After several conversations with some PhD students recently, I was struck by one common thread, the lack of awareness or astuteness in planning or developing their own careers and lack of confidence in seeking help. Note, in this article, I use candidate and student interchangeably!
So why this article?
Many PhD students whilst studying for a higher degree approach their careers in a manner no different from undergraduate (UG) students i.e. they typically wait to the end of the PhD and then panic stations which manifests itself in last minute CVs, poor application outcomes and pressure to make career choices. With a PhD comes high expectations and sadly poor post-PhD career outcomes. Thus, it is imperative that PhD candidates understand the importance of the PhD.
As a PhD candidate, you need to view your project as a form of Project Management – think about it, you are given an idea or a project, you investigate challenges around the idea, often work with different stakeholders (sponsors, supervisors, other students, graduate school, community, peers at conferences etc.), proffer solutions and produce a report which you are expected to and usually defend to an expert committee.
Why do we love stories so much? Could it be because of that powerful space it creates where our personal experiences connects with someone else? We love stories in The Hub and in today’s article, Dr Yewande Pearse shares her triumps and challenges enroute to the qualification called a PhD! Amara got to learn about Yewande through her campaign and was (and remains) inspired by her journey. Enjoy!
APH: Please can you share your academic and professional background?
YP: I completed my BSc in Human Sciences at King’s College London in 2006. I then returned to King’s in 2009 to complete a Masters in Neuroscience with a Distinction. After my Masters, I worked as a Research Assistant for two years before taking up a PhD studentship at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. I have just completed my PhD in Neuroscience, which aimed to explore the potential for gene therapy in multiple forms of Batten Disease, a childhood brain disorder.
In layman’s terms, can you share what your research study/area is about?
Batten Disease is a group of inherited disorders that cause profound neurodegeneration and predominantly affect children. The symptoms are progressively debilitating and include blindness, seizures, intellectual decline and disability, dementia, loss of speech and motor impairment, with many children eventually becoming wheelchair-bound. Currently, there are no effective treatments available for any form of Batten Disease. My research is about finding innovative ways to treat this group of diseases with a focus on gene therapy.
So what is your PhD story? When did you realise that you wanted to undertake a PhD and how did you get into one? Why did you choose your topic?
PhD candidates may have a lot in common but are by no means a homogenous group. In today’s #PhDChat, we share the ‘behind the scenes’ stories of our successful PhD candidates and graduates. We hope that their honesty and openness will encourage and motivate you as you proceed on your journey. In today’s article, Amina, a final year PhD candidate shares her experience of combining parental responsibilities with studying full time as an international student.
The pursuit of a PhD is a huge investment in your career and yourself. I had applied for a scholarship for Nigerian based academics to finance a PhD program that I had my sights on in the United Kingdom. When I learned I was successful, I was overjoyed yet pleasantly surprised, as it was keenly competitive. After the initial euphoria wore off, the enormity of what I was embarking on became apparent. This article is meant to share my experiences and offer some advice to mature students with similar plans.
Strain on Familial and Social Ties
A PhD will test your relationships, it is important to find balance. Working towards a PhD abroad will be even more exacting. Leaving my parents and other relationships for 4 long years; adjusting to a new culture and environment; the strain on my husband, our marriage and on our 3 kids as he travelled back and forth between both countries was going to be hard. I tried to minimize these challenges by relying on modern telephony.
Settling into the Program
Do a lot of research. Carefully examine details of the campus and community you will study and live in. I consulted widely before commencing the program, weighed the pros and cons with my husband, and we tried to mitigate all challenges. However, every PhD experience is different so we couldn’t foresee the peculiarities of my own PhD, particularly the severe and persistent economic crises that would make it almost unbearable. I didn’t realise my campus was not even in the same county as the main campus of the University. This is where a little research could have made things easier. I was to be located in a beautiful rural campus a 30 minute shuttle away from the main campus which itself was 45 minutes from the inexpensive home I secured prior to arrival. Relocating closer to my campus wasn’t an option, as it was expensive (yes, rural living costs a lot in the UK) and too isolated for my children.
I have observed a few cases where PhD candidates either not completing or failing at viva stage. A common theme was a major breakdown in the relationship between the candidate and their supervisor(s). In this article, I share four ideas, from my experiences as a former PhD candidate who’s now learning the ropes of PhD supervision that I hope can help prospective and current PhD candidates manage this very important relationship.
Choose wisely – In the PhD survival guide, I shared why it is important to spend quality time while making this decision. You will have a smoother journey if you have a good working relationship with your supervisor. I decided to join my PhD supervisor’s group after I had spent a year working on my undergraduate project with him. Some people call this luck but I call it choice. I decided to work with him and he decided to work with me.
