By Gareth Raynes, Aberystwyth University
While every PhD experience is unique, there are big areas of overlap between experiences of PhD students regardless of discipline; I’ve spent several months speaking to a number of PhD students from across the UK, all in different fields and at different stages of their projects. Despite this wide range of backgrounds and circumstances, several aspects jump out as being ever-present markers of a PhD project; the unifying factors that connect together to make PhD life what it is.
So what are these common factors? And why do they make PhD life so great?
PhDs are often described as being very lonely and isolating. Being the only person working on your project, having sole responsibility for everything, can at times make it feel that way. However, when asked what the best parts of PhD life are, nearly everyone mentions the people! Through meeting fellow PhD students at your institute, spending time in the lab or office with co-workers within your research group and meeting academics and other interesting people externally to your normal day-to-day life, many new faces will come into your life during the course of your PhD. Each of them have knowledge and experiences to share, and (in my experience so far) are almost all absolutely lovely people to be around.
I’m separating ‘supervisors’ from ‘people’ here, not because supervisors aren’t people, but because they are. At the start of my project I was always scared before meetings, because I didn’t realise that; supervisor is the job description, but doesn’t cover everything they do for us. I am lucky enough to have three awesome supervisors, all three of whom support and encourage me in everything that I do. But they very definitely all fall into the category above; they are all lovely people, who help make the atmosphere in the lab, office and everywhere else really enjoyable. To start with I was intimidated by the ‘supervisor’ label but now I genuinely look forward to meetings, and always come away feeling pumped up and enthusiastic for the project.
Being a PhD student opens doors. Often these are doors to aeroplanes; international collaborations and conferences are commonplace in academia and PhD students get the chance to go along too. For example, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to give a couple of presentations in Brazil last year. This wasn’t just a chance to present my research, I also got to learn a lot of new techniques from the researchers out there and met dozens of really interesting scientists and fellow students. (Also, I saw a wild coati, which was incredible!)
Most PhD students have similar experiences abroad, but that’s not the only type of opportunity presented to PhD students. Last week, I ran a stand at the British Science Week science fair in Aberystwyth University, organising and overseeing a group of undergraduates in the process. And right now I’m writing this post for the Biochemical Society! Public engagement, interactions with other academics, and myriad other fantastic opportunities are opened up to all PhD students.
Learning new things
All of the above lead to learning new things. People share knowledge, supervisors impart research skills, travel to conferences grants experience. But in the day-to-day we learn things all the time too, and it’s fantastic. I personally find learning new things to be one of the most exciting feelings, so I love how every day sees me trying a new technique in the lab, reading the methods of other researchers, and combining that all with what I know to make the right methodology to suit my experiment. PhDs are training experiences and there is no end to what we can learn. Not just techniques in the lab, but planning and organisation, experiment design, timekeeping and record keeping to name but a few. Not only is learning fun, but the skills acquired over the course of the PhD will be hugely useful in years to come. It’s a win-win!
You are in charge of your PhD, and within that you’re in charge of your time. I’m not much of a morning person, but I can work later into the evenings, because that’s when I work best. If we need to shuffle days around and pop in on the weekend we can, and working from home is fine too. Taking days out to do public outreach events or talks, or rearranging days to have a longer weekend if you need it, are all brilliant and help take the pressure off when things come up. And sometimes my bacteria need checking on over the weekend! Whatever the reason, there’s an inherent flexibility that makes things feel much more manageable and enjoyable.
Researching what you love
One of the best things about speaking to different PhD students is hearing their passion for their project. Spending several years researching one area sounds daunting until you factor in that that area is something you’re really passionate about! I spend every day doing research into a field that I’ve been fascinated by since I was a child and that makes every day fun. Common advice for prospective PhD students is to find a project you’re truly passionate about and it’s definitely been a huge boost for me at times.
If you research what you love, you’ll never work a day in your PhD life! (To mangle the famous quote from Marc Anthony).
Being the expert
This is your project. Soon enough, nobody knows more about it than you. And due to the nature of PhDs, contributing something novel to the world, that makes you the world expert in your area. That might be a very niche area, but it’s still one in which you are the expert! In practical terms this can be hard at times, as it limits the options when seeking help or advice, but it’s an amazing feeling nonetheless.
And for me, going back to earlier with learning new things being one of the best feelings, when you’re doing your PhD you end up learning things that nobody else knows. And that is incredible.
I’m Gareth Raynes, a PhD student in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, researching endophytic bacteria.