Reflections of a first year PhD student

By Mateo Leganés Fonteneau

Doing a PhD was never my lifetime objective. When I finished college I started studying an engineering degree, but I realised quite soon that it wasn’t what I’d expected. I then went on to study Social Work, hoping to help drug addicts when I finished. As the economic crisis was hitting Spain and my employment opportunities were scarce, I decided to study Psychology. It was at this moment when I started collaborating with some of my teachers, and when the idea of doing a PhD grew on me.

As I thought I needed some more research experience if I wanted to achieve something without getting an MSC, I decided to go to Poland for a research internship, working on emotion and memory. Then, shortly before its deadline, I applied for a PhD at the University of Sussex on Drug Addiction and Cognition with Prof Dora Duka. I thought that this topic suited me perfectly, having experience on both fields. After a week writing a research proposal and another one preparing for the interview… Voila! I got offered a PhD position.

September came really fast; moving to Brighton and finding a flat (good luck with that!) didn’t allow me to explore the city before starting to work, but I promise, Brighton and the Uni are amazing.

So, if you have some research experience, doing a PhD is basically the same, but with an overall plan in mind that should include 5 or 6 experiments. In practical terms, you will also have to keep higher quality standards compared to any undergrad experience you may have, piloting every detail of every procedure before running the real thing. The most important difference is that your research becomes your responsibility. It is true that your supervisors will give you advice and directions, but it will be entirely up to you to develop the procedures you want to use and to find solutions to all the issues that appear when conducting research.

Mateo with his colleagues, about to win a race

Mateo with his colleagues, about to win a race

Over the past 8 months, I spent the first 2 months solely reading and trying to develop a comprehensive framework for my research. As reading is not that fun, I gradually started to develop the tasks I would include in my first experiment and to pilot them. Shortly after the Christmas break I was already running my first experiment. That actually took me just a month, as it is quite easy to get participants for experiments.

Then came long sessions of data analysis trying to figure out the meaning of the results and how to follow up my experiment. Luckily, my supervisors are superb and with their help I was pretty quickly piloting my second experiment. This time, as I am trying to improve previous procedures, I am piloting and redesigning details more than I’d hoped I would, but that’s the only way to evolve in your PhD, being really conscientious about details.

Doing research can be at times overwhelming as it’s a lonely path which doesn’t require much social interaction on a daily basis. For that reason taking some of the courses from the doctoral school, participating in lab meetings, and working as an associate tutor is a good way of clearing your mind and thinking about something else than your research while still being productive. And the experience (and extra money!) is really valuable.

During this year not everything has been research and work. I have also had quite a lot of fun with my colleagues, enjoyed some of the events the University of Sussex puts in place for post-grads, and I even had a decent social life!

The key for me is to treat this as a job, trying to be as disciplined as possible. Nobody is going to check what time you come in or leave, but I would advise you to be in your office at 9 a.m. every morning and leave at 17:30. I have followed this plan and I’ve never had to work during the weekends. Also I didn’t spend more than 10 or 15 evenings working till late in the whole year, which is quite good taking into account how hard we imagine a PhD to be.

In short, this first year has been amazing. I’ve had the chance to learn more than in 5 years of undergrad and managed to find some interesting results that I will soon present in a conference. So, if research and autonomous work are your things, doing a PhD is definitely a good path to follow.

Mateo Leganés Fonteneau is a PhD student under the supervision of Prof Dora Duka.

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