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My PhD Journey so Far: The First 6 Months


Hi, my name is Kate Dewally, and I am one of the SCI-ENVY Blog Editors. I am doing my PhD at UEA in Environmental Science which is in UK nature markets. Before starting my PhD, I did an integrated master’s degree at Harper Adams University and then did a year research assistant post at the University of Cambridge. I didn’t always want to do a PhD but when I saw my topic advertised, I knew that this PhD was the one for me because it involved working at the intersection between farming and the environment.


Recently I had my probationary review so I thought it would be a good time write a short article about my experiences so far including my key challenges and enjoyable moments of the PhD and my experience of the probationary review.


 

Starting the PhD:


I started my PhD excited about the opportunity to explore my own research and to learn new skills. On my first day, it was all very easy. I organised to meet my supervisor for a coffee and set up my desk. Once I had the supervisor meeting, my initial concerns about starting at a new place went away and I could get started with the research.


 

My day to day during the first 6 months:


One surprise I encountered when starting the PhD was that the work was a lot more varied than I expected! Yes, it does involve reading a lot of papers, but my work has also allowed me to visit farmers to conduct interviews, develop project management skills, and do some teaching assistant work at UEA.


One of the most appealing things about my day to day is that I also get the opportunity to have flexibility around my work and manage my own deadlines. This often depends on your supervisory panel, but mine have given me space to develop time management skills and set my own deadlines, which suits my working style very well. This has given me the freedom to decide upon my supervisory meeting schedule. At the moment, I am meeting with a supervisor once every 2 weeks which gives me enough time to make progress but ensures that I do not go too far in the wrong direction before making a mistake. Again, meeting frequency depends on your supervisory panel, but mine have given me the opportunity to manage this myself.


I also make sure that I stick to a ‘normal working day’ where possible to ensure that I have time for my hobbies and seeing friends. This is definitely very important to me to ensure that I have a work life balance and so that I can work consistently and produce high quality work!


 

Challenges:


Although generally the PhD is going well, that isn’t to say that it is without its challenges. One key challenge I have come across is managing my focus for a long period of time. To solve this, I ensure that after about 50 minutes of work, I take a small 10-minute break to get outside, do some chores or engage in a creative hobby. It can be very easy to not take this time to “maximise productivity”, but trust me, rest breaks will increase the quality of your work!


The second key challenge I have encountered is changing from quantitative to qualitative research as I am conducting interviews. This has forced me to think through the lens of a social scientist and use some of my softer skills (e.g., communication) that I did not get to use in previous scientific research. Although this change in discipline can sometimes leave me doubtful about the quality of my work, I really enjoy it and it will enhance my employability in the future as I want to work in a people facing role.


 

Enjoyments:


My key enjoyable moments so far have been attending conferences. As my PhD is very applied, I have been attending stakeholder led conferences such as the Oxford Real Farming Conference (Oxford Real Farming Conference 🌾 9 - 10 Jan 2025 (orfc.org.uk)), and will be attending the regenerative farming festival, Groundswell, next month (Groundswell - Regenerative Agriculture Festival Groundswell (groundswellag.com)). Attendance to these conferences has not only allowed me to meet lots of key people in my field, but they are exciting events which allow me to get out of the office and they are events that I would not have gone to without my PhD funding!


I have also just generally enjoyed being a PhD student because I have had the time to think about research that excites me, I’ve enjoyed the flexibility of managing my own workload, and it has helped me develop more confidence in myself .


 

Probationary Review: The end of the 6 months…


After all that work for 6 months, it became time for the probationary review. For many, including myself, this can be a daunting experience. For the review I had to write a ~10,000-word report and present a 20-minute presentation to my supervisory panel and an internal assessor. Although at the time the review seemed like the be all and end all, it was actually absolutely fine! During the meeting, I had the opportunity to show what I achieved over the first 6 months of my PhD and also managed to get external feedback from the internal assessor. The best thing about getting the review done is that I can now crack on with the rest of the project in the confidence that I am doing the right thing and that my supervisory panel are happy with my work. For tips on the probationary review, see our recent blog post here: Four Things to Know Before Your Probationary Review | Hayley McIlwraith (scienvy.co.uk).


 

Final Reflections:


The first 6 months of a PhD can look very different for everyone. For me, the start of the PhD has given me the opportunity to explore a topic that I am deeply interested in and manage my own work. I have also grown in confidence and have had the opportunity to attend some interesting events. I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the project will entail!

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