The PhD – looking back as a postdoc

It wasn’t long ago that I finished my PhD. I vividly remember the moment that the binders handed back my final (not final final..just for hand-in) printed and bound version. The feeling of elation that I had completed the journey and was ready to provide written proof that I have trained sufficiently as an independent researcher. The feeling of relief that I am free from the long hours, long days, constant thought about experiments, data, analysis and presentations, the worry about not making enough progress, the ever-present imposter syndrome too. The relief was relatively short lived, and these things seemed to rear their ugly heads once again during the subsequent post docs.

Looking back over my shoulder
I can see that look in your eye
I never dreamed it could be over
I never wanted to say goodbye

Mike and the Mechanics – Over My Shoulder

The pre-academic era

Lets start from the beginning. I was working “as a waitress in a cocktail bar”… oh wait, wrong blog post.. I was working as a research and development scientist for a small biotechnology company in Cardiff, and had been there for about 3 and a half years when I saw this PhD advertised, and thought why not apply. I had no interest in dentistry so I didn’t think much of it when I sent off my application, as I had been applying for a good few PhD  projects every few months, and getting to interview, but then losing out on the ‘experience’ front. This is quite frustrating because you can’t get the experience without doing it, but you can’t get to do it without having the experience, so very much a catch-22 there. Anyway, I sent off my application noting my many years of microbiology experience, and hoping this would stand me in a good position for the interview. I then met with my potential supervisor (Prof David Williams), and industrial supervisor (Dr David Bradshaw) who interviewed me. I have to say, it was the best interview I’ve ever experienced. By the end we were laughing together, joking about things and generally clicked really well from the outset. I was pretty confident and thought that if someone else gets it over me, then they truly deserved it as there was pretty much nothing more I could have given. 

A week passed and I hadn’t heard anything, so I decided to give the academic office a call to find out what the outcome was, for better or for worse, I just wanted to know. They said they recognised my name but weren’t sure, so went off to check. Then they came back and said I had been offered the position! I was speechless. I now had to make a decision to give up my permanent, full time job to pursue a PhD with a fixed term period and no guarantee of anything afterwards. It was a no brainer. I was ecstatic and took more than just a few moments to compose myself as I hadn’t discussed with my employer that I was applying for PhDs – although I had made it very clear a number of times before then that I was looking for them and would do one if the opportunity presented itself.

How it all began

I finished my job on the 27th September 2013, and began the new phase of my life and career on the 2nd October having a few days off in between to savour the moment while I could. It al began with a general induction with Prof Rachel Waddington – who I believe was one of only six female professors at the time in Cardiff University (crazy to think so few)! I had my induction with another new starter, Paul Battersby. The induction went over the typical bits and bobs, and then I had some time to get to know my new colleagues (and to-be friends). 

I met so many people and don’t have the best memory for names, so it took some time to remember, but I was fortunate enough to have some of the nicest people in my office that were super supportive from the outset. In particular: Dr Rachael Jordan who took me under her wing, and was very much a mother figure for me day-to-day. An absolute wealth of knowledge including Candida and bacterial biofilms, this really helped me get up and running and make the progress I was able to in the first year. Also, having four years industrial research and development experience gave me a completely different perspective of work and effort, which also contributed toward my progress in the first phase, before I slowly adapted into the academic way of working; more thinking and critical analysis than data generation – important for PhD work for sure!

I attended the Oral Microbiology and Immunology Group (OMIG) meeting at Gregynog Hall in mid-Wales in the March of 2014, my first academic conference, and my first insight into what these things are about! I was blown away by the camaraderie, friendship networks and presentations. And, I happened to win the poster prize for my first ever poster presentation! Not bad doing!

Back to the lab for the next few months, and despite a few personal issues to overcome, I managed to submit my first year substantial progress report and passed my first year progress monitoring hurdle. This is basically a mini-viva, where students defend their project, work to date and lay out a structure for the following 2-3 years for the remainder of the project. It was a really good experience overall, and I had a really lovely panel including the super Dr Elaine Ferguson, and Prof Alastair Sloan (who is now head of school!). The feedback was excellent, positive but critical, and allowed me to continue my planned work to achieve the goals set within the project.

