Case study

PhD researcher — Sam Smithers

Sam's research has taken him overseas to Spain and Hawaii. Find out more about his work and what he enjoys most about being a PhD researcher

How did you become a PhD researcher?

I studied BSc Zoology at Aberystwyth University, graduating in 2014.  Over the summer I secured a bursary from the university to do some research into the colour preferences of flies with Dr Roger Santer, lecturer in zoology. This gave me my first taste of collaborative research with a view to being published, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I then went straight on to do a research Masters at the University of Exeter, using digital photography to investigate the colour changing and background matching ability of common rockpool fish.

While completing my one-year Masters, I saw a PhD advertised that involved researching polarisation vision in crabs at the University of Bristol. I emailed the supervisor to discuss it further and was successful in gaining the position.

What's a typical day like?

Broadly speaking, my work can be split into field and lab work, where I'm out collecting data and running experiments, and office work, where I'll be at my desk analysing data, writing up papers or getting excited about future projects and experiments.

I may spend a couple of weeks on an experiment and then a further couple of weeks analysing it before moving on to a new task. Sometimes I have to run experiments through the day and night, which can be intense.

I also carry out demonstrations for undergraduates and help them with practical work. Having been helped by postgraduate demonstrators during my own undergraduate degree, it felt a bit weird seeing things from the other perspective when I first started.

While finishing off my PhD, I'm also working as a scientific adviser for a wildlife film company.

What do you like most about being a researcher?

I particularly like the fact that, through my research, I've made friends all over the world. It's great to be able to work with people who are more than just colleagues.

I also love the fact that my work is always evolving and I have to constantly push myself. Individual tasks may sometimes be boring, but you always have to move on and take your research further, which is intellectually stimulating. I'm able to continue asking the countless questions about science and nature I had as a child, but am now in a position to look for the answers!

What are the challenges?

You need a lot of self-motivation, as doing a PhD often involves a lot of independent work and self-management. It can be very hard when you've put your heart and soul into a project and writing a paper to have it rejected.

My PhD has taught me to be more resilient and not take negative feedback to heart. It's not always easy but I'm getting better at taking comments on board and acting on them to improve my work.

Science is all about trial and error. I've learned far more from my errors than I have from my successes. Although tough, it's extremely rewarding when everything finally comes together.

How relevant is your degree?

My zoology degree was directly relevant as I'm still doing biology and using the techniques I learnt, particularly in my teaching.

Also, it was my undergraduate dissertation (investigating the function of eyespots on the wings of butterflies) and summer research project that got me interested in sensory ecology and inspired me to do a Masters.

What are your career aims?

I'm keen to stay in research and would like to secure a postdoctoral position following completion of my PhD. I'm currently in talks with a couple of lab groups in the US about joining them after my PhD.

What are your top tips for choosing a Masters?

  • Masters by research are typically poorly funded, or have no funding attached at all, so I'd advise researching courses that interest you and finding out what's on offer in terms of funding, bursaries and any other grants.
  • Look for Masters that have a research group attached. Supervisors are busy people, so if you're part of a research group that includes other PhD students and postdocs, you'll be able to get support.
  • Speak to other PhD students and postdocs about their experiences when you visit the department, preferably when your potential supervisor isn't there.

Any advice for aspiring PhD students?

  • Show your enthusiasm for your subject. Supervisors want to see that you're enthused about your area of research.
  • Be open to trying new things and new ways of doing things.
  • Get some work experience. Send an email to your tutors to see if there's any funding available to take on some research over the summer. As well as giving you experience, this will also help you find out which area of research you want to move into.