PhD Day One: How did I get here?

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

I survived my first day of my PhD and it got me thinking: How did I get here? Not here specifically, burning in the Okanagan Valley, but here as a PhD student at the University of British Columbia study the ecology of wolves on Vancouver Island.

There are a couple of defining moments that got me here. The first, was when I received my A-level results while on work experience at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust (UKWCT). The second, was when I reached out to my (now) supervisor on Twitter (@adamthomasford) to talk about potential PhD opportunities. These two moments, combined with a number of other factors, helped me secure this bad-ass PhD position (with only a significant side-order of imposter syndrome).

Baby Tala of the Beenham Pack, UKWCT

When I finished college, I was hoping to reapply for veterinary school (I still dream about that sometimes – mainly because I want to play with dogs all day) until I spent time working with a captive collection of wolves at the UKWCT. I’ve always loved wildlife, and when working closely with these wolves, I realised I could make a difference, not just to Sandy the golden retriever or Milo the fat black cat, but to entire populations of species. In all my late teenage optimism, that’s what I set out to achieve.


I tried to gain as much experience with wildlife as I could. My experiences started out with captive collections at the New Forest Wildlife Park and Marwell Wildlife, where I learned about animal husbandry of a range of taxa from birds to carnivores. Once I was at university, I expanded my experiences to field-based positions including the Scottish Beaver Trial, Liga para a protectção da natureza in Portugal where I carried out my BSc dissertation research, and the Isle of Rum Red Deer Project in Scotland for my MSc research. I also chose to incorporate a placement year with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust into my BSc, which equipped me with invaluable field skills and allowed me to formed professional relationships.

Living it up as a zoo keeper to Ralph the Humboldt penguin at Marwell Wildlife

After graduating from my MSc, I realised if I wanted to make it as a biologist anywhere other than the UK, I’d need to get some international experience. Luckily (because I’d put all my eggs in that basket) I was awarded the Winston Cobb Memorial Fellowship from Panthera that enabled me to spend 5 months in India with the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust. I also spent a few months in Sri Lanka working on various aspects of a S.P.E.C.I.E.S./Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society collaboration. I have a lot more to say about gaining experience, specifically internationally, but I think it’s safe to say that without half of this experience I wouldn’t have been considered a strong PhD applicant.

Academic Qualifications

This paragraph kind of writes itself; I worked hard at university and graduated with a first-class BSc (Hons) and a distinction in my MSc.


Everyone loves to highlight networking and I’m going to do just that. Sadly I’m too awkwardly British and introverted to network at conferences, but I’m a Queen when it comes to networking via email and social media (because I don’t have to sweat anxiously about what to say). I spent a large chunk of time emailing PhD supervisors and project coordinators to see if anyone would take me on as a field assistant or PhD student. Some never got back to me, some people replied with mild interest but for one reason or another it wasn’t right for me at the time, and one replied so enthusiastically with the offer of a Skype chat that I couldn’t feasibly say no. It’s been roughly two years from that Skype call and here I am, in the lab of a supervisor who took a gamble on me, hoping and praying that I was worth it.

Me walking away from face-to-face networking opportunities (© James Fleming)

So, that’s my view of how I got to be here, drowning in university admin and working out where to start my PhD reading. I’m incredibly proud to be where I am now, but no matter how good my credentials or my experience, there’s always going to be that niggling voice that asks “Was it enough? Am I good enough? “Can I do this?”. Stay tuned to find out…

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Photo Disclaimer: All photographs are property of Sophie May Watts or James Fleming unless otherwise stated.

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