This post is part of a series on what goes into getting a PhD around the world. In this post, Vicki Pattison-Willits, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Where are you getting your PhD?

My name is Vicki. I am British, 40 years old and I am currently in the 4th Year of my Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham in the UK. I returned to the UK with my husband and two dogs in 2015 after ten years living in Germany and the USA. It was actually a lot harder coming back than I was expecting and took me a long time to get settled. This was mainly due to visa issues with my husband who is American and a number of knock on effects associated with that. But it is lovely to be back near my UK family and friends! I now split my time between here and the USA.

How long does a typical PhD take where you are located?

A typical Ph.D. in the UK takes between three and four years depending on how it is funded, the institution, the student and a number of different other factors. In the UK system there are quite strict deadlines that you have to keep to, but everybody’s Ph.D. journey is different – this is a key thing to remember. There is also of course the option to do a part-time Ph.D., and with opportunities to collaborate with other institutions and industry, the timescale can change considerably!

Tell us about the process of completing your degree.

Wow, this is quite scary to answer as I am fast approaching this stage of my Ph.D.! For most full time Ph.D. researchers there is a deadline to hand in your thesis as well as a very strict word count (the length of which very much depends on your discipline and university). In the lead up to ‘hand in’ the process is put in place to select an external examiner for the viva (defense). This is someone from a different institution who has knowledge in your field. At least at Birmingham, as a student we have some input into this part of the process. An internal examiner from within the university is also allocated as well as a Chair.

Photo by Andrew Mason – Vicki checking a nest box – each nest box is visited once per week.
Photo by Andrew Mason – Vicki checking a nest box – each nest box is visited once per week.

Once the thesis is handed in it is reviewed by an examining committee, made up of an internal and external examiner and a chair. The committee meet a month or two later for the viva. This is the culminating moment for all of that hard work and is an important opportunity where you can share your research and findings with the examiners, demonstrate your knowledge, passion and expertise and answer any questions. The length of the viva very much depends on the research and the questions asked. Important note – the time it takes is by no means a reflection of a good or bad thesis/viva! The committee then make the decision to award the doctorate (with no, minor or major changes).  

Tell us about your research.

My research is very much interdisciplinary in its nature with a really good mix of practical field work and desk-based work which I love. I am an ornithologist, urban ecologist, environmental educator, and now very passionate climate change scientist all rolled into one! Like many Ph.D.s my research focus has changed and evolved over the past few years due to a myriad of different reasons. This is very much a natural part of the research learning process as you acquire new skills and learn where your own interests lie, and also discover what is manageable and achievable with the time and resources available!

Photo by Victoria Pattison-Willits ¬-- A female Blue tit on her nest. She will incubate up to 15 eggs for a period of 12-15 days – no mean feat for a bird that weighs 10g and each egg weighs about one tenth her body weight!
Photo by Victoria Pattison-Willits ¬– A female Blue tit on her nest. She will incubate up to 15 eggs for a period of 12-15 days – no mean feat for a bird that weighs 10g and each egg weighs about one tenth her body weight!

I am interested in understanding the adaptation of individuals and populations of species to anthropogenic-mediated environmental change, i.e. how our changing world is affecting different life processes in animals. I work with a population of Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) in the city of Birmingham, (the UK’s second or third biggest city depending on who you ask!). Blue Tits are a small garden bird: very common in the UK and throughout Europe. They have been very well studied since the mid-1900s and are renowned for their feisty nature and ability to adapt to living and breeding in many different habitats including those impacted by anthropogenic activity and are found in relatively large numbers in cities and towns.

The breeding season is a critical period in the life history of any animal and information on the timing and success of reproduction can give us insights into the suitability of a particular habitat and reflect the availability of resources and the environmental pressures experienced by breeding adults (and their young).  I am investigating how fine-scale changes in the urban landscape (e.g. changes in the degree of ‘urban-ness’, functional connectivity and habitat quality) affect Blue Tits breeding in the city by modelling breeding data together with fine-scale landscape data. We have been monitoring a population breeding in a network of 310 nestboxes distributed across 30 sites along an “urban gradient” in the city (covering a total area of about 230 square miles). During the breeding period (March through June) I visit each nestbox once a week and record detailed information for each Blue Tit “family” (from how many and when the clutch of eggs are laid through to when the chicks successfully fledge). Chicks are fitted with a unique BTO ring, weighed and the length of their tarsus is measured when they are 10-13 days old*.

Globally we face massive urban expansion and development with projected human population increases and migration from rural to urban areas. I hope my research will positively contribute to urban ecological research and help in furthering our understanding of these complex and novel habitats: crucial if we are to better plan and manage ‘green spaces’ to support species and ecosystem functioning in the future.  

