Deciding to do a PhD

Kathryn GilchristIHURER PhD student Kathryn Gilchrist is currently writing up her PhD, which focuses on how access to greenspace and nature in the work place affects people’s health and wellbeing. Her research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).  In this post, she describes what it is like to do a PhD at IHURER

I’ll be honest; before coming to Heriot-Watt I had never intended to do a PhD.  It wasn’t a long-standing ambition of mine at all.   Yet now I find myself nearing the end of my time as a PhD student in IHURER and couldn’t be happier about the path I stumbled onto.  I first came to the School of the Built Environment (SBE) here at Heriot-Watt Uni as a postgraduate on the MSc Urban Planning course.  My background was in environmental science, but I didn’t want to be a scientist – what really interested me was how people and their environments interact.  The more I learned about planning and urban research, the more hooked I got.  I wanted to keep learning more, and I wanted to do that in SBE.  I liked the fact that research here isn’t about navel-gazing; it’s about real peoples’ lives and building an evidence-base to influence the decisions made in policy and practice that affect us all.  By the end of the MSc year I had, with the encouragement and advice from IHURER staff, successfully secured a place and funding to study for a PhD in the department.

This isn’t to say it was an easy decision to make.  To dedicate yourself for three or more years to a single research project that you, and only you, will design, implement, analyse and report can be a scary prospect! Deciding to do a PhD is a huge commitment, and certainly not something to take lightly.  The important thing is that doing a PhD isn’t just about the end result – producing a piece of original research  – it’s also process of training and learning the tools of the trade, developing lots of skills like critical thinking, communication, organisation and self-motivation.  It’s an apprenticeship in research.  An inevitable part of that is having to learn by trial and error, false starts and ‘back to the drawing board’ moments.   The great thing is that you’re surrounded by like-minded people who are coming up against similar obstacles, or have done in the past, and can offer advice or support.  We have a great research community here at IHURER, and because of the level of support both from academic staff and from fellow students, although your project is ‘your baby’ you’re never out there on your own.

Having said that, I don’t know if I would have gotten through the more challenging times if I didn’t have a strong interest in my topic. I study how access to greenspace and nature affects peoples’ health and particularly their mental wellbeing, and although it’s a complex subject it’s absolutely fascinating.  I really wouldn’t recommend doing a PhD on anything you don’t have a genuine interest and curiosity for; that way madness lies!  But if you do have that, it can be a really rewarding process.  I (and others I know) found it all too easy to panic a bit in the earlier stages when you don’t yet have a defined research design, there are so many decisions to be made (all of which feel like they might determine your success or failure, though they most probably won’t), and you aren’t 100% sure you’re capable of pulling off what you do have planned.  However, when things do eventually come together and you manage to successfully gather your data and (hopefully) produce some interesting findings, the feeling of achievement more than makes up for the tough periods!

Heriot-Watt Campus
Heriot-Watt campus certainly has plenty of access to nature and greenspace!

Of course there’s more to PhD life in IHURER than just the studying part.  Given the focus of my research especially, it’s really important to me to be able to take a break and within a couple of minutes wander from the building I can find myself in beautiful woodlands, feeding the swans and ducks at the loch (lake for those of you not familiar with the Scots!), or relaxing in the landscaped gardens of the old family estate that Heriot-Watt occupies.  Another major benefit is the research student community here.  It’s a really friendly department to be part of, and because we have such an international student community studying here has meant I’ve made friends from all over the world (and had some interesting experiences with some of their native foods!).   Student satisfaction is high in the university overall as well – we are the no. 1 university in Scotland for student satisfaction (National Student Survey 2012) and for the last two years running have been the Sunday Times Scottish University of the Year (and top in the UK for student experience). Then there’s the added bonus of living in the beautiful historic city of Edinburgh – it’s not consistently voted one of the UK’s most liveable cities for nothing!

If you think a PhD at IHURER might be for you too, why not check out the PhD scholarships available at the moment?    

IHURER is currently advertising two ESRC Project Studentships linked to the ESRC large grant Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change: Understanding the Role and Impact of Welfare Conditionality (Application deadline: 30th of March)

  • The use of enforcement and other interventionist measures to combat rough sleeping
  • The use of fixed-term tenancies to influence social tenants’ behaviour

In addition, IHURER is advertising full and part funded PhD scholarships on the three topics below: (Application deadline: 30th of March)

  • Poverty and Social Exclusion
  • Inequalities in Access, Use and Participation within the Built Environment
  • International Housing Policy