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Getting on with a PhD in a changing political landscape
  1. Myfanwy Hill

Abstract

Myfanwy Hill wrote this on June 24, just after the result of the EU referendum was announced. Almost exactly a year after she started her PhD in Cambridge, she reflects on how far she has come and where she is going

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MY research is starting to fall into place; I am now vastly more competent around the lab than I was a year ago. But, as with so many things, I am also more aware of my shortcomings. At vet school it was termed ‘conscious incompetence’, but the principle applies in science just as much.

Like many PhD students at the end of their first year, I am writing a report on my work so far. In order to continue with my project, my report will be examined and I will have to pass a viva examination. This process of summary and self-scrutiny is challenging and helpful. It allows me to critically examine my work and plan more rigorously the work that remains to be done, and assess the challenges ahead. But it also highlights to me the gaps in my knowledge and the weaknesses in the data I have collected so far. I am reminded strongly of the process of self-evaluation and reflection that we went through during vet school and during our professional development phase (PDP), and that we should all theoretically go through during our CPD.

During my time as an undergraduate I should probably admit to being somewhat sceptical of this process, and even during my PDP I put in the bare minimum of effort to get it done. However, this more involved and rigorous process has won me over. The prospect of real engagement and constructive feedback is enough to encourage me to put significant time and effort into this: that and the ever-present fear of failure!

In terms of my project, I'm starting to generate data with real meaning. Much of the initial part of my work was trying to recapitulate the work that led to my hypothesis. This allowed me to learn techniques, but also develop an understanding of the limitations and implications of data derived from particular methods. I'm starting to design protocols and experiments that ask novel questions, and I'm slowly getting some answers. In the most part, these answers just lead to more questions, but every success, no matter how small, contributes to the bigger picture.

An international lab doing international science: members of the Franklin lab, where Myfanwy is doing her PhD, on a science retreat in Portugal

I still struggle with the concept of methodology failure – figuring out why an experiment hasn't worked remains one of the most frustrating aspects, but also provides the greatest satisfaction once fixed. Science truly is problem solving – a skill I am so glad I started to learn early in my veterinary training. Perhaps because of my clinical background, I tend to approach every experiment as though it were a complicated patient. Initially, this left me feeling personally wounded at every failure, but it has certainly helped me to develop much more resilience both in terms of science, but also clinically.

One year in, I still feel very much like a vet. I do clinical work and enjoy seeing patients, but slowly I am starting to feel like a scientist as well (my imposter syndrome is gradually diminishing). I'm not sure if I will ever feel like a true dual citizen of both these camps, or if I will remain a slightly strange hybrid – a novelty in both professions. But it strikes me that science needs vets, and vets need scientists, and I am lucky to have supportive colleagues – vets, scientists and truly inspirational dual citizen, clinician scientists, who are guiding me along this journey.

My slowly evolving lab confidence is almost entirely due to the help and support of my wonderful colleagues and collaborators. And on this particular day I am more conscious than ever of the international nature of my lab and the strong European and international connections that exist in terms of scientific collaborations and support networks.

My lab comprises around 30 scientists at all stages of their careers. Of these, only three are from the UK; the rest hail from all over the world, and help us to forge scientific relationships with other labs all across the world. It is not uncommon for a PhD student to be translating an e-mail into or out of their first language to help a more senior colleague communicate with a new international colleague.

As might be expected, over the past few months, I have had many long and detailed conversations with my fellow PhD students about the referendum, about our own views, our backgrounds and education. In particular, it has highlighted to me the apparent dearth of international opportunities for UK veterinary students and the lack of support for Erasmus programmes or EMS abroad. I understand the motivations behind these limitations – concerns over quality and use of such experiences – but I can't help wondering if we are doing a disservice to our undergraduates in putting up barriers to opportunities that are so freely available to students on other degree programmes in the UK. As I sit at my desk now, conversations are flying around me in a mixture of Spanglish (Spanish and English), Englmen (German and English), with a smattering of Polish, Italian and Mandarin thrown into the mix, not to mention American – goodness only knows what language they are speaking!

Whatever happens over the coming months and years, as we take these first steps through a new political landscape I hope that this international buzz doesn't change. I hope that science, and the veterinary profession, continue to be open and collaborative at all levels. Above all, we must hold true to our shared goals of making the world a better place for everyone, the planet, people and animals. After all, that's why I became a vet.

 Myfanwy is writing a series of articles for Vet Record Careers about her experiences as a PhD student. Her previous articles are: ‘Embarking on a PhD’ (VR, June 13, 2015, vol 176, pp i-ii, doi:10.1136/vr.h3171); ‘Getting to grips with science’ (VR, November 7, 2015, vol 177, pp i-ii, doi:10.1136/vr.h5877); ‘Challenges of a PhD’ (VR, February 13, 2016, vol 178, pp i-ii, doi: 10.1136/vr.i749)

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