The highs and lows of starting a PhD


By Heather Trickey

“What? Are you totally nuts?!” – The encouragement from a friend when I told her I’d been fortunate enough to win a DECIPHer PhD studentship at Cardiff University. She pointed out that I already had work that I enjoyed, as well as four young kids!

“Hmmm…just don’t underestimate how very lonely a PhD can be” was the advice of a former colleague, who had been there himself.

But after years in research management, for the UK government and then for NCT (the National Childbirth Trust, the UK’s largest charity for expectant and new parents), the opportunity to spend three years in a public health research centre of excellence studying infant feeding policy – a topic I am passionate about – was just way too good an opportunity to let slip. And, now that I’m coming to the end of my first year, it seems timely to reflect on just how crazy this move has been.

In fact, so far the experience has emphatically not been a lonely one. Largely this is down to the culture of DECIPHer. The Centre places considerable emphasis on development of PhD students, we sit alongside full members of staff who are friendly, always willing to discuss their own work, are a great source of practical and theoretical knowledge, and daily living proof that a PhD is a stepping stone to further interesting and policy-relevant research.

My sense of engagement may also be helped by the fact that my research is part-funded by NCT, and I continue to work one day a week for the charity. This helps me to remain mindful of the wider relevance of the topic I am exploring, and provides me with opportunities to present my early ideas directly to practitioners. And all those years of work experience really have paid off in giving me the confidence to follow up links with a network of academics and policy stakeholders.

               With the help of supportive colleagues, a PhD can be a valuable stepping stone to further research

This is not to say that the experience of doing a PhD has been plain sailing. I certainly assumed that years of independent project management work meant that I would have little problem getting stuck in to a project plan, and that I would soon be churning out the goods. Perhaps I thought that defining and planning the research would be less daunting for me than for a PhD student studying a new topic area after doing an undergraduate degree. Wrong! Flailing around for the first six months of a PhD, without a clear set of research questions or any idea how to investigate them, may be usual or even unavoidable, but knowing this certainly does not make it any more comfortable.

But there is no downside that I have experienced that can negate the luxury of time and quiet to read and to think. Or the excitement that comes from exploring new theoretical paths, and considering old problems from new perspectives.
So what would I now say to someone now embarking on a PhD late in life? If you love your topic area, if you think you’d enjoy exploring your area in great depth, if you have friendly colleagues and if you feel you can draw on your life experience – go for it!

Heather Trickey is a PhD student at DECIPHer, based at Cardiff University. Her PhD, ‘Ecological and systems approaches to infant feeding policy‘, explores the extent to which ecological theory and systems approaches have penetrated infant feeding intervention culture.

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