Rebekah Miller graduated from Edinburgh University three years ago. Since then she has successfully completed a Masters and is now in the midst of studying a PHD.
Where are you at within further study?
Since graduating from the MA Geography (hons) programme in 2014, I have completed a Masters by Research (MRes) in Human Geography. After graduating from the Masters (in 2015), I began a PhD in Geography. I am currently in my second year of this three-year programme at the University of Edinburgh.
What is postgrad’ study like and how does it compare to undergrad’?
In comparison with the final year of an undergraduate geography degree, the Masters workload was relatively similar. I had to take series of compulsory courses to gain the appropriate number of credits. The Masters by Research gave a lot of flexibility to pursue research through the 15,000-word dissertation. I was lucky as my Masters acted as a ‘pilot study’ for my current PhD research. I found that this helped to give me a sense of direction – towards a larger project.
With regards to the PhD, you are dedicated to one particular topic and one particular project. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore something that you are interested in. However, it is necessary to ensure that your interest can be sustained through three years (or more) of in-depth study. It is important to adjust your expectations about how much guidance and instruction you will receive. Unlike with an undergraduate degree, there are few assessments within the PhD, other than the final thesis. As a result, you are your own boss (with the guidance of your supervisors) and have to keep in control of your own workload, time management, and motivation.
My PhD research has allowed for significant time to be spent in the Costa del Sol, in the south of Spain for fieldwork. It has also enabled me to attend a variety of different conferences in London, Cardiff, Glasgow, and Valencia. I have also been employed by the university as a tutor throughout my postgraduate studies, and have found this a very rewarding job. It also helps me to balance my priorities, and prevent too much procrastination!
How did you get the position (application process)?
I am funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (the ESRC). This is one of several research councils that fund PhD research, as well as other university research projects.
The application process for the ‘1+3 programme’, which funds 1 year of Masters and 3 years of PhD study, started in the last year of my undergraduate. I started planning a research proposal (of around 1,500 words) in January 2014. I asked for guidance and advice from my dissertation supervisor and few other members of the Geography department. Upon submitting my proposal, I was told that only the top 10 proposals would receive an invitation to be interviewed for a studentship. Of those 10 interviewed, only 6 would receive a studentship. I was invited to go for an interview in late March 2014. However, as I had not graduated (therefore didn’t have a degree classification) I was aware that I was unlikely to be graded highly in relation to other candidates.
I was faced with a panel of five academics from across Scotland who asked me a series of questions. I asked PhD students within the department for advice and their experiences of this panel before the interview, therefore I had a good idea of what kind of questions to expect. A few days after the interview I received an email to say that I was to be awarded the ESRC studentship. I was also told that I had done exceptionally well in the interview and this had moved my application from the bottom of the pile to number two! I am not trying to boast here, just to point out that it is possible for someone who has not yet graduated from their undergraduate degree to be accepted for funding for a postgraduate studentship. It was hard work, but well worth it for four years of secure funding!
For those looking into applying to this programme, or something similar, I would advise factoring in the time it takes to write a proposal, and prepare for an interview. I was undertaking this application process at the same time as writing my undergraduate dissertation, and applying for a new summer job. The postgraduate studies application took, I estimate in hindsight, about a month in total to write, finesse, and submit.
How did Geography degree at Edinburgh prepare you for this?
I had a supportive group of friends, fantastic supervision, and welcoming lecturers – all of which were part of geography at Edinburgh for me. The courses I took prepared me well for research; the methodology courses equipped me with the ‘tools’ to conduct research, the honours courses provided exciting literature to read and worldwide examples to consider, and courses such as The Nature of Geographical Knowledge encouraged a critical way of thinking that I have found invaluable. I found the third year field trip to Amsterdam was particularly valuable as it opened my eyes to the possibilities of research and the exciting things that could be learned from conducting fieldwork. The dissertation process, although challenging at points, also inspired me to continue further academic study.