A light bulb moment: sudden enlightenment

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After I had completed my first (Bachelor’s) degree, I decided that I would like to apply to become a doctoral (PhD) student. In order to do this in the UK (and elsewhere) it is necessary to enlist a supervisor, an academic who guides you through the process of researching and writing a doctoral thesis.

I knew roughly in which field I wished to pursue my further studies. Someone in Cambridge was looking for a PhD student to work on something that sounded interesting to me. So, I visited the academic in Cambridge. First of all, I was not particularly keen on the man’s personality (albeit having only met him once) and also the project he was offering seemed far too difficult for me, way beyond my ability. 

After the Cambridge episode, I discovered that the Imperial Cancer research institute was offering amazingly generous scholarships for PhD stuents working in their laboratories. I applied, choosing two of the projects that seemed to be in harmony with my interests, and received an offer of interviews at the institute in Lincolns Inn Fields.

At the first interview, I was introduced to the eight or so members of the team i was applying to join. They sat around whilst the senior members of the team interviewed me. It did not take me long to feel uneasy about my future colleagues, and as the questioning continued I could not wait for it to end. Near the end of the session I was asked if I was interested in cancer. In an attempt to cut short the proceedings, I answered that I was uninterested in that subject. 

After an equally unpromising interview with another of the research groups that I had applied to join, I left the building and began walking across Lincolns Inn Fields, feeling relieved that the interviewing ordeal was over. It was then that an important tought entered my head.

A PhD takes about (or at least) three years to complete. During that time, I would have to work in a laboratory with the rest of a research team and in regular contact with my supervisor. I realised while walking in Lincolns Inn Fields that it would be important for me that I enjoyed the people with whom I would be working. A pleasant environment was more important for me than the precise nature of the research topic.

I returned to University College, having made the decision to ask Professor Robert Harkness, whom I liked and whose research interests attracted me, whether he would take me on as a PhD student. To my great delight, he accepted me. As one of his doctoral students, I spent a very happy three and a bit years working in his laboratory with his other researchers, all of whom were friendly and helpful.

Since that day in Lincolns Inn Fields and my ‘light bulb moment’, which happened there, I have attended other interviews (for positions in various dental practices). At each occasion, I have asked myself: would I feel happy working five days a week with the person(s) interviewing me? If I have not felt the right ‘vibes’ at the interview, I have always turned down the job however attractive it seemed. On only one occasion, I have been mistaken with that approach, which I was fortunate to have been able to take when looking for work.

Whisky for my teacher

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During the last two years at dental school, we were assigned dental laboratory technicians to supervise us as we struggled to learn how to make acrylic dentures and gold crowns. Mr K was my crown technician. A friendly man, he used to listen to the problems that we encountered when trying to treat patients and, simultaneously, to deal with the often fussy and (necessarily) pedantic clinical tutors. Before any conversation could begin with with Mr K, the student would have to visit the canteen (two floors down) to fetch a cup of coffee for him and another for the student. Goodness knows how many litres of milky coffee entered Mr K during his working day.

When the number of days before qualifying began shortening rapidly, my fellow students and I began to look for practices where we could commence practising dentistry at last. One morning Mr K said to me that there was a dentist, Mr L, in the Medway Towns, who was looking for a newly-qualified associate. I had never visited the Medway Towns, which are about 80 kilometres south-east of London. A trip to the ‘country’ sounded attractive, and, who knows, I might have been offered a job. Actually, although surrounded by lovely countryside, the Medway Towns are far from rustic.

On the day before my interview, my father told me that Mr L had cancelled the appointment. I was saddened briefly, until my father told me that Mr L had said that Mr M, whose practice was in another part of the Medway Towns, was also looking for an associate. I rang Mr M, who asked me to visit him the next day.

Mr M turned out to be delightful. I knew that if he wanted me, I would enjoy working in his practice. He offered me the job instantly. I worked happily in his practice for eleven years until for practical reasons it became necessary for me to work in London.

Just after qualifying, one of my patients at Mr M’s practice asked me how long I had been a dentist. Not wanting to risk alarming the patient by revealing that it was less than a month since I had qualified, I answered: “I have been working in London for the last five years”. In dentistry, you need to think on your feet.

As I was leaving the practice to return to London after my interview, Mr M handed me a bottle of Scotch whisky. He said: “Give this to Mr K when you next see him.”

I did as I was instructed. When I spoke to a fellow student who had been directed to a practice by Mr K, I learned that a bottle of Scotch was Mr K’s fee or commission for finding associates for dentists who knew him.

I doubt that there are many employment agents or ‘head hunters’ that charge employers as little as the cost of a bottle of Scotch.