Sinéad Savage is a UofG science grad who went on to study for a PhD. She reflects on her experience and the pros and cons of further study.
The decision to continue on to postgraduate study comes very easily to some, and can be daunting for others.
I did my BSc in Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow, and afterwards did a PhD at Imperial College London, looking at argon gas as a neuroprotective agent in perinatal brain damage. For me, I always wanted to do a PhD; I loved research, I loved learning, and my previous experiences in a lab had convinced me it was the right choice. Now that I’ve come out the other end, I’m still convinced it was the right choice, but there were definitely some things I should have known before starting. Like anything in life, there are ups and downs, but knowing in advance can often make all the difference in how you react and overcome obstacles.
- Freedom: A PhD is nothing like undergraduate study. You are suddenly released from having to attend lectures that bore you to sleep, and looming exam deadlines are no longer (well, except for that one in 3 years time, but that’s ages away). Suddenly, you are working on a project that you have chosen to work on, and you have the freedom to take your work in the direction you want. For the curious, this is why you choose postgraduate study.
- You’re not alone: You have freedom, but with this comes a huge support network to guide you and help you grow as a researcher. Your supervisors, postdocs and other PhD students, technicians, and the university are all available to help you should you need it. And almost everyone you work with has been in your shoes at some point; they know the frustrations and joys of research, and have learned lessons that can help you.
- Other opportunities: Depending on how interested you are, there are a wealth of opportunities outside the lab or office which can help you develop and perhaps give you a taste of other career options. During my PhD, I worked with a start-up company to collaborate with a world-leading pharmaceutical company, I taught undergraduate students, and I did outreach work which brought me to schools and museums to talk about the subject I love. Most PhDs have a lot of flexibility in how you manage your time, so you can make the most of these opportunities.
- It’s hard work: It’s long hours, it’s multitasking like you’ve never multitasked before, it’s trying to balance what your supervisors suggest with what you think, it’s problem solving, time-management, investigation, trouble-shooting. And it’s three years or more. You don’t have to study for exams, but you do have to read a huge amount of literature, you have to present data, you have to justify decisions. So it’s hard work.
- It doesn’t work: This happens to everyone, sometimes a little, sometimes every experiment. It’s an extremely challenging experience to throw yourself into your work and find nothing at the end, and some of the hardest moments in a PhD are trying to justify the long hours when things don’t work. But that’s the nature of the work, and a lot can be learned when an experiment doesn’t go to plan.
- It’s scary: Starting a PhD is daunting. I didn’t do a Masters degree before my PhD so I had even less of an idea than many what was in store for me, but the beginning is scary. You are given control of a project and three years to achieve something, and it’s all you. Then you get into the stride of the work, and you hit a wall, or something doesn’t go to plan, and it’s scary again. Will it work, will you get data? But you continue, and everything works out. And then it’s time to finish, and you have to write a book about what you did. But at every step you get through it, and it’s so worth it in the end.
Throughout my PhD, whenever I struggled with these difficult aspects, I was confident in the knowledge that when I needed it, there would be help available. I was in regular contact with my supervisor and other researchers who helped guide me through difficult scientific problems. If I had problems I didn’t feel I could bring to people in my group, I was able to meet with a personal tutor who could give impartial advice. Towards the end of my PhD, the careers service helped me work on my CV, focus my job search, and look back at all the skills I’d gained to give me confidence searching for my next position. As important as all of these external resources were, however, at the end of the day a PhD is an opportunity to learn and grow personally as well as scientifically, and being able to face challenges by myself helped me see how much I had learned. I now work as a post-doc in a lab at the University of Manchester, and I love my job. Everything I learned in my PhD makes me a better scientist, whether its knowledge gained from failures, skills obtained from extra-curricular activities, or connections made with other researchers during my PhD. There were some times during the PhD where I wasn’t sure if I’d make it through, but as long as you are confident, and use the resources available to you, it can be one of the best experiences in your education.