Postgraduate Study
Edinburgh: Extraordinary Futures Await

Q&A with Niamh: Why Edinburgh? Best & Worst parts of a PhD?

Niamh is a 3rd year PhD student in the Division of Psychiatry researching adolescent depression. In this Q&A, she answers questions about her path into a PhD, why she chose Edinburgh for her studies and the best and worst parts about doing a PhD.


Tell us a bit about your research first

Adolescence is a time of immense change for our biology, psychology and social world. My research investigates how these bio-psycho-social factors are associated with risk and resilience towards depression during adolescence. I hope that my research helps identify modifiable targets for intervention so that we develop novel treatment approaches for adolescent depression.

I use big-data research involving thousands of young people, as well as collecting some of my own data, to answer my research questions. I love science communication and outreach and have been fortunate to work with local schools and community groups on youth mental health projects during my PhD.


Why Edinburgh/Scotland?

I moved to Edinburgh for my PhD and didn’t really know about the beauty of the Highland or Edinburgh city itself! It’s such a wonderful place to live and I think the quality of life as a PhD student is quite good compared to other places (e.g. London or Dublin). I am very glad I ended up here!


Can you talk about your path into doing a PhD?


I did a joint-honours degree in Psychology (major) with English Literature at Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 2018. I started my PhD in Edinburgh in January 2019, which I actually found out about on Twitter while procrastinating from studying during my finals in summer 2018! I didn’t do a Masters but gained a lot of research experience during my 3rd/4th undergraduate years.

To be honest I hadn’t considered doing a PhD until I did a summer internship at Trinity and really fell in love with research. I worked with the wonderful professor Claire Kelly who played a major role in inspiring me to pursue a career in academia. I worked on a neuroimaging study on adolescent depression, which went on to become my final year dissertation. This experience really ignited my curiosity in developmental cognitive neuroscience and is closely aligned with the research I’m doing now.


What’s your favourite thing about doing a PhD?

I think it’s the opportunity to keep learning new things and really get to know a subject area, in my case adolescent development! I also love working with young people and communicating science in a fun way. Adolescence is such a cool period in development so it’s great that I get to dedicate my time to learning more about it!


What made you go down this particular research route?

I took some developmental psychology modules in my 3rd year and was fascinated to learn how our biology, psychology and social environment interact to affect different developmental trajectories. I became particularly interested in youth mental health during my undergrad internship and learned that we really have so much more to understand about brain development, especially during adolescence.



Any tips for a Masters by Research?

A PhD is just a longer MScR so my tips would be:

  • Document why you made certain decisions in your research project (e.g. design, measures, coding decisions). This will make writing up way easier and your future self will thank you!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your supervisor or other lab members. Don’t waste time being stuck on something you don’t know how to answer. People are nearly always more than happy to help if you just ask!
  • Enjoy it and get involved in some of the uni societies. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Edinburgh and joining the hillwalking club was a great way to meet people.


What’s the PhD schedule like?

I usually work 9-5:30 Mon to Fri. Sometimes you have to work longer hours (e.g. during data collection or for a deadline) but I try (and mostly) succeed at keeping my weekends free from work. Running away to the Highlands is a great way to switch off! We get around 6 weeks of holidays a year and usually you just need to check with your supervisor in advance.


Best and worst parts of doing a PhD?

Best parts:
  • Getting to study something we don’t know much about
  • Having time to develop lots of different skills (e.g. reading, writing, coding, stats)
  • Flexibility and ownership over your work (I know this isn’t the case with all PhDs but my supervisor is very happy for me to pursue ideas that interest me)
  • Conferences and training (especially pre-Covid)
  • Communicating science and public engagement is one of the best parts! Some of the most memorable moments from my PhD have been public engagement projects. They are also a great way to meet other research students. I met one of my best friends dissecting lamb brains on the Edi Neuroscience Stand at Edi Sci-Fest 2019


Worst parts:
  • It can get a bit lonely sometimes, especially working from home
  • A PhD is incredibly self-driven so it can be hard to keep the motivation up at times (I find side projects and public outreach really help with this)
  • It can be difficult to switch off sometimes as you’re the only person pushing the project forward so if you’re not working, work is not getting done.
  • But, for this reason, its super important to have clear boundaries around working time vs. non-working time



This Q&A was part of Niamh's Instagram takeover. Click the links below to watch the rest of her takeover and don't forget to follow our Instagram account to keep up to date with the Edinburgh Medical School community:

Niamh's Instagram Takeover

Edinburgh Medical School Instagram


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