A look back at my first year as a PhD student
Thomas Hewat is a second year PhD student in the College of Medicine and Health studying the role of DNA methylation in congenital disorders of insulin secretion. His research into identifying the unknown causes of hyperinsulinism is supervised by Emma Dempster and Dr Sarah Flanagan. Thomas’s work takes place in the Hyperinsulism Genes research laboratory.
I started my PhD at the University of Exeter last September; in fact, on the day this blog goes out, it will have been exactly one year since my first day. As you might expect, this year has had its challenges, but it’s also been an incredible experience, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain at least some of the reasons why below.
My research is in the genetics of a disease called congenital hyperinsulinism. People with this disorder have very low blood sugar levels, which can affect them in a lot of very negative ways. The first signs that someone has hyperinsulinism often appear soon after they were born. It’s a genetic disorder, caused by changes in someone’s DNA, but we can only identify the specific change causing the disease in about 50% of affected people. My PhD, and the work of the research group I’m part of, aims to identify unknown causes of hyperinsulinism in a large group of patients from all over the world.
Beginning my PhD
The first year of my PhD has definitely been challenging in places. One of the major reasons for that has been a personal challenge that I’m sure many people can identify with: impostor syndrome. As a new graduate coming straight into a PhD, the idea of interacting day to day with people who are world experts in their field can, perhaps unsurprisingly, be a little bit scary!
However, for me, this was something that passed relatively quickly once I started my PhD, because I realised how friendly and caring my supervisors were, along with the wider research group. In doing a research project as an undergraduate, I felt like a student, but when I started to interact with the group, I very quickly felt more like a colleague, and my ideas were welcomed and encouraged.
Tips for anyone considering a PhD
I would encourage anyone looking for a PhD project to meet the supervisor and the research group before accepting an offer if possible. I have fantastic mentors and colleagues within my research group who I am very grateful to work with, but you won’t know that until you meet them, so try and do that before you start.
I have also found support in spending time with other PhD students based at the Medical School, both in work and outside of it. I would highly recommend this to any new PhD student, as it gives you a group of peers who will be going through many of the same challenges as you, even if their brief is different to your own. This means that you can bounce ideas off them, rant when your experiments fail, and relax with them outside of research.
The challenges of lockdown
Another challenge I’ve come across, that while not unique to me is certainly new to PhD students in 2020, is that of researching during a global pandemic. Things hugely changed halfway through this year when suddenly we were all trying to work from home, or, in my case, in my parent’s home on the other side of the country. I feel very lucky in that while some of my plans for my PhD have been disrupted, I have been able to adapt those plans so that I can still carry them out while working remotely.
It’s also been important to remind myself that everybody in research is facing challenges during this pandemic. Right at the beginning of lockdown in the UK, a professor within my research group said that people are not working from home, they are stuck at home because of a global crisis, and doing their best to work in the circumstances. I’ve found those words really helpful, especially on days where I’ve found it really challenging to get any productive work done.
Despite all of the challenges that I’ve come across in this first year of my PhD, I have really enjoyed it. Genetics has always fascinated me, and being able to spend my time working in this field has been brilliant. In addition, I’ve made fantastic friends, gained great advice from mentors who do world-leading research, and had opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined myself having even a few years ago. I hope that I’ll be able to keep working in research for years to come, and I would recommend it to anybody who is interested.