A view across Iya Valley, Shikoku island, Japan taken in autumn 2014.

At the foot of the mountain — starting a PhD

On the 4th January 2016 I officially began my candidacy as a doctoral student. The title of my project is “A historic reef-coral ‘health’ baseline from the Chagos archipelago”. Before I delve into the details of the project I want to set out my reasons for ignoring the ardent advice of many current and graduate Doctors of Philosophy (PhD) and setting myself on this path.

I graduated in 2012 with a degree in marine biology from the University of Southampton. I enjoyed the research modules of the degree more than any other aspect and I did well in them. I knew I had found my niche. In my final weeks there was series of lectures and a party in honour of my tutor Professor Paul Tyler who was retiring after a successful career in research. The conversations I had with his colleagues about science, life, and the mysteries of deep-sea hydrothermal vent communities only served to strengthen my resolve.

Reason 1 a PhD is a requirement for a career in research*.

Once the post-graduation glow died down (and the Tweek-esque caffeine shakes ebbed) I promised myself never to drink coffee to excess ever again and got a series of jobs both paid and unpaid. I worked in retail, science-policy, recruitment, and charities just trying to make enough money so I could move to the big city and accrue some relevant experiences. A big issue for me was finding work that was fulfilling, I get bored quickly and need intellectually stimulating challenges.

Reason 2 a PhD is challenging in a way that excites me.

Eventually, I got a series of paid jobs in the Imaging and Analysis Centre at the Natural History Museum and these allowed me to garner new experiences. I did small research projects, presented at conferences and entered international science image competitions. I learnt how to take criticism and how to celebrate successes. Working alongside international researchers I learnt more about our pale blue dot and in doing so became even more aware of the vastness of my ignorance. I could see the my weaknesses and this pushed me on to find the most appropriate training programme.

Reason 3 a PhD is an apprenticeship, a learning programme.

So here I stand at the foot of the mountain, I have 3.5 years to plan and execute my ascent.

*Strictly speaking there are other routes and I did consider them, but through hard work and good fortune I was accepted on to one of the Natural Environmental Research Councils’s Doctoral Training Partnerships.