The Benefits of a PhD: An Academic's Perspective

Article by Laura Grindey AMIChemE and Paul Jenkinson

In the second part of this series, members of IChemE’s National Early Careers Committee talk to Vassilis Charitopoulos about his post-PhD career

ARE YOU interested in a PhD but are unsure where it will take you? Laura Grindey and Paul Jenkinson from IChemE’s National Early Careers Committee caught up with Vassilis Charitopoulos, a lecturer in process systems engineering at UCL’s chemical engineering department, to find out how his PhD has influenced his career in academia.

How has completing a PhD benefitted the following stages of your career?

I completed my doctoral studies at UCL doing research related to digitalisation of process industries and developing methods for risk management in operational problems.

Apart from being a prerequisite for an academic appointment, the experiences I had during my PhD have helped me develop a teaching portfolio. These included the teaching assistant roles I undertook while studying, which exposed me to innovative pedagogical tools that I am currently employing in my lectures such as hybrid- or scenario-based learning.

My academic role also includes developing a community service portfolio. While studying for my PhD I served the departmental postgraduate research community as secretary and president, participated in focus groups looking into enhancing PhD wellbeing and community sense, as well as committees related to ED&I. All of these helped me to learn how to operate within a team with a specific role within the university and deliver impact; and have a more in-depth understanding of problems that current PhD students may have, and how to help them be academics.

Furthermore, after the initial stages of my PhD, I started to develop a deeper sense of ownership of the work I conducted and eventually became an independent researcher. For me this is the most important aspect for an aspiring academic.

“Be clear on why you want to pursue a PhD and prepare yourself for developing a mindset totally different to the one you developed during your taught degrees”

What advice would you give a PhD student wishing to follow your footsteps?

Be clear on why you want to pursue a PhD and prepare yourself for developing a mindset totally different to the one you developed during your taught degrees. The main difference is that during a taught degree your learning is passive. In a research degree you are exposed to a novel and somewhat unknown area, and it is your goal to develop and disseminate new knowledge about that topic. Find the topic that you feel the most passionate about – not what may be the latest emerging field. In my experience, this is the only way that, despite any initial hardships, you can eventually achieve success.

Make sure you put yourself forward for any awards, prizes, and travel grants for conferences. Successful applications will provide concrete proof in a competitive field that you are a stand out candidate.

Engage with any community service or teaching opportunities that your department offers. Being an academic is a role that includes research, administrative tasks, and teaching. And don’t be shy about speaking to people at conferences! They are your chance to grow your network, collaborate and meet future employers. Why not make some good friends with whom you have a lot in common? Many of my close collaborators are based all around the world and I met them during conferences where I presented my research. For instance, I am currently involved in a project related to data-driven decision making with a team from the US who were doing their PhDs at the same time as me and we became good friends.

What skills from your PhD do you apply within your current role?

All of them. The teaching skills I acquired during my PhD years, I have come to hone during my job as a lecturer. Roles that I held related to ED&I service for my department’s postgraduate research community have helped me to evolve as an active member of the academic community and have more impact on the decision-making process of the university. For instance, during my PhD I was regularly involved in departmental initiatives on promoting the role of women in engineering or summer schools for students from underrepresented groups. It was through these experiences that I developed a more active role in promoting ED&I in academia with the more recent being a student-led funded project that investigated the impact of networking on enhancing the learning experience of undergraduate black, Asian and minority ethnic students in chemical engineering.

From a research perspective, learning how to cope with failures and cherish successes in my research has been especially useful. Becoming comfortable with novel ideas and open-ended problems is a never-ending journey, which any academic should embrace throughout their career. The collaborative spirit one develops during their PhD is also something that I have found crucial in my current role. You need to engage with other academics on matters related to research, mentoring, and developing novel pedagogical methods.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

As an academic, it’s the chance to transfer knowledge to new generations and inspire young engineers to come up with novel solutions on matters related to sustainability, health, and resource efficiency. This is particularly the case with the students whom I mentor.

