My Research and 1st Year PhD Experience (so far) …
Welcome to June! A new month which will hopefully bring a lot more joy into the world that we really need. May was a busy month which saw me moving flat move in Newcastle and also completing my first year PhD annual progress review. As I have now completed this, I thought that it would be a fantastic time to share a bit more about my research and how I've been finding the first year of my PhD so far. I cannot believe that it's already been 8 months (especially as the majority of it has been spent in lockdown), so let's recap on what I've been working on … My research Most of you might have already read what my research project is but I do get a lot of questions about it. I always try to find new ways of explaining what I'm doing depending on who I'm speaking with so I'll attempt to do a simple explanation of it below.
Your gut is where the majority of food digestion occurs. Trillions of microscopic bacteria and fungi live in your gut (collectively termed the Human Gut Microbiota), helping with a lot of different things such as maintaining a good immune system and also with food digestion. A lot of the food we eat contains carbohydrates that are too big and complicated for our own bodies to breakdown themselves so bacteria within the gut do this for us. I am looking at a particular group of bacteria who perform this carbohydrate breakdown really well and studying how they regulate this function. The function of carbohydrate breakdown is under the control of a 'master regulator' that is very unique and loosely understood so I will be trying to investigate how this mater regulator works. How have I found first year? So far, I've been getting on pretty well in the lab and my experiments are really beginning to take off now after some (expected but not always welcomed) teething pains. I was of course quite nervous to start my PhD after having relatively small amount of lab experience. I do quite well at picking up new things fast as I do love learning new things all the time and I was never expected to know a huge amount to begin with, which helped get over nerves and imposter syndrome. First year has been a bit of a whirlwind - getting used to a new city, new people, new ways of working etc. can be overwhelming but I've been very lucky to have a good support system in place that have helped. To be frank, the novelty wore off very quickly as lockdown made it seem as I had been in the lab for years, but I can't say that I've ever dreaded having to go into work at all since I began. Another result of lockdown has been overworking, which I mentioned in my last post. Having nothing else happening in life, meant that all of my time and focus was solely on work, so an extra hour here and there turned into 5 hours staying late or being in work for the whole weekend etc. I inevitably burnt out and very quickly realised that it will never be sustainable to overwork constantly (which sparked the last theme of my blog posts). The annoying thing about science is that it doesn't always work to your schedule so sometimes it makes more sense staying 3 hours later instead of wasting 6 hours the next day. I've been trying really hard to start setting clear boundaries with myself with regards to my working patterns so that I don't take bad habits over to my next few years and in my future career. My work-life balance is not always 50/50 but one cannot always outweigh the other. Also, I love sleeping way too much. Recently, I've been going back to the gym which has allowed me to implement some sort of daily/weekly schedule and it has done wonders to my productivity and mood. Exercise has always been a de-stressor for me and I have felt more re-energised and efficient than before!
My first year annual progress review involved me submitting a 7,500 word report which covered a review of current published literature in my specific field, my aims and hypothesis for my project, my methods and results of work completed so far and a summary of my future work. I then presented my work to my progress panel and chatted to them about what’s been working, what could be improved and any ideas that they might have for my project. I was quite nervous for my review as I had no idea what to expect! It ended up being such a fun and useful discussion as my panel were not out to get me or test my knowledge as such, but more to get a better understanding of my topic and to help me refine it in ways I hadn’t thought of before. I actually feel more confident in myself now which is such a good feeling. Differences of PhD to undergrad The first major difference that I've felt is that you get to be your own boss (within reason) but this is dependent on the relationship you have with your supervisor. I'm a huge planner and I like to be as independent as I can be, so knowing this, I like to manage my own time which means that things work mostly according to my schedule and no-one else's. In undergrad, deadlines and class timetables meant that I had to adopt a more rigid routine which didn't allow for time off/down days/appointments. I'm a huge fan of the flexibility a PhD offers. Specialising in one research area. I often felt that in undergrad, I knew a lot about a lot of different things but nothing in depth. I can't wait to uncover so much knowledge in my specific field as time goes on. It's a real job! Other PhD students will agree on how much we have defend that we are actually working and not just prolonging the time we have to grow up (lol). Of course, we are still in education but how we learn is completely different (think of training courses for 'real jobs'), we are paid for our work, most of us have to manage living away from our parent's homes and our contributions highly benefit medicine, health, economy, industrial partners and the overall workforce in which we belong to. Would I recommend a PhD? Absolutely. Definitely ask me again in a couple of years, but for now, I can't recommend it any more if you have the urge to pursue further education or if a PhD is fundamental to your future job prospects. Being in control of my future and the thought of making new discoveries excites me a lot. As always, thanks for taking your time to read and I hope you enjoyed. Next time, I'll be covering my experiences being a Black woman in STEM/academia. Catch me over on Instagram and make sure to SUBSCRIBE to never miss an update and receive exclusive content! Until next time, D x