PhD student journey

From PhD student to project coordinator

For Nuclear scientist Floriana Salvemini, becoming a PhD student was the best way to build valuable career skills while studying something fascinating.

Every day as a PhD student was different for me. I was interested in both history and science, which took me to the University of Florence to study how nuclear physics can help us understand historical artefacts.

Ancient weapons, like the Samurai swords I studied, are well-made and very beautiful, but the techniques Japanese blacksmiths used to forge them is a mystery. My research was all about looking inside these artefacts to see how they were made, without damaging them by cutting them open.

Understanding the science and getting my head around the work

My project developed new ways to study ancient metalworking by scanning artefacts with sub-atomic particles called neutrons. This is called neutron diffraction imaging, and it’s a bit like x-ray imaging for a human. While x-rays are blocked by metal, neutrons can pass straight through, and by looking at the patterns they make, scientists can figure out an object’s internal structure and composition.

Early on in my PhD, my days were filled with studying, reading, attending courses and planning out my research. Later, I spent most of my time running my experiments at nuclear research centres. Access to these kinds of facilities is highly competitive, and once they grant you time on their instruments you want to get the most out of your experiment. During those days I focused on getting measurements and processing data.

Enjoying the perks and tackling the challenges

The artefacts I studied weren’t easily available, so I was constantly visiting museums and meeting with their curators. They would often give me a personal tour of the museum, followed by an exclusive visit to the archives. The collection on display at museums is usually just the tip of the iceberg, and once you’re behind the scenes in their storage areas you can see many more truly amazing works… Continue reading

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I found the most difficult challenges of being a PhD student were time management and motivation. You have to be highly motivated to complete a PhD – it’s up to you to organise yourself and get yourself moving.

By the time I reached my final year as a PhD student, I was confidently shifting through all the different activities I had to tackle each day: keeping up with emails, running experiments and analyses, reading papers, and of course, writing, writing, writing!

Setting myself up for a job

The idea of job searching at the end of my program was daunting, but I knew networking would help and conferences are a great platform for meeting people. I went along to several events during my PhD, which offered excellent opportunities to get updates on recent work in my field, be part of an international community and promote my own research. Conference days are long, and networking from the start of each day to the last social event requires a lot of energy, but it’s a lot of fun and it pays off.

I am now an instrument scientist at ANSTO and the coordinator of their Cultural Heritage project. I am across the world from where I started, but working with the community I joined as a PhD student is still an important aspect of my work.

PhD student

“By the time I reached my final year, I was confidently shifting through all the different activities I had to tackle each day.”

Top tips for PhD students

1. Time management is incredibly important as a PhD student! Check if your institution offers courses or guides on how to organise your project.

2. Conferences are a great place to network, learn about new developments in your field, and promote your work – and they’re often a chance to travel somewhere new.

3. Don’t forget to make connections. Remember, your PhD isn’t just about your project. The people you meet along the way are just as important.

Heather Catchpole

Author: Heather Catchpole

Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs