What is PhD life like beyond the science? –
behind the scenes @ Durham University, UK

Kate Heerema (ESR5)

One year and one month into our PhDs — at least for most of us. “Time flies” is a gross understatement here I think. The PhD has already taken me to New Orleans, California, British Columbia, Germany, Switzerland and of course Durham, where I am based. Durham is a small quiescent town in North East England. It’s probably most famously known for its large cathedral, where part of Harry Potter were apparently filmed. I have also come to realise that Harry Potter related facts are a source of great pride for the English.

The Earth Sciences department in Durham is unfortunately not Harry Potter themed, although some do have an excellent view of the cathedral. My work environment is open plan; it is my office, shared with ~50 other postgraduates depending on the field season. And it is open plan to the fullest extent: you can see people work (or not…) on the other side. Or you can hear laughter from the coffee room across the open plan to improve your mood.

There are of course advantages and disadvantages to this. Stating the obvious: it is noisy, and there are days where you do not get a lot of work done. At least not as much as you would like to have done. Also, your typical fresher’s virus usually spreads quickly around the open plan. I realise that this does not sound very appealing so far; however, there is one major advantage to this open plan set-up – it is incredibly social. As a foreigner, moving to another city, another country(!) is always challenging. You have to find your place again, get used to different customs, and make new friends. The postgraduate community here is incredible, and allows you to quickly make friends and feel at home. You can also help your peers, and keep an eye out for each other, something that is always welcomed for PhDs. All in all, I would say: get yourself some good headphones, and then there are only advantages to an open plan environment. (Ok, apart from this virus spreading…) So let yourself be surprised, sometimes the advantages outweigh the disadvantages! 

Another great thing about Durham is that it is very close to the outdoors. Scotland is pretty close, as are some of the big national parks in England. So although travelling as part of the PhD is great, it is also very pleasant to be home, and to explore our new homes!

  • Durham University