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Case Study: Kimberley

Personal details
Degree:MChem Chemistry with external placement Profile picture
School(s): School of Chemistry
Year of Graduation:Jun-2010
National of: United Kingdom
Employment details
Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Job title: PhD student
Occupational Sector: Academia
What has been your route to getting your current position?

I undertook a year long industrial placement for the 4th year of my 5 year undergraduate degree, and this motivated me to consider postgraduate study. The colleagues around me at this company all had a PhD qualification, and I believed that obtaining a PhD might open up additional career opportunities for myself.

I applied for a funded PhD position in April 2010, in my final year just before exam time. The interview was held with the principal investigator (supervisor) and I remember it to be fairly relaxed and comfortable. I was very nervous and messed up my words frequently, but this was overlooked as the interview process is a scary thing. He could tell that I was passionate and motivated, and he had received good references from my referees. I was very fortunate because this supervisor even paid for his research students to take me out for lunch and chat to me in an informal setting and answer my questions.

I was asked to present a short PowerPoint presentation on the research projects I had worked on during my undergraduate studies, to demonstrate my skills and experience. There was also a technical interview and a chat about the projects on offer. This interview was successful and I accepted the PhD position to commence in October 2010.

I am currently in my 3rd year of postgraduate study. 

What does your job involve ?

As a PhD student, one of the primary aims is to produce original work which makes a significant contribution to knowledge.

This is a daunting thought, but it is a learning process that develops over the entire duration of the study. I know that I am not ready to be awarded the PhD qualification at this particular moment, but I can see how far I have come since the start of the process, and I know that I will continue to develop and improve in the coming months.

The research group I work within is relatively small, with a principal investigator (supervisor) and a few PhD students. I spend the majority of my time working on my own project, and am left to progress on my own. Now and again I will advise or teach things to the other students within my research group, to exchange knowledge, and in return I can ask for their help when I need it.

My project is a synthetic chemistry project so I spend time in a laboratory carrying out reactions. My samples all need to be characterised and analysed, so I make use of the instruments and techniques available to me in the department. When I'm not in the lab, I'll be in the office thinking about what I've done and what needs to be done. This typically involves searching through the academic literature and updating my knowledge, writing reports and updates, and organising all my data and results.

What are the best bits of your job ?
  • I am not in love with my project/work at the moment, so I think one of the best things about coming in to work is seeing my colleagues. I feel happiest when I know that the people around me are there to support me and encourage me when I'm struggling.
  • I like to be organised and in control of my working area, so it has been useful to be my own manager and organise things to my liking.
  • My project has been difficult and I have been very frustrated over the past 3 years, but this just makes it more exciting when I obtain a positive result or think of something new that I'd like to try. It has certainly been a challenge for me, with ups and downs, but some people thrive on this type of work.
  • I am also grateful that my working hours are very flexible, but this usually depends on whoever is in charge of the research group.
Why were you successful?

I think that experience and enthusiasm are very important factors in being successful at interviews.

My academic grades from examinations were not wonderful, but I performed better in lab exercises and practical work. My supervisor was less concerned about grades, and more interested in the person and how they would fit into his research team.

Working in a chemical company during my industrial placement was definitely helpful for my PhD interview. I gained a range of skills and experiences that were not typical to an undergraduate degree curriculum, and this greatly enhanced my CV. 

What skills/ knowledge from your degree have you found particularly helpful in this role?

I really enjoyed my undergraduate degree at St Andrews. I remember it fondly. The School of Chemistry was a great department to be part of, and I think that the staff trained me well to cope with postgraduate study.

  • The 3rd year mini-project gave me my first experience of research, and I enjoyed it.
  • I'm also grateful that the department encouraged students to search for research projects in an industrial setting for their 4th year of study, as this is an incredible opportunity and not one that all universities offer.
  • Juggling the research project alongside all the other taught courses and activities in my 5th year was valuable training for life as a PhD student. 
What advice would you give to students wishing to follow the same path?

I know that almost every PhD experience is different. I think that the choice of supervisor and research group is an important factor for you to consider. In my case, I essentially work by myself and split up my time in whatever way I wish. No one is looking over my shoulder and monitoring me on a regular basis, so I can progress with my project at my own pace and have some freedom to explore things that I find interesting. This approach will not work for everyone, and I don't think that it is suited to me, but it has allowed me to learn that I perform better with a greater level of guidance and support. You should consider what type of guidance works for you, and choose your research group accordingly.

I must also emphasise that undertaking a PhD requires dedication, and I have been pushed close to my limits on several occasions. It is so important to have access to people that can support you through it. When I started my PhD I was very enthusiastic and motivated, but it was easy for this to fade away after obtaining poor results and limited success within my project. I don't like being frustrated with my work all the time, but it is something that I have learned to cope with.

On a positive note - a PhD usually offers you the opportunity to meet lots of other students, network at conferences, manage your own project and make your own decisions, form research collaborations, and it'll certainly teach you a lot about yourself.