Case study

PhD student — Charlotte Regan

As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, Charlotte advises all prospective Doctorate students to seek out opportunities to gain research experience

How did you secure your PhD place?

After I graduated with a BSc in Zoology from the University of Southampton, I spent some time working to fund a research assistant position with Save the Elephants in Kenya.

This allowed me to get some hands-on research experience, working with scientists attempting to understand how elephant herds communicate and react to varying threats.

After this I decided to pursue an MRes in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at Imperial College London. It was during the Masters that I decided I was certain I wanted to pursue a PhD, and half way through my studies I had secured my place at Edinburgh.

How relevant is your degree to your research?

It was 100% relevant, as without it I would have been unable to pursue my chosen career path.

Having a good degree in biology or similar was required to secure my position as a research assistant, to make it on to my Masters programme and to successfully secure my PhD.

Over and above this, studying zoology at university provided me with skills and experiences that prepared me well to take these next steps.

What does your research involve?

My year is roughly divided into two very different parts: field work and desk-based work.

During the desk-based portion I work in the office I share with three other PhD students on things such as preparing manuscripts, cleaning and analysing my data and attending meetings and research seminars.

In contrast, a day of field work involves me locating the focal ewes I need to watch that day and recording the behaviours exhibited by both them and their lambs in timed focal watches.

How do you use your degree in your PhD?

Without the skills I gained during my degree I would find it virtually impossible to carry out my work.

My course gave me grounding in a huge variety of areas, from genetics and developmental biology, to animal behaviour and ecology and without this basis it would be difficult to further my knowledge.

I also use the skills learned in scientific writing, statistics and critically reading scientific papers on a daily basis.

What do you enjoy about your research?

The reason I decided to pursue a PhD is because I enjoy challenging myself and learning something new every day. I also enjoy having the opportunity to contribute to new scientific knowledge.

On a day to day basis, I really enjoy the freedom I have to pursue my work, getting the reward of an interesting or perhaps surprising result after a long period of analysis and having the opportunity to listen to world-leading scientists speak about a range of areas.

How essential is your study to getting your chosen job?

If I was to pursue a career in academia, a PhD is required. Having a Doctorate in a scientific subject can allow you to enter a number of other career areas such as science communication, research in industry and working in governmental departments.

Do you need work experience?

In order to secure a post-doc position a good PhD is generally adequate. In addition, a PhD student's skillset can also make them attractive to employers in a variety of sectors.

Any advice for someone who wants to get into scientific research?

If you're considering pursuing a PhD, the biggest bit of advice I'd have is to be absolutely certain that you want to do one. If you're not sure then I'd say wait it out for a year or so, get some research experience (perhaps as a research assistant) and then make your decision.

Research can be hugely rewarding but I feel that rushing into a PhD could result in a lot of stress and worry.

If you're sure this is what you want to do then the advice I would give is to work to get the best grades you can and jump at any opportunities to get research experience. I know from my experience and that of my friends that getting a PhD is really hard, so to give yourself the best chance you must have the best CV, covering letter and references you can.

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