The preparation for this first hurdle was actually pretty difficult. The whole imposter syndrome (which is a very real occurrence, and rife within academia) happened, and still does to be perfectly honest, but luckily I had a lot of support to help pass the waves of it’s presence. For those that don’t know, imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are not good enough, that you are doing a PhD based on lies, or that you will actually be found out to not be good enough for doing what you are doing. The feeling of being a fake, an imposter, and that everything you do will eventually be your downfall when people realise ‘the truth’. It should be an actual-considered mental state, and while it is very well known within academia, it is little spoken about, and people don’t really know how to support those going through it. It affects people differently, and knowing that individual is quite important to help them cope with this phenomenon.

The middle phase

In a typical PhD project, year one is considered the ‘finding your feet’ stage, learning where things are, who people are, what your project is about, how you are going to get from A-B, and what experiments/techniques you are going to do to get there.

The second phase lies more so with the latter bit of that, in the optimisation of methods to generate the data quite quickly, learning new techniques to further your research and experiences, attending conferences to present and disseminate your work.

I had a great second year for the most part, I again made a lot of progress of data generation, helped significantly by our visiting researcher Dr Yuri Cavalcanti. Yuri came from Brazil to spend a year working in our group on polymicrobial biofilms. He was a third year PhD student, so already had quite a bit of experience in the lab under his belt, and a vast amount of knowledge of Candida and bacterial biofilms – which was very useful indeed for me! Together we worked through developing biofilms and evaluating interactions between them in vitro and in a tissue model. This resulted in our first paper highlighting the influence of oral bacteria on Candida virulence (Cavalcanti et al., 2015). Yuri is an amazing researcher, and one I am very pleased to be able to call my friend!

My second year also marked the beginning of the next year’s cohort of PhD students including the now Dr Elen Everett, and the pre-Drs Jordanna Dally and Jabur Khan (among others). These friendships will for sure be for the long term, as the buddy system worked well when I became the buddy for both Jordanna and (unofficially) Elen. It’s been great to see their progress since, and I’ll take some credit for making sure they have been ok throughout on a personal and professional level (where I can of course). Their academic ability is amazing though, and they will go far in whatever career they choose in the end.

The second year wasn’t without it’s own issues though. The infamous year two blues. If you think of a PhD as a roller coaster, that’s a pretty accurate description of the journey that every student goes on. Some highs, many lows, and the second year blues seem to be quite a big part of many journeys too. A lack of motivation, perceived progress, results and the constant imposter syndrome hanging over you only adds to the stresses associated with the second year. I found it particularly difficult to accept that I was adapting to the academic work perspective, which is different to the hard hitting industrial work ethic that I’ve been used to. I couldn’t see the day to day progress, and lost track of the bigger picture. Something that I relied on to make sure I was on track to finish in good time, and with enough data in both quantity and quality. My supervisor was a key person in keeping my head above board, maintaining my positivity and keeping me on track professionally and personally. I am forever grateful for both Prof Williams and Dr Wilson for the many meetings of ‘I’m not making enough progress’ or ‘I’m worried about x, y or z’ complaints from me, ad true testament to their fantastic ability to manage students and their progress successfully.

The second year progress monitoring was a presentation format, comprising all of the two years work. I really enjoy presenting my work, and did thoroughly enjoy this too. It was very much a discussion, with ideas being thrown around left, right and centre between myself and the panel of where the project could go from there, and critical analysis of the data I had generated..and how it was all going to fit into a coherent thesis!

The third year (the end for some!)

At the beginning of my third year, I had managed to negotiate spending a few weeks in the department of a good friend of my main supervisor; Dr Craig Murdoch to learn how to culture a full-thickness 3D oral mucosal tissue model. I really enjoyed experiencing a different lab, different methods and new techniques for things, and being able to pass on my biofilm culture knowledge for them too. A great exchange of expertise.

Another perspective of the third year is as the true data generation year, where half of the data that goes into a thesis is created. Using the techniques you’ve learnt over the past couple of years, the experience you have in the lab, and all the optimisation that has been done before now, this is your chance to get those thesis quality images, complete your n=3 and eventually take a step back, identify gaps in the data and fill them!

For some, this third year is the final stage and where they will submit their completed thesis. For me, and many many others (particularly as PhD project become more complex, and need more data than previously would have been acceptable), it is just another year of progress.

It was also during this time that I generated some substantial data for the infection models and tissue model evaluation, which was requested by a reviewer of a paper I submitted as a result of attending the Biofilms7 conference in Porto, Portugal (which was amazing). Everything was coming together quite nicely, but still lots to bet done, and of course, the thesis itself!