Of course, the natural world is being impacted by environmental change brought about by the interaction of many different human-induced pressures. Another significant component of my Ph.D. research is understanding how climate change is affecting breeding in a species seemingly more able to cope and adapt to environmental stressors. In particular, I am interested in the occurrence of extreme weather events (predicted to increase in intensity, duration and frequency in the UK as a consequence of climate change) during the breeding season and if their potential influence on breeding is exacerbated or moderated by the urban landscape.

* I worked out that I probably drove over 5000 miles during the course of my 3 field seasons, and collectively myself and my field assistants in climbing a ladder to reach the nestboxes scaled the equivalent of Mount Everest each year!)

Aside from research, what else are you expected to do as part of your PhD?

Again this very much depends on the area of research, the university and the lab group you are working with and who you are funded by. There are many different opportunities open to Ph.D. students throughout their study, and some of these are more readily accessible and easy to find out about whilst others are a little more hidden! It is also very much up to the individual as to what else they are involved with apart from their core research. A lot of courses will depend on the training requirements of your external funding body, if you have one, and the training you need to do to gain the expertise needed to carry out your research.

Having come from a career in conservation and environmental education, for me, continuing teaching and being involved in outreach has been an incredibly important and integral part of my Ph.D. experience. I have been involved with the BES from my second year as an Ecological Ambassador, Women in Science Mentor and as a mentor on the 2019 undergraduate field trip. I am heavily involved in public outreach and engagement at my institution and regularly deliver workshops to visiting schools and colleges. I also like to (as much as time allows) work as a demonstrator (teaching associate) on a number of different undergraduate and masters modules. I have also been on boards at different levels of the university as a Ph.D. student representative.

What are some challenges you’d like to share associated with obtaining your PhD where you are located?

Many of the issues I have experienced have come about as a consequence of having lived internationally in the years preceding taking up my Ph.D. research at Birmingham. Although I am British, this meant I was not eligible for certain types of research funding (which was incredibly frustrating). It was also very stressful moving internationally with my American husband and dogs – there was a lot of paper work involved! From my experience I think it is very important (especially with the likely changes the UK will be facing in the imminent future) that as a prospective student coming to the UK from other countries to study (nationals and non-nationals alike) ensure you are aware of the requirements of funding bodies and the visa process. This will potentially save you a lot of time and money.

Photo by Andrew Mason -- Vicki taking measurements of chicks. Chicks are fitted with an individually marked British Trust for Ornithology ring, weighed and their tarsus length is measured at about 10 days of age. All of this information is shared in a UK database.
Photo by Andrew Mason — Vicki taking measurements of chicks. Chicks are fitted with an individually marked British Trust for Ornithology ring, weighed and their tarsus length is measured at about 10 days of age. All of this information is shared in a UK database.

My husband actually ended up moving back to the USA for work in my second year so a huge challenge has been juggling a PhD and living apart – we try and see each other once every 5-8 weeks.

I think it is also important to realize that there will always be struggles, challenges and hard times during the Ph.D. process and this is entirely normal wherever you are studying! It can be very difficult to balance your research with “normal life” and there can be a lot of pressure (that you put on yourself as much as anybody else!)

What do you like about your PhD and the PhD process?

I love so many aspects of my Ph.D. and I am very sad that it soon will be coming to an end. I have really enjoyed being so intimately involved in my research areas and have been quite taken aback at how much in particular I am enjoying the climate aspects of my work…and statistics! Although stressful, you really are the person in control of your own development and the direction of your research. I have grown so much as a scientist over the last few years (and in my own personal development and confidence even at the grand age of forty!) I have a very inquisitive mind and always want to learn and develop new skills but equally I love teaching, so doing a Ph.D. is perfect!

What will you do after your PhD is over?

I really enjoy both aspects of research and teaching so I am keeping my options open. Ideally, I would love to do a postdoc/remain in academia but I am very much open to going back to my roots working in government or NGOs as an environmental educator or in a role where I can actively make a difference to environmental and climate change policy and action. 

Why did you want to get a PhD, what are you hoping to do with it, and what did you not realise going in?

For so many different reasons! I constantly want to push myself and learn and I am by my nature ambitious. I was the first person in my family to go to university (swiftly followed by my sister) although I quit during my first year. I was determined once I was in my early twenties to come back into academia and here I still am! I am also very passionate about the environment so carrying on working in this field is very important to me. There are many things I wish I had known coming into a PhD programme (especially as it was ten years since I had finished my Masters) but mostly how quickly the time would go!

You can follow Vicki on Twitter @BlueTitEcology, and read more about her research in blog post by Andrew Mason.

Read more posts in this series here.