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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

Researching student mental health during the pandemic: a PhD student tries to remain objective

Maria Thomas4 May 2020

This blog has been guest written by PhD Student Tayla McCloud, UCL Division of Psychiatry.

Woman anxious at desk with laptop

It is difficult to think of anyone who is unaffected in some way by the current coronavirus pandemic and resulting UK lockdown. Whilst practical adjustments and physical health concerns spring to mind, there are myriad mental health implications, too.

Results from two early online surveys conducted by the mental health charity MQ and the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) showed that the main concerns among people with lived experience of a mental illness and others in the general population were the impact of the pandemic on anxiety, isolation, and access to support. These are likely to affect everyone to differing degrees throughout the lockdown.

On April 15th, a team of prominent psychiatric researchers published a piece in Lancet Psychiatry calling for high-quality research monitoring the mental health impact on the general population overall and in specific vulnerable groups. These are defined as including children and young people affected by school closures, older adults who may be isolated, and frontline healthcare workers. This is undoubtedly of utmost importance.

One group also experiencing a lot of disruption, though, is university students. Universities have been forced to close physically, meaning that this year’s exam and graduation season has been upended. Teaching is being conducted remotely and assessments have mostly been moved to different formats online. Like primary and secondary education students, university students will be adjusting to a completely new routine and way of learning.

Unlike primary and secondary students, though, for university students studying ‘at home’ may mean moving back in with parents in a completely different city, town or even country to where they usually study. This is likely to be a considerable upheaval at an already difficult time, with concerns around when it will be safe to return, but students who do not go back to where they lived before university risk being left to live alone without their usual support networks as many others leave.

Most university courses are attempting to continue as close to normal as possible, delivering teaching remotely, which means assessments are still largely going ahead. This means that students are under a lot of pressure to be as productive and focused as usual during what is a very tough time psychologically. Without access to libraries and equipment, they also may not have the resources or study spaces they usually have in which to complete their work. Under-performance, as well as the pandemic itself, could negatively impact their future career.

For these reasons, among others, university students may be at increased risk of experiencing negative mental health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. It is, however, difficult to know this without relevant data.

SENSE Study Logo

This is where my PhD project, the SENSE study, comes in. SENSE is a longitudinal survey of the mental health of UCL students, conducted online beginning in October 2019. The last wave was in February 2020 and the next wave will begin shortly, in May. It covers such areas as students’ demographics, accommodation, financial situation and social lives, and we are adding new questions relating to the pandemic. This means that we will be able to compare UCL students’ mental health before and during the UK coronavirus outbreak. This could help us to understand more about which groups are more vulnerable to the impact of UCL’s closure and the UK lockdown, potentially highlighting areas for intervention. Follow @SENSEstudy on Twitter for updates, or visit our website www.sensestudy.co.uk.

I am also involved in a new study, You-COPE, which aims to measure the mental health of young people aged 16-24 in the UK throughout the lockdown and public health response and in the months afterwards. Follow me on Twitter (@TaylaMcCloud) for updates on this when it launches. This will include university students as well as non-students, and as such will complement the SENSE data findings and allow comparisons between these two groups.

I am attempting to continue this PhD work as usual, whilst conscious that I am a university student living through the coronavirus pandemic researching the mental health of university students during the coronavirus pandemic. It can be difficult to continue work as a “professional” when your work involves focusing on how students are being negatively affected.

Being a student who is researching student mental health is often quite odd like this. I talk about ‘university students’ in the third person, making hypotheses about this abstract group that it is easy to forget I am part of. I often bring my own university experience into the conversation as an example, as do my supervisors, but I am usually referring to a (somewhat) far away undergraduate version of myself and not my present experience. PhD students occupy a confusing space somewhere between staff and student that means we never quite feel like either.

The current coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting UK lockdown and UCL closure, has undoubtedly impacted my PhD work, as well as seemingly every other aspect of my life. I am trying to use this as an advantage; considering how I can use my experience as a UCL student during this time to inform my research, and my interpretation of the findings of this research. I hope that this will add value to the research I am conducting, and that SENSE and You-COPE will be able to shed new light on our understanding of the mental health of university students at a time when they may be particularly vulnerable.