Voices from ... PhD students

Wednesday, 2nd December 2015
Written by: Jessica Trick


This week’s “Voices from…” event, provided the opportunity for students to learn more about postgraduate study, applications and considerations. The four speakers were Trinity PhD students: Emma Norton (School of Physics), Jessica Foley (Arts within the School of Engineering), James Sheridan (School of History and Humanities) and Kyle Hughes (School of English).


The speakers gave details of their own experiences and advice to those interested in applying, including a few things they wish they had known before embarking on their studies. Don’t be put off by some of the more negative sounding stories, the speakers just wanted to make sure that people were prepared for and aware of, the realities of postgraduate study. All of the speakers spoke about how their PhD was a great and worthwhile experience.


Not just another degree

Emma stressed that she wished she had been told that a PhD wasn’t just another degree before she had begun. It’s a gateway into academia and allows non- academic career progression also. It’s very different from an undergraduate or master’s degree and, therefore, you should take time to consider if it’s the right step for you.



It can be intimidating to speak to a professor about PhD study, but you need to make sure that the person you end up communicating with regularly for four years is someone you like, respect and can communicate with well.

Sometimes supervisors will have funding for certain research projects, for PhD students. However, the speakers suggested that although some students end up picking a supervisor based on a research topic and the funding available, even if they know they don’t get on with the supervisor that well – it might be wiser to find another supervisor at another institution or wait another year for a supervisor who you get along with better for a more positive experience, if at all possible. Emma told us about how it is easier to pick a topic than it is to pick the environment and people you get on with – make sure you like the environment as it will be central to your four years.

When you are doing a PhD you will have a different relationship with your supervisor, don’t forget, you will be an asset to them! The speakers suggested that it is good to try and develop a friendship with them as you will ideally meet with them regularly. It is also important to bear in mind that you will be in charge of scheduling appointments with your supervisor.


Research Topics

It is a good idea to establish a relationship with someone you would like to be your supervisor early on as, depending on the subject area, they may be able to recommend some areas of research based on the funding they have available.

You could base your PhD topic on your undergraduate dissertation, as James did, when he was asked by his professor if he would like to continue his work in the area.

Although you do have to submit a title and idea this could be open to change – so it isn’t necessarily completely rigid, particularly in the arts and humanities, as Kyle found through his research.



The freedom and independence of PhD research was cited as a mixed blessing by the speakers. Obviously you are free to set your own schedule however; this means it is down to you to keep a work life balance. The speakers said that for them a PhD was a 9-5 job, often with 10 or 12 hour days. It’s important to factor in the extra demands outside of your research. Holidays and time off have to be planned well in advance to ensure that you can still meet deadlines.

You are free to pick your own topic according to your interests (and funding available) and can choose the approaches and methods that you would like to use.

You should, however, be prepared for the responsibility that your will have as a PhD student – you will become an expert in your subject and you may feel a little lonely or worried when your supervisor counters your questions with the advice that you know more about the subject than they do, and therefore won’t be able to tell you if you are right or wrong. There will also be only a few times when someone will check that you are doing your work; at the end of the first year or so you submit a chapter of your thesis to check that you are on the right path.


What does a PhD student actually do?

Although you may think that four years is a long time to spend researching and writing on one topic, the reality of a PhD includes far more diverse commitments. From writing articles, to attending conferences, and from travel for research to teaching, the day to day life of PhD student is actually far more multifaceted than you might expect.

A PhD certainly allows you to develop your communication skills as you need to be able to effectively show your findings to others – otherwise what’s the point! Emma said that she spends about 40% of her time communicating with others about the research she’s doing and about 60% actually researching. The speakers found teaching to be a great way to improve their communication and management skills, with the bonus of being paid! However, within a tight schedule this does need to be fitted in carefully.

Another skill that you will develop as a PhD student is organisation, whether planning your schedule, research trips, preparing for teaching or keeping careful and organised records of your research, you won’t be able to get by without being organised.

Research trips can be fun and enjoyable but it is important to consider whether there will be extra work required and factor in time for that. For example, James went to Oxford to use their library sources, however to do this he had to learn old English which was time consuming.

After submitting the thesis, PhD students have to defend their work in a viva – a presentation to a board of academics who will ask questions about the research. The viva is used to see how well you know your subject and whether you would be able to teach it.



James said he found finance to be a constant issue throughout the four years so it is important to research funding carefully and thoroughly, applying for as many scholarships and studentships as possible, to ensure you get the best possible support. Supervisors may be able to tell you about other funds which you may not be able to find.

The speakers recommended that when applying to the Irish Research Council for funding you give yourself enough time. The application takes some time, and the deadline for Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship Scheme 2016 was November. (note Employment Based Programme and Enterprise Partnership Scheme will open early 2016) , so make sure that you give yourself enough time and don’t have to rush. It is also a good idea to ask your supervisor to look over your application before you submit it – this also gives you an opportunity to see how your potential supervisor may be to work with.


Is it for me? Ask yourself these questions…

Are you good at organising, and sticking to your own schedule?

Do you love your subject?

Does the topic fascinate you?

Are you prepared to do study this for four years?


General Advice:

  • Jessica’s advice was to take part in extracurricular activities whilst working as a PhD student
  • Write everyday even if only to record your thoughts on how things are going as it is important to develop your own voice as it can be hard to keep a coherent writing style of the course of several years, especially when periods of time will be spent researching without much writing
  • If you have a 2:1 rather than a first, try and supplement this with extra work alongside academics or write about any awards you might have won when applying
  • Try and link your research proposal to an outside party. For example if it is science based contact a relevant company that you could work with, or for arts maybe something based in the community – emphasise the outreach in your application, demonstrating that your research will have wider implications than just in the field of academia
  • Talk to the Careers Service to get advice on career paths after postgraduate research
  • It is worth doing some courses, improving your IT skills and getting some work experience to ensure that you have the best CV that you can without, potentially, much working history
  • If you are from outside of the EU and want to study in Ireland, for example, you should be aware that there may be some issues over the length of stay enabled by your student visa – easily worked out but something Kyle (from the US) wishes he had been aware of before the start of his study
  • Don’t be afraid to tell your supervisor what you need from them and when – it can be easy to drift away from others and for staff to get caught up in their own work, but ask for help, you are ultimately the responsibility of your supervisor
  • The skills you will develop will be useful no matter what you go on to do after
  • If you love your subject then it will be worth it!



Further information:


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