The pre-PhD blog post: How did we get here?

If this blog was a book on how to do a PhD, or on how I’m getting on with my PhD, then this post would be the preface to that book.

Or, if I was selling you a product, and the product was a PhD, then this would be the brochure that tells you why you should get one and how you could get one.

Analogies aside, while a PhDs is like embarking on a long train journey with only a vague idea of where exactly it will lead you (I snuck another analogy in there, yes I did), it can also be a long and non-straightforward journey by various means of transport to get to the stage where you can do a PhD. You need to be patient and committed during both journeys – or so I’m told and so I’ve read; I’m not going to pretend to know anything at this stage other than what my road to getting to do a PhD was like!

Now, I’m not going to bore you with my full life story, but what I will say is that there were many different experiences that made me plan to do a PhD and that many years passed before I found the one topic and department that was right for my interests. I didn’t just decide one day that I was going to do a PhD and then went and got one the next day, though it would have been pretty cool if paths to PhDs were more streamlined in general. As I will elaborate shortly, I slowly became seriously interested in something and then slowly figured out what to do with that interest. If you’re a student, and you’re reading this, perhaps you’ll recognise in my story some parallels with your story, and you’ll know what to do next to get you closer to following your serious research interest.

May I present to you now a simplified timeline of my own realisation of why I wanted to do a PhD and the decisions that followed, which I will title ‘The 7 steps to a PhD: becoming seriously interested in something’. I am adding an advice segment at the bottom of each step to the attention of any readers who might recognise themselves in any of the steps. Enjoy!

  1. I developed an interest in Psychology when I took an Ethics and Psychology class in the early years of high school. I don’t remember too much of it but I remember being fascinated by the quirky theories and the even quirkier people who came up with them. At this stage, I only had a general interest in the field and was studying a plethora of Business, Finance, Law, and Banking courses which kept me otherwise occupied. I read about Psychology in my spare time until I got ‘seriously interested in it’.

My advice: Tell friends, family, or teachers about your serious interest. Some of them will lend you books, chat to you about it, or refer you to others who are also interested in the same thing. Chatting to others led me to attend a University fair and to meet with a career counsellor. Both events were instrumental to clarifying what my options were.

  • When high school was over, I had two immediate options – to do a Banking internship which I was honoured to be offered or to study Japanese linguistics following my acceptance at university. Both options were easily accessible and I didn’t have to move to another city or country to pursue them. I wanted to do both. Both were interesting. Rather than choosing either of them, though, I decided that I was going to move to another country all alone at 18 because I was ‘seriously interested in something’, and that was Psychology.

My advice: Moving is not a decision to be taken lightly. But you’ll be fine and it’ll be fun. Take your time and figure things out at your own pace. Remember that you can switch some courses in your first year at university to make sure that you’re nourishing your serious research interest.

  • I completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen and it was pretty amazing. I conducted my own experiments and participated in other people’s experiments. I was encouraged to think critically and question everything I read. There were so many great courses to choose from and I even conducted my own original piece of research, which was about improving students’ academic performance and academic outcomes. My favourite courses were Developmental/Educational Psychology, Social Psychology, I/O (Industrial/Organisational) Psychology, and course content that covered UX (User Experience) studies. In my final year, I decided that I wanted to go into research sometime in the future.

My advice: Read a lot and read widely. Lectures are only a starting point, especially if you’re thinking of going into research in the future. It’s good to have a part-time job but it’s even better if you can keep your spending down so that you can focus on studying.

  • I considered doing a Masters by Research at the University of Edinburgh but wasn’t sure which one was right for me. A great postgraduate programme in HRM (Human Resource Management) at Edinburgh Napier was recommended to me as it came with an integrated work placement. I decided to go for it and I got to complete another original piece of research on something that was seriously interesting to me, which was the reduction of occupational stress levels in frontline employees.

My advice: Finances often determine whether students go for a postgraduate degree or go into work after their undergraduate degree. There are student loans for some postgraduate programmes through SAAS. There’s also some funding for research degrees available (but keep in mind that it’s pretty competitive).

  • I worked for several years after graduating whilst also keeping an eye on PhD opportunities. It was important to me to get some experience working full-time as I had only experienced studying full-time up until that point. But I also knew that if I was going to apply for PhDs, it wasn’t going to be willy-nilly, it was going to be for PhDs that were a good fit for my serious interests. I had to reign my excitement in. For example, there was a neuroscience PhD position in Germany which sounded very interesting, though it was very far removed from my immediate interests. I loved the city it was in and I was going to learn how to code as part of my training, but I knew it would be a stretch to apply for it, and I was becoming enamoured with aspects of the position that were disparate from what should be the leading aspect of applying or accepting a PhD position: one’s serious (research) interests.

My advice: Be realistic about your prospects. Location, funding, and other considerations are important but what is really the most important thing is that you enjoy what you are doing and that you do indeed have the necessary research competencies to complete your chosen PhD. If you’re not seeing an advertised PhD that you like, remember that it’s also an option to write your own research proposal and approach universities. There’s funding through that route too.

  • Not to be discouraging, but many PhD applicants aren’t successful at their very first PhD application. Many applicants are successful at their second or third application. I wasn’t successful at my first interview either, but I didn’t let that dissuade me from applying again. I’ll jump straight to the advice section for this step!

My advice: Ask your interviewers for feedback. I think they wouldn’t mind telling you how you came across, especially if you applied for a PhD position in an area of research that you were seriously interested in. I got some really useful feedback.

Being seriously interested in something may cause you to be too excited or over-confident at interview. Your excitement and natural fit for the PhD may show through, yet you need to also demonstrate that you have seriously thought about the practicalities of doing this particular PhD. Carefully think about the PhD topic and do your research. Imagine yourself doing the PhD. What are you reading and writing about? What are your research questions? What is your methodology? What challenges do you have? If you come prepared, the interviewers will feel more confident in your ability to complete the PhD. Of course, you won’t know everything, and no one expects you to, but you are there because you are willing to learn, after all!

  • I got a 1+3 PhD spot on the ESRC-funded SDS-SGSSS collaborative programme and it’s on a topic that is seriously interesting to me! I also just completed an MScR in Science and Technology studies at the University of Edinburgh as part of this 1+3 PhD programme. I’ll share some of my MScR outputs here soon.

My advice: Read all about what I do on my About page!

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