Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here: https://thephdliferaft.libsyn.com/

it’s so gorgeous to have you here to talk about a particular topic, which I know is going to be of use to lots of people. So thank you so much for your time.

Arun  

Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.

Emma  

Um, so, I’m going to ask you to just introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your journey so far into PhD and out the other side. I do tell us a bit about yourself.

Arun  

Yeah, so I actually the interesting thing is my what I studied as a degree and what I did as a PhD and what I do now in my job but completely different. Which Yeah, good, good example for the listeners of Yeah, how you can really kind of make your own path but yeah, I actually did mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at university. So very kind of technical degree. Really sounds exactly what it is, like, you know, as a lot of sort of engineering concepts and I always sort of knew that I wanted to do something a little bit more kind of user focused and sort of slightly more design lead, but I never really quite knew how to get into that field. And it was really just through chance of through the university. They ran some internships over there kind of summer break. And just by complete chance, I came across these opportunities. And that’s where I learned about the field of user research and user experience, which is what I do now. And through those contacts at the internship, that’s when they told me about this PhD opportunity. And thus, that’s kind of what I ended up pursuing. And so the PhD then I did pretty much straight after the university. The interesting thing is it’s technically not a PhD, it’s actually an entity, which some listeners, they might have heard about this. So it’s an engineering doctorate, so you still get the doctorate at the end of that you get the doctor title and it’s still a doctorate, you know, as a PhD would be, but it has a slightly different focus in that you have an industrial sponsor, who basically funds your research alongside the university. And the idea is rather than doing kind of one single big thesis at the end, you do a series of smaller reports, which might meet some of the kind of your industrial sponsors needs. And so this is what I was doing. So my sponsor was Jaguar Land Rover. They were interested in automated vehicles. And so I did a series of studies looking at kind of the kinds of information people need when a car is self driving. And I did this for four years. And at the end, you kind of produce what’s called an innovation report, which is kind of like the thesis and it’s the kind of summary of all of the studies that you’ve done over the last five years so it’s a slightly different structure and can be can sound quite alien if if it’s, you know, you’ve never come across it but no, and that was my that was my entity.

Emma  

Oh, no, I have never come across that before. That’s how fascinating is that?

Yes. Yeah.

Emma  

Brilliant. Brilliant. And I know now it’s led to lots of wealth. You tell us you tell us where that led to then?

Yes, yeah. So pretty much yeah, I mean, after that was my whole introduction to this field of user research. So it’s this whole thing and human factors. So it’s this whole thing of, you know, all of the products and services and cars and transport, the environment. Everything has some element of someone having to sit there and design it and someone has to decide kind of what this thing looks like. Or, you know, how do we design this car? And you know, what does the steering wheel look like and the chair and the interface on the infotainment display and things like that, and all of that, it can be, you know, essentially led by research. So we get people in, we talk to people, and we understand sort of what are their needs, you know what they need something to be able to do, and then we implement that research in a design. So that’s what I did for the PhD and now that’s what I do in my job. So pretty much that’s led to I do these kinds of user research projects on a variety of different transport fields. So most recently, I worked on sort of wireless charging of electric taxis in Nottingham, so that was called the Y set project. And there we were interested in talking to taxi drivers to understand you know, this new way of charging your electric taxi, you know, what does it need to be able to do? You know, how should we design it? How can we best communicate the features to you? And that was a lot of interviews, interviewing drivers, interviewing actually like council members as well. There was a whole load of people involved in that project. And then another project most recently I’ve worked on is looking at accessible transport as well. So really trying to understand you know why transport is generally quite inaccessible for disabled people. Not only if you’re a wheelchair user, but if you have a visual impairment if you’re neurodivergent if you have any other access needs, transport can be incredibly inaccessible. And it’s one of the most fundamental things in your independence and being able to access society. So, most recently, I’ve looked at a project where we kind of under trying to understand in terms of the streetscape like the pavements and buses and bus stops, you know, what can we do to make that better? And we’ve just just just completed an interview study where we began to get some results from that. So yeah, it’s really, you know, from my engineering degree through to doctorate, which was really kind of very focused on cars and, you know, trying to make the best car possible in this kind of luxury vehicle segment to now working in sort of much more, I guess, societally impactful projects, looking at things like accessible transport, I guess it’s been Yeah, quite a very journey over the last 10 years or so. I love

Emma  

it. And it’s something that comes up quite a lot on this podcast is that sense of like, well, what am I even doing doing a PhD? Why am I even doing this but this sense of actually all those research skills, which now has direct implementation, like PhDs can be really useful, and those research skills that you build can take you in really interesting directions. And he was an example of that.

