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Starting a PhD in the middle of a pandemic by Humma Andleeb

iomh18 March 2021

profile photo of phd student humma andleeb

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.

Over the last year, all of us have had to drastically alter our lives in some way, whether that be home-schooling your children, working from home, practising extensive social distancing and hygiene in public spaces or staying at home for extended periods of time.

Just days before the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, I had been offered a place on the UCL Wellcome PhD programme in Mental Health Science. Amongst the chaos, with the ever-extending lockdown, it was hard to plan or think about the future not knowing what would unfold over the coming months. I was increasingly anxious as people started losing their jobs facing unemployment without financial support, here I was about to leave a secure job to pursue a PhD. Honestly, I had to question whether it was the right time to take on a PhD and whether I was taking too much of a risk in the circumstances.

As the months followed and I was asked to shield whilst the pandemic picture grew much worse all over the world, my mental health took a rapid decline and my motivation dropped to an all-time low. Not being able to visualise the future and whether I would be able to take on the PhD if I would still be required to shield was causing me a lot of stress. Thankfully, the programme committee reassured me that they would find a way to accommodate the situation whatever it would be come September. Encouragingly, we were able to have a relatively relaxed summer and things seemed to be looking bright leading up to the start date but, quite suddenly, things started to worsen as schools opened in September and universities were set to open campuses for students. Nevertheless, I handed in my notice and began preparing for this new and once-in-a-lifetime venture.

Before the start, we were told by UCL that most teaching and work would be delivered online unless it was absolutely necessary to be on campus (for example, if you needed to be in a lab), as undergraduate students were to be prioritised for on-campus learning until at least January, but we would have the opportunity to meet the rest of the cohort and the committee at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN) for our weekly skills seminar (social distancing regulations in place, of course).

Considering all that was happening, it was helpful that we had the month of October to scope out potential rotation projects for the year with potential supervisors on the programme but still have the opportunity to attend a weekly seminar at the ICN. Knowing that most of our studies would be virtual until January (at the earliest), I made the decision to move back to my family home in the Midlands so I could spend time with my grandma and family (plus the bonus of saving money on rent!). I commuted to London for the weekly seminars and lunch with the rest of the cohort. This was short-lived as COVID-19 cases began to rise rapidly and the skills seminars switched to virtual when the November lockdown was announced, just as we started our first rotations. My first rotation was using existing datasets so could all be done virtually but as the rotations are short (10-12 weeks long), most projects were unable to offer data collection opportunities and if they were, these were currently all being done virtually. Essentially, everyone was in the same boat.

Overall, it was daunting starting a PhD in the middle of a global pandemic, especially in the context of giving up a well-paid job when unemployment was rising, but it was a now-or-never decision. I truly felt like I was at the stage in my career to take this on professionally, so it was a risk that was worth taking for me! My former colleagues at McPin were incredibly supportive in helping me navigate this change and gave me the validation I needed that this was something that was right for me. It really helped being able to meet with the rest of the cohort on Zoom and then in person weekly (especially great that we all got on so well). We immediately made a WhatsApp group to keep in touch and also met virtually on Zoom for the skills seminars. In my opinion, the most difficult thing has been working with a lab group that you work with every day but never getting the opportunity to meet with them. You end up in a sort of awkward position of having spent a lengthy amount of time being part of the lab, but there being this barrier of not knowing someone’s persona in real life or fully understanding the lab banter that you have never physically been a part of.

Interview for the UCL-Wellcome 4-year PhD Programme in Mental Health Science by Humma Andleeb

iomh2 March 2021

profile photo of phd student humma andleeb

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.

Having applied to the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health PhD programme at the end of January 2020 (read my blog post on applying here), I was shortlisted for an interview, much to my surprise. We were told that we would be presented with a 30-minute task that would consist of a series of abstracts and the interviewee would be asked to summarise the abstract in lay language for the general public. Following the task, a 30-minute interview would take place with a panel consisting of members of the committee.

At the time, COVID-19 was beginning to spread rapidly especially in London and we were given the opportunity to have a virtual interview or have a socially-distanced in-person interview. I opted for an in-person interview, due to personal preference, but as things escalated the weekend before the interviews were due to take place, we were all given the opportunity to have a virtual interview and reassured that there would be no impact on our outcomes if we did opt for a virtual interview. I decided to go ahead with the original plans and have an in-person interview.

Preparing for the interview

In preparation for my interview, I revisited my application form and looked up some online resources on how to prepare for a PhD interview. Looking back at my application, I focussed on areas that might interest the panel and areas that I could potentially expand on at interview. Using online resources that provided guidance and feedback from interview experiences helped to guide me in preparing for questions that I may be asked relating to the programme and my application as well as think about questions that I had about the programme and the university. However, I noticed that resources online tend to focus on specific PhDs with a specific supervisor and assume that you already have a thesis title; therefore, it’s important to note that this programme is different, in that it is a 1+3 programme and is for a generic Mental Health Science PhD, so there is less need to focus on specific background research in one area. The focus of the programme being interdisciplinary also comes into this, as collaboration across the three main themes (Mechanism, Population and Intervention) is heavily encouraged and forms the basis for the programme.

