Being a PhD student in Brno

7. 3. 2021 | Study in the Czech Republic

PhD cell research

Photo from the research.

Lukas S. is a 6th year PhD student in the Physics programme at Masaryk University in Brno. He’s an active member of his faculty doing his own research. I interviewed him about his studies and he presented us with some very interesting insights.

You study Physics which is a very challenging field of study. Why did you choose it? What did you study before?

At high school I was good at math, physics and chemistry so going for a physics degree was a natural choice. I did a bachelor and master degree in biophysics—which combines the knowledge of both physics and chemistry—and in between I managed to sneak in a bachelor degree in computer science.

As for PhD in biophysics, well, it is less about the programme and more about the supervisor. PhD study is very individual. Rather than attending lectures you are going to do your own research. Choosing a supervisor with a successful publishing history is therefore crucial. My supervisor has an excellent publishing record and most importantly funding from both the Czech Republic and the prestigious ERC (European Research Council).

Do you think your school is preparing you well for your future career?

The end goal of a PhD is to produce a person capable of independent research. In this aspect I would say yes. However, only a tenth of successful PhDs are still in academia 10 years after graduation. The question then must be asked: Is the school preparing me for my future career in some other field? Will my skill set be relevant in today’s job market?

Well, to do what I do you need to be a fairly proficient at several programming languages (C++, Python, Fortran, Bash, AWK). Additionally, the ability to design, carry out and then coherently report your findings is a valuable skill for managerial positions. So yes, the school is teaching me the skills that are be relevant in today’s job market, but it’s doing so only incidentally.

Do you plan to stay in science or are you considering trying something different?

No, I won’t be pursuing career in research. As mentioned above, only a tenth of people with PhD actually manage to stay in academia – there simply aren’t that many positions.

Additionally, Czech grant agency rules are harsh. Consider, you employ 10 people, your grant is ending in December. How will you pay your employees starting January? Oh, let’s have more than one grant – but you can’t do that. OK, let’s ask for another one during the one you already have – you could do that, but only in its last year. I can live without that sort of pressure.

I’m considering becoming a sci-fi/fantasy author. With the advent of Patreon and similar sites it’s now easier to become a self-published writer.

What do you enjoy the most about your study programme?

Well, it’s more about the work/research than the programme. It’s a job. You have your office. Sure, sometimes you attend some lecture but that is rare. Sometimes you teach a course for undergrads. The thing I enjoy is the process of designing a new research project and the problem solving that comes with it. There is something deeply satisfying about taking your idea of how some system works, creating a new methodology in how to study that system and then either confirming your hypothesis or learning something new and exciting.

Is there something you’d change about your studies?

Money. I would like for science to receive more funding. The crucial element of my field is computational resources. The government doesn’t realize that computers age fast. It’s more economical to buy new computational nodes every 2 years, because the price of electricity of running then for a year is usually equal to their price. So you are better off buying new stuff after 2 years—every other generation of hardware—simply because the cost of computation per kW/h.

Now, the money that the university receives is portioned to operational cost and the cost of new hardware. Thus, there are machines in our supercomputers that are more than 8 years old. In Ostrava, a large supercomputer is being decommissioned because it’s already 7 years old. It’s basically garbage. You can’t even sell it, no one would buy it.

Do you have some foreign classmates? Do you cooperate with them on research?

Yes, in our group there are currently PhDs and Post-docs from India, Italy, Iran, France and Spain. There are more foreigners than Czechs in our research team. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, thus if there is someone in our group with relevant expertise for a current project, of course, we help each other, and get recognized as a co-author.

What is the best about studying in Brno? Who would you recommend this city to?

Brno is just the right size. Not too big to get anywhere within a reasonable amount of time, with reasonable public transport. And large enough to have all of the necessities a student would want – cafes, restaurants, etc.

The housing situation is not great, though. It’s better than Prague, but worse than Olomouc. If you are planning to study in Brno, try to get a private dormitory with some friends. It will be cheaper and better quality than what university dormitories can offer.

What would you say to students who are considering applying to MUNI?

The information that the university is giving you about your degree is the best possible interpretation that they put together. Reality is often far different. Ask students already in the programme. Ask those who successfully finished. Ask those who didn’t. Have realistic expectations on what you will learn and how relevant will it be for your career.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to try a different study programme. In my bachelor degree days, I questioned if a physics degree would be useful, so I enrolled into computer science. It was a good decision and it didn’t mean doing twice the work. Only around 30% more.

Lukas S’s PhD research. Human echovirus 18, captured in the process of genome release. Artistic rendering based on computer simulations and results from cryo-electron microscopy.

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