Project: Understanding bacterial diversity: molecular basis of life history trade-offs – Standard studentship based at Exeter
What was it that attracted you to SWBio DTP?
I really enjoyed the final year research project during my undergraduate degree at Exeter and found my supervisor to be incredibly supportive, so I was eager to apply when they advertised a PhD project. However, I was apprehensive about jumping straight from a degree into a full-time PhD as my son was only 2 years old at the time. Fortunately, I went part-time for the first two years and this really gave me the reassurance that I would be able to handle both my PhD and my toddler.
I was attracted to the SWBio DTP in particular due to the taught courses in the first year that teach fundamental skills in research, as well as the opportunity to carry out a professional placement (PIPS). I also found that the structure of the PhD programme is useful when moving straight from an undergraduate degree to a PhD.
What was your experience like?
I started my PhD studying microbial adaptation towards antibiotics both in the lab and within patients. Studying part-time meant that I spent half of my week working on my rotation project, and split my taught courses over two years. I found this worked well, I was able to spend plenty of time with my son whilst he was little and it was nice getting to be involved with two different cohorts of students. I found the taught courses useful, both in terms of gaining the specific skills needed for my PhD, but also learning about other areas such as policy writing.
There is a SWBio student conference at the beginning of every academic year and this was a great opportunity to catch up with other students and learn more about their research. We also had frequent cohort events that gave us the opportunity to step away from research and learn about something completely new, and I was able to bring my son along to some of them.
Ultimately, the part of the PhD that I found most rewarding was the research. I was given a lot of freedom to explore my area of research, and I particularly enjoyed the clinical aspects of my work. This led me to working with clinicians at Bristol Royal Infirmary on a bioinformatics project for my PIPS placement. As this was a local placement and primarily computational, it worked well with my caring responsibilities. Other students went further afield though, or even abroad, there are plenty of different options, so you can tailor it to your interests and commitments.
In terms of work-life balance, I found that it was important to be strict with my time. Days off had to actually be days off spent with my son, not picking up the laptop to do some data analysis! Successfully completing a PhD certainly doesn’t have to mean 80+ hour weeks, it’s important to make it work for you and all of the other aspects of your life.
What would you say to others who are thinking of applying?
I enjoyed my PhD and I’m now continuing research as a Postdoctoral research fellow at Exeter. It may seem obvious, but find a project in an area that you are really interested in, and one that can keep you motivated for the next few years even when nothing seems to be working! The choice of supervisor is also very important, I was lucky to have very supportive supervisors who kept me on the right track and it really made a difference to my PhD experience. If you have caring responsibilities, ask about the support provided by the university as they should have some in place, for example Exeter has a parents and carers network.