Making an impact with a PhD in planning

Judith MontfordJudith Montford is doing PhD research at IHURER into the relationship between different residential layout/patterns and mental wellbeing. Here she describes how she became interested in the way our natural and built environment influences our lives.

A question anyone who wishes to a PhD should ask themselves is ‘why they want to do it’. A PhD is not to be undertaken lightly, because it is about influencing and affecting lives for their betterment. You should have a natural desire to want to work towards these goals, otherwise you will make no impact and it might be an unwise use of three years – and sometimes a bit more – of your life.

I did a MSc at Cardiff University  (Planning Practice and Research) and I enjoyed it very much because I got a good understanding of what spatial planning is all about – planning places for people to live successfully (I cannot write here what successful is, but it covers a multitude of sins, literally sometimes). I later on worked in planning practice for a short time to get some hands on experience as well. I found that my quest to know more about the places we live, by ‘doing and learning’ was insatiable.  I have always been awestruck with the way and how our natural and built environment influences our life styles or how we interact with it. Programmes like ‘The BBC human planet’ series and ‘Amazon’ by Bruce Parry  makes it all too clear how mankind relates with their environment.  Whether planned or unplanned, there is still an effect.  I once read about how the layout of slums influenced the slum dwellers social life and it was interesting to learn that what was not intentionally planned ended up being very useful in building a community.  There was a real sense of community and this was by virtue of the way the slum environment was laid out – lines and patterns.

We ‘plan’ to make lives better in essence, so being curious I wanted to find out how useful what has been planned is to us, especially our wellbeing which can be generated by having good relationships with the people we live with. Well we know it is not that straight forward, but that is what I like about this, finding out what works and how. How our environment is affecting our wellbeing. This is now part of the agenda in spatial panning to work towards positive and public health. Actually it is going back to the roots and birth of planning practice.  Interestingly an opportunity came up for a PhD research on this subject matter here at Heriot-Watt University, School of Built Environment. I applied for it and I am here now working on this research about our wellbeing and our residential environments.

Physical planning affects mental health
Physical planning affects mental health

To do a PhD, there must be a genuine interest first of all in the particular subject the research will be on. This is very important to keep you going during the difficult time which is inevitable.  There is the danger however of having a ‘tunnel vision’ of your work when you are passionate about it; however that is the time you rely on the advice of the research community. Though the research is your ‘favourite cuddly toy’ ‘outsiders can see that a rip needs to be patched before it gets ‘worse’. An objective advice is always at hand.

Research is a process. It is evolutionary, but it also oscillates a great deal and you must be prepared for this. This oscillation is challenging at most times because at every stage there are things you go through, or things that happen to test you.  It is essential that these processes, changes and challenges happen, for it makes you creative. You think more, you connect with the environment and yes – you grow and discover aspects of your person you did not know existed.

Some say the PhD process is lonely,  but this has not particularly been the case for me. Though your project is your responsibility and you have to ensure it progresses. This is in no doubt a challenge and requires hard work, but you are not alone. Research projects are acquaintances, so you are part of a whole. Also, IHURER is a community and there is support if and when you need it.  Apart from my supervisors, I have found colleagues and seniors to be very helpful, which is comforting. Apart from the support and help I get directly related to my research project, I have made friends for life. The community is also diverse and what I have learnt and continue to learn from friends has been priceless – no book or guide could have taught me this.

The IHURER research community focuses on ’real life in continuation’. This applies to all the research work being undertaken here… it is about what is really happening out there and not just ‘fantasy projects’.


What I like about being here is the fact that your professional development (not only the academic) is also taken care off. We have PhD students going away to do internships with some prominent organisations (Scottish Government, NHS) and some have secured jobs because of this. I have been given the opportunity given to help with teaching some very interesting courses. I see this as the way to go, as the PhD is for a set time but the extra you gain alongside helps to make the whole experience worth it as well as gets you ready you for the future.

I cannot say all this without saying a bit about Edinburgh – it is a beautiful city with very interesting people –robust if I am allowed to say that…. Coming from tropical Africa, I must admit that the weather here has a hard time deciding what it wants to be. It is very changeable, but that should not deter you, it is part of the experience and with everything else, it makes it worth it.

Heriot-Watt University campus itself is great for studying whether living on or off it. The environment is quiet green and there are lots of places to go for respite when needed.  The School actually won a Green Flag award for the provision of its community parks and green spaces.

The student community on campus is diverse (students from different countries all over the world) so ‘home’ is always close .  I could go on….

I consider it a blessing that I am here as part of the IHURER research family, and I am looking forward to the future. Really….it is full of promises.

IHURER is currently advertising full and part funded PhD scholarships on a variety of subjects, including Poverty and Social Exclusion, Inequalities in Access, Use and Participation within the Built Environment, International Housing Policy and many more. In addition, two scholarships linked to the ESRC large grant Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change: Understanding the Role and Impact of Welfare Conditionality are now available.  Application deadline: 30th of March