Working towards a PhD but being based outside the academic institution: the benefits and the challenges from personal experience
by Rob Argent
A PhD opportunity, based in the sector I have spent my career thus far, with a secondment to an academic interdisciplinary research centre… I felt like the opportunity was too good to be true. As ESR number 2 within the CHESS network, my project is based in the Beacon Hospital, a large private hospital in South Dublin, working in a team of skilled clinicians providing high quality patient care. My secondment allowed me to spend several months working in the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, as part of the personal sensing team, a group of researchers from a variety of disciplines working on the improvement of human health and performance through the use of various sensing platforms.
As I moved beyond 18 months into the project, I started to reflect on my experience of completing a PhD without being based in the academic setting, as many others within Marie-Curie funded Initial Training Networks will find themselves doing. I looked back on how things differ from expectation, and what I could offer others advice should they follow in the same steps.
Firstly, coming from a healthcare role, particularly in the public sector, the expectation on
‘front-line’ clinicians is to be highly efficient and productive. I recall completing sheets that explained every 5 minutes of time allocated, and adapting to a new culture which is more creative was interesting. Accepting it’s ok to spend 20 minutes thinking about something without anything to show for this time is something I grappled with for a good period of time. It also meant I was not being micromanaged, or have very tight day to day expectations to meet, which takes some getting used to. Whilst I was more than willing to adapt and change my working style, a consideration to note is that peers around you may not be used to this way of working, and may find it difficult to relate to your working patterns.
Like many other PhD students, I was initially the only researcher based in my institution, and it can be lonely if you don’t have other researchers around you. If you are an ESR in an EU funded ITN, it is also likely that you have moved to a new country for the opportunity to work on your project, and therefore you already feel a little out of your comfort zone. I found immersing myself in the team environment wherever possible helped with settling in. As a clinician, this is something that I’m naturally used to, but it is important to seek out these opportunities to have enjoyment and stimulation outside of your research.
Thus far in my career, I would be someone who likes structure in my working day, and undertaking a PhD inherently means that this structure is self-directed. I was concerned that being outside of academia would mean I have even less structure to my working day, but maintaining a good and open relationship with my supervisor(s) and good self-discipline, has meant my concerns have been unfounded.
The structure of ITNs, with secondments and being based outside academia, mean there is so much to learn and so many skills to develop. Whilst this can seem overawing, the organisation of doctoral studies panel meetings, knowing what skills you want to improve, and the opportunities within the ITN, mean there is a great opportunity for learning and developing, and it is an opportunity that should be grabbed with both hands.
There are a number of major benefits to working in the clinical / industry setting as part of a PhD. These will clearly vary between individual projects but I have used my own experience as an example of what this model can offer.
- Recruitment: based in the healthcare setting means ready access to patients and staff members to participate in research studies.
- Career skills: I am able to mix some clinical work associated with my project, keeping the skills I have learnt thus far in my career.
- Multi discipline team access: when conducting research in the healthcare field, having and breathing in the setting, rather than sat at a desk the knowledge and experience of a host of professions to offer advice is a real positive to the project.
- Understanding the problem: what better way to understand the problem that the research aims to assist with than to be living and breathing in the setting, rather than sat at a desk?
- Integrating research into practice: By working in the setting, it is much easier to envisage how any research performed can be used to create real-world impact and allow for easy integration.
There are clearly more challenging aspects, and as the process of ITNs develop the experience will become even smoother than currently experienced. It’s always important to consider that it is likely that the host organisation is not a research centre, and therefore research is not the primary focus. Whilst in my experience the research process has been strongly supported, most organisations will be driven by other outcomes, in this case excellent patient care. This may also mean that the facilities available are not the same, and staff may not be used to research taking place in the institution. Planning your own project can be an additional challenge, as you may have reduced awareness of university modules, events, and conferences that would be widely discussed in the academic setting.
However, that said, studying a PhD in a non-academic institution can offer a lot to your research, your development, and the institution you are working in. By making the most of every opportunity, utilising your planning, time management, and communication skills, and finding a balance that suits every individual involved in the project, it can be a very valuable and worthwhile process.