Should I or shouldn’t I: Exploring the ups and downs of a doctoral degree.

Feb 21, 2024

By Dr Rebecca Blanchard, Teaching Associate within the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham.

Author Biography:

I completed an undergraduate degree in Equine Sports Science at Nottingham Trent University. Following this, in 2013, I went on to undertake an MRes with Prof. Richard Lea at The University of Nottingham, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science. This project was assessing the effect of environmental chemicals on sperm quality however the research ideas as part of this MRes developed, and soon this turned into a PhD furthering the research around the canine sentinel model. Following this, in 2017 I moved to the Royal Veterinary College to undertake a post-doctoral position, working with Dr. Andrew Childs. In 2018, a lectureship became available at Hartpury University in Gloucester and within a year I was teaching full time, programme leading and had received my first set of funding for a PhD studentship position. In 2020 I was fortunate to obtain an alternative lectureship at The University of Nottingham, School of Veterinary Medicine, and Science, returning to where my journey began, where I am now an Assistant Professor, teaching Immunology and Reproductive Physiology on the Veterinary Medicine Undergraduate degree

  1. Expertise, mastery, setbacks, and frustrations:

A PhD is an in-depth enquiry into a small area of a specific subject. A chance to develop a deeper understanding of a topic and be an expert in that field. In a traditional three-year PhD programme, within your first year, you will need guidance from your supervisor. For your second year you shall start to actually understand what it is you are doing and why. Your final year is when you shall certainly flourish, knowing your subject more than your mentor, developing innovative ideas, and truly having a wide expertise for exploring your topic and being an expert in that field.

Whilst it sounds simple, achieving that level of expertise wouldn’t come without some setbacks. Research is unpredictable. Optimisation of experiments can certainly take time, experiments might even fail, you might occasionally feel like an imposter. There is a sheer volume of work involved in a PhD. Balancing coursework, research, teaching responsibilities, and other commitments can lead to long working hours and a sense of being overwhelmed. Rest assured this is normal and all part of that PhD journey, and where having a supportive mentor comes in handy. Not only will you be an expert in your field come the end, but you will go through a journey that helps you develop both professionally and personally.

  1. Developing your skill set

Coming to the end of your PhD, you will have developed a thorough awareness of designing, undertaking, collating, and analysing data. You will have developed a critical mindset from reading literature, a strong understanding of ethics and an ability to problem solve. You shall know how to balance your time effectively, to communicate more widely, and to be adaptable. Your CV will be expansive. These skills not only contribute to academic success but shall also position you for success in a wide range of careers, in a wide variety of professional areas.

In saying this however, a PhD can lack clear milestones and often leave you with some uncertainty in your progress, often leading you to feel unsure in yourself. I have been there. There were times during my PhD when I really wasn’t sure what I was doing, even into my postdoc role, but rest assured, you will still be developing the above skills even if you cannot see it clearly at that moment in time.

  1. Personal growth

Completing a PhD requires a considerable amount of tenacity, perseverance, and resilience. It often involves solitary work, spending long hours behind a desk or in the lab as the pressure to produce a write up and meet deadlines looms. You might feel isolated or burnt out at times, or there might come a time when you have poured everything you have into a draft write up, for it to be returned all crossed out. Keep persevering. Overcoming these challenges and setbacks certainly contributes significantly to personal growth and development. If there does come a time when you are feeling lonely or lost, just know that it is ok to feel anxious or sad. Just find someone you can speak to about these feelings, be it your supervisor, a mentor, or a colleague from the department. Imposter syndrome is not uncommon, and the likely chance is they have been through that too.

Overall, research can lead to new discoveries, advancements in different fields, and a lasting impact on both academic and professional communities! While the challenges can be arduous, the benefits are equally profound. The skills and insights gained along the way will shape you and your professional identity in the future however you will only get out what you put in. Engage with fellow researchers, academics, and scholars during your PhD journey, build connections within academia, disseminate your knowledge via teaching and impact others. While pursuing a PhD is undoubtedly an admirable undertaking, you must approach the decision with a realistic understanding of the challenges. So long as you maintain a healthy work-life balance, know to seek support, and manage your time well, you will transform and achieve great things. Go for it. If you don’t try something, you won’t ever know what it is really like. I will leave one point here though, the team you are with, and your primary supervisor are key to making your PhD and research journey enjoyable.