What it’s really like to do a PhD!

A photograph of Mari Martiskainen smiling

Embarking on a PhD is similar to that of having a baby. Everyone tells you that it’s going to change your life. There will be sleepless nights, moments of despair as well as those of joy, happiness and discovery. The only thing that no one can tell you, however, is that you really don’t have a clue what it will be like as no one else can really prepare you for the kind of journey that you will personally go through with your PhD.

I started mine in October 2010, having had three and a half years of contract research at Sussex Energy Group (SEG) at SPRU, two years working for a renewables trade association and a few years for the oil industry. I chose Sussex Energy Group as the place for my PhD studies for two reasons. First, I had really enjoyed my time and projects there, not only for the varied work but also for the inspiring team. The people at SEG are brilliant academics who also happen to be human. They don’t just sit in their chambers but are out there, doing research that directly addresses the issues that are shaping energy policy today and talking about it to various audiences. Second, I have wanted to save the world since I first heard about acid rain in the 1980s. Doing a PhD in sustainable energy, in my case in community energy, might take me a little bit closer to that goal. It may have seemed like a naive motive, but at least inside me I knew that I was doing something worthwhile.

The first year of PhD research at SPRU involves research methods courses on both qualitative and quantitative research methods. The first part I really enjoyed, thinking about formulating research questions, different methodologies and how you could actually design a three-year research project. The quantitative statistics course, on the other hand, I wasn’t looking forward to. I hadn’t touched stats apart from reading the odd poll in the news since my Master’s degree back in 2002. I found the course hard and there was a lot of reading involved, even though we had a brilliant teacher and he made it all somehow digestible. On the day of the exam I was probably more nervous than in my driving test, but I passed and at first couldn’t quite believe it. Once that hurdle was over, the second one was just around the corner. The dreaded first year Research Committee. As a PhD student at SPRU, you have to pass a research committee each year. It is basically like a mini Viva, with your PhD research proposal being scrutinised by two members of faculty. It is one of those uncomfortable situations that you go through as a PhD (there are others but once you break the first one, they tend to get easier) and it is also a form of invaluable training. If you want to embark on an academic career, you will get scrutinised a lot. There is the journal peer review process, the funding applications and the conference presentations to name a few. Academics like asking questions and inspecting others’ ideas, that’s part of the job.

And you couldn’t be a PhD student without asking questions. As I prepared for my fieldwork, which I undertook in year two, I had a lot of questions myself. How would I arrange my interviews, did I have the right topic guides, what if my interviewees cancelled or the batteries in the recorder run out halfway through the interview? Doing fieldwork involved interviewing community energy practitioners as well as professional organisations. I had to be prepared to have different approaches for different audiences, ranging from having a chat and a coffee at an 80-year old gentleman’s back garden to visiting a government think thank in one of those impersonal glass buildings. I also did interviews by phone, which can be tricky and take a bit more effort as you cannot really see your interviewees’ body language or reaction to your questions. In the end only one interviewee out of 35 cancelled. And I had to use the spare batteries once. I also learned that never ever record an interview in a café. Once you listen back to your tape, you soon realise that the sound of a spoon can actually break your eardrum. A quiet room is always a must.

The fieldwork was enjoyable but it also took a lot more energy than I realised. When I’d finished, I felt quite empty and a little lost. I had done all these interviews, what now? What am I meant to do with all the data that I have collected? Luckily, I was linked to a research project and the beauty of being a PhD student linked to a research project lies in the fact that you get to join a team of more experienced researchers. I did initial analysis on all my cases and produced written material for the project, which also helped with the PhD. But I still was not quite clear of what direction I may take next. Yes I needed to think about my theoretical framing and justify my methodology. But for some reason I couldn’t see the wood from the trees and towards the start of my third year I thought I was going nowhere. Apparently this known as the Valley of Shit, a time in your PhD which the Thesis Whisperer defines as “that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself”. Seemingly it’s quite normal to go through it, some may even do so a few times. Mine lasted for a couple of months and I did consider whether the whole thing was worth it after all. What did keep me going though was the support of my supervisors and fellow SPRU PhD students.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my PhD experience, despite some of the pitfalls along the way. I have found out a lot about community energy in Finland and the UK. I have met some very inspiring people who are doing innovative community energy projects in their local area. I have had sleepless nights over theory, but also moments of joy and discovery through my data.

Doing a PhD can be a very solitary journey and everyone experiences it differently. I am glad that I have experienced mine at SPRU. Life doesn’t stop just because you are doing a PhD, but when the going gets tough, a PhD might stop without good supervisory support and a community of other PhD students around you, all of which have been a plenty where I chose to study.

Mari Martiskainen is a Research Student at Sussex Energy Group  in SPRU at the University of Sussex. Her thesis is titled Innovation of Community Energy in Finland and the UK and she is  supervised by Professor Gordon MacKerron and Dr Adrian Smith, and funded by the EPSRC.

Mari’s PhD is also part of the Community Innovation for Sustainable Energy project. She will shortly be taking up a post as Research Fellow for the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand

More information on PhD study at the Science Policy Research Unit

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