#APHGradForum – PhD and Parenting: How to make it work!

PhD-DegreePhD 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.

Ok, what have I got myself into?!

#CareerFocus – Production Scientist

2. My Career StoryIn May, we are sharing career stories from within our network of aspiring professionals! Our goal is to celebrate the variety of careers within our network as well as educate recent (and not so recent) graduates on keeping an open mind when it comes to career options! In this article, Emmanuel interviewed Eleanor Williams, a Production Scientist (Scientist II) on her career journey as a scientist in the Biotechnology sector.

Can you tell us about your educational background and career journey to date?

I did my degree in Forensic Biology then I continued further into a master’s degree in Molecular Biotechnology then stayed on and worked as a research assistant at the University of the West of England, before moving into a role in industry. I now work as a production scientist, in the manufacturing side of things making reference standards for cancer research.

How did you get into this field?

I never really loved science that much even though I did well at it throughout school, and it wasn’t until I did my A level biology that I developed more of an interest in the sciences.

You are currently a Scientist II. What does this mean?

When I applied to join my current company, I started out as a Scientist I and was promoted to Scientist II. What this entails is that I do some similar work to what I did as Scientist I but with more responsibilities; delegating work to junior members of the team and liaising with external organisations more. Hopefully after this, I will be able to progress further as a Senior Scientist.

#PhDchat – So you want to do a PhD?

PhD-DegreeAs 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.

#PhDChat – 7 steps to starting your PhD on the right track.

3. PhD 7 stepsFor some time now we haven’t shared much on the doctoral front and as the season for new starters on the doctoral journey is nigh, hence is the need for a new post! Often I am left wondering whether these type of posts are supportive or detrimental to PhD candidates due to the complex and non-linear nature of the experiences. As one man’s meat is another’s poison so is the nature of the doctoral beast i.e. no such thing as a generic PhD.

I won’t belittle you with the suggestion there is a right or wrong way to do the PhD (who am I to know?) but I’m positive some things are particularly key in helping navigate the journey from the initial thinking phase, development of the proposal, getting the application through and starting on the road to “permanent head damage” as some people refer to it.

The seven steps I have chosen to discuss here are in no particular order and the first is to “know why you want to do the PhD and what your career options and end points are before you begin”. This is very important as far too often the idea is that once you complete your PhD, jobs will be lined up for you everywhere. That in itself is a fallacy as the job market can be just as brutal to PhD graduates as it is to graduates from first degrees. Believe me, one thing you do not want after your PhD and spending countless ££££ and $$$$ is #JOBLESS…..there is nothing as demoralising as knowing they you are a broke ass jobless DR.

The second step is that you’ll need to “get career and mentor advice early on”. This is very important! I have come across many PhD graduates who have spent between 5 and 10 years, sometimes even more on contract/temporary, rolling post-doctoral research careers which for some ends up in a blind alley career. In some of those cases, these over qualified individuals look for opportunities to change career paths, taking much lower salaries to break away from the unending slave-like performance that a lengthy post-doc could easily turn into.

Now it might be that you already know your career plan and you eventually would like to be an academic, working as a lecturer at a University beyond your PhD. If that is the case, my advise would be to seek opportunities to embark on a postgraduate teaching qualification. I was fortunate to have had a mentor who changed the course of my career taking me away from my obsession with returning to medicine and telling me that she saw a career as a lecturer or educator in me. Alongside this, came two senior academics who had convinced me on the importance of starting the teaching qualification during the PhD. I won’t deny how arduous the task was; doing a PhD, keeping a part-time job and doing a teaching qualification alongside it. Painful as it might have been, it was one of the best decisions I took as it paid dividend during my PhD and instrumental in me getting my first full-time lecturing role after the PhD.

So, having an idea where your career should or could go is important before and when you start your PhD. One thing that can help you with the support to build the network and find mentors to help your PhD would be joining a professional society. The importance of this cannot be overstated. For whatever field you choose to embark on your PhD studies, even if your PhD is on trying to understand the alignment of stars, or why pandas in captivity refuse to mate or best, the phenomena of witchcraft, there is a professional society that you can benefit from immensely.

#PhDAdvice – How to make a successful transition from PhD to Industry!

Are you currently working in academia, or a researcher thinking of a career move away from the world of academia? In today’s post, Dr Monika Stuczen reflects on her transition from her PhD into a role in industry and shares some tips for anyone thinking of a similar career move.

