9 January 2015

Doing a PhD at the Lancaster Environment Centre offers a truly interdisciplinary experience, and a real personal challenge, say graduating students.

“There's a really broad spectrum of research going on within the Lancaster Environment Centre, which is something you wouldn't have access to in smaller departments with a narrower focus,” said Dr Laura Hobbs, one of 25 PhD students who graduated from Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) in December 2014.

Fellow graduate Dr Rachel Hope agrees: “LEC has an excellent reputation in the scientific research community and I was exposed to an extensive range of research topics during my PhD. Doing my PhD in such an interdisciplinary environment was fantastic in helping to broaden my ecological interests.”

“It helped me both when generating ideas for my own research and also in seeing the wider-world impact of the research performed within the department,” said Rachel, whose PhD looked at gut bacteria in wild birds and the impact they can have on the health of these animals.

“It was an exciting experience to develop questions that I was really interested in testing and to see my results develop, as in a PhD you’re exploring a new area of research that’s not been investigated before.”

“I developed a range of specialist scientific skills, such as  analysing DNA sequences within the laboratory. My PhD also helped me to develop a number of skills that can be applied professionally to any career, including project management, data analysis and presentation skills.”

One of Rachel’s supervisors came from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, which is based within LEC, meaning she had the opportunity to work with experienced scientists from different backgrounds.

Dr Catherine Baxendale, whose PhD investigating plant soil interactions in haymeadows was part of a larger pan European research project, gained experience working in a big team of researchers.  But for Catherine her personal journey was as important as her scientific one. 

Personal development - learning about yourself

“It takes a lot of determination to do a PhD, you learn a lot about yourself as well as about your subject,” said Catherine.

“Spending weeks doing something that goes nowhere is very difficult, but you have to harness that frustration, and realise that you learn from things that don’t work as well as things that do. My philosophy now is that nothing is ever wasted”.

Rachel agrees. “It was challenging in parts, particularly when experiments had to be changed or laboratory equipment didn’t cooperate, but those are the parts that build your resilience. Having a group of peers in the department meant there were always friends around that could relate to my experience, and help with practical and moral support.”

“Lancaster University has a real feeling of community, both in the collegiate system of the University and also within LEC. The department is a friendly and welcoming place and organises events that help students to integrate both socially and academically, which are important aspects in the PhD experience.

“I’ve learnt a lot about myself, made some lifelong friends, pursued my interests in wildlife disease and developed a set of skills for a career in science.”

Dr Laura Hobbs faced a very specific challenge completing her PhD, when she had a baby while doing her research.

“I became very organised, resilient and persistent as I had to finish my PhD on a full-time basis (but with only part-time childcare) so I really did have to work at maximum efficiency,” said Laura whose PhD investigated how the material ejected during explosive volcanic eruptions changes the way glaciers lose ice when it falls on their surfaces.

International travel and extra curricular opportunities

Opportunities to travel abroad were also a huge benefit. Catherine went to conferences in Insbruck, Barcelona, Grenoble and Vienna while Laura did fieldwork in Iceland and Chile.

.“I conducted field experiments at the top of an ice-covered volcano in the Andes, and also investigated the volcanic deposits in the surrounding area of Chile and Argentina,” said Laura.

“I went to Iceland with British Geological Survey scientists working on a glacier, and saw the Northern Lights and the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption.”

Dr Philip Donkersley, whose research focussed on the impact of honey bees” diet on their health, believes it is important to keep a work-life balance when studying.

“One of the most important things is to allow yourself personal time, to cultivate a life outside of academia, and remember that the PhD is not everything.

“Lancaster is a fantastic place to do this, surrounded by amazing countrysideand the University has a lot of student societies that I found PhD students were more than welcome to join.”

Next steps

The graduates have already had some of their results published and are writing more papers for publication.

Rachel has been teaching with Boston University in London while Laura, Catherine and Philip have all been working at Lancaster Environment Centre: Laura teaching part time, Philip as a researcher on a project optimising the ecosystem services provided by managed grasslands and Catherine in two different administrative and outreach roles.

Laura has also set up Science from the Start, providing science activities primarily aimed at under-fives, an under-served age group for informal science learning. She is now on the look out for new funding to enable her to continue this work.

Learn more about doing a PhD at the Lancaster Environment Centre.