(Read PhDiaries Part II here)
When I was accepted to start a PhD at the University of Leicester, I found myself torn between the feelings of utter happiness and complete cluelessness. The latter being a rather scary emotion to have when you’re meant to be embarking on to the toughest academic challenge you’ve experienced so far in your life. So I started some googling: reading articles with titles such as “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you” and “Is a PhD the right option for you?”. You may think that I should have read these articles before starting to apply for a PhD position somewhere. But I wasn’t reading them to see if I had made the right decision (I’ve never had doubts about that), but rather what other people’s experiences were, and what I should emotionally prepare myself for.
What I read didn’t help me much, and probably made me feel more nervous than I had felt before. There was little to read about other people’s true experiences and their journeys through the PhD program. Therefore, I’ve decided to document the experience I have through my PhD. I hope that any prospective students find comfort and inspiration in being able to read another student’s experiences (from the process, to overcoming all the worries that are sure to come), and knowing that if I’m able to do it, so can you!
Let me begin by telling the story of how I’ve come to this point. Through my undergraduate degree I knew that the only chance I had of getting either a job or going on to future studies after graduation would be to gain as much practical experience as possible from Day 1. For someone who loves the outdoors, camping and meeting new people this was far from a hardship, and was instead a great opportunity to finally start working towards the life and experiences which I always dreamed of. I got a part-time job and worked alongside my studies. I budgeted my money, and I limited the amount I went out partying at Uni (we all know how much money can magically disappear on a good night out). I also applied for as many grants as I could and managed to receive some funding for my trip.
Finally I went on my first expedition with Operation Wallacea to the Peruvian Amazon. While I might not have had the ‘crazy’ first year most people might have experienced during their year as a fresher at University, I still wouldn’t swap it for the world. That summer I fulfilled a childhood dream (to go to the Amazon), and it inspired me to do the exact same thing in all of my undergraduate years to come. The knowledge that I had gotten myself there through my own hard work was the best feeling of empowerment and inspiration in the world.
My second year I wanted to take on a bigger challenge, and furthermore reach the second place of my dreams; the Bornean rainforest. Again, I got a part-time job, applied for grants, and budgeted throughout the year, and I finally made it to the Sabangau forest where I had another amazing experience volunteering for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop). After that summer, I was offered the position of a volunteer coordinator for OuTrop between my 3rd and 4th year at Uni. I of course accepted and that was how I spent another summer, going back to a place which has become the biggest inspiration to my career so far.
Before the last trip to Borneo, I had started looking into PhD options; which universities, and who to contact regarding possible PhD opportunities upon my return to Edinburgh. One of the Professors, who I had meant to contact after my volunteer coordinator position coincidentally visited the base camp in Borneo when I was working there. Through an introduction by the managing director of OuTrop (for which I will always be grateful), I had my first talk with my soon-to-be PhD supervisor.
After that, it all happened surprisingly smoothly. We discussed the areas which we all were interested in, funding was applied for and secured, and by March I had accepted an offer at the University of Leicester. I then nervously went to meet my two supervisors in May, hoping that they would still be happy with their choice of working with me (I had already started suffering from intruder’s syndrome).
While all this was happening, I was of course finishing the last year of my undergraduate degree and writing my dissertation. I had decided to do a literature review looking at illegal logging and deforestation in Indonesia. In doing so, I had also decided to take a risk and use a format and method unusual for the dissertations which are usually done at the department I was studying at. But I wanted to use my dissertation as a stepping-stone to my PhD, and I wanted to fill some large knowledge gaps which I felt hindered my understanding of the situation in Indonesia.
I got a 2:1 for my dissertation. Not the First I was hoping for. While deeply disappointed at first, I knew I had taken a chance, and retrospectively I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Since that meeting in May with my supervisors, and being able to participate in great conversations about the situation in Indonesian Borneo, I know that my dissertation prepared me better for the PhD than anything else could have.
So I’m going to end this first post with the biggest lessons that I have learned so far in my own journey.
1. The importance of work experience
Along with all of the summer experiences, I took every chance I got in gaining practical work; I volunteered for the Countryside Rangers in Edinburgh for example. You might feel that expeditions abroad are too expensive (indeed, many are extortionately priced), but if you are determined enough and willing to sacrifice certain things (like going out every week, or twice every week with your mates), then you can definitely come that little bit closer to achieving your summer goals. Take the time to find those grants which you can apply for, and be prepared to spend hours and days doing so. Talk to others about their experiences, ask how they got there. If you can’t go abroad, there is plenty to do in your own country (I have seen some pretty awesome positions for the RSPB in the UK for example). I also know a lot of friends who have worked for projects at the University – see what your University has to offer by approaching your professors and lecturers.
2. Contacts, contacts, contacts
I got my volunteer coordinator position in Borneo from my volunteering the previous summer. And now I’ve certainly gotten my PhD opportunity through both of those previous experiences as well as the wonderful people who I have met along the way.
3. Follow your gut and decide for yourself what it’s worth
For my dissertation, I knew that I would learn more by doing the literature review that I had in mind. It wasn’t a topic taken from the list provided by the University, it wasn’t using the typical methods which most people use when doing an ecology dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, and I knew that I might have to sacrifice that First grade that I had also been working towards for the past four years. But I had a feeling that either way, I would take more from the experience this way, than taking the ‘safer’ route. Now it has been one of the best decisions that I have made, and has probably made things a lot easier for myself going into the PhD.
4. Finally, keep your dreams and goals constantly in your mind. Let them fuel you through those long working hours, and dreary waitressing shifts.
If you could travel back in time and talk to a younger version of myself, the younger me would tell you about my dreams of working in the rainforest with wild animals, trekking through mud and clouds of mosquitoes while trying to do my little part in making this world a better place. Those were my dreams, but I was never sure that I would make it there. I’ve tried my very best to get to where I am now, and I’ve only succeeded so far because I searched for opportunities which could lead me in the general direction of where I wanted to be. Have faith in your own abilities, and step out of your comfort zone.
Are you doing a PhD or have you completed one already? How was your experience? Do you have any more tips to share? Post a comment, or send us an email, EcoPost would love to hear from you!
- Volunteer for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project
- Volunteer Coordinator for OuTrop
- Peat Swamp Forests of Borneo: Part 1
- UK MPs decide for subsidies of biofuel, including palm oil
See part 2 PhDiaries: Intruder Alert!