Like many others, I chose a research placement because I’m considering postgraduate study. Prior to my placement, I was unsure if I wanted to be a student for another 4 years. But I spent my placement year test running PhD life – I had an office with other PhD students, I had many of the same responsibilities, and more importantly I got to see what it was like to conduct my own psychological research.
As many of you may share a similar apprehension about committing to further study, I thought I’d highlight some of the key differences – based only on my placement experience – between student and research life.
Application of knowledge
As an undergraduate student, the focus is on accumulating a broad range of knowledge and being examined on your retention and understanding. In a research environment, I found the focus to be on using your knowledge to explore something further. Your achievements and success begin to be measured by your ability to contribute to the literature and think creatively, rather than by your grades. I found this suited me brilliantly, as it meant that I was still able to demonstrate my strengths, but without the associated pressures of exams.
Freedom to act on your own interests
A huge benefit to moving from studying to researching, in my opinion, is the chance to work only on things that excite you. It gives you the opportunity to act on your own ideas and learn about an area of research that interests you. Although it can be daunting to make the decision about what area of research to pursue, it’s such a brilliant motivator to study something you really care about.
Even more independence
On my placement I found that with this creative freedom came very independent work. Although your supervisor supports you and you have chances to collaborate with other researchers, a large portion of the work is self-directed. Personally, I loved being able to manage my own timeline and make decisions, whilst still feeling supported by my lab; although I can imagine some would prefer the more structured routine of student life.
Own space and access to facilities
The last difference I’ll highlight is that you finally get access to university facilities that students can’t use. It sounds so simple, but I loved having my own desk, a dedicated working space in an office with other lovely people. I still used public work spaces, like the library, for a change of scene, but I found I was much more productive when I knew I had somewhere that was mine. Obviously, you also get to use the labs and the fancy equipment too, so you find that you can be much more creative with research ideas.
My year in research - and the lives of the other PhD student’s in my office – were not completely different to student life. From the work side, there is still lots of reading literature and a focus on critical analysis, as you are still expected to be learning more about your specific research area. I was also required to do presentations, posters and written reports of my work, so you still have to practice a range of communication styles. The nicest similarity was that I found I had plenty of time for my hobbies, and all the PhD students I worked with were members of societies and sports club at the University, so you still get the social aspect of student life.
So how different was my research job compared to being a student?
Essentially, research work gives you more independence, which can make things harder, but also ensures you are focussed on something you care about. You get to start acting on your own ideas and contributing to the literature, whilst still having a direct line of supervision. You can start building your career whilst still enjoying the social life of a student, having time to join societies and pick up part time work and ensure you stay happy and healthy.
Whereas before I was worried about whether I could cope with more years in academic, my placement helped me realise that starting a PhD is such a positive step beyond being an undergraduate student. I'm definitely planning for post-graduate study now, and am excited to begin developing my own research career.