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Interview with Shane McLoughlin - PhD Student at University of Chichester

i-studentglobal spoke to Psychology PhD student Shane McLoughlin about his experiences of changing universities, coming to study in the UK and receiving a scholarship to fund his studies at University of Chichester.

Why I decided to study a PhD

I decided to do a PhD for an odd reason, but one that I think is legitimate. I hated my undergraduate degree! That sounds dramatic, and odd, but hear me out. My degree was in Applied Psychology. In the first year, we got an overview of the field, touching on abnormal behaviour, perception, the main theorists, and so on. We also did some IT subjects. I enjoyed that. My grades were good; I got a mixture of 2.1s and 1sts. Second year was a disaster though. We studied cognitive psychology, which I thought was disjointed (an area that has literally hundreds of theories with no parsimony). Other subjects that year and throughout the four-year degree were applications of cognitive psychology in sport, education, business, IT etc. and I started to wonder: Why not figure out the basics in psychology first, before presuming to apply it well? It turned out that relatively few people were questioning the basics – philosophy of science, assumptions, what statistics can’t tell us. It’s like studying physics while everyone else is studying alchemy. If we get the physics right, we could end up with a chemistry of psychology in the future. That’s exciting to me. I wanted to be part of that agenda. My undergraduate thesis was on critical thinking. None of the core staff were willing to supervise that project, so I was assigned the guy who tended to get the “miscellaneous” projects. He was and is a gentleman, but his expertise was e-commerce systems. He put in lots of time with me and I ended up with a 2.1 in my degree.

Why I chose to study abroad

I decided to study human intelligence, the cognitive faculty that applies to everything else we do. After not being awarded a scholarship at my undergraduate university, I had to look for a researcher who was willing to supervise a project that looked at the fundamentals of thinking itself.

I first looked at local universities back home in Ireland, checking the expertise of various lecturers and professors. I made contact with a number of professors of Psychology, but because of promotions and retirements, there was nobody suitable to supervise my project from start to finish. I finally found a suitable supervisor at the National University of Ireland, Galway and spent around 5 months visiting the campus each week to work on my proposal and develop my knowledge of Psychology for the path of study that laid in front of me. I was unsuccessful in applying for scholarships to support my PhD studies at Galway so I was working full-time and studying part-time in the evenings. It was exhausting but somehow I kept it up for a year and a half. 

It happened that, as a part-time student at the National University of Ireland, Galway, I became one of a handful of people in the world who could do what I do. After a year and a half, I was rubbing shoulders with my heroes, who were the top academics in the world in my field, in my opinion. I was working very hard. Even though I was part-time, I was ahead of where I would expect to be if I had been a full-timer. In March of 2015 I presented some research at a conference at University College London, where I met my future supervisor at the University of Chichester. We had mutual interests and he was a graduate of the university where I was studying at the time. I found out that he had won funding for a project that was very similar to what was going to be the rest of my PhD, and would be advertising it in the summer of 2015. I applied for the position and now here I am studying full-time without having to work full-time as well.

Why I chose Chichester

I applied to study in Chichester. My prospective supervisor was delighted that I was showing serious interest and assured me that I would be free to travel home as long as I wasn’t teaching. Besides, flights were only £40, if I booked early enough. I did an interview via Skype. One of the last questions was “what will you do if you don’t get this scholarship?” and I replied “I’ll probably do that research anyway, but faster”. The interviewers laughed, and I knew I had it.

With a PhD, I believe that one of the most important things is that you and your supervisor are a match. Having met him in London a few months earlier, I’d already had a pint with my prospective boss. He was a great guy, but also a no-nonsense person when it came to research, which I liked. He was (and is) more diplomatic than I, so I could certainly learn from him as a person. He was encouraging and didn’t treat me like I was just another student, as some lecturers would, irrespective of the quality of a student’s work. His answer to everything is always “yes, go for it”; that is, he is willing to try new things and keep learning, himself. There’s nothing worse than a “researcher” who just wants their pre-conceived narrative parroted back at them. Well, perhaps with the exception of a researcher who doesn’t question fundamental assumptions of what they’re doing, that is.


Priory Park, Chichester

I already had access to all the facilities that I needed for my work, but nonetheless, there are great facilities in our department - I just don’t happen to need them. Coming to the University of Chichester allowed me the chance to gain teaching experience, which is important when it comes to getting a postdoctoral position. As part of the scholarship, I have the chance to do the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching and become a fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Our department is also a small one, in a small university. That provides a certain amount of opportunity that you don’t get elsewhere. Helping to grow a department or contribute to courses is a rare opportunity in academia for a newbie like me.

