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We’re a supportive and encouraging network for women who are studying for a PhD in Scotland. We share our experiences of research, academia and PhD life in order to tackle the isolation that many PhD students feel, particularly PhD women.

Week 16: Going Straight to PhD After Undergrad

I graduated from my Undergraduate degree in June 2015, and started my PhD a fortnight later. At the time, I didn’t really think about whether the very short gap between degrees was ‘normal’; a few of my friends were going on to start PhDs too, though they were all having the summer off before starting. The way I looked at it, I’d found the PhD I wanted to work on, so I may as well start asap.

I’m now 11 weeks from handing in my thesis, and I’ve taken a week awayfrom everything (I even turned Twitter notifications off on my phone!) to give myself some head space. Over the past week I’ve been reflecting on my whole PhD ‘journey’ (I know, I’m cringing too – but the word ‘journey’ is the best way to describe the past 3 years), and I’m realising that the majority of PhD-related challenges I’ve heard or read about focus on juggling PhD commitments with parenting,bereavement,a lack of funding, being a mature student, or chronic illness.
All of those things sound like huge challenges to me, and whenever I hear about how PhD students have overcome those challenges I’m a bit in awe of them to be honest. In comparison, I’ve had a really easy ride. My PhD is fully funded by the University of Aberdeen’s Development Trustmeaning I’ve had the luxury of not needing a part-time job to support my studies, I’ve had an incredibly supportive supervisory team and brilliant colleaguesalongside me throughout, I’ve travelled to Ireland,Norwayand South Africa for conferences and training, and next month I’m heading to a conference in Portland, Oregon, to present my PhD research at the Society of Clinical Trials Annual Meeting. When I saw the call for blog posts for PhD Women in Scotland, I genuinely had to think hard about what I could write about – to put it bluntly, I’ve been a jammy git when it comes to this whole PhD thing, and I wish it didn’t have to end.

Anyway, after a few days of thinking I thought it might be helpful to discuss the jump from Undergraduate level to PhD – it might not come with such obvious challenges as those I mentioned previously, but even the best PhD situations come with a few challenges.

Loneliness was the first challenge that came to mind. I did my undergrad at the same university, albeit in a different department, where I am now doing my PhD, so I expected to just start the PhD and carry on with life as I had done before. That didn’t happen. Almost immediately after graduating there seemed to be a mass migration of recent graduates; people were getting jobs or postgraduate opportunities in different cities, going travelling, or moving to different countries for new adventures, and I was left with very few friends. I live with my boyfriend so it wasn’t like I was alone, but it was weird being in the same city and having to go through the friend-making thing again.

Making friends in your 20s is a really weird thing and I’ve found it difficult. Lots of people are settling down and have children, getting married, or buying their first house; I’m still a student and even though I live with my partner and have done for about 5 years, we’re cool with things as they are. It was strange trying to find people that I had things in common with when it felt like everyone was racing ahead of me.  3 years on I’ve made a few new friends, good ones that I can see in my life for years to come, and the city is starting to feel like home again rather than just a place to get the PhD done.

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The other very obvious challenge has been imposter syndrome. I know that every single PhD student (and human) goes through periods of imposter syndrome, but I think that going straight to PhD from undergrad can make that process all the more draining.

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At the very beginning of my PhDI knew that the project needed a component of qualitative researchto do the topic justice. My undergrad was in Pharmacology so all of my practical experience had been lab-based, and I had barely heard of qualitative research other than lecturers saying it was a method used exclusively by the ‘soft sciences’ (that is a rant for another day..). My Supervisors suggested that I enrol on an MSc module that focussed on qualitative research; I was lucky in that this was free for me because my PhD tuition fees were paid. Attending and completing the course was incredibly helpful, and by the end of it I felt ready to embark on my own research project – but I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a fraud having to do an MSc module whilst enrolled on a PhD programme.

I remember mentioning this idea of me being a fraud to one of my supervisors in passing; she quickly reassured me that this wasn’t the case, that I was just utilising the resources round me in order to develop my skills. There was still a little niggle of doubt, but I got on with things.

The first conference I attended was when I became very aware that I was out of my depth (spoiler alert: everyone feels like this at their first conference). I managed to connect with one of my supervisor’s past PhD students, she had recently passed her viva and it was so, so helpful to hear her experiences. She had the same feelings as me and she’d been in our recent field for years longer than I had!

I started actively trying to ‘fake it’. I would tell myself that I deserved to be on this PhD programme, that I had interesting and valid ideas to contribute, and that being young (and as a result, inexperienced) wasn’t necessarily a drawback, it simply gave me a different perspective on things, and research can only be strengthened by including multiple different perspectives.

I guess the point of this post is to reassure those of you that are struggling, but don’t have those obvious challenges, that it’s ok to struggle. It’s totally normal to feel like you’re not cut out for a PhD, if you were able to do everything right first time then there would be very little point in doing the PhD at all, it’s a training degree after all. Now I’m coming close to the end, I look back on each of the struggles I’ve had as points for learning – that sounds so cheesy, but it’s true, and I’m glad I’ve been able to overcome each of these more subtle challenges. I’ll be sad to finish my PhD, overall it has been a hugely enjoyable experience, and these opportunities have ensured my growth as a researcher.

Now I’ve built up some resilience, it’s time to enter the wonderful world of battles for funding, and I’m ready for it.

 

@heidirgardner

One response to “Week 16: Going Straight to PhD After Undergrad”

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