Year 4 – the final stretch

As I entered my fourth and final year, I had a chance to reflect on what I had achieved up until this point. I had travelled to a number of different countries, and many places within the UK to present my work at many conferences, gaining that much needed exposure for me and the science. I had received a few awards in doing so for my presentations too! Next up, my sights were firmly set on the Senior Colgate Prize – this is one of the most prestigious awards in oral and dental research in the UK, presented by the British Society of Oral and Dental Research (BSODR). Now I felt my project had a good story, flowed quite well and the results were scientifically sound..so what better time to submit my abstract for consideration in this prize. The BSODR was being help in Plymouth this year, and there were a number of entrants for this Colgate Prize – enough to have four heats! The winner of each heat went through to the final where they presented again, all of which were completely open sessions for anyone to attend and ask questions, with the whole experience being judged by experts in oral and dental research. To say it was a nerve-racking experience would be a huge understatement, and my supervisor can vouch for my very nervous persona immediately beforehand. But his advice, positive and to put things in perspective as ever, was to go out and present my work like I always do. Don’t think of it as a prize, it’s just a presentation. He always managed to keep me grounded, and this is the attitude I took forward and did in my presentation. And, testament to his mentorship, I won the Senior Colgate Prize, just as he himself did 20-odd years before me!

Proud doesn’t even come close to describing my true feelings, and to know that I had made him and my colleagues proud too meant so much more to me than the prize itself. Fingers crossed it helps with future career prospects!

Shortly after this conference, I was able to re-submit my first first-author paper, which was very well received and needed minor amendments before finally being published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology in January 2017! Such a proud moment again to say, read my paper here: Morse et al., (2018).

Thinking back to the science, and the PhD itself. This final year was really the time that the thesis began to take shape, with me in the lab until early summer, finishing off little things here and there to make it as coherent a story as possible. I still had the mammoth task of actually writing the thesis fully, and to a level I was happy with.

This is when, again, the imposter syndrome kicks in, and you believe that you really shouldn’t be here doing this. The more you read, the more you appreciate the intellectual and academic contributions that many before you have made to the sciences, and knowledge, and to think that I am intended to be a part of this group of people is difficult to accept. But, we all are. We all make contributions that have the potential to influence others, or guide others, and contribute to scientific understanding at a fundamental level. This is what a PhD is all about.

Writing the thesis was one of the most difficult things I have ever undertaken and completed. The volume of the content, the wording, science and formatting literally took months and months to get right. After many many reviews of chapters coming from every direction, I finally got to the point of submission.

The hand-in to the postgraduate research admin team was probably one of the most anti-climatic things I’ve ever down. Feeling really deflated when they said received it and replied with ‘thank you’. That was it. There were no bells or whistles, no party poppers, no celebratory banners, no hand shakes for the substantial effort required to get to this point. And then I remembered, it isn’t actually over yet. I am still yet to face the viva voce.

My viva was scheduled for the 18th December, with Dr Angela Nobbs (University of Bristol) as my external, and Prof Daniel Aeschlimann (Cardiff University) as my internal, the scene was set. I had no idea what to expect after opting not to have a mock viva which I maintain was a good decision as it would have only made me feel worse about things I’m sure. I was briefed on what would happen, and then went in to face the unknown.

I am not going to lie, it was a super stressful, and very very difficult viva. Not unfair, but it is always difficult when someone says ‘I don’t believe this data’, despite all evidence correlating and pointing to the same outcome. I will maintain that it was merely to test me and to ensure i can justify my work and decisions, as again this is a another fundamental aspect of becoming a Doctor. But it is also very hard to take when someone is literally critiquing your years of work in front of you, to the tiniest of details. It can be very overwhelming, and I certainly found this too. But I did manage to get through it, and am happy to say that I am now Dr Daniel Morse. Corrections were a bit of a pain to be honest, but a formality, and the suggested corrections did also make the thesis even stronger than it was at the time of submission, so worth completing to the best of my ability.

All in all, a very hard but very enjoyable experience. The mental stress you, I and others have/will experience is like nothing you will ever experience after, or will have experienced before. But, in my eyes, it is all worth it.

I’m very excited for what the future holds, and it is important to have no regrets of any decisions you make. You make the best decision at the time with the information you have to hand.

And, if I can end on a note of positivity, something that has stuck with me from my school days on maintaining positivity, I will finish with my favourite quote of all time:

If you think you can do it, you’re probably right!

Mr Alan Bootle, (ca. 2000)
The PhD – looking back as a postdoc
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