The interview

On the day of the interview, I got the bus from my South London home to Bloomsbury and walked to the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience where the interview was due to take place. As someone who is either very late or very early, I decided to make a conscious effort to be VERY early, so I arrived before the building had even opened! Thankfully, I didn’t have to stand outside for very long before the receptionist arrived, and I had plenty of time to look through the notes I had made in the foyer area (after sanitizing my hands of course!). The panel members began arriving and there was an interview scheduled before mine, but time went really quickly as I skimmed through my preparation notes and before I knew it, it was time to start the task. Whilst working on the task, I was anxious that I’d forget all my preparation for the main interview so it was a plus that all that was required of me was to summarise the abstract (I’m not sure I could have done anything more complex than that!).

Due to the nature of the unfolding pandemic, some of the panellists joined the interview via Zoom and others were there in person, but the room was set up to ensure that we could all communicate and see each other. Another thing that immediately stood out to me was that there was no daunting row of mean-looking panellists sitting across from the interviewee, ready to pounce on you. Instead, they all introduced themselves and gave some insight into their role on the programme and their job before outlining how the interview would go.

The interview itself felt like a conversation and all of my worries disappeared once I settled into the atmosphere and noticed the welcoming nature of the panel. Usually, I’d want the interview to end as soon as possible, but in this interview, I could have carried on talking about how great the programme was and its potential in encouraging collaborative research in mental health science. I was able to express my passion for interdisciplinary research, my previous research experience and my wider interests and hobbies. It was evident from the discussions that this programme is not just about academic achievement but also about ensuring students are well supported and trained in areas that will help shape our futures as mental health researchers and people.

I went in thinking of the panel as my colleagues and I felt like that was reciprocated by the panel. I left the interview on a bit of a (natural) high but, after a while, started kicking myself for some of the responses I gave – and things I had prepared that I did not have time to mention. But this is completely normal and there’s never enough time to share everything, so I was sure I did the best I could possibly have done and about an hour later, I forgot what had even been discussed! I had emphasised all I could to highlight why I felt I was an ideal student for this programme, now the decision was in the hands of the committee… all I could do at that point was to wait and hope.

As I share my personal experience, I’m aware that one person’s experience may differ greatly from the next, and other students in the cohort had virtual interviews, so they have kindly offered their reflections and experiences below:

Rosalind McAlpine: “I found the interview (surprisingly) enjoyable! I was slightly nervous about the pre-interview task, but the interview panel created an inviting and supportive atmosphere and my anxieties were immediately dissolved. As I was studying in America at the time, I completed my interview online and – prior to it starting – I was slightly apprehensive that things would be awkward due to the digital nature of the interview. However, the panel were clearly very experienced in conducting these sorts of interviews because I never felt as though I was being spoken over or speaking over someone, and the interview had a pleasant, reciprocal dynamic to it. I felt the questions they asked me were completely appropriate and allowed me to demonstrate why I wanted to join the programme and what I hoped to gain from it. Similarly, I felt comfortable in asking any questions that popped up and felt I was heard throughout.”

Thomas Steare: “Interviewing for a Wellcome-funded PhD at University College London is quite a big deal. Naturally I was nervous despite the numerous practice interviews I had done the week before. A great thing about the programme is its emphasis on supporting students and their well-being. This was evident throughout the interview as the panel made a big effort to be supportive and engaging. My anxieties quickly subsided when the interview commenced, and I soon enjoyed answering the interviewers’ questions and explaining why I was so interested in studying a PhD with a focus on interdisciplinary research methods.”

Giulia Piazza: “March 2020 was a strange month for many reasons. I was very surprised to be invited to an interview for the UCL-Wellcome 4-year PhD in Mental Health Science. I remember being incredibly nervous –  I practiced a lot, and thankfully the panel was extremely welcoming and reassuring. I thought all questions were fair and relevant, and tried my best to explain why I so badly wanted to join the programme. If you have been shortlisted for an interview, here is my advice. Keep going despite technical mishaps. You might feel like you haven’t answered a question as best as you could have, but don’t lose hope throughout the interview. No one will be trying to trick you or get you to make a mistake: your interviewers really want every candidate to perform at their best, and they understand people will naturally be anxious on the day. Genuinely answer with your opinions, rather than thinking about what you believe the committee wants to hear. And lastly (and this is the hardest part), try not to be too hard on yourself!”

If you have been shortlisted and are currently preparing for your interview, my main tips would be:

  • Use your application to guide your preparation. You have been shortlisted based on your application so use this to your advantage, and think of the interview as an opportunity to expand and reinforce what is included in your application
  • Spend some time thinking about and preparing what you want to prioritise sharing in the interview
  • Think about what the panel will want to know about you in order to gauge whether this programme is the right fit for your experience and passion for research and consider what they are looking for in a candidate
  • Interviews don’t have to be daunting – framing them as a conversation with a new colleague about your previous experience and your aspirations, as opposed to giving answers to difficult questions from scary academics, might make it easier to prepare.
  • Remember that there is more to you than just your academic achievements, and being a good candidate is about more than just having a longlist of experience and accolades
  • Think about any questions you may have about the programme and use the interview opportunity to ask the committee members

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

Applying for the UCL-Wellcome 4-year PhD Programme in Mental Health Science by Humma Andleeb

iomh6 November 2020

profile photo of phd student humma andleeb

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