you (myself included) may not have planned or have been the designer and project manager of such a large project before! But, on the plus side, you learn so much from this experience and over the years you’ll be able to hone these important skills in order to use them on a new project or even in a different industry.

The experimenter – This is one of my favourite hats I’ve gotten to wear. Once you’ve done all the designing of the experiments, then you get to do them. You may have to learn some cool new techniques (for example I got to learn how to work with big fancy microscopes). Over time, you become an expert in your techniques and that feels great. Obviously, it doesn’t feel good when experiments go wrong or when you make mistakes, but there is no better feeling then being able turn up and complete the experiment that you’ve planned for the day. For me, I like to think back to when I first started learning some of the techniques I’ve honed during my PhD – it feels so rewarding to look back and think that once I literally had no idea how to do this. However, now I’m at a stage where I don’t have to think too much about doing the experiments and I’m also at the stage where I can teach people and that is a pretty cool feeling.

The analyser – I don’t think I realised how much analysis my PhD would involve – very naive I know. You can spend months and months collecting that important data, but there’s no point in doing that if you don’t have time to do the actual analysis you need to answer your research questions. If you do three different experimental techniques, then it’s likely you’ll need to learn three different ways to analyse your data. Will you need to learn how to code to do your analysis? Or do you need to learn how to use a specific software for that method? I was pretty surprised by how common it was to be the only person in your research group doing a specific analysis, which meant early on sometimes you have to learn and teach yourself a completely new analysis technique – which if I’m honest is pretty daunting at first. But, there are usually loads of helpful videos on YouTube that will have helpful tips for you – whatever analysis you’re having to learn.

The statistician – This job is tightly linked to your analyser job. Once you’ve collected the data, completed your analysis you then need to complete the appropriate statistical tests. The appropriate tests should have been decided at the start of your study. But you may have to figure out which are the appropriate tests, and what’s funny is that data is never perfect like the data you will have had previously described to you in text books – which can make the analysis more complex. You may have to learn new ways to complete the analysis, I was trained to use SPSS in my undergraduate studies, but during my PhD I’ve dabbled in Graphpad Prism and R. Again, you may have to teach yourself how to do the specific statistical tests you need in this new software.

The writer – I guess this is a hat you probably knew you’d wear quite often – especially knowing that at some point you’d have a very long and important piece of work to write. But, no one really teaches you how to write. I remember when I first started my PhD and I had to send my supervisors a draft of my literature review and I was so nervous because I hated people reading my work – as I’d never been a confident writer. But I must say over time, and the more you do it, the more comfortable you get with scientific writing. And just like anything else, practise makes perfect. So, write often, and always try and get feedback on your work. This is especially important if you begin to write grant applications! And remember, editing is a completely different job to writing!

The administrator – This hat really surprised me – again probably naively, But, so much of your PhD can actually be taken up by administrative work. Keeping up to date with emails, progress reports and even lab admin. You may end up organising events and you may even find yourself having to do the ordering of all your lab consumables – which means you’ll have to learn how to use university systems (which are never user friendly). Your administrative roles may differ depending on the size of your lab group, but it’s likely that at some point you will have lots of admin to do, so enjoy!

The teacher – Depending on how many PhD students come after you in your lab or the opportunities available to you during your PhD at times you may get to play the role of teacher. Playing the role of teacher can be super daunting, especially when you yourself are still a student. But, having opportunities to teach during my PhD has been super beneficial. Not only is it good to get some teaching experience on your cv but by doing some teaching it makes you realise what you do and do not know – and that’s super important. Remember, if you do get the chance to do teaching you don’t need to know everything abut everything, and it is okay to not always have the answers. As long as you know more than the students you’re teaching than you’re still the expert.

As you can see a PhD is a very busy, complex training program where you get to wear many hats. Sometimes, it’s easy to put too many hats on and get overwhelmed (something I’m guilty of at times). But, I must say, that one of the things I love about doing a PhD are the vast skills you gain from wearing all these different hats. I do think that it’s pretty cool that one day I get to be the experimenter and then the next day I get to be the teacher. The variety definitely keeps me on my toes!

Beth Eyre


Beth Eyre is a PhD Student at The University of Sheffield, researching Neurovascular and cognitive function in preclinical models of Alzheimer’s disease. Beth has a background in psychology, where she gained her degree from the University of Leeds. Inside and outside the lab, Beth loves sharing her science and we are delighted to have her contributing as a regular blogger with Dementia Researcher, sharing her work and discussing her career. 


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