Applying for the UCL-Wellcome 4-year PhD Programme in Mental Health Science by Humma Andleeb
By iomh, on 6 November 2020
This is a series of blogs about my experience of the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD programme. It will cover applying for the programme, the interview and lead up to enrolment stage of the programme as well as my experience of the programme and my PhD. I am publishing these blogs for prospective students in response to the queries I have received about the programme in response to my Twitter thread on successfully securing a place on the programme.
During my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Neuroscience, I worked with a PhD student on my research project and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to go on and do a PhD too. However, I was aware that the financial constraints and the commitment of doing a PhD were things to be carefully considered before taking the leap.
I applied for various research assistant posts with no success until I came across an opportunity with The McPin Foundation as a trainee researcher, with an emphasis on the importance of lived experience of mental health problems. In my teenage years, I experienced quite severe depression and self-harm and was regularly seeing a child psychiatrist in my local Child and Adolescent Mental Health service. This was the start of my journey in mental health research and what better way to get involved in research than by using my lived experience to inform the work. I was elated when, much to my relief, I got the position at McPin.
In my three years at McPin, I was able to work on qualitative studies as well as use my background in quantitative methods on projects. It is during this time that my passion for research in mental health was cemented and I knew doing a PhD was the dream next step in my career as a researcher. I say it was a dream because it really was. It is rare for South Asian women to pursue academia beyond undergraduate or Master’s studies. There is a pressure culture around preparedness for marriage, children and family. Although it is difficult to detach yourself from the guilt of not pursuing the path set out for you, it felt like a natural progression for me to further my experience and training in mental health research.
During my time working at McPin, I loved the social and psychological research but I was missing the clinical neuroscience aspect that I had become so interested in during my undergraduate studies. I had been contemplating PhDs for a while, browsing Find a PhD, and speaking to various academics in the networks I had built at McPin about funding opportunities and PhD projects, until I came across a tweet by Jon Roiser (the course director) on the news that the Wellcome Trust had awarded UCL a 4-year PhD programme in Mental Health Science!
The description caught my eye and upon exploring it further on the website, it seemed too good to be true. I was baffled as to how much it matched my interests, experiences and what I was looking for, all in one PhD. The main thing that stood out to me was the emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary research – a topic that I have often openly spoke about the need for in research, to better treat and prevent mental health problems.
I spent the following week exploring the application process and what the programme was looking for from applicants, as well as what it could offer me, before deciding to apply for it. For me, a major factor of pursuing a PhD was ensuring that I was an ideal candidate for the programme, but also that the programme met my needs and future aspirations. Having lived experience and using it to inform the research I have been and will be involved in, it was fundamental for me to be able to disclose that, and to ensure that there was adequate mental health support available during the course of a PhD.
As most will be aware, PhDs have the potential to be isolating for students due to the nature of working on a stand-alone project – therefore it’s crucial that students have appropriate support systems and networks around them. Having previous mental health problems may further exacerbate this isolation so the fact that the programme assigns each student an independent mentor as well as being part of a cohort of five other students on the same programme eased my worries.
It was also critical that I would be able to express my identity and experience as a South Asian woman and for institutions to make space for those from minoritised communities or from a “BAME” background, who are less likely to pursue further studies in academia and when they do, retainment is very low. It is promising that the programme acknowledges and attempts to address these issues, and has ringfenced a scholarship for one “BAME” student each year of the programme.
Focus points of the programme that stood out to me included the opportunity to widen my skill set through access to a network of supervisors in rotation projects during the first year, working across three themes: Mechanism, Population and Intervention. This would allow me to work with teams I had not previously encountered, and to train in a range of methods and techniques applied in mental health research at UCL. The reason this stood out to me was because I am passionate about a range of topics including clinical neuroscience, social research, quantitative and qualitative methodologies, as well as personal interests in the impact of lifestyle on mental health. I was torn on what I wanted to do my PhD on – all I knew was that I wanted it to be a collaboration between neuroscience and mental health, and ensure that the voices of those the furthest away from research were involved.
The deadline for the application was looming, so I got to work filling out the application form in the mornings whilst having breakfast, and the evenings after work. The application form is made up of a diversity monitoring form and an application form for the programme. The diversity monitoring form is not compulsory, but allows the team to keep track of the characteristics of those applying for the programme and detect any biases in the process. The application form, which must be submitted online, consists of sections about your academic achievements, your work experience and any research publications you may have, followed by three free-text sections about your research experience, a statement of motivation and your views on mental health research. The statement of motivation is a particularly important section of the application form (and the section I spent the most amount of time going back and forth with!), giving me the opportunity to express why the programme was of interest to me, how it fit in with my career trajectory and potential research areas I was interested in. There is a word limit to each of the free-text sections of the application form, which for me was a positive – it meant I had to succinctly prioritise what was essential for the application form, and what could be further discussed at interview stage if my application was shortlisted.
As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I submitted my application on the deadline date, going back and forth with several edits, asking family and even my former colleagues who encouraged me to apply (I know!), to proof-read and provide feedback on it. I may have even dreamt about the application the night I handed it in!
The suspense in between submitting the application and hearing back was tense, as many people knew how much work I had put into the application and how energised I was about the programme. When I found out I had been shortlisted, I couldn’t believe it – I probably (definitely!) celebrated like I had been offered a place! To even get to this stage is a huge milestone as it signifies an acknowledgement of your potential suitability to the programme as well as the quality of your application.
The next step was to prepare for the interview coming up a few weeks later which was nerve-wrecking to say the least as COVID-19 started spreading in London and things were getting tense everywhere, but I will cover more of this in the next blog!
For prospective students reading this thinking of applying to the programme, from my perspective the main tips I would give would be:
- Think about why you want to apply to the programme and what you will get out of it, but also what the programme will get from you as a student
- Put time and effort into the application, it is your opportunity to impress the committee within a word limit, and to summarise your experiences and interests
- Look at the supervisor list before applying and think about any supervisors you potentially want to work with on your rotations and/or your main PhD
- Allow plenty of time to proofread your application and maybe get someone else to proofread it too
- Ensure that the application form presents you as a person, not only through your academic experience
Humma Andleeb is on the 4-year PhD programme in Mental Health Science at UCL. She has an academic background in biochemistry and neuroscience and previously worked at The McPin Foundation, using her lived experience of mental health difficulties to inform mental health research. She is passionate about patient and public involvement, specifically involving minoritised communities furthest away from the research field. She is a regular book reader, sourdough baker and lifestyle podcast listener. You can find her on Twitter: @HummaAndleeb