Pressure, pandemic and people: the first year of my PhD

Els Roding, from the Netherlands, has recently completed the first year of her PhD in LSHTM’s Faculty of Public Health & Policy. In this interview, Els tells us about her research and shares advice for other students undertaking PhD study.

Hi Els, thanks for joining us. To start with, can you let us know a bit about your background and what led you to the PhD programme at LSHTM?

I first studied Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies in the Netherlands, then did a research master’s in Medical Anthropology. I just became so interested in the subject, that I wanted to explore more ways to continue – not necessarily within academia, but then an opportunity came up where I met a potential supervisor from LSHTM, Prof Simon Cohn. Simon had some really interesting ideas and asked the kinds of questions I was interested in exploring. So we designed a study and successfully applied for funding. It was a very big surprise and of course I accepted because it is great to be working on a study we have designed ourselves.

Tell us more about your research.

It’s a Medical Anthropology study and I will do qualitative research in a hospital in the UK. It’s about the NHS under pressure and all the different pressures people working in the NHS are under, and how these interact with what will be my case study – pressure ulcer prevention and management.

That sounds like a very interesting topic. What stage are you at now?

I had the upgrading process (from MPhil to PhD) a couple of months ago, which means I wrote a detailed plan for my study and presented it virtually to the assessors and colleagues. I was unfamiliar with this process but it was a good experience with feedback I can definitely work with and that helps me move forward with the project.

Congratulations on overcoming that first hurdle! So looking back over your first year, how would you describe your day-to-day routine?

Well, this changed massively during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I started the year in London and got a desk in an office at LSHTM’s Tavistock Place building, which was really nice as everyone was working on different things. I’d definitely recommend to every PhD candidate to work in an office with other PhD students if they get a chance. I treated the PhD as a 9-5 job to keep a structure to my day and prevent myself from working at all times of the day and week, and would usually be in the office working and chatting with my colleagues, getting to know the School and getting to know the literature. And then the pandemic happened! Since then I mostly have been in the Netherlands close to family, working from home which took some getting used to but I still try to treat it as a 9-5 job. It has definitely helped to keep that structure.

It has certainly been a memorable year for everyone. What’s your plan then for next year, will you still be able to go into the hospital?

Yes, that’s the idea! I’m still trying to make that happen but also making other arrangements in case that’s not possible because hospitals are a lot less accessible for people not working in them at the moment. The plan initially was to start fieldwork in September and be in the hospital for about 12 months: interviewing, observing and shadowing people. I’m trying to make that happen, but at the same time making sure that if I’m not able to enter the hospital I can be flexible with doing things remotely over calls and shifting my methods slightly. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, because if people are working that way right now then as an ethnographer that’s what you should observe. Going through that process of doing things remotely also gives you new insights in how that works and what pressures it puts on people so it will be interesting. I’ve never done research like that before so it’s definitely a learning experience!

How have you found the academic support at LSHTM?

I find my supervisors very supportive and they’re happy to meet quite regularly. I feel the faculty in general are open to doctoral candidates’ perspectives, for instance, there are meetings we can attend if we like. I have also approached several professors just to have a coffee and discuss my project because they might have a specific angle on it or suggestions for literature. They have all been willing and I have enjoyed meeting these intellects from other disciplines as well as my own.

That’s great to hear you have had so much support from willing academics. Is there any advice you would give to new PhD students at LSHTM, especially for those beginning their degree in the COVID-19 era?

Definitely talk to people. Look at the website and see who is working in your Faculty and maybe other Faculties as well, to see if they would engage with and offer different perspectives on your project. Send them an email to see if they are willing to think with you about your project, perhaps over a Zoom call or by giving literature input. It is really useful to make the most of the time you have in that Faculty.

The same counts for other PhD candidates. I’ve been enjoying my PhD for many reasons, but mainly because I have such a nice group of other PhD students around me I have gotten to know who all do completely different things from me. So learning about them, where they’re from and their ideas about things, but also becoming friends has been valuable. We are, for example, supporting each other through the upgrading we have all been going through at the same time. We’ve been staying in touch throughout the pandemic in a WhatsApp group, even though we’re all over the world right now! I would definitely recommend getting in touch with other PhD candidates who are starting around the same time, as well as others to share experiences and go through it together rather than alone.

For people who are starting now, mostly on their own but not sharing an office or meeting face-to-face at events, it’s really worth trying to connect with people over email. I think many PhD candidates who are already at LSHTM will be very happy to talk to you about their experiences over the first months of doing the PhD.

That’s very helpful advice. Is there anything you would recommend to students considering applying to study at LSHTM?

I think it’s important to find a topic that you’ll be interested in exploring for at least a couple of years, but equally important to find a supervisor who helps you foster that interest by asking inspiring questions. Finding a supervisor who you get along with and who supports you in the way you need is one of the keys to a positive PhD experience, so I would advise students to set up a meeting with their potential supervisor at least once before they take any decisions.

Do you have any plans yet beyond your PhD?

I started this PhD thinking, ‘let’s see if I want to continue an academic career or get out after that’, and I’m still exploring. I think I would still be interested to continue in academia and I’m keen to do some teaching, but I’m keeping an open mind.

And finally, how would you summarise your first year at LSHTM – what have you enjoyed the most?

I think I have mostly enjoyed all the different perspectives on anthropology and my project, and the PhD experience in terms of meeting all many people and talking with them and hearing their thoughts about life, academia, and my project. It has been really interesting!


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