Yeah, I completely agree with that. I think it’s, you know, I think it’s, yes, I enjoyed the topic. Of the doctorate, but I think absolutely the skills are took away from it, like being confident in presenting how to sort of communicate ideas to different people. And I think that’s one of the great things about the doctor and, you know, I’m sure you’ve encouraged to listen as well. It’s really to kind of, you know, make the most of all opportunities that come your way and the doctor in terms of, you know, if you can present to a group in your department, or if there’s a conference or if there’s even sometimes like in my local area, there are a few kind of local science festivals. There’s one called pints. of science, which actually is quite, quite national, or might be international as well, where they do science talks in kind of really relaxed environments like pubs, and things like that. And, you know, just being involved in that sort of thing. presenting to a general audience and taking those opportunities. I think that’s the great thing about PhD is that you’ve got the, you’ve got the research, but you’ve got all these other opportunities to be involved in in many different things. So yeah, really taking advantage of that is so important, because as you say, yeah, it’s helped me so much in kind of my career now and what I take forward out of the PhD I

Emma  

love it. So there’s the positive, there’s the positive of the PhD, but today, we’re gonna be talking about some things that are a bit more tricky and might sort of trip people up. And the topic that you suggested, which I think is genius, is this sense of comparing yourself to others, and I know this will be very relatable to lots of people. If not, indeed, all of us, come on, all of us have done that. So talk to us a bit about that. And why you think yeah, why that’s a key topic. Do you think?

Yeah, I mean, it’s something that I think when I reflect back on my daughter, that was probably the biggest thing I really struggled with, over the four years. And again, it was only kind of like looking back in hindsight, and I think the the interesting thing is we started this cohort of five students. So we all started at the same time. And we all were covering slightly different, different aspects, but we all had the same sponsor, we it was pretty much one program and so it was very easy then to have direct compare myself to and, you know, I think even if you don’t start as a cohort, you know, it can still be a problem. And but for me, I think looking back at this was kind of what what sets it off. And yeah, it was very much a case of, you know, whenever there would be someone who I think I was the last to publish or to do like a conference presentation, and you know, that time before leading up to that point where my colleagues were doing conferences, that was really difficult because I just kept thinking I should should I even be here? Like, I don’t seem to be hitting the same milestones as them. And again, yeah, perhaps exacerbated by this industrial sponsor, because it was almost like a kind of, it was a strange relationship in that they, the industrial sponsor, even though they they funded all of us. They definitely took a special interest in certain projects at certain times. And so it was kind of like they would give their attention to one of us and, you know, whoever had that it would be great. So, you know, that person would be called to give you know, maybe, you know, summarize their research at, you know, the company itself. You know, at their headquarters, which is kind of, you know, very glamorous opportunity, right? You go into their flashy offices, and you present your research and, for me, that never really happened because what I realized is, the other projects were kind of more on the technical side, and it just so happened that the sponsor was more interested in that kind of technical findings. Then my side, which was more the sort of user research user experience stuff, which is a bit more difficult to quantify. So it was, I learned quite quickly that actually, my research was not as, you know, quote unquote, attractive to them. And that was really difficult as well, you know, if I’d see my colleagues, you know, going off to present and again, I would just be thinking, Am I am I going to Is there anything here that’s gonna get me the degree at the end? And that really, yeah, continued on. I think until about third year. And I think the thing that sort of changed that was sort of reflecting on that, and I was sort of, you know, it was beginning to get to a point where I sort of felt really unhappy about the doctorate and I really felt like there was nothing here that was going to get me the degree at the end. Despite an I had a very good academic supervisory team. So I had two supervisors who, you know, they were available, you know, I met with them weekly. Very easy to talk to, and they would always tell me that things are fine and you know, I was on track and little app, but I, for some reason, because I wasn’t getting that same validation from the industrial sponsor, and to my colleagues, these different things. It was something that yeah, you just kind of it just takes over. And so yeah, it was only until third year and that’s when I started really trying to think about kind of methods that I could use to sort of kind of control that a bit. And I think I think the thing that really helped me was just taking a step back and just really trying to focus on just my own goals, and appreciating I guess what I’m good at. And I guess sort of kind of letting go of that need for sort of that external validation, and trusting kind of people closest to me, which were my supervisors, that really helped. And I think just really kind of focusing in on sort of what I was doing, and the good thing is that I had achieved and I think that’s you know, I think, if you’re on a doctorate program, you know, as I’m sure your listeners, you know, listening, the fact that you are there as I think such an achievement and I think we often because we’re in this environment where everyone else is at that high level, we kind of forget that but just being there. You know, doing the PhD, even if you’ve, if you’ve published or haven’t published or you’ve presented at conferences, that’s that’s still all like really impressive stuff. So I think that was something that really helped me was just to kind of hone in on that fact that it was a really good thing. To be where I was and, and I think also, just to kind of then take another perspective on that was recognizing that, of course, the people you look at and compare yourself to, you’re only seeing like a small slice of kind of their, what they’re going through and actually what I learned, you know, towards the end, and, you know, rather unfortunately, it was that, you know, my other colleagues, they were also kind of struggling and going through their own problems. And, you know, looking back I think I would wish I’d actually reached out to them but I think I didn’t reach out because I felt like that would be showing that, you know, I’m worried or, you know, not, you know, lacking confidence and actually, you know, one of them ended up not completing the doctrine, and that was a person I was comparing myself to. And I think that’s, you know, recognizing that, you know, everyone has kind of things that they’re going through and challenges. I think, just kind of humanizes everything and just sort of might, you know, help you kind of, you know, open up to someone else and they might open up to you and actually, that whole thing about comparing yourself then seems really kind of silly in the end. And so I think that was something that really kind of opened my eyes and and just sort of made me think that even now that take forward today is you know that everyone has challenges and actually let’s just connect with people and share the challenges we’re going through and we might find that they go through the exact same thing. And so the person you’re, you’re kind of putting on a pedestal or perhaps again, comparing yourself to you might actually have a lot more in common than you think. And I think that just comes from just having that open conversation. And yeah, those are the things that really helped. Helped me control that sort of urge to kind of compare myself to others. Oh,

