Tell us a bit about yourself - what stage of your PhD are you in and what's your project about?
Hi there! I recently passed my viva (oral defense), so I could say that I just finished my PhD, woohoo! My project was about environmental remediation, specifically targeting water treatment. My focus was the “dirty laundry” of the textile industry, specifically the coloured effluents from the process of dying clothes. I was trying to identify sustainable methods to remove colour from those effluents. The idea behind those methods was based on a combination of materials science and biotechnology, using “in-house” produced materials with enhanced properties from embedded enzymes (natural catalysts). Those materials were produced via sustainable processes, with low cost and time requirements and were easily tailorable, making the whole idea sustainable.
What does a typical day or week look like for you?
Regarding my PhD work, a typical week was usually a 50-50 mix of lab work and desk work, except the period I was writing my thesis, which was almost exclusively desk-based. There was no typical day duration, I tried to keep my working hours reasonable, at around 9-10h per day, but there were many occasions where I had to leave early or I worked for much longer. There were periods where I was only lab-based and had no time to process data, but overall I would say that data analysis was a big chunk of my work, as I had to work through large data volumes, figure out the best way to present my findings and understand what they mean. However, I was not a “typical” PhD researcher, devoting all of my time in research. I devoted a large chunk of my time to extra-curricular activities –making sure to not neglect my research “duties” of course– such as researcher development, networking and event management. I participated in various organizations and committees which worked towards making researchers’ life easier, more enjoyable, give them perspective of what comes after a PhD and improve all those transferable skills. Furthermore, I engaged with teaching, working as a graduate teaching assistant for multiple modules in Chemical Engineering. So, in total, I would say that a typical day for me was lab work and/or desk work, with a few enjoyable breaks in-between to manage meetings, events and other engagements related to those extra-curricular activities.
What's one thing that you've enjoyed the most during your PhD?
Ahhh, that is a tough one, I cannot only pick one! I definitely enjoyed the absence of routine. There was no day exactly the same as the one before. Experiments would change, multitasking was on its peak most of the time, desk work and data analysis would reveal findings, correlations or interesting new avenues to explore. On top of that, being involved in various extra-curricular activities meant that even my “boring” days would be enriched with meetings, different type of desk work, coordination and such. Another thing I really enjoyed about my PhD was the level and breadth of research. Being in a research-led university means that there is A LOT of research going on, in almost every area imaginable. As an engineer, I was more aware about research in engineering, but I also met researchers from phenomenally unrelated disciplines (e.g. social studies), with projects that combined knowledge from many areas, including engineering. Being in a lab and thinking that what I do could potentially be useful towards betterment of our life was a very big push.
What's been the most challenging part of it?
Again, unfortunately this time, there is not only one thing I can think of… Doing a PhD has definitely been tough for me. It made me realise aspects about myself I was not aware of, such as that I cannot accept that research sometimes fails, I do not like not to feel appreciated, I am very hard on myself, and that I suffer from impostor’s syndrome. Being through some rough times, I grew as a person and I became more resilient. I also realised that if sometimes experiments don’t work, it is because we are not aware of the “complete picture” around this part of science, not necessarily because I did something wrong (which of course has happened…). Another part that I found challenging, was the competitive mode of some people, researchers and academics. Doing a PhD, or doing research for that matter, should be a collaborative process, not a race to show off successes, funding awards and publications. What is the point in that? We would be better off to use this energy in more creative ways. Last but not least, a PhD is a long, lonely road, so a lot of personal strength is required. I think that more support should be provided for researchers, especially those who are the 1st generation of their family in higher education.
Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
I suppose “I have no idea” is not an appreciated answer… Mid-PhD I realised that although I deeply care about research and I do enjoy being in the lab and “create things”, following a research-led career is not for me. Being on the forefront of discoveries is definitely very rewarding, but also it is a very lonely, stressful and requires A LOT of resilience. Having to deal with all those elements during my PhD, I found that although I definitely became better at dealing with such emotions and situations, this is not something I would like to develop into a career. As I have mentioned previously, I got involved in many extra-curricular activities, either as an organizer, as a group member, or just as a guest. From this experience I found out that I thoroughly enjoy helping researchers understand the load they carry, and figuring out solutions, methods and ways to make them feel and perform better. It is not being said often, but if you think about it, who is the “heart” of research-led universities? Researchers! Long story short, I hope that my career choices will lead me to a job relevant with research and researchers, but from a supportive perspective, rather than being on the driving seat of developments.
What's one piece of advice that you'd offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
There are many pieces of advice I would give to someone thinking of doing a PhD, but the number one thing I would say is that you have to remember why you are doing it. There will be some tough moments (or periods), where you will want to quit, stop the torture, find yourself again, stop feeling useless etc. In those moments, remembering why you chose to follow a PhD program can be very useful, as it keeps you focused on the goal. I hear a lot that the only reasons to do a PhD for is if you want to “become an academic”, or if you “truly love research”. This is completely wrong and outdated. There are many legitimate reasons to start a PhD (and also many legitimate reasons to quit a PhD). Furthermore, people and mindsets change (or at least they should), so it is expected that your focus might sift. Nevertheless, being true to yourself and knowing why you want to do a PhD, can help you push through it. Another important piece of advice is that you are not alone. Although a PhD is a lonely road, many other people are going through their lonely road in parallel to you. Keeping that in mind, don’t hesitate to reach out, ask for advice, help, or just talk to others. Creating communities can be a great helping hand for every member and can lead to interesting outcomes, such as collaborations, friendships, mentorships, job opportunities, and definitely emotional support. I recently wrote a short article on advice I wish I was given before my PhD, covering 3 areas (scientific, professional, and self-care), please have a look there for more tips, you can find it on my social media.
What makes your university a good place to study?
There are many answers to that, depending on who is asking the question, who is answering and who is reading the answers. I have been in 3 universities so far and 2 countries. Each university had a completely different style, which I believe was partially due to the culture as well. Although before doing a PhD I would answer that a university is a good place to study if the academics are good, after being involved with teaching duties and being on the interface of studying and working for a university, my answer has shifted. I believe that a university is a good place to study if students/researchers are feeling respected, appreciated and acknowledged and are challenged to grow. Thankfully, my experience during my PhD at the University of Sheffield has been mostly good and within those “values”, fact also supported from the high rank of this university in student surveys.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I cannot say I have a consistent hobby, but there are a few things I enjoy doing in my free time. Besides the “classic” answers, such as I like meeting my friends, traveling, binge-watching TV series (which are all by the way very valid answers and definitely part of my life), I also like sitting in a coffee shop alone with a book. I enjoy visiting food markets and spending time trying new products and learning about them. I enjoy volunteering; I have been volunteering in charity retail shops for the past 5 years. I enjoy cooking and creating fusion dishes with ingredients from different cultures. I enjoy hosting dinners (as long as someone does the dish-washing). I enjoy talking about my experiences and sharing my knowledge and advice, mostly through my social media profile and by writing short articles. Last, but definitely not least, I enjoy discovering the most unique pairs of earrings.