Dr Joe Manning

Chemical Engineering
The University of Sheffield, 2019
Tell us a bit about yourself – what was your PhD about and where did you study?
Hi there! I’m Joe, and I finished my PhD and did my viva just over a year ago now. Phew! Technically I have a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Sheffield, but I actually started off at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. In my second year, my groupmate Eleni and I moved university and city with our supervisor when he was offered a position there. I remember a long day of me and my supervisor driving a van across the country and back to transfer all of our lab equipment! When I wasn’t acting as group co-chauffeur, I researched sustainable and scalable nanomaterials synthesis methods. The aim was to find recipes for large-scale manufacture of porous silica nanomaterials. So many cool new materials which could solve global issues are being invented every day, but without manufacturing-friendly methods they end up stuck in research labs!

What do you do now? What did you decide to do next after gaining your PhD?
Since my PhD, I’ve decided to stay in academia but switch tack a little bit. Instead of doing laboratory experiments, I’m now doing a postdoc studying molecular simulations on nanomaterials at the University of Bath. I wanted to experience how university research is in a different group and also a different field – while I really loved the freedom and creativity I was able to get in the PhD day-to-day, sometimes I found the pressure a bit hard to deal with. Doing this postdoc has helped me to see that it’s possible to work in academia in a more relaxed and sustainable way, which is very encouraging for me.

Has having a PhD helped in developing your career? If yes, what has been the biggest impact? If no, why do you think that is?
Absolutely, yes. Aside from being a requirement for me to stay in academic research, I think the biggest thing the PhD has helped me to do is to develop my critical thinking and problem-solving skills. From designing experiments I used within my research, to every day troubleshooting in the lab, my PhD has taught me some invaluable research which have helped an awful lot in my current position. On top of that, my PhD gave me a variety of really cool experiences too! For example, I was able to meet and work with several industrial silica manufacturers and learn how they approach adopting new technologies. Also, I got to see a bit of the management side of academia while setting up my supervisor’s new lab as well as some departmental equipment in Sheffield. Finally, I was able to travel as part of my research – I won funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry to visit a collaborator in Colorado for 3 months. I was able to learn some new techniques, explore the Rocky Mountains, and make new friends to boot! Combined, these have been some great personal and professional experiences, which I’m sure will be useful for years to come.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer prospective students considering a PhD?
Getting to know your potential supervisor is a really important part of deciding to do a doctorate. A PhD is a weird mix of a job and a degree, and you’ll end up with a much closer working relationship with your supervisor than you likely will get in either of those two alternatives. Accordingly, it’s important to have a good idea that you’ll be able to work with this person for a few years before getting started. Another important part of a PhD is setting your own boundaries and targets for your research. The academic environment isn’t always the best at setting boundaries for how much work to expect from you, and will tend to keep expecting more and more until you yourself decide it’s enough. Some of my most successful former colleagues treated their PhDs as a 9-to-5 job, only staying outside of those hours in extreme circumstances, and it worked our really well for them and their project.

And what one thing would you suggest that new PhD graduates should do next?
Celebrate! While working in research it can be very easy to focus more on what’s still to be done than what’s been achieved, so it’s very important to take bit of time to stop and appreciate it before progressing onto the next big thing. You just finished a huge, multi-year project after all! This is doubly important if, like me, you were very stressed out during thesis writing and are feeling a bit burned out. Taking a few weeks if you’re able, to relax and recharge, will be very helpful for getting back to a normal routine.

Lastly, what’s your favourite memory from your time as a PhD student?
For me the social parts of the PhD were always my favourite. I love going to conferences and talking to other PhD students about their research, learning about the diverse conceptual problems we’re all trying to solve and the similar day-to-day tasks these often divide down into. One particular memory was going to a conference at the University of York, where they organised a ceilidh (a traditional Scottish folk dance) for all of the participants one evening. This was essentially the perfect icebreaker – getting everyone to step out of their comfort zones for an hour or two and socialise with strangers. It really set the tone for the remainder of the week!

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