Today is just one of those dates in the diary that you’ll never ever forget. It was two years ago, on this very day, that I woke up an absolute nervous wreck (with good reason!). Why? It was PhD viva day.
I’m not sure I’ve ever blogged in detail about this day, but I will spare you the intricacies today too. I just want to think about the day, and what has happened since, a bit of reflection you could say. A reminiscent moment.
My viva was scheduled for 10, so I was up at a normal (ish) time, getting ready in my normal way. I didn’t want to do things too differently, because I was nervous enough as it was. So, to introduce new things on the morning of one of the biggest days of my life was never going to be a good idea. I don’t normally have breakfast, so on the day, I didn’t. I don’t normally have a tea or a coffee, so I didn’t. I kept things consistent.
I arrived in good time, around 9. My plan was to get in, go see my supervisor (David Williams) and talk about the process, have a bit of a nervous outlet and then go upstairs to my office to chill until the moment. Then I could compose myself before heading into the viva itself. A few weeks before, David did offer a mock viva, which I declined as I thought it would make me more nervous about things, and with quite a broad project anyway, I wanted to focus on what was there, not what was not, or what could have been.
Not necessarily all to plan
I arrived to the office, and David was not there. The plan, my only plan, was derailed at the first step. I didn’t panic, but I also had no idea what to expect: what do I do and when, where do I go, how do I do this whole thing?! Luckily, David was in very shortly after, and we had a good chat about it all. He described it (jokingly, which he found hilarious) as ‘the’ scene from the Green Mile (which, if you, like me, have never seen it, is when a prisoner is taken along the corridor to his death.. The vote of confidence was somewhere in the humour no doubt).
He told me that he would go down early, greet the external examiner (who was the absolutely wonderful Angela Nobbs), and then he would come and get me to take me down. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Unfortunately Angela had a problem with her transport which meant she had to walk to the University. I just wanted her to have the most easy and laid back travel experience ever, so she can be calm and collected on this terrifying (for me) event! But alas, it was all fine, and I was taken down around 10.30.
The main event
My chair (Ivor, very lovely person), introduced himself and the others, and advised how it would all play out. So we sat down, and Angela took the lead. And so it began.
Four hours, and some tears, discussions and disagreements later, I came out alive, but not only alive, with the knowledge that I had passed with minor corrections! This was honestly tha most difficult, but the most rewarding experience of my life. I felt so proud to be able to represent myself, my family, and my academic family (supervisors and school, and even those that had supported and encouraged me in addition to my day to day). What a momentous occasion. And a relief!
It wasn’t easy, but then again, ‘nothing worth having comes easy‘.
I have been so grateful for the support I had throughout my PhD process. It was never particularly easy, but you just keep going and get through it. You learn a lot about who you are as a person, as a teacher, as a researcher too. You have a lot of skills in critical analysis, and sometimes that’s not a good thing. It’s very easy to be harsh in self reflection, often unnecessarily. But learning to manage this is important too.
After my viva, we had some bubbly and nibbles back in the office and then I headed home to my family, as I was exhausted! The next few weeks were just a bit strange if I’m honest. The viva date being the week before Christmas made it a very easy decision not to go back into work for the rest of the week, with the blessing of my supervisors of course! And I could look forward to taking some downtime for me and my family. Which was lovely!
The next chapter
So that was 2017. It’s now 2019, so what’s happened in the two years that followed?
Well, I did a couple of short term industrial funded postdoc positions, which were very fruitful in terms of R&D progress, but I still wanted to pursue more of an academic path. I was aware of some funding secured by the university from The Wellcome Trust (ISSF scheme), and a pot of that was to support newly qualified postdocs in an intended transition to independence. I applied, and long story short, was successful in my first proper grant application.
The money (approx £50k) was to support me in a postdoc for 12 months, continuing my PhD work but in a lab independent of my PhD supervisor. So, as I wanted to look at the microbiota, and probiotic mechanisms of modulation of virulence, I moved to the school of biosciences, under the line management /mentorship of Prof Julian Marchesi. Julian is a Prof of Gut microbiota, but has interest in the oral cavity too (which makes sense in the bigger picture of human anatomy).
Anyway, I joined the group and made some fantastic friends (life-long for sure) along the way. And during this, I also secured an additional grant for public engagement and outreach activities. It was from this that MicroScientists was created. This project was also a huge success, delivering some interactive microbiology focused activities to schools and the general public, reaching hundreds of people. My research project continued with two absolute blinders of summer students. Megan and Tom were funded by Cardiff University Research Opportunities Programme and the Microbiology Society Harry Smith Vacation Studentshio respectively, and were honestly completely model students. I was so lucky to have had them working with me for a couple of months.
Onwards we go
Since finishing the fellowship, I have joined another fantastic group in Ruth Massey at the University of Bristol. Here I’m working on modulation of virulence in Streptococcus pneumoniae, a new bacterium for me, and with many many new techniques to learn as I go. I’ve already learnt a wealth of skills and knowledge, and will inevitably continue to do so in the coming months and years. I’m very excited to be working in this group who are also very supportive, and look forward to being productive and getting myself into a position to be competitive for lecturer positions in the coming years! Fingers crossed!