Life as a researcher

Author
Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
Posted
December, 2016

What is being a PhD student really like? We spoke to one Doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton to find out…

Choosing PhD study

Many undergraduates who go on to become PhD students realise early on that their future lies in research. However, David Evans - who graduated from the University of Southampton with an MChem in Chemistry - found that deciding between getting a graduate job and pursuing postgraduate study wasn't straightforward.

'Throughout the first three years of my undergraduate studies, I was very much on the fence,' he admits. 'Neither option really stuck out as the obvious choice, nor did I really have any experience of either setting to make a conscious and well-informed decision.'

However, the fourth year of David's degree saw him undertake a six-month industrial placement in Caen, France, which provided him with an invaluable insight into the world of research. He also saw his work published in an academic journal.

'This experience assured me that a step towards a career in academia would be the right move,' he reveals. 'I fell in love with being so independent in my day-to-day work - driving my own project and steering it where my curiosity led me.'

Adjusting to PhD life

David's PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Southampton is funded by Reading-based industrial partner Dextra Laboratories. His research project is entitled 'The fluorination of bioactive compounds'.

He says that he typically works every weekday from 9am to 7pm - busting any misconception that being a PhD student is nothing like a full-time job. Predominantly based in or around the laboratory, David spends the majority of his time planning and conducting experiments and analysing their outcome.

Becoming a PhD student has taken some getting used to. 'Life as an undergraduate was very structured,' he recalls. 'There was a lecture timetable, I had very discrete lists of worksheets to do week after week, and I knew that I was working towards exams every six months. After a couple of semesters it did become rather repetitive, even if the content was new and exciting.

'Life as a PhD researcher is entirely different. Even the plans you make on Monday for the following week will have changed come Friday afternoon. The pace of progress and the day-to-day variation is fantastic. I'm always kept on my toes.'

The pros and cons of PhD study

There are numerous reasons to love PhD study - yet its quirks won't suit everyone.

David claims that the most rewarding aspect is overcoming tricky research stages. 'The solution to getting around the issue may have taken days or even weeks to find, but getting past numerous barriers gives me a great sense of pride,' he explains.

However, he concedes that some PhD study can leave him frustrated. He believes the biggest challenge is finding the strength to remain patient and motivated when things aren't working out - but emphasises that the invaluable support and advice of those around him is the best antidote.

'When a solution to a problem cannot be found, it's quite tempting to just throw in the towel and move on,' he admits. 'I owe a lot to my colleagues and supervisor for helping me through these seemingly bleak days.'

David has three more years of his PhD remaining before he graduates. Like an increasing number of Doctoral students, he may decide to move into industry rather than remain in research - but studying this advanced postgraduate qualification allows him to enjoy a fruitful career regardless of which route he chooses.