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Sandra Bartolomeu Pires is a Research Sister in Neurodegenerative diseases at University Hospital Southampton and PhD Candidate at the University of Southampton

Sandra Bartolomeu Pires is a Research Sister in Neurodegenerative diseases at University Hospital Southampton and PhD Candidate at the University of Southampton

Blog: Don't do it!

From 2018 to 2020 I cowboyed through fellowships and awards, trying to keep a percentage of my time academically focused, in pursue of the Al Grail – PhD funding. These varied from 50% to 9% with interim periods of zero (keeping the work going though). “I just need some funding, my foot in, then I will make it work”.

In September 2020, alleluia, PhD scholarship secured! I made a happy dance while holding my 3-year-old daughter and she laughed loudly without understanding why mummy was making such a fuss over a phone call (now that I think about it, she was probably just mocking my lack of dance skills…).

I couldn’t believe it. Starting September I would be a PhD student at University of Southampton! “So how does that work Sandra?”. Well, I get 50% of my time funded to do the PhD. I have funding for four years. “So you need to do a part-time PhD in four years, with a toddler, no family support... (cricket noises) If someone can do it that person is you!”

“Do you have any advice before I start? Something you wished you knew from the beginning?”

“Don’t do it”. I have heard this multiple times. Don’t do it; Why would you do it?; Have all your children first, let them go through school, and then do it. Oh please, what do you people know about this? Well, people that are now post-docs and know the pits of despair very well. I really appreciate their advice. They took the time to meet me, share their experience with me, advise me when I asked for it.

But then Seinfeld’s voice on my head ”I am special, my mother was right” (Yes I say this joke too many times).

“So you need to do a part-time PhD in four years, with a toddler, no family support... If someone can do it that person is you!”

“Do you have any advice before I start? Something you wished you knew from the beginning?”

“Don’t do it”

Our lovely Jamie Stevenson from the ARC Wessex communications team challenged us to write how we (PhD scholars) feel in the beginning, and then see how the PhD relationship evolves through the years.

The most prevalent thought “I am not good enough.” – There are plenty of resources and podcasts on imposter syndrome, it’s an all thing, go look it up. My advice on this is something Hugh Kearns said: Focus on facts, not feelings. One really needs to be able to balance those internal voices to juggle the daily pressures and workload.

This year was more challenging than I could have predicted, worse than the people that had advised me imagined. And I still had it so much easier than many people. In the first COVID wave I paused my SHAPE award which was so hard to get, to go back full-time clinically. How could I focus knowing all that was happening? So that meant preparing the ARC PhD funding application in my own time, while working full-time in COVID research.

In the second wave I thought “Let’s make a tradition out of this!”, deciding to apply for a NIHR Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship. A lot of my funded PhD time went into preparing this Everest application (while clinically I was once again moved to COVID research but this time inpatients). March was horrible. Deaths from young patients, deaths from colleagues, working clinically in an area out of my comfort zone, and this Everest application, cherry on top of the cake. I was broken and needed help.

My supervisors were incredibly supportive, and the Staff help line was my life jacket. Then stomach pain, daily, unable to eat properly without feeling uncomfortable (I LOVE FOOD!!). “That is stress!”. My reply was “I always had a stressful life and never had stomach pain”. Thinking back, it probably is “just” stress. I mean I am not 20 anymore…

After telling my husband “I have sent you an email with my login details, if I end up in the resus room (wouldn’t be the first time), please submit the application. Otherwise, I will come back to haunt you!” I actually managed to submit the application, at 2am. At 9am all the kind souls that were my signatories and participatories had signed (Thank you so much!) and off I went to Bournemouth beach with my mother and sister which had travelled in the middle of a pandemic to see us and I had barely laid down eyes on them. Freedom Day, 11th June (Sorry Boris!).

I could really have used with some holidays then - or an induced coma for a week - but then no can do. Diving back into my systematic literature review and thanking my past self for keeping good records.

I am now past my first viva/First PhD review progression, straight out of the oven (23rd July 2021) and received an overwhelming positive feedback “You seem to think you are delayed Sandra, but you are excelling at the PhD” (I hope the assessor and the supervisors didn’t notice my watery eyes).

I write this as I am flying to Portugal to see my lovely family. My daughter and husband have been there for a week. So on the day of my viva I was actually alone all day. Not to worry though, plenty of wine in Portugal (Omeprazol and Rennie in the bag) and time to celebrate with those who support me most on this crazy journey.

How was this first academic year? It was absolutely amazing! So (SO) hard, but thrilling, challenging, just the way I like it (I am sure it is some disease and I am just going undiagnosed all these years). The taste of victory is addictive: pressing that “Submit” button, reading my assessor’s report on PGR Tracker, having my long surname in papers (soon to come), the validation from my patient population, my supervisors proud of me, and the hope of making change happen for the best care of patients and carers.

I am so excited for the next steps. Knowing that I pushed my boundaries, I am doing what I love, working towards a career that I dream of, surrounded by an incredible support network. For now, out of office ON on Hospital and Uni accounts. Breaks are important and I have earned my two weeks off. Let’s see what year 2 brings 😉

“I have sent you an email with my login details, if I end up in the resus room (wouldn’t be the first time), please submit the application. Otherwise, I will come back to haunt you!”