It’s done! Finished! The PhD is over… I still can’t quite believe I’m able to say that. So to anyone reading this, whether you’re thinking about a PhD, just starting out or nearing the end - I promise you will get there! I did - I am living proof.
My research area was Mathematics, or Fluid Dynamics, or Hydrodynamic Stability Theory, or ‘Periodically Modulated Rotating Disk Boundary Layers’ depending on your background. Broadly, I studied the reasons that turbulence happens in flight and some ways to delay and reduce its negative effects. My day to day life generally involved programming, coffee and seminars and I (mostly) loved every minute of it.
Research was of interest to me since before I started undergraduate, having read Simon Singh’s book ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ during my A-Levels. I remember thinking that I’d like to be involved in something like that. To contribute to the advancement of human knowledge. To ‘know’ something that someone has never known before. And the great thing about Mathematics is that once it’s proven, it stays proven. That would be cool, I thought.
And it is cool. Granted, your research may be some niche area of a much broader field but after having done a PhD you are a world expert in that subject. No really, you are. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Doing a PhD is something like this, although sometimes it may feel something like this. Both are probably true, but that’s fine - for very little money and a lot of stress, you’ve done a good thing. And it will always be yours.
Throughout the PhD I wondered what I was going to do next. My whole life has always had a natural ‘next-step’: GCSEs, A-Levels, undergraduate, Masters, PhD. What does come next? Further research? Teaching? Industry? There is no one answer. And therein lies the beauty of a PhD. It opens doors - and lots of them. It’s easy to get drawn into the mindset that everyone has a PhD. Day to day you tend to see your lecturers, professors and colleagues, all of whom have PhDs and seem far more accomplished than you. This is a bubble. Most people don’t have one. Most people don’t understand what they are. Most people think they’re really cool. If you’re coming out of academia after a PhD, it will make you employable. (Sort of… I’m going to follow this post with another about my thoughts on this, so read that one if you’re stuck about what to do after.)
The next step for me has turned out to be Bridgend College, involving stepping one foot out of research and two feet into the further education sector. The decision to pull away from academia was not one I took lightly and was possibly one of the most difficult I’ve ever made. I’ve always wanted to do research. I’ve always wanted to be a university lecturer. Ever since school, that was always the goal. But it is here that I quote one of my all-time favourite speeches (here) that “you should be careful of long term dreams. If you focus too far ahead of you, you might miss the shiny thing out of the corner of your eye.” This resonates with me on so many levels in relation to my experience at Bridgend College. The opportunity arose from a comment on Twitter, started as a one-hour meeting, evolved from a few teaching hours a week to a full time position. I’m now responsible for digital development across the curriculum. I get to play with cutting-edge tech, work with universities and schools and do research if I want to. I don’t know of another job where I can work on drone footage of learners studying animal care or sport in the morning, create immersive virtual reality scenarios for motor vehicle learners before lunch and run Python workshops in the afternoon. This is my personal plug for FE colleges - go find out what they do. They’re awesome. It’s a great job with great people and I know that I have made the right decision.
Since this post is already really long, I only have a few things left to say. PhDs are awesome. They open employability doors, make you a world expert in something, allow you to travel the world and give you a tonne of great experiences along the way. But they are incredibly hard work. There’s a reason that most people don’t know what they are. There’s a reason that most people don’t have them. They can be socially isolating, demoralising and there will be times that you want to give them up. If you are doing one, look after your mental health. At the end of the day it’s only a job. It’s not the end of the world. But you can make it. You will finish it. And it will be one of the greatest things you ever do. It will be yours forever and you won’t regret it. Good luck!