My name is Tess Watt, I am 22 and I have recently started my PhD in Computing. I am studying at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland. I started my doctoral degree right after my undergraduate graduation in the summer of 2023. This came as the result of a lot of hard work and is both challenging and rewarding. I am honoured to be able to share my experience with The PhD Place. I hope to provide some valuable insights and advice for students who are considering making the jump from undergraduate studies straight into a PhD degree.
Evaluate all your options
Towards the end of my four-year undergraduate degree (BEng Computing with Honours), I was weighing up my options. Should I go into industry? That was a definite no for me. After doing two summer internships in industry, I knew that road wasn’t the one I wanted to take. The lack of freedom both in terms of creativity and working hours made me feel stifled and unmotivated. This led me to consider pursuing further education. The traditional (and frankly, expected) next step after a Bachelor’s degree is a Master’s, so that’s where I set my sights. What I didn’t expect was for my supervisor to recommend I go straight into a PhD.
Should I do a Master’s or a PhD?
After a lot of discussion and thought, it made sense for me to do a PhD instead of a Master’s. I loved the research aspect of writing my undergraduate dissertation, and I found that the self-study paradigm worked a lot better for me than attending scheduled lectures and labs. Another 1-2 years of sitting in uncomfortable lecture halls was not an exciting thought. I also had simply not been aware that going straight from undergrad to postgrad was possible! With this revelation, I sent in my PhD project proposal and CV to the selection committee.
Gain experience as you go
Despite my high grades, the PhD interview made it apparent that more was expected of me. In my field of Computing, I was expected to already have published papers, to know the process and terminology related to project funding, and a lot of other things I hadn’t experienced during my undergraduate studies. Luckily, I have an excellent rapport with my supervisor, and he helped me prepare in advance. He even helped me apply for a ‘starter grant’. This not only gave me a head start on my project but allowed me to gain experience in applying for grant money and submitting papers to academic conferences.
Tackling imposter syndrome
As well as facing challenges intellectually, imposter syndrome was another challenge I faced when taking the leap from undergrad to PhD. People still ask me, ‘Aren’t you too young to do a PhD?’, ‘Don’t you need a Master’s degree first?’, and ‘Don’t you know that a PhD isn’t a real job?’. I try to answer these questions from the perspective of educating the questioner, as I do understand my situation is a slightly unusual one. Something I have to regularly remind myself of is that I am doing something amazing! Something that required years of hard work and dedication to achieve. Something worth celebrating. So don’t let questions like these get you down, but instead use them as some unofficial teaching experience (which will come in handy if you undertake some teaching during your PhD!).
My final advice
My advice to anyone who is considering going straight into a doctoral degree after their undergraduate studies would be to prepare as much as you can, but don’t fret if you don’t have all the answers. The jump is big, but so are the benefits. Doing a PhD provides you with the opportunity to study something you love at a specialised level, which is super cool and liberating. The work schedule is also quite flexible, and it’s a chance to showcase your skills in full. Reach out to your supervisor if you have any questions, no matter how silly you think they might be! Ask them what will be expected of you, especially when it comes to deliverables and timelines. Having that knowledge early on will allow you to focus fully on your project when your start date approaches.
Best of luck on whatever path you choose!