BLOG: PhD students breaking new ground in ‘creating knowledge’

PhD student Cathal O’Connell.Looking to rent a new place recently, my girlfriend and I found a beautiful little unit that we loved.

Eager to make an impression, we turned up at the estate agent’s at 9 o’clock the very next morning. Unfortunately for us, we then made a terrible mistake.

The agent asked what we did and we said we were PhD students. She looked at us with utter disdain – we didn’t get the place.

A week later we found another unit we liked just as much. On this application we described ourselves as PhD researchers. Within two weeks we had a new home.

The problem was the first agent didn’t know what PhD really meant. She saw the word ‘‘student’’ and was probablyovercome by visions of squalor and cask wine.

When I saw her reaction, I desperately wanted to explain: “Oh but we’re not students, not really.” But the moment was gone. Maybe this blog is my second chance.

So, what does a PhD mean anyway? Sure it’s another degree but it’s also more than that.

Whereas an undergraduate science degree is about catching up with what is known in a given discipline, such as physics or chemistry, a PhD is about breaking new ground.

To get a doctorate you have to do something that nobody else in the world has ever done, that’s the whole point. You have to find a gap in current knowledge, and then fill it. A PhD is an apprenticeship in the trade of creating knowledge.

Now, that’s a very difficult thing to do, to create knowledge. To find out something that nobody else has ever found out. It doesn’t matter how much brain-power you’re packing or how well you did in undergrad, if you don’t have a system of support you’re not going to get very far.

This is why it is a huge advantage to do your PhD in an institution, such as ACES, which is already undertaking cutting-edge research.

In my own research field we are working to improve the connection between electrical technology and the body. We are striving to create medical implant devices for curing deafness, blindness and epilepsy. This is a complicated problem encompassing biology, materials engineering, nanotechnology and electrochemistry.

Progress is very difficult to achieve because it requires a concerted effort by experts in many different areas, including the clinicians who will eventually prescribe the device as treatment. The advantage of ACES is that these experts are on hand, in every corridor.

With some hard graft, we’re getting closer and closer to those goals every day.

I hope that first estate agent of ours would agree that science research improves our lives on a daily basis. By increasing our understanding the world, we can learn to do new and incredible things. We can use technology to restore human function, or to create energy from sunlight.

Our society needs PhD students who are willing to devote years of the life to develop new understanding and new technologies. And our society needs organisations like ACES to train and develop those apprentices into future research leaders.

Cathal O’Connell is a University of WollongongPhD student at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science.

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