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The two stories inside every PhD

Radio tracking collared leopards while pregnant

Recording data on eartagged samango monkeys for my job, while wearing my son

I enrolled at Durham University for the first time a few days after my 18th birthday. I had never lived in the UK or away from home before and I felt like I’d landed on another planet where I couldn’t understand the language (Geordie). But I quickly found my way, my people, and my confidence.

I spent my twenties doing a Masters, travelling the world, working, and getting married. Just after my 29th birthday, I enrolled at Durham again, this time as a PhD student. As before, I had some initial (but very different) reservations. I wanted to do a PhD but I also had career ambitions and I wanted to start a family in the near future. Luckily, the flexibility of the programme and my supportive supervisors enabled me to find my way.

A PhD……whilst living in a tent

I did my PhD in an untraditional way and it was tough, messy, stressful, and incredible. I spent the majority of my PhD living in a tent on a mountain in South Africa while managing Professor Russell Hill’s Primate and Predator Project. And this was great. In between fieldwork and writing my thesis, I collared leopards and baboons, assisted farmers with human-wildlife conflict, supervised volunteers, worked with film crews, and wrote a children’s book for local schools. My PhD was a big priority in my life but it wasn’t my only priority. My job was also very important to me. Halfway through my PhD, I had a baby and appeasing a small angry human became another significant part of my life.

Although doing a PhD can feel pretty all-consuming, I found that it is possible to pursue other pursuits as well. Reflecting back on the four years of my doctorate, I realise that although it was a crazy time of submitting chapters, checking project data, catching cobras in houses, and mixing up baby food, the variety helped me enjoy my PhD more and it suited me. I was so busy multi-tasking and writing to do lists that I seldom become frustrated by my PhD or bored of my thesis. Getting a solid hour to work on my thesis was a rare luxury that I looked forward to immensely and embraced.

More than a one trick pony

Recently, I finished my PhD, took some time to breathe, and entered the mystical post-PhD beyond which consists of job hunting and publication submissions with a two year old running around bringing me cups of imaginary juice while pretending to be a frog. My unconventional PhD experience has given me something extremely positive to write about in cover letters for jobs. It shows that I am dynamic, organised, and ambitious. I’m not a one trick pony. I’m Doctor Many Ponies and I’m just as proud of that as I am of my thesis.

Collecting data on Pimms, one of the leopards I collared, in my work for the PPP

In conclusion, doing a PhD does not have to mean that everything else in your life goes on hold, but it certainly can if you want. Doing a PhD is about doing it your way at a pace that suits you. One of my friends spent a term in Iceland through the Erasmus Postgraduate Scheme. Another friend had two children during her PhD. A course mate does his PhD part-time so he can manage a huge annual rally and motorcycle show. I ran a field site in Africa and recited this little piggy on my son’s tiny toes. The list goes on because at the end of a PhD, there are two stories – the one you write in your thesis and your personal experiences. Just as no two theses are the same, no two PhD experiences are the same. You have to make both your own.

Katy Williams

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