Amberley Stephens is in the final stages of her PhD at the University of Nottingham and during the latter stages of her degree she has been investigating her career options. She would like to share her experiences of choosing and undertaking a PhD and her thoughts about her career options with you.
Amberley Stephens, PhD Candidate in Gastroenterology
1. What was your educational background/qualifications before doing a PhD? Which Universities did you attend for your Undergraduate and/or Masters and did you spend any periods of time working before you began your PhD?
My undergraduate degree was a BSc Biomedical Sciences, University of Southampton and I then undertook an MRes in Microbial Pathogenesis at Imperial College London. During summer holidays I worked at an Animal Feed Micro Ingredients company as a Marketing Assistant.
2. What is your research area/dissertation title and why did you want to research this area?
My research involves Characterising a type IV secretion system in Helicobacter pylori. During my undergraduate degree I was fascinated by bacteria and how they can adapt and evolve so rapidly. I became interested in host-pathogen interactions and the cellular mechanisms behind disease outcome. This research topic covered all these aspects as I study the interaction between virulence factors of H. pylori and how they might contribute to disease outcome of gastric ulcers and gastric cancer.
3. When did you decide that you wanted to do a PhD and why?
During my research dissertation at the end of my undergraduate degree I decided I really enjoyed being in the lab and doing novel work. I wanted to continue learning and discovering so a PhD seemed like a good option but I didn’t have a lot of lab experience so didn’t get invited to interviews for PhDs when I applied. I applied for an MRes at Imperial College London to get more experience in the lab and to help decide whether I could do a PhD. I gained a huge amount of experience enjoyed the research (even when it didn’t work!) which further confirmed that a PhD was the right choice for me.
4. Can you describe the applications process and did anyone help you to prepare your application? What sources of information did you use to find out about PhDs opportunities?
I had support from course supervisors who read my CV and cover letter. I also had the chance to speak to current PhD students who offered advice on applications and what doing a PhD is like. Findaphd.com was the main website I used to find PhD projects on offer. Looking on university websites is also a good way of finding labs you would like to work in.
5. Did you have interviews for your PhD? If you did can you describe what they were like?
I had several interviews for different PhDs and the format of interviews did vary. Some interviewers are interested in how you deal with motivation, organisation and prioritising, others more about the technical skills you have. As I had acquired good technical skills from my Masters I was asked about how I would go about designing certain experiments, you don’t have to always be right, attempting an answer will show that you can think on your feet. For one interview I had to put together a presentation on research I had previously done. Some interviewers wanted to know how much reading you had done on their topic of research and they asked quite specific questions. You need to do your homework and prepare for these types of questions.
6. What have been the main differences between undergraduate/masters study and being a PhD student? What have been the main challenges of your PhD?
You’re in charge of your research and your time. If you don’t do the work you won’t get a PhD. To pass a PhD you are judged on certain criteria, Is it novel work? Is it your own work and is it three years’ worth of work? Unlike undergraduate and masters you are left on your own a lot more. By this level you should be able to drive your own research and troubleshoot. Undergraduate and many masters projects are designed so that in 3-6 months you are likely to have research outcomes and a story to write about. During a PhD you can spend 6 months just optimising a technique to use and have no results to show for it.
A PhD is challenging and it’s a rare occurrence when experiments actually work so it can be difficult maintaining optimism for three years. Motivation can also be difficult particularly when things don’t work and you can be quite reluctant to carry on working hard. It’s not as simple as you get out what you put in, some projects just don’t yield results.
7. What other experience have you gained during your PhD?
You can get involved with as much or as little as you like that’s going on within the university. It’s always good to have more things to put on your CV, even when graduating with a PhD.
I’ve been involved in organising a research showcase within my multi-centre building. I’ve also been involved in Athena Swann, promoting Women in Science. I run journal clubs for the research group. I also received funding from the Graduate School at Nottingham to host a ‘Life after the PhD’ careers and networking event, inviting alumni to speak about their career paths after completing their PhDs.
With hind sight I wish I had taken advantage of some of the University offers to apply for funding to spend time researching in a foreign lab.
8. What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your PhD and what skills/behaviours and attributes have you developed personally and professionally during your PhD?
I really enjoy being at the forefront of science and working on novel projects. It is a privileged position to be in, researching an area that very few people in the world might know about, if anyone even does. Even after 7 years of higher education I still love learning and discovering new things. I also enjoy being in the lab and doing the hands on wet lab science, some people find that they don’t like this aspect of the PhD and prefer the reading and writing.
One thing you will be told many times throughout a PhD is that it’s ‘character building’, this is usually after months of work has yielded nothing. You certainly learn how to deal with disappointment and how to be optimistic as much as possible. You learn to be thick skinned, when supervisors read reports they often come back covered in red pen but it isn’t a personal criticism and you need to learn to take it constructively. You have to be organised, after 3 years of research you have to write your thesis, if you haven’t got a well maintained lab book it will be very difficult to write. Professionally I have learnt the importance of networking which is something that can be applied to any job you go into. Making the effort to talk to colleagues and peers is so important and may help you with collaborations or future job offers. Most importantly you have to be motivated and hardworking otherwise it will be three very difficult years.
9. What were your career plans when you started your PhD? If they have changed what career area do you want to go into now and why have you changed your plans?
When I started my PhD I had planned become an academic researcher and possibly have my own research group one day. I now don’t think academia is the right path for me and I’m looking at going into industry or becoming a patent attorney. My PhD didn’t yield as many good results as I had hoped even though I worked really hard, I didn’t feel I got the return of results for the work which unfortunately was due to the nature of the project. I have subsequently decided that I need to be in a job that is driven by getting results and hitting targets which is more likely to happen in industry as they have a different approach to research aims than in academia.
10. What top tips would you give to someone who is considering doing a PhD in your academic discipline?
If you want or need to do a masters beforehand be careful which course you choose I would advise an MRes as it has two 6 month research dissertations instead of one 3 month research dissertation in an MSc. You will learn a lot more technically from it which will help during the PhD. More PhDs are becoming 1+3, 1 year Masters and 3 years PhD, these are also good to aim for.
Don’t just do a PhD because you don’t know what else to do, there are a lot of opportunities in industry and other areas. If you aren’t really interested in research it will be a long 3 years and very difficult to motivate yourself. If you decide to do a PhD do your background research into the lab you’re interested in joining so you have something to write about in your cover letter for applications. Explain why their research area interests you, what experience you have and what you could bring to the lab. Email the supervisor to find out more about the lab and the research they do as it could make you stand out if you get to interview as you’ve been proactive in contacting them.