PhD studentships are so difficult to get that many would-be applicants find themselves grasping at any opportunity even tangentially related to their research interests and ambitions. If you’re lucky enough to get funded, the rationale goes, you should be grateful for whatever you can get.
For some, that works as planned. They are able to put aside other interests, even if the funded research project they are attached to is not really what they had hoped for, or covers only a narrow area of specialism. Others are lucky, but still want more. What can you do to push the boundaries within a funded studentship?
Look for interdisciplinary opportunities.
If you succeeded at landing a studentship that actually takes you outside your academic comfort zone, start by working hard to build your skills and knowledge in that area, process or research method. Once you have your feet on the ground, focus on creating connections between the funded area and other topics or disciplines that you may be a bit more passionate about.
Interdisciplinary interests and connections are something that most supervisors and departments will try to foster, not block. They can boost further funding opportunities and increase research impact.
Put extra energy into dissemination.
Even small, narrow projects can have increased visibility if you brainstorm ways to present your research to wider publics. Consider all possible audiences for the work you’re doing, and how to show its importance in different ways. For example, you might consider how to present it to a more general audience via an ESRC Festival of Science event, or how to create a visual or interactive display method for students.
Think about conference posters and presentations you could create using your data and experiences, including those that re-analyse or combine them with other data sets. These efforts will help you build skills that are more broadly transferable.
And as always, consider ways that your postgrad work can be turned into journal articles. Building a publications profile as you study can turn a humdrum project into something that can help you find future employment.
Grab the chance to teach and train.
Some postgrads start up additional (unfunded) research projects alongside their funded work, but this can involve stealing attention and time from the funded work you agreed to carry out—not something PIs or supervisors will smile upon. However, postgrads are usually expected to try their hand at teaching, so it’s safer to seek out opportunities to build your skills in this area.
Keep it small and manageable. Mentoring undergraduates, leading an occasional seminar, and delivering one-off lectures are all ways to get the teaching experience you need without taking too much time away from your research.
Most universities run short courses for postgrads who teach. These are good for your CV and will improve your teaching skills relatively painlessly. It’s also worth your while to check out other short courses that can help you build a career beyond your current project, such as learning about new research methods.