In the beginning…
I knew that I wanted to carve out a life steeped in research and discovery and, from hours spent scouring job advertisements, I saw that all the opportunities that appealed to me most required a PhD to apply. I finished my degree in 2006 and it wasn’t until 2014 that I finally realised my dream of being accepted as a PhD student. It has been a long, convoluted, and at times, rocky road that, with a lot of hard work and a little serendipity, lead me to where I am now. I’d like to share the basics of the story to hopefully help anyone that is currently applying for PhDs, strike a chord with other PhD candidates/graduates and enlighten anyone that is interested as to what the process of getting a PhD can entail.
I applied for several PhDs as soon as I finished my undergrad degree, having absolutely no idea how to apply effectively. I didn’t know the etiquette of applying – what a cover letter should include, the appropriate format of a research proposal, nothing. I received feedback from one supervisor that really struck home. He told me that, based on my qualifications and experience, I would have made the short list for the PhD he was offering had I properly structured my application. He further told me that the only reason he knew how to do it when he himself was applying for PhDs, was because his parents were academics, and were able to help him navigate through the process. Lesson learned: research how to apply effectively! Use the internet, supervisors and peers to help you learn the best way to make your application as strong as possible. Tailor each application specifically to the position being offered – supervisors want to see that you a really keen on THIER PhD, not just A PhD. Don’t be afraid to contact the supervisor to ask for more details on the position – it shows that you are really interested and may give you background information that could give your application a winning edge.
After countless rejections, I chose to strengthen my research CV by volunteering, attending ecology courses run by independent ecological consultaitnts, undertaking a 2 month research assistant job and finally, conducting a Masters. You don’t need to be able to afford to pay various organisations to do exotic volunteer trips abroad to make yourself look good. There are a plethora of wildlife organisations in the UK that take volunteers and provide relevant and useful skills and experience. Just by volunteering you are showing a commitment to your chosen field, as well as helping a worthy cause. Lesson learned: take charge of your professional development in any way you can – volunteering, practical courses, field assistant jobs, anything to show that you are committed and passionate.
Having a Master’s degree is becoming a pre-requisite for more and more PhD positions. It is one of the first things that potential supervisors can use to separate candidates and I was told that I wouldn’t have my PhD without it. In addition, the skills and experience that I gained through my Master’s put me in a much better position (in terms of academic knowledge, research skills and a clearer perspective of what I actually wanted to do) to effectively undertake a PhD. That is not to say that you can’t get or effectively complete a PhD without a Master’s, but it’s definitely worth considering. Thankfully, funding for Master’s students is on the rise (I wouldn’t have been able to afford mine without a scholarship) as they are pretty pricey! For me, my Master’s project helped me make connections that ended up in four years gainful employment in the biodiversity research and conservation sector of the Seychelles – networking is key! Lesson learned: a Master’s degree can be a multifaceted tool to help you get a PhD – skills, experience, academic knowledge, maturity, networking opportunities.
During my time working for environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Seychelles, I conducted primary research on a wide swath of species and was given my first opportunity to work on sharks, a group of animals that I have harboured a fascination, tinged with fear, for since I was little. This fearful fascination evolved into something far more profound after I met my first shark in the wild while snorkelling. It was a little black tipped reef shark (Carcharinus melanopterus). We looked at each other for a full two seconds, both shocked, my heart beating like it was trying to emancipate itself from my chest, and then it was gone, leaving me hanging in the water, a changed person trying to bend my mind around the incredible awesomeness of what had just happened. Lesson learned: you may not find your true passion for several years after graduating from first degree.
The shark work that I did while in Seychelles gave me a skill set that felt like gold dust – I got hands on experience in tagging sharks, analysing a variety of shark data, designing protected areas for sharks, collecting shark morphometric data and working in an organisation that was founded on shark ecotourism. These skills, coupled with the experience of writing funding proposals, managing projects and staff, communicating with other research professionals and harbouring a passion for shark research that has pretty much taken over my life helped to give me the edge when I applied for my current PhD. It took eight years, hard work, sheer force of will, multiple rejections and several offers that I turned down to get to this PhD, which had a total of 80 applicants. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have heard many horror stories from colleagues about how they hated their PhD because they accepted one that they weren’t 100% passionate about, and how it’s now limiting their advancement in a field that they truly want to get into. Lesson learned: The PhD of your dreams is well worth the wait – find or design one that you are truly driven to do and make sure that you have done everything you can to build the relevant skill sets required to stand out from the crowd (shark PhDs are very competitive!).
Common responses of people finding out that I’m conducting a PhD on white sharks are; “You’re so lucky!” and “I wish I could do what you do!”. Whilst I do feel lucky to get to work on these incredible animals, and it is wonderful to see how excited other people get by them, no amount of luck or wishing will make it a reality. It is an achievable goal for anyone as long as you want it enough to do what is necessary to take on the challenging journey towards it.Back to all News