An Honest Conversation with Women Doing PhD’s

Girls in STEM Mentor jan Choudhury

by | 7 Dec, 2023 | STEM Untapped

STEM Untapped’s Program Manager, Izzy, and Social Media Manager, Meg, were having a conversation with two of our Ambassadors Gargi Vijayaraghavan and Megan Barnes-Wood about PhD’s.

Gargi and Meg are both at different stages of their PhD’s and it was an honest conversation about the barriers, stress, struggles and realities of juggling a work-life balance. We followed up with them and asked them some questions to gain their insight in the hope that it might be reassuring for anyone looking for resources on applying for / already studying for a PhD.

Here’s the conversation…

Gargi what made you want to do a PhD in STEM? 

I grew up near a forested area in India and started observing birds, amphibians and reptiles since an early age. I have always been curious to observe and learn about the various biotic and abiotic interactions that take place in nature. Being a junior member of a local nature club gave me an early exposure to ecology and wildlife sciences. I completed my bachelor’s in zoology from university of Mumbai, where I came across diverse range of topic and had the opportunity to engage and volunteer for projects. After completing my bachelors in 2013, I continued my studies with Master’s in Environmental Sciences from University of Mumbai.

During and after my Masters, volunteering with various organisations helped me fetch a job at the Bombay Natural History Society, Asia’s oldest natural history organisation, as a junior research fellow. In 2017, I joined the Wildlife Research and conservation Society (WRCS), a non-governmental organisation carrying out conservation activities in the central Indian forests and the Western Ghats. During my fieldwork, I operated at the Melghat Tiger Reserve. My work focused on studying the ecological correlates of the endangered and endemic Forest Owlet Athene blewitti.

In 2019, I got admitted to Manchester Metropolitan University, where I received the Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship Award to pursue my second Masters in Zoo Conservation Biology. In 2020, I was offered a placement at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), Slimbridge, as a part of the placement unit. Having worked in the field of ecology for about six years now, I want to focus on studying a particular subject in STEM helping me to dive deeper and strengthen my knowledge. I think these experiences (Both academic and work) fueled my passion to pursue a PhD. And I’m currently in the process of applying to various PhD programs across the UK.

    Are there PhD opportunities in India in your subject area?  Are you only applying for PhD’s in the UK? If so, why have you chosen to apply for PhD’s in the UK?

    Yes. There are PhD opportunities in India however, I find the education system, teaching methods and student life much better in the UK. I’m applying across UK and have also shortlisted two programs from Australia. I have been looking at fully funded positions as self-funding is not an option for me. I completed my second Masters from Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and the two years I lived and studied in the UK opened a whole new world of opportunities for me to learn and grow.

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t get that in my own country. Although India has so many good academics, researchers and study programs, the work ethics, education system and attitude of professors make it difficult to commit to something as important as a PhD. Also, to get into a good PhD program one needs to clear competitive exams which I personally do not approve off. A person with much good research skills and qualities might get rejected just because they couldn’t clear a competitive exam which comprises of questions not even related to the subject of interest. I feel just exams and grades don’t do justice to someone’s capacity to be a good researcher. The UK has good student support and resources which I thoroughly enjoyed during my Masters. Pursuing a PhD in the UK will surely expose me to multiple opportunities to collaborate with other like-minded researchers and help me grow. 

      How have you found the PhD application process and what would your advice be for people looking to apply for a PhD?

      The application process can be daunting at times as it requires a lot of mental strength to motivate oneself. There is plenty of writing to be done and every time explaining why you want to do a PhD to someone can be tiring. Every university, lab or program has different eligibly and needs while applying so it is always good to do background research and be well versed with the procedure. Most of the programs provide an application form format for the applicant to familiarise themselves with the questions they can expect while filling the original form. This I think is great as one can prepare their answers beforehand. I have shortlisted around 16 programs and maintain an excel sheet with the details and application status which helps me track the progress. This also helps me prioritise on sending applications as the deadlines are different.

      One piece of advice I would give to anyone looking to study a PhD is firstly read the entire project description

      Sometimes the titles can be confusing and off putting. In case the titles and project summary are both confusing then writing to the potential supervisor helps as they do provide feedbacks and support with the applications. A PhD is a long-term commitment and one must only apply if they feel the work is something they would be ready to choose everyday for the next four years. 

      Meg what made you want to do a PhD in STEM? 

      At school, I was really creative but naturally better at STEM subjects compared to humanities etc.  I found writing difficult so expressed my creativity through textiles and design.  During university, I would always fall short in exams and my grades suffered because of it so a PhD was never on my internal career prospects because I just didn’t feel good enough (typical I’m only as good as my grades are mentality!). My Masters year was predominantly research focused and I realised, I was actually quite good at it.  I think my love for creativity in textiles gave me an ability to think outside of the box, persevere when things didn’t go exactly how I’d planned and let me see the bigger picture outside of the ‘final answer’ usually associated with STEM subjects. 

      Doing a PhD felt like the natural progression to be able to utilise all of those skills in a subject area I have a genuine interest in. I don’t like saying that I’m doing a PhD because there is nothing else I want to do because it doesn’t paint a particularly positive image of why I chose to do one.

