When did you start to think about a PhD, and what sparked your interest?
I studied chemistry at undergraduate level and trained as an intellectual property solicitor when I graduated. I maintained a love of science and maths but didn’t even consider a PhD at the time. A few years after qualifying as a solicitor, I was working on a patent case about wind turbines, which involved lots of technical reading about wind and probability. I became completely obsessed. I spent a year or so reading up on meteorology and fluid dynamics in my spare time (and trying to talk myself out of quitting my job). I eventually decided to take my hobby more seriously, and went to the University of Birmingham study a master’s in meteorology and climatology, before moving on to a PhD.
How does your personal background shape your research interest?
My PhD looks at the interactions of the atmosphere and the living world, particularly around forests. It allows me to combine two loves of mine, which are the natural world and applied maths.
Did you face any challenges when putting together your PhD application? How did you tackle those challenges?
I was applying eight years after I had graduated from my BSc. The main challenge for me was figuring out how to answer the ‘why now?’ and ‘are you sure about this?’ type questions in applications and interview. I decided to go for a master’s before applying for a PhD. This allowed me to find out whether I was really interested in research in the area. It also gave me firmer grounding for PhD applications, because my background (chemistry degree then working as a lawyer) was not completely aligned with my research interests (meteorology/fluid dynamics).
Any top tips for students who are interested in scientific research but may also be the first in their family and circle of friends to do a PhD?
Make sure your PhD is in the right subject area, that you’re the right person for it, and that it’s the right time for you. Unfortunately, these are difficult things to know before you start. Get as much experience as you can in the subject matter before you commit, such as through dissertations, summer work, or side projects with lecturers working in the field. If you don’t enjoy these smaller pieces of research, you’re unlikely to enjoy your PhD. Regarding timing, if you’re certain you want to do a PhD straight after graduating, great! But don’t be afraid of doing something else for a few years before coming back, particularly if you’re under a lot of financial pressure or are prone to a fear of missing out.
When you’re looking around for PhDs, make sure you like your supervisors, the culture of the research group, and the place you will be based. Again, it’s hard to know before you start. But, before you apply, meet your supervisors and as many people in their group as possible. Trust your gut feeling. It’s easy to overlook these points when you’re shopping around for the perfect PhD topic. But lots of people end up having a miserable time of their PhD, or dropping out altogether, because of a poor fit with their supervisors or the culture of a place.