A Road to a PhD

Everyone’s road to becoming a PhD candidate and eventually graduating as a Doctor of Philosophy is different and unique to them.  There will of course be similarities between people’s paths but the road I am on has its own map as does Rachel’s but at times our roads intersect.  In this post, I am going to discuss my story and briefly mention the roads other students have taken.

My ambition to become a PhD student started early in my undergraduate degree.   I remember sitting in a first year lecture looking at a Professor teach almost 400 1st year students about modern western society, I sat looking at him thinking I could never do his job.  The reasons – I wasn’t smart enough, brave enough, charismatic enough….the reasons, at that point, could have gone on forever. So, I moved on and started thinking about other jobs I could do when I graduated in less than 3 years.

My grades in 1st year certainly defended my position as not good enough for academia.  What the naive 19 year old didn’t realise or wasn’t able to differentiate between was that, although I am good at math, it doesn’t mean I was good enough for it at University level, and well, myself and Sociology we just didn’t mix.  I was too close minded and ended up hating it which ends up being quite ironic (more on this later!).  However, apart from one module (the Climate module-which again is ironic due to my current research) my grades in Geography were pretty good and I was offered a position in Single Honours Geography.

With no hesitation, I ditched Maths and Sociology and for the next two years I only studied Geography.  Six modules each semester.  I still had a choice but at one point or another I touched on every aspect of Geography.  I enjoyed some modules (such as Informational Economy, Urban Studies, and Geopolitics) and disliked others (which I won’t mention).  Others, I was indifferent too.

As I went through second and third year, I noticed my grades increase slowly towards that elusive “first” area.  By third year, all I wanted was a first.  I was in college Monday to Friday from 8.30-6pm with an hour for lunch.  Then at the weekends I worked as a sales assistant in Mothercare. On my lunch break I read for college or proof read, when I got home I worked until late.  I wanted this first and I wanted it because I wanted a PhD.

Late in semester 2 of third year – my final year, I spoke with lecturers in the department about potentially moving straight from undergrad to PhD.  I had a topic and was in the process of applying for the John and Pat Hume Scholarship, which is offered to exceptional first year PhD students of Maynooth University.  It pays their fees and offers a small stipend.  It is seen as a stepping stone to bigger grants such as The Irish Research Council Award (IRC).  But to keep my options open, I also applied for a Masters jointly offered by Geography, Sociology (irony from above) and the National Institute for Spatial and Regional Analysis (NIRSA).

As the year progressed, I spoke with two other members of the Geography department, one who was quite high up and one whom I was close to.  Both knew me and my work and advised that I would be better positioned to undertake a PhD with a Masters under my belt.  I made the decision to not apply for the John and Pat Hume Scholarship or the PhD (because I knew if I got it I couldn’t turn it down) and I accepted my place on the MA Society and Space.

At the beginning of my MA, I found out that I probably would have gotten the John and Pat Hume Scholarship if I had applied and this left me feeling gutted.  As the year of my masters went on, I found myself more and more disengaged from it.  I was going through major personal issues, which the professor I mentioned at the start helped me through.  As they were so bad, I was struggling to stay on top of the work for the MA and was simply not enjoying it that by November of that year, I was dropping out, but I was persuaded not too.  Later in the year, when more stuff happened, the above professor gave me time to process it and work through it.

If you ask me directly, I’ll say I didn’t enjoy my MA.  I sometimes wonder if I was blinded by everything else going on in my life, if nothing bad had been happening would I have been more focused and been able to enjoy it more?  I don’t know, I will never know, all I know is that it was a dark year for me and it affected me in more than one way.  My grades were low, lower than expected by me or the staff who knew me, eventually I pulled them up just not far enough in the short space of time I had. My thesis was enjoyable but again was influenced by everything else going on.  I often think I should be like the old Dr. Temperance Brennan (you know from Bones) and separate my personal life from work and that one shouldn’t influence the other.  However, that is completely unrealistic.  My work is my  life so when my family or social life crumble than my work life is directly influenced just as when I am stressed with work my family often take the brunt of it, unfortunately.  They are aspects of me and they rely on each other.

Anyways, my saving grace occurred sometime in the second semester. I was sitting eating my lunch, proof reading an essay.  I was the only one in the room, when anopther professor came in and asked me if I was still interested in a PhD.  I said yes of course, even though in the back of mind, my confidence in my academic skills was as low as it had been in 1st year, if not lower (as I then knew what I was capable of and that I was under-performing). He said  something along the lines of “I may have a fully funded PhD position that you may be interested in if you get a 2.1”.  This was my saving grace as up until that point I fully believed, I would never be able to prove that I was a worthy PhD candidate  due to my performance in the MA, I had given up  to be honest.  And then, all of sudden, I had an opportunity.  I could pull the pieces of my life (or at least my working life) back together.  I was determined to get that 2.1. I was pulling all-nighters regularly.  I was studying while in work, it was like I was in third year again.  I wanted this 2.1, I wanted this PhD.

When I got my final grades, they said 2.1 and then I got the confirmation that I had a fully funded PhD.  I can’t even express how that felt.  There was and still is a sense of imposter syndrome (which I am sure we will discuss in the future) but I was determined to do this.  I was doing a PhD; I was going to be a doctor.  I was going to be an academic.  That 19 year old sitting in Modern Western Society was wrong, so wrong.  I could do it, I can do it and I am doing it!

My story is one of a lot of work with a little pinch of luck.  My story and Rachel’s are not too dissimilar.  We both did Geography together, although she did major/minor-major in Geography, minor in English.  We both did the MA in Society and Space and she applied for the John and Pat Hume Scholarship during the MA, which she won for NIRSA meaning we both ended up working  together.  I am sure she had her ups and downs and I know she had moments where she too lost confidence in herself and I know she too suffers from imposter syndrome (actually, if a PhD student ever says to you, they don’t suffer from it-they are lying). Finally, she is currently, working on her IRC application.

Other PhD students I know had even harder paths, having to go through an interview process, applying for IRC and even being left in funding limbo for weeks.  Everyone’s paths are different but all are difficult in one way or another.  Some have to deal with the unknown-will they financially be able to survive this process, will they get more funding, in my case, it was the emotional journey and still is the aspect that I struggle with most.

But hey, as I said earlier, we all knew we could do it, we can do it and we are doing it!




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