Starting PhD life

I recently (much less recently than it feels) started my PhD program at Sheffield under the CDT program for Polymers, Soft Matter and Colloids. I never anticipated, when I started my undergraduate degree here at Sheffield four years ago, that I’d end up staying and studying for a full 8 years. But when I got to my fourth year, I finally got a taste for what real research would be like. And I realised that I actually quite liked it. It was a world away from undergraduate labs, doing the same experiments over and over and knowing exactly what the outcome would be. Jumping through the same hoops as everyone else had done over the years. This way, I was getting results that no-one had ever seen before. Doing experiments that I thought of myself, in order to get the answers to questions that I’d generated.

Doing a PhD that was sponsored by industry was one thing that I was dubious about. I had previously done a year in industry and realised that it wasn’t for me. I loathed the rigidity and routine of each day. If there was a project I was truly interested in, I didn’t have any authority in how it was carried out. You just had to follow where the money was going. So doing a PhD for a company like Lubrizol, I was worried they were going to dictate everything I did. But the first 6 months they have entirely let me take the reins. They gave me a very broad and open question that I needed to answer. What makes a good pigment dispersant, good? This was something that I’d been thinking about for the past couple of years, since it was the basis of my third and fourth year project (albeit much more specific areas). Our first meeting consisted of a brainstorming session, where everyone pitched in various ideas and topics for me to explore during my PhD.

So since then, I’ve been trying to explore some of those ideas. Some things work, some things don’t. Some days you feel like everything is going great, some days you feel like you’re never going to find the answers. But despite this, I don’t think there is anywhere I would rather be. If I’ve stuck around this long, it can’t be that bad, right?


Article by Shannon North; a PhD Student on the EPSRC Polymers, Soft Matter and Colloids CDT programme. For more information, please contact Dr Joe Gaunt at the Polymer Centre.