Since graduating from my bachelors degree in Zoology from the University of Southampton I have been sold on the idea of studying for a doctorate.
I loved university. I was young, 18 and unbelievably enthusiastic when I arrived in 2012. I’d never been drunk, I’d grown up in a tiny village and I knew more about inorganic chemistry than I did about boys. Southampton was just the right size to be a treasure trove of new experiences without being huge and intimidating. I loved my course and strove to go to every lecture and ace every lab session because I just wanted to be an information sponge(and hopefully not a fun sponge!) despite the hangover from the ‘mad’ night before.
Ecology quickly became my passion; deciphering the complex and dynamic interactions among organisms and their environment with the aim to preserve often unsympathetic but valuable products. Biodiversity underpins ecosystem function which arguably sustains life-supporting functions and allows the production of natural capital or ecosystem services. Such include provisions like food, fuel, fiber etc., the regulation of climate, global biogeochemical cycles, water filtration, soil formation, flood protection, and many other natural features of scientific, historical, economic, or intrinsic value. However, conserving biodiversity is often compromised as the need for such resources increases, thus creating a catch-22 where much needed function depends on the declining biodiversity. That’s what I love, laying out an ecosystem, it’s fragile inputs and beneficial outputs as a complicated jigsaw puzzle, in which hot-spots must be identified for conservation in such a way that benefits both nature and it’s stakeholders.
But then again third year was tough. But despite the stress, hours trawling data and hunting for the correct statistical test I was enjoying getting my teeth stuck into a real, long-term project. I was motivated to work to the deadline, grafting through the stages of data manipulation and writing while also juggling other coursework and revision tasks.
So Why a PhD?
I’ll admit it gets to a point for some at university where the question can simply be answered, “Why not?”. When you’ve been at uni for 3 or 4 years and you’ve enjoyed everything but the revision slog in the library twice a year, a PhD seems ideal; no exams and a pay cheque rather than a student loan. Plus you’re “Dr…” by the end of it, which is just super cool. But they’re the naive reasons, as much as I’d love to be able to legitimately quote Indiana Jones when referring to myself, my aspirations to study in a research role go far beyond the title.
Like any undergrad nearing the end of safe, familiar studentdom I set aside a little ‘useful procrastination’ time in that final year to research future job prospects. So, after some online hunting, blog reading (this is one of many from Medium) and a meeting with a professor I found that I would struggle to move up the industrial food-chain without further qualifications. A masters would get me so far but really doctoral degree is almost a necessity for a career in academia and higher level of certain, academically managed industries.
But a stepping-stone to the dream job is definitely not a sufficient motive to apply of another 3 or 4 years of self-motivated slog. I have read millions of articles and blog posts citing the hardships of a PhD, the lonely office hours, the pay gap between them and other alumni. it seems every PhD student hits a point where they will be questioning their determination and enthusiasm to keep going when nothing seems to be going right, supervisors are offering little guidance and papers are rejected.
But then there are the highs! The paper acceptances and citations, the electric university atmosphere, the cutting-edge techniques, being paid to research what you love. I can’t fault that. So after analysing the pros and cons of a PhD I was set on it, I had a clear goal to get the interviews and smash them, get the job and enjoy further study in a field I was so passionate about. So I researched further to figure out exactly what I needed to be to succeed, and this is what I found:
What Makes a Good PhD Student (According to PhD Students)
1. Mad self-motivation and self-reliance– Your supervisors aren’t going to set you many deadlines, make you meet them for coffee every week or put a nice big tick on all the good things you do. To be fair, you are simply an output machine, a nice one I’m sure but really, they’re academics and they need their students to be worth while, self-motivated and write things up so not only the student but also the supervisor has output.
2. Creativity – So it seems a PhD student needs to be able to think big, know the process and push to do it under their own steam – SO HARD but I guess if you love the topic it’ll happen. I can see the creativity bit being one of the hardest. Having spend 3 or 4 years of undergraduate study being told to write essays based on previous ideas and work it must be mind-boggling to sit and think ‘I need to push beyond all of what’s been done’ and find something new. It might not be big but you need to know where to start and trust the idea to push through the mishaps.
3. But not be money-motivated – Compared to the average student a PhD has a fair amount of money. Being paid to do research rather then racking up another 3 years of student loan is just fabulous but compared to most people who graduated with you, you won’t be making much at all. Student-living is cheap, low rents, no council or income tax, access to student clubs, socs, discounts and deals galore but three more years of a student house could become a grind. I guess it’s our choice where to live, we could spend more and get a nicer pad, I think with money management a PhD can live very well for a twenty-something, but you’re not earning the meg-bucks either!
4. Writing skills/Outputs throughout- But you don’t need to a literary genius! I’ve just gathered that considering you have to do a LOT of writing it must help to enjoy it! I guess everyone knows a PhD ends in a huge thesis in your final year but as said before, outputs is key. Those outputs get you papers and conference trips and a happy supervisor but also help ease the pressure of the final thesis writing stage. Those papers can help to form chapters and split the cost across the years.
5. Being a debater/talker – You need to be able to explain and present your case well, whether it’s an initial proposal or defending your work in a viva, PhD students need to be eloquent to tactfully argue their case to anyone from a supervisor to the public. Empathy aids in seeing the worth of the research from various points of view and in knowing how to persuade them to your point of view.