Applying for scholarships

Don’t waste your time throwing together a CV and vague statement of interest. Get to know the person awarding it and discuss your chances informally. Meet them for a coffee and ask them what they’re really looking for. If they won’t give you that time and honesty, run away now, while you can. Don’t get discouraged when your tenth application is rejected. What’s for you won’t pass you. Be honest about what’s important to you in your application, so that the reviewers can tell whether your values are aligned with theirs; values are key to predicting future behaviour. Emphasise practical outcomes of your proposed project in your application; nobody these days wants theory for theory’s sake. Avoid jargon in written applications; reviewers won’t understand it. At interview, tell a story about who you are and why you care about the topic. That is, communicate that your application is part of a world-view of “this is important because”, “I’ve done this and learned that”, but “this is the logical next step in the career I want to have” because “this seems incorrect / needs expanding”. “It bothers me that this question has not yet been answered because”. Top tip: the answer to that last “because” is never simply “because it’s important”.

As a researcher, you will never have all the answers. It’s much more important to ask the right questions and do things for the right reasons. Convey that in your application and you’ll eventually get accepted to a great PhD program.

Lastly, you can do it! Work hard and you’ll eventually find yourself in the right place at the right time. You need to be determined, or a bit lucky.

Moving to the UK

The good thing about a PhD though is that you get a lot of chances to travel and network, so you’re not confined to where you’re based. I go to Ireland every few months to visit friends and family (I’m currently spending May to August at home, because I can). Now we have the Brexit scandal upon us, but the Chancellor of the University has guaranteed that once you’re accepted to a course here, you will be allowed to finish it. I assume it’s a similar situation elsewhere. I’d think twice about working here after graduating because of the lack of access to EU funds, but this doesn’t factor into my time as a PhD student.

One thing I’ve found about the UK culture is that its inherent politesse makes it difficult to be blunt about the merits or flaws in ideas, which is a crucial part of academia. Yes, you may catch more flies with honey than vinegar, this is not how academia should be, in my opinion. I subscribe to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion: “let me never fall for the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted”. Ideas are either useful in certain respects, or not. As a researcher, making those distinctions should be your primary objective. Being wrong is a learning opportunity to me, which I consider valuable. In this culture, providing those learning opportunities in any direct way can often be taboo, which I think stunts progress.

As regards the University of Chichester itself, it’s quite small, and perhaps not the most prestigious when it comes to getting a degree. It’s also quite new, though that’s hardly a reflection of failure; there are some great courses here despite its brief existence. I did my undergraduate degree at a small institution where there were only 2000 students, studied at an institution of 15000 students, and now I’m collaborating with the top people in my field while based at a small institution of about 5000 students. In other words, networking is much more important than the institution to which you are affiliated once you finish your undergraduate degree and transition into research. In terms of progressing as a researcher, it’s all about publishing research articles to raise your citation index, and most articles are reviewed anonymously anyway. In terms of progressing even further, winning grants for research is important, and those applications are similarly blind-reviewed. So again, it all comes down to who your supervisor is and how much you care about your topic. There is a lot of faux-expertise across the world of academia, but the UK also happens to be quite high in genuine expertise.

What the scholarship means

The scholarship means that I can do what I love and get paid to do it. I get to expand my skillset and gain teaching experience so that I’m competitive when it comes to looking for my first postdoctoral position. I have flexibility to visit my family and friends relatively often. I can take a day off whenever I need a break (thinking is part of the job which doesn’t stop once you leave the office, so non-teaching or writing days aren’t necessarily days off). I can work from home a lot, if I choose. I have time to go to conferences and network with my heroes. I filled a gap on my CV by winning a scholarship in the first place. The scholarship makes me feel validated for sticking to my principles and working hard for three years after graduating. To me, the perseverance to win a scholarship is analogous to the perseverance it will take to become a full-time academic later on. That is, it gave me self-belief and reinforced the importance of working hard and caring about your topic. A scholarship is the breathing space to turn that caring into something that matters to you, and hopefully also to society writ-large. It’s the opportunity to leave that little mark on human progress for a long time after you’re gone. You don’t get that opportunity in many other careers.

Find out more about studying Psychology at the University of Chichester

See why other international students chose to study abroad at the University of Chichester

Read blogs by students from the University of Chichester