Emma  

yes. Why the words indeed, we were all we’re all on a journey. We’re all on a journey. And this sense of Yeah, we don’t know what other people you are looking at other people’s highlight reels and you see your own sort of backstage. I think this this issue of comparing yourself to others is so interesting, isn’t it? Because we see you come more from the sciences. I come from more from the humanities, where people are quite often working on their own they go Oh, I wish you know, I was with a group other people. Actually, having a group of other people isn’t always the gift that you think because it can lead to this this thing and this sense of it being so important, as you say within the PhD to kind of run your own race. And I think coming out of that of undergraduate isn’t it when we when we aren’t mean sadly, it’s become very competitive, hasn’t it? And you’re you are comparing us the people that are within a class and want to ace the class and the sense of on the PhD. It isn’t like that people as you say people are working on very different projects. It’s not like we’re all writing the same essay. We’re not all on the same course. You know, it’s kind of eat we’re all doing PhDs but they’re going to they’re going to be different and we’re going to work at different paces. This this sense of as you were saying your project has had has a different setup, so it may take much longer to get to the point of publication, but that doesn’t mean that you when you get to the point of publication, you might have three or four publications in a row where someone else has published earlier but only published one and it is very easy for us to say this. But this sense of kind of really, as you said, coming back to thinking about what’s working for you in your project and having a sense of of really grounding yourself in that and listening to those people who know your project. Well, rather than just projecting out as you say to what what other people might be doing because you’re basing your acing your own projects, rather than needing to be better than other people. Exactly.

And yeah, I mean, I only I got my first publication. I think it was close to just after I’d submitted it by the time it was actually published. So that was that’s the fourth year when I had my first journal, and then kind of the journals came after that, but so it’s, it’s really, I think it’s so easy to get sucked in because it’s, as you say, it’s kind of your it’s almost like a you’re in a kind of bubble, right and you kind of forget, sort of, again, the sort of great accomplishments that you’ve made sort of getting to that point. So yeah, I think you know, really focusing on your own journey. And just I think reaching out to people and just being open about hey, I, I feel I don’t feel very confident. I’m worried about this or that and then you’ll find that actually, everyone, no matter how I kind of put together they may seem on the outside that everyone has kind of things that they’re going to be worried about, particularly with doctorate because it’s, it is it is a challenging thing, right and it’s a good point you made there you know coming out of undergraduate where things are fairly prescribed, you know, you kind of follow a route, this is now pretty much in your own control, right. And it’s your own project. And, you know, that’s that’s a difficult transition. So I think, you know, connecting with other students and I guess, shows, you know, podcasts like yourself like the show that you do, I’m I think, you know, hopefully this is kind of raising the point that, you know, everyone goes through these things, and I think seeking help and getting support, I think is one of the most important things to do and, yeah, hopefully that will kind of help you realize that by comparing yourself to others, you know, there’s nothing useful there. And just focus on your own journey and and where you’re going. And

