One size doesn’t fit all – 5 things I learned from quitting my PhD

By Matthew Sinton, University of Edinburgh

I remember the moment that the email dropped into my inbox. It was the 29th of February, at 5.05pm, and I had given up hope of hearing about my PhD application that day. I opened the email with trepidation, excitement, and dread. I had poured so much energy into preparing my PhD application that a lot was wrapped up in this. I let out a massive whoop as I read the first line of the acceptance email, much to the amusement of other people in the lab! So how did I get here?

First experiment of 2018!

I didn’t take the traditional route of going straight from my undergraduate degree, to an MSc and then onto my PhD. I took a long circuitous route, and I’m glad that I did, because it gave me time to mature, and to learn what I really wanted from my career, and my life.

Like many others before me, I started a PhD immediately after finishing my honours degree, working on an exciting project, at a great university. So far, so good! However, the honeymoon period did not last long. The project was completely new within the lab, and I didn’t have the experience to drive it forward. My PI had a lot of commitments, and needed someone who was independent from day one. I considered leaving, but was told by several people that if I gave up then there was no chance of being accepted onto another PhD.

Six months in, feeling utterly miserable and dejected, I took the plunge and left, deciding that academia was not for me. I never wanted to pick up a pipette again. After taking some time to consider my options, I went off to train as a science teacher. I had my enthusiasm, and my belief that I was going to make a difference to students’ lives! I really hadn’t thought this through properly. The pressure of teaching is immense, and I quickly reached the stage of dreading every single day. I started to buckle under the pressure, and I desperately missed what I had given up when I left science.

Five years after leaving my scientific career behind, I decided that it was time to return to it. I packed my bags, and I moved to Edinburgh. With three universities on offer, I was determined to get a job at one of them, to gain more lab experience. One PI was generous enough to offer me a position in his lab, as a research assistant. Something just clicked inside, and I felt like I had come home. I felt an enthusiasm and excitement that had not been present for a long time, and I knew that this was where I wanted to be. After working as a research assistant, I undertook an MSc by research in the same lab, which positioned me to apply for a 4 year PhD in Cardiovascular Science.

Although it took me a number of years and missteps to reach this stage, I value all of my experiences tremendously. Some people consider these failures, whereas I now recognise that these were opportunities to grow and mature, and to figure out what was important to me in life. I’ve ended up in a great and supportive lab, with a project that I’m excited about, and I couldn’t be happier.

Five thoughts to consider when picking a PhD:

  1. Timing: Is the timing right for you now? The first time that I decided to do a PhD, the timing was wrong. I wasn’t mature enough, and I hadn’t fully considered whether I was ready to take on something so big.
  2. Be critical: Read your CV, think about your experience, and examine what else you need to succeed. If you want to gain more experience, don’t be afraid to approach PIs and ask them if they might be able to give you some, or direct you to someone who can.
  3. Think about the project: I saw the title of my first PhD project and jumped at the idea of how cool it sounded. I didn’t really think about what it would entail. Talk to the PI running the project to find out more. Find out if others are working on a similar project, and whether you’ll have expertise to draw on from within the lab. If you have major doubts about the project, don’t ignore them.
  4. Talk to the group: First, speak to the PI, and don’t be afraid to ask for a second conversation to get more information. Just as importantly, speak to the members of the lab group too, to get a sense of the lab dynamic, and how they interact with their PI. These are the people that you will be working with every day, so it’s important to consider if you want to be a part of their team. If something doesn’t feel right, it can be better to keep looking for a group that you’d rather work with.
  5. Have self-belief/persistence: If you’re determined to take on a PhD, listen to the advice of others, but acknowledge your own abilities. If things don’t go according to plan, don’t let that stop you. It’s not a bad thing to take a different route, and sometimes it makes you stand out from the crowd! It was the best thing that I could have done.


About me

20180115_115512I’m a British Heart Foundation funded PhD student, based in the Centre for Cardiovascular Research, at The University of Edinburgh. My research project focuses on the metabolic dysfunction associated with fatty liver disease, how this is linked with the epigenome, and how this affects transcriptional regulation. When I’m not in the lab, or doing PhD-related work, I’m usually baking, watching Netflix Originals, or walking my dog! I’m keen to continue developing my science communications skills, too. You can find me on Twitter @msinton83 and on Instagram @everyday_scientist.


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