From PhD Student to Research Assistant

Hoorah, hoorah! It’s officially the first day of #Blogtober!

In this post I wanted to answer a question that I’ve been asked by a few people; what’s it like to go from being a PhD student to working in a full time Research Assistant role? How do you secure a new role, are there similarities, differences, details on if and how my work/life balance has changed, how has the transition been generally etc. It’s a pretty long and wordy post, but I hope it gives those of you that are interested a little snapshot of what post-PhD life is like.

So, a bit of background for those that aren’t aware..

My PhD funding officially ended on Saturday 30th June 2018, which meant I was aiming for a hand in on Friday 29th at the very latest. I ended up submitting my thesis a few days early on Wednesday 27th and then took a few days off to recover. During the month of June whilst I was finishing my thesis, I was also working part time as a Research Assistant at HSRU – the same department where I was based for my PhD.

About a year before I submitted I started having conversations with my supervisors about what might happen after the PhD. At the time, that felt very early, a bit panic-inducing, and like everything was far off anyway. As expected, my supervisors were absolutely right to start talking about things early; time went much faster than I  anticipated it would, and the world of funding in academia is often so slow that you need to start preparing applications etc a year before you can expect to get the funding through (and that’s if you get the funding at all!).
Anyway, we started to work up a grant application to the CSO (Chief Scientist Office), which is part of the Scottish Government Health Directorates. This is the funding body that part-funds that Unit that I work in, and also funded my first grant which covered the qualitative and user-testing parts of my PhD project. My experience with them has always been really positive, so I was happy that they were going to be our target for post-PhD funding – but even so, I wasn’t massively confident that we’d get the grant. I thought the project was good (obviously..), but sometimes you just don’t know with grant applications; it depends who you’re up against and what the panel reviewing applications are looking for on the day. Anyway, we knew that whatever the outcome was, the funding wouldn’t start until the beginning of 2019 so I was still on the hunt for something to fill my time (and pay my rent..) from July 2018 (at this point I hadn’t yet found out about the outcome of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship application).

A few months later (around February time) one of my supervisors was advertising for a Research Assistant. It was only 6 month contract but by this point I had just found out that I’d got the WCMT Fellowship, and would need to slot in my travel time (I know, such a hard life..) which would require 7 weeks away from whatever I was doing, so it sounded perfect. I interviewed for the RA role, and just hoped and hoped and hoped that I’d got it. About a week later I found out I’d got the job and the relief was unreal. This meant that I would do the role part time in June, and then go full time from July to December before leaving for my WCMT travels. It all worked out perfectly.

The timings had all worked out so that I left work one day as a PhD student, and then returned as a Research Assistant; it was all pretty seamless. I moved desks in an afternoon between meetings, and kept on doing whatever was on my never ending to do list (that’s not me boasting about how busy I am, I use a to do list that by design, never ends, to keep track of tasks I need to get to). I didn’t really give my head any time to adjust to my new role, and looking back now, I wish I had.

The role itself means I’m working across lots of different projects:

  • The PRioRiTy II project – a project I’m pretty comfortable with because I was involved (in a minor role!) in the PRioRiTy I project
  • The ImproveHD project – this looks at how we can improve care delivery for people with Huntington’s Disease; something that is completely new to me
  • ELICIT – a project I’m really excited to be involved with, that’s based in trial methodology and links with participant recruitment (the topic of my PhD thesis), but uses methods I haven’t used before

As well as those projects, I’m also working away on my PhD corrections (I hope to get them finished within the next week or so), and public engagement work; you’ll hear more about the latest event that I was involved in tomorrow. This has been a bit of a shock to the system after focussing on my PhD pretty much all the time for the last 3 years.

The transition has been fine, the first few weeks were good – I think I was still working on the adrenaline of thesis submission and then viva success – but after that I found it really difficult to focus and actually make progress with the projects that were in front of me. I took a week’s annual leave in September and then returned to Aberdeen with a horrendous cold that floored me for the best part of a week after that (I am unbearable when I am ill, in the eyes of both myself and everyone around me). I’m now back at work and getting through things with a bit more focus, but the environment is definitely different to when i was doing my PhD. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just something I’ve needed to get used to – and something that I think most PhD students transitioning to another academic role will experience too.

I’m glad that this role is for 6 months – and that’s not because I don’t want to be in the role. Honestly, I think after completing a PhD it’s important to get out of the place where you did it, do something else for a little while, and then move on to something new. For me that means leaving for Quebec on December 28th, and then returning from Hong Kong February 25th. Thankfully, we got the CSO grant that I mentioned earlier, so I’ll be returning to HSRU to start my new role as Research Fellow on March 1st. This Research Assistant role has taught me a lot of new skills – juggling projects, prioritising which to work on first and when to stop to give attention to something else, how to work with people with different working styles than I’m used to, and knowledge around new patient communities and how those communities can work with research to produce unique research projects. Working across lots of different things has taught me a lot, but I’m really looking forward to having my own project to get my teeth into when I come back from my travels.

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