Day in the Life of a PhD Student – Joanne Parsons

A PhD has always been something that I aspired to do, but I always considered it to be something beyond my reach. After Undergraduate study I found a full time job, and thought that a PhD was unlikely to ever happen. A few years later however, the pull of academic study attracted me again and I enrolled on the Health Psychology MSc course at Coventry University. Whilst studying towards the MSc I got involved with some voluntary research work with some academics at the University, which led me to an interest in the PhD topic area, and ultimately to securing the studentship for the PhD at Coventry University. The timing of this opportunity was not ideal, having been back to work in my previous employment for three weeks following a return from maternity leave, but it was an opportunity that was never going to happen again, so I had to apply for it.

My PhD focuses on increasing flu vaccination uptake amongst pregnant women, specifically examining whether changing risk appraisals could be a suitable method for achieving this. Following a systematic review, meta-analysis and a qualitative study, I designed an animation to portray the risks of flu and the flu vaccination and demystify some of the unhelpful beliefs held by pregnant women. Public Health Warwickshire have agreed to include the animation in this year’s seasonal flu campaign across Coventry and Warwickshire, which is really exciting, and will mean my work has real impact.

What I enjoy most about being a PhD student, is the flexibility it offers me. With a young daughter, the freedom to work from home as and when I need to is extremely helpful. I also appreciate the opportunity that the PhD offers to really drive my own research. Despite it being extremely hard and somewhat frustrating at times, I love the fact that I never know what I will end up doing each day.

During my PhD I have been lucky enough to be part of the Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA). As part of the first cohort in the Bio Sciences for Health arm, the DTA brings together a small number of PhD students from each participating university across the UK, to offer extra doctoral level training. This has significantly added to the experience that I have gained throughout the PhD, and provided an opportunity to network with other PhD students studying similar topics.

I am currently in my final year, due to submit my thesis very soon. Days at the moment are largely filled with writing and rewriting various chapters, but one thing that has been constant throughout the whole PhD, is the variety of tasks. A typical day as a PhD student has ranged from interviewing pregnant women about their beliefs of flu and the flu vaccination, extracting statistics from studies and liaising with a design company about all aspects of designing and creating an animation, from choosing actors to play the voices of characters, to choosing colours and wording. No two days are ever the same!

I am hoping to pursue a career in academic research after I have completed my PhD. I certainly feel that the last three years have prepared me for what I might expect.

My top tips for completing a PhD (what I wish someone had told me!):

  • Build up a network of fellow PhD students. It can be really daunting, and a bit lonely working on your own, especially if, like me, you work mainly from home. On the first day a few of us starting in the same research centre set up a WhatsApp group and we use this pretty much daily to share tips, ask questions and just generally support each other. I cannot emphasise enough how much of a support this has been.
  • Take ownership of your research early on. The expectation is made clear that throughout the PhD you will become a collaborator with your supervisory team, but I would recommend taking control of some elements as soon as you start. It really helps to book supervisory meetings yourself rather than wait for your supervisors to suggest it- and always have a clear goal of what you want or need to achieve for that meeting. The meetings are there to help you progress, so make sure you get what you need from them. Also, I found it very helpful when sending writing or data to supervisors for feedback to be clear when you needed a response by- obviously remember that supervisors are very busy, so make sure these are realistic timescales.
  • Write from day one. I cannot stress this enough! I decided early on that the only way I was going to be able to submit on time, was to write as I went along. So each study I conducted, I wrote up as I did it- often this was only in note form, but it meant that when I was writing up, I had a good structure to start with, and I was not starting from scratch. Also, allow more time than you think for writing. Factor in the time it takes to get feedback on a draft, and make the changes and repeat the cycle. It always take longer than you plan.
  • Make lots of (organised) notes. Make a note of what you read and where you read it- the number of hours I have spent looking for something that I knew I had read, but can’t find it again! If I had my time again I would be more organised with my note taking.
  • Work/ life balance. This one is easier said than done. It is so easy to become completely encompassed by the PhD that life outside seems a distant memory. It is so important to make sure you ‘turn off’ from your work and have life outside of the PhD. It stops you burning out, but also keeps the passion and the enthusiasm alive. It is completely consuming, but try to maintain the work/life balance that you would have with any other job.