Student profile – Catherine Nixon
When you think about PhD students you probably have an archetypal image in your head of lazy students who have never set foot within the workplace. Well this image couldn’t be further from the truth. As somebody who began her PhD after finishing a full time job I would say to those people that undertaking a PhD is not a way of delaying “getting a real job” it is a job! In fact, being a PhD student is hard. Over the course of three years I have spent my time running literature searches; reading journal articles and books; negotiating with gatekeepers to provide access for data collection; collected data; transcribed and analysed data; attended meetings with stakeholders and service providers; attended training courses; tutored on three postgraduate research modules; given a lecture or two; presented at conferences: and, somehow, amongst all that found time to write reports, journal articles and a thesis.
Sounds like a job right? Whilst you don’t have to have worked in the “real world” before becoming a PhD student many of our students have done just that. At present we have students who taught foreign languages, worked in media, have been counsellors, worked in the NHS and have been working on research projects at other academic institutions. I am one of those students. Prior to beginning my PhD I worked as a research assistant on a two year NHS funded evaluation of sexual health education. The skills that I gained during that time have been invaluable when undertaking my PhD. Knowing how to work to deadlines and negotiate with other people are two of the most valuable skills that you can have when undertaking a large piece of research. Being able to set out clear objectives with supervisors, knowing when to fight your corner and being able to persuade stakeholders, supervisors and participants that your ideas are valid and should be entertained are just some of the things that I have used existing skills to do during this PhD.
I am currently in the final stages of my PhD. This is a strange place to be as it is simultaneously stressful, exciting and a bit sad. Looking back on my time I can tell you that I have spent a lot of time feeling as if I didn’t know what I was doing or what “the big picture” was. This is normal. All PhD students, past and present, feel the same way. You spend your first year worrying that you don’t know anything at all, then you spend your second year worrying that you’re not doing it right and then by the time your third year comes around you’re worried that time is running out and you haven’t written enough. Each and every PhD student will tell you the same thing. However, over the three years that I have been conducting my research I have met amazing people, been privileged that my participants have shared intimate and private aspects of their lives with me and, if all truth be told, had fun. There aren’t many jobs that provide you with the luxury of working on one project for three years. My advice to anybody considering starting a PhD would be to choose a topic that makes you feel passionate because having to write 70-100,000 is a labour of love.
Also as an added bonus you will one day get to dress up like an extra from a Harry Potter movie to collect a certificate that allows you to pass go and get that "real job" everybody keeps telling you about!