Why the PhD?

I think a lot of people will think I am crazy to want to spend another 3, potentially 4 years at University, not being paid much and working long hours… I’ve never thought of myself as particularly smart, but I work hard and have become extremely dedicated and passionate about my subject, mainly researching and protecting all things ocean. 

When I hit 16 and suddenly had to decide what I wanted to do with my life ie/ what A-levels to study and therefore what I could apply for at University I really wasn’t certain. I always loved biology but at that time I didn’t feel like I was good enough to pursue a career in it.  I grew up by the beautiful coastline of Devon, spending as much time as possible at the beach or in the water. The sea is everything to me, it’s home and I’ve always wanted to learn more about it.

Budleigh Salterton beach, Devon – home

I also knew that actually becoming a “marine biologist” was extremely difficult to do in a very competitive field. But I thought I have to go for it and if it didn’t work out then at least I tried. I took Biology, Physics, English Lit and Art – a big mix. I think a lot of people expected me to pursue Art in some way as I was good at it and my mum was a graphic designer but I ended up getting all 5 offers to study BSc Marine Biology.

I chose to go to Swansea and absolutely loved my time there. It was where I began looking into the plastics issue with my dissertation focussing on how phytoplankon photosynthesis alters in the presence of plastic derivatives. I ended up graduating with a first and had gained the confidence to think a can pursue a career in marine biology.

My classmates and me in Puerto Rico for a research module during my BSc

Now I had to decide what to do next… I took a year out to make sure I got the decision right. I was tempted to go to Holland to do a Masters and finally learn more about my Dutch side (plus tuition is so cheap) but I ended up finding MSc Marine Systems and Polices at Edinburgh University. I thought it would be good to learn the political side of what governs the oceans as this determines so many things including fisheries, conservation efforts and pollution mitigation.

My time at Edinburgh was very different, much more intense and challenging in different ways. I decided to take 2 law modules which I found very difficult having no law background at all but was so glad I stuck it out as I learnt so much from them.

My course was also full of people from all over the world, a lot of them a bit older than me too. I really appreciated this though and feel like I learnt a lot from their experiences and that grades are not the most important thing.

We also got to go on an incredible trip to the Maldives where we dived with manta rays – a definite plus!

Diving with manta rays in the Maldives


Around Easter this year I was writing my final essay of the degree (before my thesis) and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I was looking into several jobs around the world but many of them wanted an expert and therefore for you to have a PhD. I started looking casually, saying to myself that I would only apply for one if it was something I was absolutely passionate about.

Then I saw one advertised: “The ecological fate of microplastics in Antarctica, a source to sink approach” at the University of Hull, with at least 1 field trip to Antarctica. I thought it would be incredible and was immediately drawn to it. It tied in with my plastics focus, although I had no experience with anything in the Southern Ocean. I quickly wrote the 3000 word research proposal and personal statement while trying to do my law essay and sent it off.  I got a call a few days later confirming the interview! I was so happy, and then the nerves kicked in…

I was interviewed by a panel of 3, was very nervous but they were friendly and chatty I was able to talk a lot about my experiences and passions. I gave it my all and felt like there was nothing more I could have done. They said they would let me know that day or the next.

Every time my phone went off my heart raced but I heard nothing that day or the next… until I received an email at 10pm. “Unfortunately you have not been selected for this PhD position…” My heart sank. “but you interviewed really well and we are looking to see if we have another project to offer you”!

After a lot of talking with my potential supervisors and checking they had money etc. they offered me a position looking into the fate of microplastics in South-East Asia, which seemed more appropriate to me given my tropical background. This would include trips to Vietnam every year to carry out field work on the Mekong delta and potentially the surround coastal area. 

I didn’t know what to do because I was so surprised I had been offered it! I was also so set on the idea of Antarctica and thought that the Mekong would lose me my “marine biologist” side.  I also wondered if another microplastics PhD might turn up. After a lot of thinking I decided that it was not an opportunity I could turn down. I had to remind myself that they must see potential in me if they were to offer me a completely new position. Also it would only be 3/4 years – it isn’t going to completely define my career.

A fragment of one of my corals, ready for experimentation

The PhD had been confirmed a few weeks into starting my lab work for my MSc thesis. Carrying on the plastics theme, simply put, it focused on how microplastics effect coral function and health and whether they make corals more susceptible to bleaching. (I’ll write more about this at a later date).

Now I have been at the University of Hull for about a month, and even though it has been a bit hectic, I am really enjoying it. I need to remind myself how far I have come. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity and I can’t wait to become an expert in something I am passionate about!


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