June 25, 2020, by Ryan Neal
My path to postgraduate study
This guest post is written by third-year PhD student, Declan Wayne.
I started my academic career at the University of Nottingham in 2010. I knew I wanted to study science but wasn’t exactly sure what area I wanted to focus on, however, I was certain that my passion was in human physiology. I came across the Medical physiology BSc, which offered a wide range of areas relating to human physiology, and a whole host of optional modules that would allow me to tailor my academic interests.
My research interest became apparent during my second year, when I was given the opportunity to undertake a summer research project. I had never done any lab work before other than a few smaller scale practical sessions in my first year. The placement involved working independently in the lab on a research project relating to the impact of alcoholism on the liver. This was an amazing opportunity in which I gained a whole range of lab skills, confidence in my ability to complete high level research and a sense of immense pride when my research was incorporated into a published paper.
I continued to gain lab experience during my final year dissertation and started to focus my career aspirations towards research. However, research careers can be very competitive and although I applied for several PhD positions, I was unfortunately unsuccessful. At this point I realised that whilst not impossible, jumping from undergraduate to PhD is quite a step up and competition for these positions is fierce, with applicants who are often further along in their academic careers.
Rather than giving up, I decided to find myself a job to save what money I could in order to fund my postgraduate masters degree and gain the extra knowledge I needed to progress into research. I was successful in securing a job and although unplanned, I remained in the role for two years as I really enjoyed it. I decided I was now financially secure enough to fund and apply for a masters degree at Nottingham.
My next step was deciding on the most suitable masters programme. A quick google search revealed the huge range of courses available to prospective postgraduates and that finding the right one can be somewhat daunting. Ultimately, I decided that based on my research interests, the MSc in Nutritional Sciences was going to be the course I applied for. However, during the application process, I got back in touch with my dissertation supervisor who told me about the option of applying for an MRes. Up until this point I didn’t know what an MRes was or that this study route existed. For those that don’t know, an MRes is an alternative masters programme, which focuses on independent research, involving a larger scale research project with supervision from a leading academic.
The MRes enabled me to tailor my masters course, learning skills that felt most important to me, whilst also being given the opportunity to partake in cutting edge research that I was able to lead on. My project expanded on work I had done previously, investigating the impact of neurodegeneration on the ageing brain. By the end of the year, I not only felt accomplished in achieving my degree, but I also ready to take the next step up in my academic career and I started to refocus on applying for my PhD.
In hindsight, I don’t think I was ever ready for the amount of work involved when I was an undergraduate applying for postgraduate positions. I look back and realise how important those two years in industry were and ultimately how the MRes allowed me to take the next step.
I think it’s important to note that funded PhD programmes are not always easy to come by. I applied for many projects before even getting an interview. Being told your application is unsuccessful is all part of the process and not something that should dishearten you. If anything, it should be used as a motivator. If you want something enough and you put in the work, it will happen.
In late 2017, I interviewed for a great project at Nottingham that allowed me to go back to my roots, focusing on obesity related research. The skills I had learned from the MRes prepared me for the interview process – I had learned the importance of self-motivated learning and gained experience during my first-year literature review and experimental design.
I am now in my final year of my PhD which focusses on brown fat, a temperature regulating tissue with potential anti-obesogenic properties – this is something the research community did not recognise the prevalence of in adults until recently. Unlike my previous projects, my current research allows me to work in both a lab setting and with participants, which has given me a real insight into the process of good clinical research practice.
As part of the programme I also have access to the postgraduate school’s taught courses, which have allowed me to further my learning to suit my individual needs. My PhD has given me the opportunity to get fully involved in an area of research that I am truly passionate about. I have also learned a whole range of new skills and been lucky enough to work with the media on several television programmes. Most recently, I took a research trip to Norway which is the highlight of my career to date.
Studying at Nottingham has also allowed me to get involved in a number of other passion projects including acting as a mentor, teaching and advocate for access to higher education programmes by working with the widening participation team. These projects really help put into perspective how lucky I am to be where I am today. A role that I hope to continue in the next stage of my career.