If your PhD is funded, your PI is usually your de-facto Director of Studies and you may not have much choice in the matter. However just like when you attend an interview, the choice to work with an organisation is still yours. Two or three member supervisory teams are now more common so it is worth asking if there will be some leeway in choosing your other supervisor(s). For self-funded PhD candidates, you have a choice in where you spend your tuition fees, so do not be scared to ask for who you need. A PhD is an apprenticeship not indentured slavery (at least it should be). Invest time in getting information about your supervisor, research group etc. Speak to postdocs. You can find them at conferences and early career researcher networking events. Ask questions;
How many PhD candidates have you supervised?
Who else will be on the supervisory team?
How many successful completions?
How many didn’t complete and why?
Do your students publish during their PhD?
Do not be so ‘hungry’ for a PhD position that you dismiss the information your research pulls up. I know a PhD candidate who left after six months because she could not get on with her supervisor. Successful completion is Win/Win for all parties involved so choose wisely.
Be proactive – After a skill training session I recently conducted, a 2nd year PhD candidate walked up to me and spent about 15 minutes sharing all the issues he was having with his supervisor. Poor communication, poor supervision, dismissive attitude…the works. I let him speak because I could tell he was very distressed and then I told him ‘Be proactive.’ I could tell he was puzzled by my response but I told him that the only part of the equation required for his successful completion that could be modified was his courage, attitude and how he responded to the issues he was having with his supervisor.
Thinking about what next for your career or you are in the “i’m not sure” what or where to go to next in your career? Well our transition reflections are back again! Our previous article showing a successful transition from a PhD to a role in industry spurred many of our readers on towards their search for their dream careers. In today’s article, new PhD candidate in biomedical science, Ellena Elcocks shares her experience of transitioning from her degree to industry and back to the PhD.
As a failed medical school applicant out of college, I looked to the next necessary steps to get me into medical school via the graduate route. I chose biomedical science and it’s probably the most successful last minute decision I’ve made to date. In 2014 my first round of university ended and I proudly graduated with a 1st Class in Biomedical Science.
I spent the first 2 years of my BSc degree still on track to apply for graduate entry into medicine, and then my final year project began. I was smitten. Research was my jam.
Without meaning to be over zealous, I felt like what I was doing had meaning. My research project was focused at how bacteria in probiotics survive and how it applies in the real world. I was hooked! I started applying for PhDs and before graduating I had secured 3 interviews. Lacking the experience needed, I was unsuccessful with them all and I felt deflated. I went back to the drawing board and started applying to any and all jobs that would keep me connected to research.
You’ve done the research, you’ve ‘birthed’ your thesis, the last step between you and your PhD is the much dreaded viva voce exam. You have to sit in a room for a few hours to discuss your research and convince your examiners your work makes an original contribution to knowledge and is worthy of a PhD. In this article, Dr Emmanuel Mogaji reflects on his recent experience of undertaking a viva.
I was given six weeks notice to prepare for my viva. Even though I was quite confident about my research and my thesis, my approaching viva examination appeared very daunting. I reassured myself by telling myself I was going to enjoy my viva and not just survive it.To prepare myself mentally, I read articles and listened to various podcasts available on different websites.
When I heard former PhD candidates reflect on their viva experience, I always had this idea they had just survived it – akin to escaping from a lion’s den. I didn’t want to be like that, I wanted to enjoy every bit of it. My most important preparation though was reading my thesis from cover to cover.
As academics, we routinely come across students – undergraduate and postgraduate – enquiring into how they can get into a PhD programme. Our advice is always the same, do your research! In today’s #studentchat, Mohammed shares some advice for undergraduate students contemplating undertaking a PhD.
Research is fun! Contrary to popular belief, it is much more than hours on end based in a laboratory carrying out monotonous work. It is a much more wholesome and rewarding experience but it is not without its challenges.
I have been fortunate to be involved in research prior to undertaking my undergraduate degree. Now you may wonder, why burden oneself with extra work, isn’t working towards a first or a 2:1 enough? A decade ago, the answer to that question would have been yes. However today it is almost impossible to get into a PhD programme without some form of research experience under your belt. With this in mind, I encourage other undergraduate students to look out for opportunities to carry out some type of research from the beginning of their studies. You may be thinking, “I don’t want to do a PhD, let me get out and make some real money!” There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and no one should do a PhD if they do not really want to do it. However, for those interested, remember that research in itself can equip you with a range of transferable skills that are highly sought after by different employers.