When did you start to think about a PhD, and what sparked your interest?
I had toyed with the idea of doing a PhD during my undergrad studies, but at that point I didn’t really take it seriously. As a mature student, I never ‘went to’ university. I did my BSc (Hons) Environmental Sciences part time with the Open University whilst working full time, so university came to me. When I got to the triumphant finale, I was pretty exhausted and thought I was done with study. Until just two short months later when a tweet caught my eye advertising a CENTA PhD at the Open University working on floodplain meadows and the student in me stirred once more. I’d heard about Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) and liked the idea of getting both academic and industry experience, a broad range of training opportunities, working across disciplines and…well, here I am!
How does your personal background shape your research interest?
It all started with a dead duck. I’m the first and only academic in my family, having taken a non-traditional and scenic route through education via several careers and the challenges of late-diagnosed neurodiversity. But my early inspiration came from discovering a dead duck in what passed for a pond behind the estate where I grew up. The mallard drake had become entangled with the plastic rings from a four-pack of cans – the poor thing had drowned. It wasn’t long dead and I remember being fascinated by the intense green of its head feathers. Mum was less fascinated when we took it home to insist on a proper funeral!
That is how I became an ecologist at heart and my curiosity about the natural world has never faded. I’m inspired by understanding the patterns and structures in dynamic natural systems and how humans interact with them. I spent many years working in the, often contentious, world of countryside access, dealing with human impacts on the landscape; and latterly working with ecology volunteers, who are also working to manage human impacts on the natural world. Now I’m particularly interested in applications in regenerative agriculture and sustainable food production. Floodplain meadows (my project focus) are an example of how agricultural activities can actually enhance the landscape and produce something more diverse than might otherwise be there, illustrating that human impacts don’t have to be negative!
Did you face any challenges when putting together your PhD application? How did you tackle those challenges?
The application process did look rather intimidating at the beginning; I didn’t have a Masters or many of the ‘standard’ academic experiences, but I did have a lot of transferable skills. I had a colleague with a PhD, so my first step was to ply her with hot beverages and chat about academia to see if a PhD really felt like the right fit for me.
After that I got in contact with the supervisor of my target programme to ask a few questions and (briefly!) outline the career experience I hoped would be considered suitably transferable. He was very encouraging and helped me understand the application process so I could present myself in the right way. For example, I had experience writing researched technical reports that underwent scrutiny via planning committees, using many of the same skills as the academic process. Teamwork is also a big focus in both industry and academia and is directly transferable. Basically, the selection process relies on a scoring framework, so you need to find relevant skills, with examples, for every category – even if they’re not the usual academic ones. I trawled through experience gained from work, study, volunteering and hobbies and mapped them against the application requirements.
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?
Read about the whole experience of doing a PhD before you start! I wish someone had told me this. I had read about my topic whilst preparing my application and getting ready to begin, but it didn’t occur to me to read about the PhD experience more generally. Having never attended a campus-based university, I also found campus life hugely overwhelming at the beginning, so think about how you might deal with that.
In becoming a PhD student you are entering the culture of Academia and this can be foreign territory if you don’t come from an academic background. Happily, lots of books have been written that tell you what to expect and I highly recommend reading some. The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg is a good place to start, along with www.researchwhisperer.org.
Remember that your less academic friends and family will also have a hard time understanding this strange new world that has taken over your life and that can be frustrating for all of you. Coming from a non-academic background means I’m bilingual – I speak both academic and non-academic – so I’ve taken that as an excellent opportunity to practice my science communication skills, translating what I’m up to into stories that they can be inspired by (or at least understand). You can even get yourself a blog to put them on and share the joy: www.vickybowskill.com.
And I can’t finish without a word on…Imposter Syndrome! As a non-traditional student this may be stronger for you as you have more ‘evidence’ for it. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that everyone has The Syndrome and it doesn’t necessarily go away, no matter how high up the ladder you climb (sorry). If you can meet the academic requirements, then a CENTA PhD programme can be the place for you, no matter what your background or diversity. You may well find yourself in a minority or two, but you won’t be the only one and, in my experience, everyone is really very welcoming (promise!).