…by Bérengère / from France / PhD Psychiatry / 5th Year
DISCLAIMER: I know I am very privileged here. I’ve been unbelievably lucky to even get this choice and I know most people looking into a PhD can’t afford to make the choice I did.
The point of this post is the following: when I was weighing my options, I was desperate for advice to help me make the right decision. I didn’t know anyone who had been in the same situation, and I found no article or blog post on the matter. So in case someone out there ends up facing the same situation, here is my testimony.
Throughout my time at Uni (in France it lasts 5 years, 3 of Undergrad and 2 of Masters) I have refused the idea of academia. I had friends who knew from the start they wanted to be academics, but that wasn’t me. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but the idea of doing research would make me feel sick. I enjoyed learning about stuff (well, some stuff), but being an academic was just not for me.
During that 2nd year of Master, we had to do a 5-months research internship, and as at that point I was loathing almost everything about my Uni, I saw it as my chance to escape. Maybe I would fail my internship, but at least I’d have a nice time abroad. While all the other students of the Masters did their placement in our city, my friend and I decided to apply for a position *anywhere* abroad. That’s how, I ended up at the University of Cambridge (OMG) and my friend flew to UC Santa Barbara (she stayed there). In the end, I had such a brilliant time that I changed my mind, and decided that if I could find the right place for me to do a PhD I would give it a go.
I took a gap year, not to travel but to work (#money), and think really carefully about that whole PhD thing. I had some ideas of topics that I’d like to study, and I started the application process. I ended up with a choice between 2 positions:
– Edinburgh, with supervisors that I felt would provide me with the support I needed, on a topic that had been an epiphany in my life and that is studied almost nowhere. Without a scholarship.
– Another university (in a not exciting-looking town), with supervisors probably good as well but with whom I did not quite connect, on a topic that was interesting but that did not hook me. With a scholarship.
Well you know I chose Edinburgh (and an empty bank account), and you’re probably wondering “WHY???”. Here is why.
Doing a PhD is hard (that’s it, end of the explanation). No, seriously, it is, it very much is. And it lasts for quite a while.
My cousin,who was at the time half-way though her PhD, told me “Ok, the topic has to be interesting, but in the end, what gets you through your PhD, is your supervision team”. I didn’t know any PIs of any of my potential supervision teams, but on one side I had people who very early on asked me to meet via Skype, replied quickly to my email in spite of their busy schedule, and provided tonnes of constructive comments. On the other side, the opposite. (I’m sure they are very good PI’s as well, but I just had this feeling that they would not provide me with what I needed.) Somehow, I could feel that in Edinburgh my supervisors just corresponded more to my needs. Of course, you can never be sure if you don’t know your supervisors or someone who knows them, but I’d say that a couple of months exchanging calls and emails gives you an idea.
But there was the money issue. There was what I wanted to do, go to Edinburgh, and what I could afford to do, go to the other Uni. I had to start the registration process for the other Uni before knowing if Edinburgh would allow me to come without a scholarship, and so I filled every document on the last day of the deadlines, I stretched each registration step as much as possible. In June, after months of doubts and debates with myself, I learned that Edinburgh would let me come without a scholarship, and the team could pay for my research, but not the registration fees, or more generally my life. This was already wonderful, and I am still so grateful! A few days later my parents decided to help me go there, and to keep on funding my life and registration fees for another 3 or 4 years. They preferred me to go to a place where I would be happy, even if it meant putting some of their projects on the side. For this, I will never be able to thank them enough.
I know not many prospective PhD students can afford to make that choice. But if some of you out there are in this situation, here is my advice: Know yourself, what you want, what you need. Know what concessions and sacrifices you are able and ready to make. And whatever you chose, be ready to face the consequences.
For me, the consequences are that about once a week (or more depending on how my research is going), I have a second of dread, thinking that if I fail, my parents will have spent thousands of Pounds on me for nothing. And because they can only afford to pay for the bare minimum of my needs here, I took tutoring jobs, too many hours probably (definitely), which does not at all help my research (we are talking about 3/4 months behind on my schedule. If we are being optimistic). But that’s the deal I made with myself.
I chose to go for the gut-feeling over the funding. 18 months in, if I had to make this choice again, I would not change a thing. Coming here might be the best decision I ever made.
This blog post was originally published 05/02/18 here.