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You don’t always need a First to get where you want to go……

 There’s a million and one reasons why I went to university for the first time as an adult, which I won’t bore you with, but like lots of people I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to actually do it. I mean, I wasn’t a straight A student; a consistent B-er I called myself, and wondered if that would be good enough. I’d also left school 18 years previously. However, I have always had the attitude of ‘play to your strengths’ so I signed up with the Open University, after pouring over their course taster pages, and thought I could fall back on my specialist skill of being ridiculously organised. I could easily schedule time to do the work, so my work may be doggy do-do but at least it would be organised doggy do-do!

As I was slightly obsessed with the concern that I wouldn’t be able to do it, in the early stages it was just about not failing. Getting through the degree was about rounding off my education and not necessarily about using it. Funnily enough, once I started I never considered I wouldn’t see it through to the end, but I thought the degree may just hang on the wall and be chalked up to something I once did. I really didn’t appreciate in those early days just how my views on education and my general life direction would change.

Soon into the degree I realised that actually it was perfectly doable. I fell into my groove of being a consistent Ber. I did learn that if I worked really hard, which usually meant a gazillion re-drafts of TMAs, taking on board feedback, and lots of extra hours reading around the subject, I could get As. So over the course of the degree I got many As, together with some Cs, but at the end of degree it’s fair to stay I had become a consistent B+er. So in 2016 I graduated with a 2:1. I also now had a huge love of education and appreciation for research.

Part way through the degree, probably around the level 2 stage, I did start to think I really could do something with this. I started to tentatively plan and investigate what was out there. I turned my nose up at pursuing a generic graduate job, because the job I already had was of that level (and it was quite dull). I thought I am going to do something that interests me, as romantic as that sounds. I was always interested in veterans and the military so thought I would try and join my love of education with my concern for military/veterans health. Part way through level 2 I started volunteering with a national veteran charity, because I knew volunteer experience would be worthwhile and advantageous further down the line.

As I predicted I wouldn’t get a First I started to think about other things I could do to compensate for that. I wanted to have an arsenal of reasons (including the volunteering) for someone at some point to give me a chance to progress to something else. So, me being organised, I started to make a mental checklist of what I could do. This is quite hard when you don’t know what opportunities will be available to you. I could have pursued a research assistant, an assistant psychologist, a position within a charity, or further into academia with a PhD. This latter idea seemed the furthest from my mind because I presupposed that only those with a First would realistically get offered supervision, let alone funding. Whilst doing a PhD would be a dream, it felt like it was a diamond up an ivory tower, that was probably out of my reach. However, I still started to create my arsenal.

I began by tailoring my BSc level 3 qualitative project towards veterans, and simultaneously applied for a distance learning place on an MSc with the University of Ulster. I chose this university because they did veterans in the community research, they had one of the UK’s leading experts on PTSD based there, and also ran a Health Psychology MSc. I considered that health psychology could be very applicable to veterans and the military, as they are conditioned to have specific wellness and illness beliefs. An MSc is a useful qualification to have as it gives you an advantage when applying for a PhD, and this particular MSc counted as stage 1 professional training to become a chartered/registered Health Psychologist. Finally, I noticed that the PTSD expert was running several veteran related PhDs, so if by some miracle I did well enough I could apply for one of those.

I was accepted onto the course and had those same worries about whether I could do it. The course was very intense, and took an average of 20 hours per week; sometimes more. It was also very self-directed. Some elements of the course were actually quite difficult, and independent study made this extra challenging. Despite these challenges I wanted to become a consistent Aer, so I took all previous feedback and thought about how I could improve. I still utilised my strengths, and I certainly needed to be organised now more than ever, but I worked on my weaknesses. I improved my writing, sharpened my knowledge, learned new skills (particularly research methods), and increased my marks. I averaged a distinction overall in all taught modules (currently awaiting dissertation marks).

A further thing I did was tailor all MSc work where possible towards veterans, and this was easier at post-grad level as we had freer reign. I was naturally going to do a veteran related dissertation so approached the PTSD expert to supervise me. She had moved away from tutoring on the MSc course but agreed to supervise me, and put me in touch with her colleague for day to day assistance, as her colleague was more aligned with my chosen methodology. They invited me to fly over to meet them at a research report launch, so I jumped at the chance. I discovered that the PhDs I had seen advertised were actually part of a much wider Veteran Wellbeing project, which had been granted funding for additional ongoing research. During this meet-up I thought I had nothing to lose in throwing it out there, that I wanted to continue in veteran research. They were actually very encouraging.

Six months later one supervisor suggested that I apply for a specific PhD if I was serious about research, and whilst juggling my final MSc modules, my dissertation, my job, and the rest of life, I put together an application. I was invited for an interview but didn’t really believe I would be the best candidate, despite creating my arsenal. Everything went wrong on the day. My flight was delayed by over two hours, the plane was grounded as there were no ground staff, there were road works, there were sheep and my lift to campus was the slowest driver in the world. I ran up and down corridors, and up and down stairs. By the time I found the room I was hours late and not in the best state. However, I answered all their questions thoroughly and within 15 minutes they had made their decision. I was offered a fully funded PhD. As you can imagine, I was over the moon, I couldn’t quite believe I had done it. It was my arsenal that had got me to that point, because I could draw on that when providing my full answers to the interview questions. At the age of 43 I am quitting my life, moving country, and becoming a proper PhDer!

So you don’t necessarily need a First to get where you want to go. If you find out what boosts your CV or application, and strategically work towards that, there is a good chance you will be given the opportunity to showcase yourself in a competitive academic world. Incidentally, I learned that PhD application criteria may not require its applicants to have a First or an MSc, they just help in the case of stiff competition.

What was in my PhD boosting arsenal:

¨A distinction in my MSc methods module in the absence of an overall MSc distinction."

¨A great deal of ethics knowledge. My population were always classed as vulnerable so extra ethical measures were needed."

¨Tailoring as much course work towards the PhD subject as possible."

¨A great deal of Veterans Wellbeing study knowledge."

¨My MSc supervisors would be my PhD supervisors, so we already had a working relationship."

¨I have attended at least three conferences this year relating to my PhD subject. Two were run by OUPS (which were excellent). Great for networking and learning. Incidentally, one conference place was awarded as a prize for written work."

¨I have presented posters of two independent pieces of MSc work at a conference. Poster creation, with a view to conferencing, was taught through the MSc."

¨I have written articles for various magazines. One was based on my dissertation."

¨I volunteer for a national veteran charity."

¨I am genuinely really enthusiastic about my subject.

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