My career path has been somewhat unconventional. I graduated with an MSc in Laboratory Medicine from the Medical University of Bialystock in Poland (my home country) and began my journey into the English system following an offer to work as a Research Scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University to work on a clinical trial project.

I remember my first week at work! The stress, the language barrier and equipment which I had never used…. It was a lot to take in within a short period of time! However my focus and determination helped me pull through. Within a year of work in research I was offered a fully funded PhD scholarship to carry out research in Microbiology which I was very pleased about.

Throughout my PhD, I took advantage of any opportunities to gain experience in academia such as supporting teaching, laboratory demonstrations and working as a student support tutor. All these activities helped me develop transferable skills. I was also interested and active with developing collaborations with businesses and one of these collaborative activities gave me the opportunity to present my research at national and international conferences providing great networking opportunities with scientists from all over the world. It gave me valuable experience and developed many skills which I could transfer to any work positions in the future.

My expectations upon obtaining my PhD were that I pursue my career and research in an industrial company however my knowledge of the commercial and business sector was limited. Perhaps, I was aware of my weaknesses!

Are you aware of your weaknesses? (Aspiring Professionals Hub)

I made the decision to develop my enterprise and business knowledge (as mentioned previously, this was very limited). So what did I do? I did some research online and came across the North West Enterprise School which was run by Lancaster and Liverpool Universities. The North West Enterprise School is a four day residential workshop for researchers and post-doctoral researchers followed up by online collaboration and a final weekend residential. The activities included a series of team-working challenges and entrepreneurial projects. At the workshop, employers, mentors and skilled tutors delivered a series of seminars and role-plays simulating a work environment designed to create projects, network and turning ideas into tangible business projects. At the end of the residential and follow up each team developed a business plan and presented it to a panel of employers. My business idea and my team won the first North West Award!

The chance to work in a team, develop entrepreneurship, influence and leadership skills were very valuable and important for me. I believe this was a great opportunity to challenge myself in an area I hadn’t experienced before. It gave me opportunity to reflect on my own skills, ambitions, capabilities and career directions. Mind you, I was always focused in my career and always understood that to progress my career, I need to do it myself!

Shortly after completing my PhD, I was offered a job in senior management at a company in the medical devices sector. Initially, I found myself resistant to the idea of leaving academia for industry immediately after achieving my doctoral degree as I was aware that I’d be facing a completely different environment, work structure and people with completely different approach to work and life. After spending all my adult life in academia it was definitely a big jump out of my comfort zone. Additionally it also meant relocation from Manchester to the South of the country with my near teenage daughter away from friends and family. However I treated it as a big challenge and another great adventure in my life!

I successfully moved to the South of the UK and started my new position as a Laboratory Manager. In my new position I had to learn about products, manufacturing processes, company structures (which is so different to academia) and adapt myself to company culture and working style (within a short time). I wouldn’t say this transition was easy as it also comes with its challenges and has required adaptability, resilience and persistence, but what is most important it involved overcoming myself and facing my fears.

After nearly two years working in senior management I feel like I am close to the summit however there are still lots to learn. I think I will never stop being a “student”…. I will always have a big desire to learn new things and develop myself. I do not want to be better than others I want to be better than myself. My motto now is, to learn something new every year and apply it!

The essential requirement in industry is being able to work in a team and take projects forward rapidly. Research in academia, especially PhD or MSc research projects do not involve much of team work. If you have any opportunity of collaborative work at academia, even if it’s not laboratory based – TAKE IT! Don’t be afraid

My tips to anyone thinking of a similar career transition from academia to industry

  • Treat life as a big adventure and every problem as a challenge. Take advantage of every opportunity as you never know when certain skills you have developed over years at academia may become useful.
  • The knowledge, skills and opportunities at University are important and can be applied in many aspects of business. I find I am able to apply all my management skills gained at university in managing the laboratory, people and in building a strong working team.
  • Also, identify your career plan and do think about your weaknesses. If you are not confident in something try to master it, find courses or workshops that may help you to turn your weakness into strengths. One of the best ways to make contacts that can further your career is networking. Don’t shy away from making contacts with people especially at meetings and conferences.
  • Finally, Be Brave! Sometimes leaving an environment you are familiar with requires a little bravery. Don’t be afraid to take the leap. See it as a whole new adventure and always believe in yourself!

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