I recently wrote a post for the research blog at Coventry University about what it is like to be a research student. It covers a typical day, what I like about being a research student, and little bits of advice for people considering postgraduate research:
I have always had the luxury of knowing which career path I wanted to go down, and it was relatively early in my undergraduate degree that I concentrated on a route into research. Throughout my second year I was asking various members of the teaching staff if I could help them with any their research. My persistence and enthusiasm worked, and I managed to work on two different projects. The first was a staff project investigating how the appearance of a beer glass could affect how drunk someone felt. The second project consisted of conducting a literature review into the behaviour of different types of smokers. It appears I did a good job with the latter as I was allowed to take the research on for myself as my third year project. The lecturer who let me work on the project has been my supervisor ever since! For anyone who has an early interest in research, I would advise pestering members of staff to see if there is anything you can help with. The worst they can say is no, but most of them are so busy they will happily pass some of the work on to you. If you do some good work, this can lead to further opportunities and it is all experience that you can put on your CV.
Fast forward a few years and I am still interested in why some types of smokers are different. The typical image of a smoker is someone who stands out in the cold and huddles around their lighter every few hours to top up their nicotine levels. However, an increasingly large number of smokers only have a few cigarettes per day and show very little nicotine dependence. This is where it gets interesting as despite the differences in nicotine dependence, both types of smoker find it equally difficult to stop smoking. I’m trying to find out what factors contribute to this difficulty beyond nicotine dependence. At the moment, this revolves around seeing whether some smokers are distracted by other people smoking, or spend longer periods of time looking at cigarette packaging. In future, this will include investigating whether some smokers are more impulsive than others, and whether some smokers find cigarettes more rewarding than others.
Being a postgraduate research student is more like being in an apprenticeship than a degree. It is all about learning on the job, gaining experience, and meeting new people. You can become much more involved within the university and meet plenty of people you would not normally come across. One of my favourite parts of being a research student is meeting other research students. In your undergraduate degree, not everyone is interested in continuing with their subject after they graduate. However, when you are a postgraduate student you often experience the same issues as each other, despite not researching the same topic. I work in a shared office with around six other students at various stages of their degree. It is useful to be able to share ideas and talk about anything you are struggling with as someone else has usually experienced it at one time or another. For example, if there is a particular measure you are unfamiliar with, someone else may have used it before. If someone is struggling with their data analysis, you might be particularly good with statistics. Although it can be difficult to concentrate at times, it is certainly worthwhile working alongside other research students.
Another aspect of postgraduate research that I enjoy is the ability to teach on undergraduate modules. In terms of gaining experience, it has been one of the best opportunities I have taken during my first year. The first few sessions are certainly nerve-racking, and it is not easy going from being sat at the back of the class room to standing at the front of it. However, if you are thinking about a job at the end of your postgraduate degree, most academic positions involve teaching responsibilities. Starting to get the experience early in your career will only help when it comes to the frantic job search at the end. This has largely come from one of the best pieces of advice I got when I was an undergraduate student: work backwards. Consider the type of job you want at the end of your degree and have a look at a few of the person specifications. See what sort of skills and experience they want and work backwards. This gives you the opportunity to build those skills in advance.
Until it comes to the marking periods, teaching only usually takes up a few hours of my week. My typical day consists of an early start as I like the feeling of being productive when I have finished a few tasks before the second coffee of the day. The majority of a postgraduate research degree consists of reading, writing, and reading some more. I usually start by reading a few journal articles and making some notes for me to quickly refer back to later. The majority of my teaching starts around 10am, so I spend two hours leading a workshop, or seminar before lunch. Staring at a computer all day can get a bit much for your eyes, so I like to have my lunch outside the office and take a short work. After lunch, I can get the most work done as I have fewer distractions, and this leads up to around 5pm. However, this is a typical day and one of the benefits of a research degree is the flexibility and variation it provides you. Some days you might not having any teaching, and you find it easier to work from home in your pyjamas. Other days you might have more teaching, go to a workshop, and attend a research group meeting to give you very little time to do your own work.
Although there are many things to like about being a research student, there is one problem that everyone seems to experience: not knowing when enough is enough. When I was an undergraduate, I used to spend all day working on and off. Whereas I have been trying to treat my research degree almost like a job as it can be tempting to just keep on working. You always have the niggling feeling you could be doing more, and it can start to consume your whole day. I have found that treating it as a job with set hours allows you to at least reflect on what you have done, and try to enjoy the evenings and weekends doing what you enjoy outside of education.