Fri, 15 December, 2023
How Dr Amarachi Obilor PhD overcame challenges from leaving Nigeria to having a baby during her PhD studies
A PhD experience is full of challenges. They can be complex or simple, academic or personal, predictable, or totally unforeseen. How we react to those challenges will determine if our PhD is completed, and rewarded.
In this article, NSIRC and Loughborough University Alumna Dr Amarachi Obilor PhD, talks about her doctoral experience including the challenges of leaving Nigeria to study in the UK, the impact of COVID on her experiments, learning to work in an industry setting, and having two children during her studies.
Her PhD Studentship was sponsored by TWI and Loughborough University.
Experience and advice from a PhD student, including how to handle setbacks, taking charge of your own research, and the viva assessment
My background is in materials and metallurgical engineering, and I obtained both my first degree and my master's in these fields from my home country Nigeria. After completing my master's, I started working and gained some valuable experience.
Before coming to the UK, I had worked for about a year in Nigerian Foundries; a metal processing company focused on producing replacement cast parts for companies where the original equipment manufacturers are no longer accessible. Engineering jobs are not very easy to come by in Nigeria because the economy is not very supportive of the industry.
I knew that pursuing a PhD would be the key to unlocking my full career potential alongside acquiring research skills. Also, I wanted to gain exposure to an industrial setting in the UK, which is why I chose the PhD programme at NSIRC.
A friend who was based in the UK suggested that I should check out 'findaphd.com' to look for a suitable programme, and that's where I found the topic for my PhD. I applied, and after a successful application, I started my programme in January 2020. It offered the perfect combination of academia and industry exposure, and it turned out to be the right choice for me.
I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I was able to do all these while having them, so they can do even more...
My PhD research was on laser surface texturing of polymers for biomedical applications. During my research, I utilised different lasers and explored more than one texturing approach to functionalise the surface of polymers.
Just two months after starting my programme, the UK went into lockdown, and I was unable to carry out experiments. Initially, it was frustrating, but I decided to make the most of my time by reviewing lots of literature and catching up on what I needed to know before going into the laboratory for experiments. During this period, I started putting together a review paper, which turned out to be very helpful.
The pandemic made things even more challenging for me because of the rules that were in place to control the spread of the virus. It slowed down my progress with lab work and meetings. My first-year progression review approached, and I had less experimental data to work with than I had planned, but my supervisors proved to be supportive with clear guidance as to the ways to maximise the data I had acquired to be sufficient to pass the first year.
The second year of my PhD was a mixture of attending conferences, writing papers, and having my first baby. As an international student, I didn’t have the luxury of taking a full maternity leave while remaining in the UK. I was only able to get three months off. However, I was fortunate enough to have my family support to help with childcare, which gave me a bit of time to go on-site more frequently.
Throughout, I maintained constant communication with my supervisors and presented weekly updates on my progress and challenges. The weekly meetings were helpful to plan properly and well ahead.
I had zero experience with lasers before starting my research, so I had to do a lot of reading and laboratory trials. If I had to give advice, particularly to those coming from a different technical background, it would be “to identify and learn how to use relevant tools that you will need beforehand”. Looking back, I realise that if I had learned the necessary skills, tools, and writing styles earlier in my PhD journey, it would have been a much easier ride.
Many PhD students often have concerns about not receiving timely feedback from their supervisors and interpret it as a sign that people don't want to work with them. However, I found that it is important to put your emotions aside and recognise that your success is their success too. Your supervisors will always want to work with you, but sometimes, something bigger than your PhD may have gotten in the way. So, don't also add your emotions in the way.
Another important thing is to find ways to stay motivated because it can be frustrating when your experiments don't go as planned and you have deadlines to meet. I defended my thesis while nursing my second baby, who was just about a month old. On the day of my viva, during my final revisions, I remember sending a message to my industry supervisor, Dr. Andy Wilson PhD, at around 4 am. Luckily, he was travelling that day and understood that I was nervous about my Viva. He reassured me and advised me to stay strong and positive. His advice came in handy when I felt like I gave a wrong answer to a question during the Viva because I didn’t let that discourage me.
Essentially, my viva was more like a discussion. I was open to suggestions and willing to listen to feedback. If I didn't agree with something, I would explain my thoughts and give reasons why I presented them the way I did. All my corrections were minor, such as a choice of words, including additional figures, etc. Generally, it was just a back-and-forth conversation, not a real issue. Ultimately, I was able to complete my PhD programme and gain valuable skills, experience, and knowledge. Although painfully challenging, it has turned out to be the most rewarding experience for which I will always be grateful.
Getting an industry-focused PhD is like getting work experience and I think it’s the best option. Now that I'm applying for jobs, I find that it counts as work experience because I've been exposed to a real work environment in an industry setting. From an academic point of view, I have the PhD, the opportunity and exposure, course supervisors, master’s supervisor, the studentship, tutor, and mentoring opportunities, so I had the best of both worlds.
I think that an industry-led PhD, especially with TWI, is the best thing to do because the environment is very supportive.
To any woman who would like to start a PhD and have a young family or plan to start one soon, I encourage you to use that desire as the best motivation possible. I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I was able to do all these while having them, so they can do even more if they put their minds to it. I think that’s a good motivation.