      But doing a PhD gives me every bit of flexibility, creativity and job satisfaction that I just don’t think a ‘standard’ job in STEM could give me!

      Meg, as you are further into your PhD, do you have any advice you would pass onto Gargi who is at the beginning of her PhD journey?

        Having people in your support network that you can turn to when you inevitably feel burned out and overwhelmed is the biggest piece of advice I could give to Gargi!  A PhD is a ROLLERCOASTER and you need people who are going to be there for you to celebrate the wins but also to pick you up off the floor when you need it.  Something I value every single day is forming a positive and open/honest relationship with my supervisor.  I know I can tell him when I’m feeling low, or I need reassurance when Imposter Syndrome creeps in.

        Another piece of advice that I tend to tell everyone wanting to do a PhD is to choose a subject that you are genuinely interested in. 

        When times get tough, and unfortunately they will, you need to be able to find motivation to keep going with your PhD and I believe that comes from having a true passion for what you’re researching!  

        Alongside your PhD / PhD application process, how many things are you juggling and how do you manage your time?

        Meg: Firstly, and perhaps too honestly… I don’t manage my time very well at all.  I go from people pleasing social butterfly to not seeing or speaking to anyone for days because I’m so burned out.  I’m probably speaking on behalf of most PhD students when I say that my PhD is filtered through every aspect of my life.  It’s not just a job, but more of a lifestyle.  However you have to balance that lifestyle on top of normal life; having a social life, earning extra money, having your own time to recharge your batteries as well as trying to tackle the underrepresentation of women in STEM!! All while eating three meals a day and getting 8 hours of sleep… sometimes something, or a lot of things have to give. 

        I’m really bad at letting my own healthy habits (eating, sleeping and recharging) be the first to go when I’m not able to manage my time effectively.  However, my friends and family are really understanding, particularly those who don’t live nearby, when I’m busy and don’t see them as often as I’d like.  Realistically, I know managing my time better should include scheduling and time blocking and all of those tips and tricks you see on social media but honestly, it’s so much harder to do those things than people make out, particularly when you’re juggling a PhD too. 

        Gargi: I’m currently in the 8th month of my pregnancy and it is a task motivating myself to wake up and apply to a new PhD program everyday as it requires a lot of patience to submit the applications, wait for responses and sometimes face rejections. I live in a joint family which also means shared responsibilities and taking care of everyone in the family. This involves cooking for five people, cleaning and taking part in family traditions which can be tiring at times.

        There are days when I don’t have the mental or physical capacity to do anything and this can easily lead to a guilt trip.

        However, giving yourself time and taking one day at a time is the only solution to keep moving ahead.

        When it comes to managing my time, I prefer using a bullet journal or productivity apps. This helps me stay focused and at least complete 3/4th of my to-do list. Also, compartmentalising personal and professional works for me as it can be easy to get distracted. I’m on a maternity break and do freelancing which can again be a bit demotivating when there is no work or income. I have always had a job and have been financially independent but currently nothing is fixed and this uncertainty can be daunting. I have had anxiety attacks in the past but then I decided to pause, take a break and bounce back again rather than just giving up everything.

        Like they say, strong women may cry, we may feel sad and need a day off but we never give up!

        During both of your experience so far, have you had the opportunity to connect with other women doing STEM PhD’s to gain their insight and support?

        Gargi: Yes. I have had the opportunity to connect to other women in STEM who are pursuing their PhDs, one of whom was Meg Barnes-Wood, we spoke over a video call discussing the PhD life and what to do as a beginner. I felt so good talking to her and it gave me a sense of relief. She explained about her work and how she got into a PhD program to start with. I also spoke to a few other women in STEM doing research and they shared about their work and experiences. It feels good to be part of a community where I feel safe, heard and understood. Even though I have to write my applications all by myself, but speaking to a role model helped me by providing a support which is much needed while starting a new chapter in academics. 

        Meg: My PhD area (sports engineering/medical engineering) naturally means that female representation is better than most areas of STEM, which is great! Conferences I’ve been to because of my PhD have allowed me to connect with a good number of other women doing STEM PhDs.  However, this connection usually occurs because I have an outgoing personality and am happy to actively participate in networking.

        An important change moving forward, in my opinion, is having more than one ‘token woman’ on panel discussions or keynote speeches. 

        Networking events are a great way of talking to other women doing STEM PhDs but giving women a bigger platform to share their trials and tribulations is a much more effective way of supporting other women, particularly those who are in the early stages of their careers/PhDs and/or don’t have the confidence to strike up new connections.  At the end of the day, we are all thinking the same thing when we see only one or two women on a STEM event line up – the organisers feel as though they’ve ticked the inclusivity box.  But this isn’t good enough and while I know I’ve been lucky with the amount of women I’ve met doing STEM PhDs, we need more representation for insight and support to be shared among the STEM community. I’m also lucky that the majority of PhD students within my lab are female.  And also that my supervisor actively encourages us to share out insights and support each other! 

        A note from Gargi…

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