Ph.D., University of Cambridge

Alexis Braun: Academia is not for the faint of heart

Interviewed by Nowreen Priyanka

Interviewer’s note: Thanks Alexis for sharing your story and experiences as a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. Hopefully, this will give some insight about the graduate life in this University to the incoming/prospective students.

Alexis L Braun

Postdoctoral Research Associate

Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge

Hi. I am a Canadian national from Bella Coola B.C., and I am currently a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge. I obtained my bachelor’s degree from the University of Victoria before studying for a master’s degree at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm Sweden. I then moved to the University of Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D. and completed it in the fall of 2015.

Why I chose to study at the University of Cambridge

I wanted to go to the University of Cambridge because it is one of the best universities in the world. A major factor was also being able to work with my Ph.D. supervisor on a specific project that I was interested in.

My research area and its importance

My Ph.D. research project consisted of basic research into the fundamental biological questions of how tissues are patterned to do different things and how they maintain throughout development. I studied tissue homeostasis and development using the follicular epithelium of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a model. I identified genes that were differentially expressed in the tissue and then used the CRISPR/cas9 system for genomic engineering to investigate their functions.

Image:  A confocal image of a Drosophila ovariole, showing some of the stages of egg chamber development.

I have faced a lot of struggles to get to where I am; academia is not for the faint of heart.

Funding and/or scholarships as a Graduate Student

I was an international student and I did get funding from various sources including NSERC, which was enough to live on.

Availability of teaching or research assistantship within the Department

At the University of Cambridge, graduate students are not required to teach but can if they so choose. It does pay well but distracts from the Ph.D. work. I did a little bit but nothing too time-consuming.

What I like most about being here

There is very little not to like about being a student at Cambridge; it is a great university with an amazing support system in place. There is also easy access to a lot of extracurricular activities, which facilitates having a good work/life balance.

My background as an undergraduate student

I studied biology and biochemistry at the University of Victoria, Canada. The transition to postgraduate study was easy because I decided to do masters before going on to a Ph.D. The masters helped me transition into research because half of the degree was courses and the other half was a research project.

Finding a supervisor and settling

For my Ph.D. project, it required a significant amount of effort to find a project that I was interested in and a supervisor to accept me. I did this all through email because I was based in a different country from that in which I did my Ph.D. This required getting my potential supervisor interested enough to respond to my cover email and give me an interview.

I would highly recommend knowing their work and having an idea of the type of project that you would do with them before you make the first contact. It did not take long to settle into my department because of the support systems in place at Cambridge.

If you are used to being a big fish in a small pond, it can be hard to adjust to being in a situation where there will always be someone who is better or at least just as good as you at everything.

Life as a graduate student

In certain ways it was hard to be a graduate student; it challenged me in ways that I could not have dreamed of, both intellectually and personally. This could have been to do with the choice to attend a top-ranking university – if you are used to being a big fish in a small pond, it can be hard to adjust to being in a situation where there will always be someone who is better or at least just as good as you at everything.

Most people will struggle with “imposter syndrome” to some extent. However, the intellectually stimulating environment of a place like Cambridge provides many opportunities to flourish. Overall, I really enjoyed my Ph.D. and had a well-balanced life during it.

If you are a student at Cambridge then you will be part of a college, which organizes a lot of extracurricular activities. I rowed with my college team and I was part of a rifle shooting club.

If you are clever, willing to work hard, and persistent then anything is possible.

How I became interested in this field

As long as I can remember I have been interested in biology, it honestly never occurred to me to do anything else.

However, I was inspired by some of the great researchers at the University of Victoria (including Barry Glickman) to pursue a career in academia.

My advice for students who wants to enter this field

The advice that I would give is to only do it if you cannot foresee yourself being happy doing anything else. Biology is not engineering or applied science, and there are therefore not a lot of jobs available after any level of study in this field.

In terms of job security, it can be as risky and as competitive as being an artist. A Ph.D. is a lot of hard work and you should only do one if you are completely committed and will use that Ph.D. afterward. If the job you want after you are done does not require a Ph.D., then do not do one.

If you are unsure about going into research then do a master’s, it is good preparation for a Ph.D. and if you don’t continue on then the higher level of qualification is always useful when entering the job market.

Advice for new students new to this department

The only advice I can give is to participate fully in College life and join a sports team.

My short-term and long-term career plans

I completed my Ph.D. last fall and immediately started as a postdoc in a different group and department within the University of Cambridge.

I plan to pursue a career in academia.

What I do in my free time

As a postdoctoral researcher who aims to have a career in science, I work long hours, including doing some work on most weekends, therefore my free time is quite limited.

However, I work hard because I want to and because I enjoy it. In the time that I am not working directly on my postdoc project, I spend time finishing off projects from my Ph.D. research or I do sports.

Challenges or struggles

I have faced a lot of struggles to get to where I am; academia is not for the faint of heart. Coming for a remote part of Canada and being Canadian First Nations means that I was not afforded a lot of the privilege that students at Cambridge are accustomed to. However, if you are clever, willing to work hard, and persistent then anything is possible.