From the research perspective, it is tremendously rewarding to apply novel methods developed within my research group to industrial and energy-policy problems.

What are the skills you developed during your PhD that have helped you achieve your career aims so far?

My PhD journey has enabled me to develop systems-thinking, perseverance, mechanisms for coping with failures as well as inquisitiveness. These allow me to come up with new ideas to solve different problems. This is particularly the case during the early stages of a PhD when you are confronted with a vast literature on your topic and you have to identify “your corner”. Conducting a meaningful literature review requires you to develop a systematic way of critically evaluating relevant research findings from other groups as well as expanding to published policy papers from governments. It may seem an overwhelming task at first but if you are passionate about your particular research subject the moment when you have your “epiphany” is one of the most rewarding experiences. I went through this exact learning circle during the first six months of my PhD until I decided to sit down and create a table classifying the merits and drawbacks of all the works that had been done prior to my PhD. This horizon-scanning exercise helped me to jump-start my PhD research since I had narrowed down my attention to a small section of a large body of work and thus identify what my contribution could be. Moreover, it is so crucial to learn how to communicate complex notions to non-specialist audiences and translate ideas into applications that help others. All the aforementioned are skills that I acquired during my PhD journey and allowed me to achieve many of my career aspirations.

What aspects of your PhD do you apply in your everyday role?

I was lucky enough to get my first academic appointment at UCL, shortly after my PhD, following a postdoc position at the Energy Policy Research Group at the University of Cambridge. This helped me a lot in differentiating my research portfolio and expanding in areas outside of my PhD and my supervisor’s field of expertise. This is another important aspect when continuing in academia after a PhD: you need to differentiate yourself from your supervisor and show independence by finding your own field of expertise. It doesn’t have to be completely different but you need to start building your own unique profile.

My everyday role as a lecturer involves tasks around teaching, research and administration. On the teaching and mentoring front, the translational skills I developed during my PhD have proven to be very critical. This is because established ideas from the literature are often far more complex to undergraduate students in the same way that novel ideas from research sound upon first discovery by industrialists or experienced academics. That in-depth understanding of how things work is especially key within the chemical engineering discipline and is something that I developed in depth during my PhD degree. As a supervisor of doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, systematic ways on how to conduct research, troubleshoot problems and deciphering bottlenecks are some aspects that I was confronted with during my own PhD journey and in turn I pass on to others.

How does a PhD-qualified chemical engineer add value to industry?

Given the current market landscape and the rapid development of new technologies related to AI and novel materials manufacturing, industries have greater demand to employ competent PhD graduates than ever before. A PhD-qualified chemical engineer can bring a breadth of new ideas on how to tackle problems. Apart from their own expertise, they have a developed a sense of independence and they are comfortable with open-ended problems, which are abundant in any industry.

What qualities from your PhD research did you highlight in your interviews to secure your current job?

I highlighted the industrial collaborations I developed during my PhD; the impact my research findings have had on my community through invited talks, new collaborations, the cited applications of methods I have developed; awards which provided proof on my academic standing; the passion I developed for advocating on matters related to ED&I and mental health awareness; along with my teaching track-record. Specifically on research, when I was being interviewed for my current role I was lucky enough to have been awarded the prestigious Springer Thesis Award and I was also shortlisted for the Young Researcher Award from the IChemE Global Awards. I was also awarded a research fellowship from the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematics to pursue my independent research agenda. These allowed me to make a solid claim on my level of independence as a researcher and how I could enhance the prestige of my department research-wise. Focusing on pedagogy, drawing from my previous roles as teaching assistant and fellow I was able to detail a concrete style of teaching with various tools and methods which I had trialled throughout the years.

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NECC webinars: join the PhD discussion online

NECC is hosting webinars on each of the PhD topics in this series. All of them are free to attend. To register, and for links to the recordings of our previous webinars, follow our LinkedIn page at

Article By

Laura Grindey AMIChemE

Chemical engineer, Eternis Fine Chemicals UK

Paul Jenkinson

Senior Gas Networks Engineer (Net Zero), GTC

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