Why study a postgraduate?

Friday 30 November 2018, UCAS advice

by Jessica Stokes

Why study a postgraduate?

Jessica Stokes
Name: Jessica Stokes

What course are you studying/have you studied?
I started off studying a BSc in Biology at Swansea University before doing a Masters by Research in Veterinary Parasitology at the University of Bristol. I’m currently doing a PhD at the University of Liverpool on Schmallenberg virus (a disease of sheep and cattle that is spread by midges), as part of my BBSRC funding I was required to do an MRes in Clinical Sciences at the University for my first year.

What or who inspired you to study for a postgraduate qualification?
I’ve always been fascinated by diseases, so studying them after my undergrad seemed the perfect thing for me, but it was my mum that inspired me to carry on to a PhD. She completed hers in marine zoology not long before I came into the world.

What was the application process like?
There are a lot more people applying for PhDs in my field than there are funded. I always hoped to go straight into a PhD from my undergrad, however I found a lot of the other applicants at interview had been in industry or had completed a Masters. After a few interviews for PhDs I was offered a Masters by Research at Bristol- this was 1 year of research, with a thesis and viva at the end - a perfect test for deciding if a PhD was for me. The next year I got the PhD I had previously applied for. It required a lot of resilience, but it was worth it.

What was your course like?
My undergraduate course was a standard taught course, with a mixture of coursework and essay exam. We could choose some of our modules, and the degree was more ecology orientated than molecular biology (which suited me). We also had lots of opportunities for extra learning, and I was able to get involved with some carnivore post mortems (road traffic accidents) and bird surveys.

My Masters by Research at the University of Bristol was a project evaluating the risk of Echinococcus multilocularis to the UK with pet travel. This is a parasitic worm of dogs, cats and foxes which exists in Europe, if you ever take your pet abroad you have to deworm them before you re-enter the UK to prevent the spread of this worm. There was no taught element of the course, as it was 100% research. However I could elect to take courses, such as a week long course on statistics. At the end of the year I had to write up my research in the form of a mini-thesis and then defend the work through a viva. You had to be in charge of your own time as the only deadline was the final one! I really enjoyed being in charge of my time and project, which really spurred me on to the PhD.

The MRes in Clinical sciences was a mixture of taught modules and 3 individual 10 week research projects. I could choose my 3 mini-projects, but none of the taught modules. The taught modules included lab skills, statistics and journal clubs, all of which had a write-up. You had to be very organised and on-top of your work, as the deadlines were short and often all came at once. I found this course more structured, but also a lot more intense. It definitely helped teach you productivity and how to think critically.

My PhD is my own research again. There are no taught courses, but I have the option to sign up to some short courses. I can also undergo training in areas useful to my research- for example I now know how to handle sheep. I also hold a Personal Licence to allow me to collect samples from sheep to test for immunity to Schmallenberg virus. I have to plan my projects, apply for ethical approval, collect the data and write up all under my own steam. This freedom to undertake and oversee my own work really suits me and I really enjoy what I do. My research is a combination of field work, lab work and desk work. I love fieldwork, so try to get out as much as I can; the best part of my research for me is interacting with farmers. I’ve learnt so much over the last 2 years, and it has been constantly changing and challenging. I feel proud of what I have achieved already and really enjoy my work. As a PhD student I can also take on teaching hours and my own students, which is a great opportunity. So far this year I have taught on undergraduate courses, overseen Nuffield (AS-level) student projects and acted as a tutor on the Realising Opportunities course, encouraging AS-level students into university. Encouraging a passion is really rewarding and it’s a great experience.

Did you move away from home to study, or did you commute?
For my Masters by Research at Bristol I worked from home and commuted in from time to time. I found this quite isolating having lived away from home for my undergrad.
Knowing that I was going to be at Liverpool for at least 4 years (1 year masters + 3 years PhD) I decided to buy a house not too far away from campus. I commute in everyday (all 10 minutes of it) which allows me to have my own space at home and also interact with other postgrads at work and at home (most of us live nearby). I have the option to work from home if I am not in the lab or the field, but generally I work from my desk so that I can benefit from problem solving with other PhD’s.

Are you currently employed? How do you fit your work around your studies and vice versa?
When I was at Bristol and working from home I took up some extra hours at the job I kept throughout the summer of my undergrad. I also volunteered 1 day a week at Slimbridge Wetlands Trust as my research and hours of work were flexible.

My PhD is funded so I effectively ‘get paid’ a stipend quarterly. I can also get paid for teaching some courses, but this is just the odd hour here or there. I don’t think I would be able to fit my current research in around a job as my hours depend on the project (and quite frequently the weather). Some of my research requires me to be away from home for weeks/months on fieldwork so I don’t tend to have a structured routine like some other student projects.

How do you/did you fund your studies?
I’m lucky enough to be funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership (BBSRC DTP). This means I receive a quarterly stipend and have a pot of money to spend on my research (consumables, equipment, travel, etc.).

Do you have any regrets about your course choice? Did anything surprise you?
Having done the Masters by Research at Bristol I came into the PhD knowing what to expect. This has suited me very well. However having to do a second masters before I could start my PhD surprised me. I felt I already had a lot of the skills I needed having already completed one, and although I did hone some important skills, it did feel unnecessary. I know I was not alone, as one of the other girls that started at the same time as me had also completed a prior masters beforehand, but I guess this just shows the level of competition in our field.

For my Masters at Bristol I regret not spending more time with the research group. I feel that by working from home I missed out on some of the community spirit and support I could have benefited from during that year, and at times I became quite isolated. 

Is there anything you wish you’d known before you applied?
How fast the time goes. Three years, or in my case 4, has flown by. I think it’s important to know there is a plan in place at the beginning, and at least 2 back-up plans for the project, as research doesn’t tend to be straightforward. Schmallenberg virus- the disease I am currently studying- disappeared whilst I was doing my second masters, which means I have had to come up with new research projects for my thesis.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone thinking about postgraduate study, what would it be?
Make sure you can time-manage. If you need to have someone set you deadlines, then a taught course might be more for you. If you are organised and thrive when left to undertake your own work, then you are likely to really enjoy undertaking your own research project as a Masters or PhD.

More information
For PhD students it is always worth meeting your supervisor to make sure you are compatible. They are your support, so if you are on different planets and can’t communicate with each other efficiently, then your relationship and ultimately your work is likely to suffer.