Case study

Psychology PhD student — Nina Higson-Sweeney

After completing an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in psychology, Nina is now undertaking a PhD. Find out more about the type of work she is doing and how she gets to hone her skills in her area of specialisation

What degree did you study?

I studied for a BSc Psychology at the University of the West of England (UWE), graduating in 2019 with a first class degree. I then continued to study for an MSc Health Psychology, also at UWE, graduating in 2020 with a distinction.

I am currently a full-time PhD student in psychology at the University of Bath, funded by the South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP). My PhD is exploring the symptom of fatigue within adolescent depression.

How did you get on to your PhD course?

I reached out to someone I had worked with during my undergraduate placement year to see if she would be interested in supervising me. After she agreed, we developed my PhD project together, applied for funding opportunities, and in May 2020 I received an offer for a +3 studentship from the SWDTP.

How relevant is your degree?

Very - I use the knowledge I gained in my first two degrees every day.

What does your course involve?

Currently my days are often 9am to 5pm, and I usually spend my time reading journal articles, attending meetings and research groups, writing ethics applications and study protocols, and marking on some undergraduate courses.

What do you enjoy most about your PhD?

I love that I get to spend time working in an area and researching a topic that I'm passionate about. There's something particularly nice about honing in on one area and becoming an expert in it. It lets you get into all the nitty-gritty issues.

What are the challenges?

Self-motivation. While you have supervisors to help guide you, you are in the driving seat and getting stuff done is ultimately down to you. Remaining motivated when you’re staring at a screen for 40+ hours a week is difficult.

You do find ways to help yourself, though. For example, I always make a plan of action at the beginning of every week and focus on accomplishing mini-tasks (e.g. reading a paper) rather than big tasks (e.g. submitting an ethics proposal).

Where do you hope to be in five years?

In five years, I hope to be working as a lecturer and a researcher at a university, focusing on child and adolescent clinical health psychology.

How essential is what you're studying to getting your chosen job?

It depends on what level you want the job to be at. I want to be able to lecture and do research in my own right, so it's essential for me. However, if you're looking for a job as a research assistant or a research associate, then you may only need an undergraduate or Masters degree.

What are your top tips for choosing a Masters degree?

Consider the additional opportunities available as part of the Masters and how they will help you reach your goal. For example, if you want more research experience, does the Masters course offer placement opportunities as a research assistant?

Do you also need work experience?

When applying for a PhD, having work experience within research really helps, because you need a good working understanding of research methods to be able to complete it. Having the theoretical understanding from your previous degrees is great, but also having some applied experience and an understanding of the realities of research is even better.

What advice can you give to others?

  • During your undergraduate degree, take on extra opportunities while you can, particularly in research. If there is a lecturer whose research you're interested in, why not ask if they need some help with small tasks? Anything can help get your foot in the door.
  • Choose your PhD topic wisely - this will be your world for three or more years, and remaining motivated is easier if it’s something you’re passionate about.
  • Self-care is just as important as working hard when pursuing a career in academia - remember to have some down time, too.

Find out more

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