Ever thought about doing a PhD? It remains an important professional journey for an increasing number of health professionals and those in allied disciplines (such as engineering).
I asked my last three PhD students for their thoughts on the journey.
Dr Declan Sweeney is an orthotist working out of the Regional Orthotics Service, St. Gabriel’s Centre, County Limerick, Ireland. As a first class honours Salford P&O Alumni, he returned to Salford for his part time PhD over 7 years. The focus was understanding variation in the effect of foot orthoses.
Dr Effy Evangelopoulou is Greek/Canadian with a first class honours in Medical Engineering from the University of Bradford. She completed her full time PhD via a sponsored scholarship, with support from innovation funds at a local NHS Trust. The focus was footwear designs for people with intermittent claudication.
Dr Ana Martinez-Santos is a Spanish trained Podiatrist (from Complutense University of Madrid) who is now HCPC registered. Ana worked on an EU project and her full time PhD focused on optimising foot orthoses for people at risk of forefoot ulceration.
What did you expect at the start of your PhD?
Declan: If I am honest, I was really uncertain about what to expect. I felt a degree of trepidation, would I be out of my depth, what would be expected of me? Coming from a clinical background helped. I had specific questions relating to day to day practice and I was therefore highly motivated. I expected the PhD journey would be arduous, challenging but rewarding. This proved to be the case.
Effy: I expected an opportunity to delve into biomechanics of the lower limb, an area which had fascinated me for the last two years. I expected that managing a 3- year project whilst my knowledge was still developing would come with its challenges. However, I relished the opportunity to focus on one specific topic, have the freedom and the time to gain an in-depth understanding and contribute new knowledge.
Ana: I wanted to do research in biomechanics, to try and find a better prevention approach to foot ulceration, which had already been an important topic for me in Spain. But I had no idea how much work was required and it was challenging.
What did you learn personally and professionally?
Declan: I learned I was a good grafter and had real staying power. I also recognised that you need the help and support of family to succeed, this is essential. Professionally, I believe I am a better clinician/service manager after completing my PhD. I am more analytical and better at appraising situations and problems.
Effy: I developed a deeper understanding of what research is but my PhD was equally valuable in developing my management skills. I learnt to deal with unforeseen setbacks, make changes to deliver a project, often when circumstances out of your control hold you back. I learnt to do this calmly and timely, and this was the toughest and most valuable lesson.
Ana: I learnt about the different research steps: literature review, developing reasoned research questions, creating protocols, and the (‘painful’) process of NHS ethical approval. Data collection involved so many different people, instrumentation that did not always behave itself, and data analysis offered many different ways to look at the data. Finally, the writing – very challenging when English is not my first language. Personally, I learnt the value of perseverance. No matter how passionate you are about your topic, it can become overwhelming, but persevere and all the hard work will be worth it.
What was a high point?
Declan: Graduating in the presence of my family. This was about celebrating their help rather than my achievement. They had made the most sacrifices to enable me to fulfill this ambition.
Effy: Completing my final data collection session was definitely a high point. It had been a struggle to recruit sufficient participants to the various studies. Finally arriving at the point where my data allowed me to answer key research questions was great!
Ana: There are many high points and simply moving from one phase to the next is itself very exciting. But for me the highlight was bringing the results to life. It’s a scary moment: what happens if the results don’t show anything? or don’t show what you expect? It was great to see my positive results about orthotic designs telling their own story.
What are you doing now that the PhD has influenced?
Declan: My PhD has influenced how I evaluate and appraise clinical and management scenarios every day at work. I also have the ambition to continue clinical based research in collaboration with colleagues at Salford.
Effy: I am a teacher with the Researchers in Schools program, which aims to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds who apply and are accepted into elite UK Universities. This is done by using our expertise to deliver university style courses to a small group of pupils, to offer personalised support in science and maths and to help them develop their college applications.
Ana: At the moment I am doing research about babies feet! A very different group to work with than adults with diabetes, and it is even more ambitious experimentally!
My PhD gave me a set of skills and understanding of what a research project entails and has enabled me to approach new challenges with confidence.