Student perspective: PhDs part two - once you get started

Posted in: Postgraduate Study

Are you considering further study? Find out more about PhDs in our two part blog series written by Matthew, a Doctoral student in Pharmacy and Pharmacology. Read part one

PhDs can come in many flavours depending on the discipline and the project. Some will only involve trips to the library, while others may have you trekking the Andes to find a rare pigeon, but in my case, it is in a laboratory. I had never set out to do a PhD at the start of my undergraduate, but I enjoyed lab work and felt that a career based in the lab would suit my practical and theoretical skill set. Following this idea, for my industrial placement year, I worked in a quality control microbiology lab. However, this industry is very repetitive with little opportunity for training in new techniques. As a result, I felt that a research-led career offered more variety, with rigorous training in new techniques and disciplines.

As I explored different laboratory roles fitting this description, I noticed that career progression often demanded a PhD beyond entry-level positions. I didn't want to limit my future opportunities in the science/research sector, nor did I want to postpone doing a PhD to a later stage in life when other commitments might take precedence. Pursuing a PhD seemed like the best way to future-proof myself for various paths, whether lab-based or beyond. However, I must clarify that I wasn't motivated to do a PhD solely to stay in academia; my goal was always to pursue industrial research or potentially venture into medical writing rather than academic research.

My First-Year Experience

I have worked several jobs in the past, part-time positions, full-time in a laboratory and conducted some short-term research projects – none of which compare to a PhD. In previous roles, I have very much felt like an employee following the direction of someone more senior. But during a PhD, it is very much all on you. Your supervisor will guide you, but ultimately your day-to-day is determined by you and only you; almost like running your own start-up company.

From university projects and some part-time work, I have experienced independent work, however, that was mainly working independently of another person, but always with a plan ultimately put together by someone else. A PhD instead requires you both to plan the work and directly execute it, with you being solely responsible for the result. This was a shock for the first few months, and there was certainly an adjustment period. But even with the stress involved, there is nothing more satisfying than when you succeed in something that is entirely your own.

Outside the PhD

As much as a PhD can feel all-encompassing there are facilities outside of this to help you grow transferable skills and network. As part of the UK PhD program requirements, I have been able to get involved with skill-building courses, to help diversify my skillsets. These have included multi-day project management courses teaching me how to manage people and risks. I have also completed shorter 2 – 3 hours interactive online courses discussing ‘how to give a presentation’ or ‘writing for a lay audience’. These courses are fully transferable. I have even gone as far as including them on my LinkedIn profile to show potential employers examples of ways I’m trying to enhance my skill set.

In terms of more social activities, faculties can have different societies that bring together post-graduate researchers. Mine has a specific post-graduate group that host events and activities throughout the year, such as summer BBQs, sessional events, and guest lectures. The university also put on a research day conference for all researchers within the faculty, from PhD students to post-doctoral researchers, and even lecturers to showcase their work. This was a great experience to see what a conference is like and even present a poster to get my research out and into the world, whilst receiving comments from fellow academics with areas to improve or even collaborate.

The PhD has also given me the opportunity to meet other students from multiple disciplines, with Doctoral café events and doctoral lunches. This has been great for both networking and socialising. Working in a shared office provides a real community feel to the program, chatting with other PhD students to share ideas and help each other. To maintain a balanced lifestyle, I aim to work from 9-5, giving me time to still see friends, and work part-time. Some days you do have to stay late or write reports over the weekend, but thankfully this is only occasionally for me.


A PhD is different for everyone, all depending on what you’re researching, your supervisor, and the people you have around you. The work is difficult and time-consuming but ultimately, I know that I am gaining a qualification that I will have for the rest of my life, so from that point of view it’s all worth it. With great support systems around me and maintaining a balanced lifestyle, it is more than achievable. I say this optimistically, but I’m only in my first year, so maybe come back in three years and see if I feel the same!

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Posted in: Postgraduate Study


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