Emma  

I think is you saying reaching out to other people because if anybody is telling you they know exactly what they’re doing in their project, then you’d worry about the quality of their research. Yes, it is. Going into the unknown. That’s what it is. Every every good researcher is attending to the unknown questions are coming up. There’s uncertainty. That’s, that’s what it’s all about. And so, the sense of kind of saying, actually, you know, my project could go this way could go that way. I’m not sure about it. I’ve got questions about it. Brilliant. So if somebody else is say, well, actually, I’ve got no problems and I’ve got, like, Okay, so are you actually going into the lab at all or? No, because that’s the nature that’s the nature of what we’re doing. And again, that’s very different to undergraduate because somebody’s kind of ironed out a lot of the issues for you. Whereas in this PhD research, you are grappling you are at the you know, the you are at the cutting edge and all the challenges but all the thrill of that as well in terms of making those discoveries and dealing with uncertainty. That’s the gift of though we may not always want that gift on a Wednesday morning grappling with uncertainty may not be what we want.

No, I think that’s such a such an important point. Yeah.

Emma  

And I think and you mentioned that about we do this podcast, you of course have your podcast where you are how to PhD, which is brilliant. I totally recommend it. People haven’t found it before. But again, in terms of sharing, really sharing your experiences and your partner is there with you sharing her experiences to from from a very different perspective. So it’s very useful. And I think the sense of I think there is a movement and I think it is a joy to be part of it in terms of opening up these discussions that quite often have gone on behind closed doors, but everybody is having is, is it feels really healthy, actually. Yes.

Yeah. I think that’s yeah, it’s really it’s great that there’s now also these these platforms, you know, where I guess doctoral students can connect from around the world and it’s amazing. Yeah, despite being on opposite sides of the world that we still have the same kinds of challenges and worries and yeah, absolutely. Really. Yeah, really grateful that you know, having, having experienced those things in my doctorate around that kind of anxiety that we can now share that and hopefully for your listeners and future doctoral students, you know, can can kind of go into the process but you know, better equipped with with that kind of knowledge.

Emma  

I love it. And I aware of time because we could keep on talking about this but I do hope this has been encouraging for people in terms of of you know, stay in your own lane. You are, you’re doing okay. And, yeah, sometimes it’s, it’s useful to be on your own doing your own thing. So I am aware of time, and I always asked rather unfairly at the end of the episode for people to share a top tip or top tips around this the issue. So do you have any thoughts to leave us with?

Yes, yeah, I was thinking about this and I think you know, we were we talked a lot about sort of being able to kind of connect with other people and other researchers. I think that the very simple tip that I started doing, which really helped me was actually just going to colleagues and actually asking for their opinion and their help. was actually some of the most useful things that I did. So if I had a journal that I was writing, or a chapter, or whatever it was or a presentation, I would never ever ask anyone for help because I felt like that was a an admission of not being able to do it myself. And I guess it all came down to kind of comparing myself and all this but actually just opening up and just saying, Hey, do you mind kind of having a quick look at this for five minutes, or could I get your opinion, and what that does is one it opens you up? Right? It just makes you more accessible and it just gets over that kind of comparing yourself to others and all that sort of stuff. But it also from the other person’s perspective. It’s it’s a great like, it’s a great like flattering thing if someone comes up and yeah, and it you know, for them, they thought oh, great, yeah, happy to help and then I found that then they would come to me for help. And then suddenly there was this completely new thing that came out of it and a new relationship and a trust between us. And again, this I think, just being able to ask for help, not just my supervisors, but colleagues. That was one of the most useful things I did in terms of being able to get over that kind of comparison to others. And yeah, hopefully, you know, must be useful tip for the listeners. Oh,

Emma  

this is so useful and what a gorgeous person you are, but in terms of this thing, and as you say, this is culture changing as well. And I think this is really, really great advice. And as you say, this is it’s not being a burden to someone else. Actually. You’re giving them the opportunity and you’re giving them a gift in terms of saying I think you’re worthy of asking your advice, and that’s always a lovely thing. So what brilliant, brilliant, brilliant tip. Thank you. Thank you so much for being here and for for sharing, sharing all of that. And as I say, we will put in the show notes, the details of where people can find out more about your podcasts and more about you and thank you so much for all that you do. And thank you all for listening.

No thank you and thank you for having me on the show and for the great work that you do on your podcast. So yeah, really appreciate being here. Thanks, everyone.