A Day in the Life of a Student: Molly Browne

By Molly Browne

How did I end up in Coventry doing a PhD?

In 2011 as I left home for university to begin a physiotherapy degree, little did I think that 6 years later I would be on my PhD journey! I had always been passionate about encouraging people to be active, to optimise their functional ability, mobility and independence. Physiotherapy seemed like the perfect job; a chance to promote activity and keep people moving. I loved my degree, and placements, but to my surprise I loved the research element. In practice, I was frustrated with limited evidence available, and little time to experiment with new techniques and treatments. I decided to focus on research and completed a Masters by Research where I explored the impacts of sedentary behaviour in older adults. Whilst I enjoyed my MRes, the prospect of a PhD seemed overwhelming and scary! I was also keen to work within public health promotion, and explored other career options.

When I saw the project offered at Coventry it seemed to align with my interests; it was exciting and creative. Yes, it was a big scary PhD but it offered the chance to work directly with care providers, and stepped away from lab-based research. I applied, and when I went along to the interview I was so impressed with Coventry, the supervisory team and the ambitions of the project. I could picture myself being involved, and left (after asking a lot of questions) really hoping to be offered the PhD. Almost one year in, and I can honestly say I am so glad I started the PhD journey.

Being part of a research group.

My PhD project sits within a group of projects in the Data-Driven Research Innovation (DDRI) programme. One thing I have found really beneficial so far, is being part of a wider research group. PhDs can feel lonely at times, so having a support network is so important, and this really appealed to me when I applied. Whilst the DDRI projects differ, several of the projects are working closely with care home providers to improve resident quality of life and care so there are lots of cross-overs. The DDRI programme is relatively new, so there is a chance to help develop and shape the programme. I have assisted in setting up a student network, which has proved so useful for discussing progress and ideas, and sharing our thoughts and project plans.

What is my research about?

I am exploring the impact of outdoor and nature-based activities, and engagement with outdoor environments, on the physical and mental well-being of people living with dementia. I will be working with a care home provider in several care homes in Warwickshire, and have established a link with a community garden in Birmingham. I am currently in the process of analysing data I collected from a series of interviews I conducted with a range of people involved in activity provision for people living with dementia. I really enjoyed carrying out the interviews, and speaking with people about outdoor activity made me feel so passionate about making the most of my PhD. I am also gaining ethical approval at the moment for two further studies. The first is an observational study, with another of the DDRI students, to explore the current activities and behaviours of residents in the care homes we will be working within. The second, is a pilot study to explore the impact of a horticultural-activity programme at a community for people living in the community and their caregiver. I am really excited to begin data collection for both projects, and am hoping to do so from September. I am hoping to finish my PhD project by comparing a number of outdoor activity programmes for people living with dementia, and to investigate the impact of these on physical and mental well-being.

Is a PhD fun?

Yes, no, maybe, sometimes!

I knew a PhD was going to be challenging, and would require motivation and hard work. But I think I honestly underestimated how much I would enjoy it. I have realised I really do care a lot about what I am researching, the more I speak to people about it the more passionate I seem to become. One thing I have enjoyed is being able to discuss my project with other PhD students, healthcare professionals, horticultural therapists, activity co-ordinators and a whole range of others to develop my ideas. I feel so lucky to be in a job where I can be innovative and creative, coming up with ideas for things I want to trial and turn into research projects. I’ve also been supported in designing, implementing and evaluating them. So far my PhD has taken me to some really cool events, workshops and conferences. I am part of the University Alliance’s national programme -Doctoral Training Alliance for Applied Biosciences for Health – part of a cohort of PhD students from 14 universities. It has been great to meet up with other students, and attend specific training courses and workshops. It is so easy to get wrapped up in your project bubble, so I relish the opportunity to attend things elsewhere.

What does a typical day look like?

The nature of my project (and probably me as a person) means that rarely do I have two days that look the same. It suits me, I can’t sit down and concentrate for hours so having lots to juggle makes me more productive. I train/run commute to work so I usually get in early, get sorted and go through emails and twitter whilst I have breakfast. Recently, days have been a mix of planning meetings, data collection sessions carrying out interviews, training workshops, completing ethical applications and squeezing some reading or writing in if possible. I sometimes have meetings off-site at the care homes I am working with, and over in Birmingham at the community gardens so I will be in and out of the office during the day. I try and make time each week to meet up with two PhD students I met at the very beginning, we will talk through our progress, how the week has been and our plans for this coming week. It has been so valuable sharing top tips, worries and successes with each other and really nice to have support along the way. Doing a PhD is busy, but I would recommend making the time to catch up with people and talk about how it is going – the good and the bad, it will be so beneficial!

What’s the goal?

The one question I am sure every PhD student gets asked ‘… and what are you going to do when you’ve finished?’ Right now, I am not too sure where exactly I want to end up post-PhD. I am using every opportunity to explore the field of my research and possible career pathways. I am keen to have a go at teaching, but also to keep my options open in the non-academic world. I am lucky that the area in which I am interested and working within is fast growing, and by the time I finish my PhD there may be new and exciting roles to apply for. Especially in first and second year, do anything and everything, and get as much experience and as many skills as possible!