Completing my PhD during a global pandemic | Adam Peel
After recently completing his studies at the Centre, Adam Peel blogs about his PhD experience and defending his viva during the COVID-19 era
I’m a nurse in a large regional hospital and teaching centre and I initially worked in gastroenterology before becoming interested in respiratory medicine. I’m now working as a respiratory nurse in a range of roles including asthma specialist nurse and staff nurse on the respiratory investigation unit where we conduct endoscopic procedures such as bronchoscopy and thoracoscopy (looking inside the lung airways).
During my undergraduate nursing studies I developed a real interest in research and was determined that my final year dissertation would be something useful and - hopefully - publishable. I undertook a systematic review of the evidence relating to medication adherence in inflammatory bowel disease and with the help of my undergraduate supervisor succeeded in getting this published by a journal. I enjoyed the process and the confidence I gained from this encouraged me to look for a PhD. The Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research (AUKCAR) offered what seemed to be a unique opportunity – support from a wide network of clinicians and leaders in the field of asthma research, access to ongoing training and development, annual conferences, plus the mutual support of other PhD students engaged in a similar programme of research.
Some experiences during my time with AUKCAR
Because a PhD is based on a unique piece of research each PhD is entirely different from the next, the problems and obstacles encountered depend on the field of research and the question being tackled. Having peers who were going through the same process was hugely supportive. From real world physical meetings (which feel like a thing of the dim and distant past at the moment) to virtual meetings, having other people available to discuss research with, to offer suggestions or skills which I didn’t possess was a real benefit. In addition, attending conferences and presenting material was made a far less daunting experience having supportive colleagues in attendance and having met some of the other speakers at previous AUKCAR events.
Highlights of my time with AUKCAR include attending the annual scientific meetings, the first of which was my first ever conference and so a hugely exciting experience. The second afforded me my first trip to the lovely Edinburgh and also netted me a Best Oral Presentation award. My first publication was accepted for an oral presentation at the British Thoracic Society Winter Conference which was absolutely terrifying but a fantastic experience nonetheless. The AUKCAR annual meetings provided some really thought provoking and inspirational talks. I think the single most important thing for me was that being part of AUKCAR made me feel comfortable attending national and international events, interacting with the speakers and attendees, and allowed me to really get the most from these exciting opportunities.
Experience of passing your viva
I’m sure it will be the norm going forward but I think my viva was among the first wave of those conducted entirely by Zoom or Microsoft Teams. I had my two examiners along with a third who was present as a moderator. I was stuck with the choice of hosting the event at the University where I would be subject to the vagaries of the IT network and limited opportunities for a dry run, or hosting it at home with my rural wi-fi connection and no office. I opted for the latter with a desk crammed into the nursery and I think this was the right choice – while a three hour examination is gruelling, it is definitely less so when in the comfort of your own home with access to unlimited tea.
My examiners were both absolutely lovely, pressing me on the some of the detail, exploring the depth of my knowledge and tasking me with its application to future developments but all in the most relaxed and pleasant way possible. My chief difficulty – other than fielding the questions – was moderating the chat volume as one examiner clearly had a better microphone than the other and so I was having to alter the volume up and down according to who was speaking to me at any given time!
Plans for the future
Through the duration of the pandemic I have been nursing, either in my usual role or on the wards as part of the COVID surge redeployment. I still have data from my PhD studies that are being processed and will be working on preparing this for publication. As things return to a slightly more normal state I’m looking forward to having the time to complete this work and to think about the future and where it may take me. Hopefully I will be awarded the doctorate in time to make the list for graduation this summer; the university have yet to confirm whether this will be a virtual or real world event but either way a glass of something bubbly will be lifted.
Adam Peel carried out his PhD studies at the University of East Anglia. We’ll be looking forward to celebrating with him when he is able to graduate, be that in person or virtually.