The Start of my PhD: Take 2

The week before my return date I was a nervous wreck.

I thought to myself: “I need to get psychologically and physically prepared”, so I made myself a first-week plan as well as a plan for the subsequent 3 months. However, when I revisited this, I realised, as per usual, I was extremely optimistic and my first week could have easily been a months work. Thursday evening of the week before quickly arrived, and I received a phone call from my supervisor setting a meeting for Monday. This call really lifted me and I was very excited.

Unfortunately, this feeling didn’t last very long, and by Sunday I became very nervous again. As always, my Mum knew exactly what to say to calm me down. She told me nothing is in my control tomorrow and the only thing I can do is go in with a positive mind, so I did. This was important, as I really dislike not being in control of my life, but for me finding the courage to let go of the things that I cannot change has been a massive achievement.

Monday16th of November 2015: the day that I have been waiting for, for what seemed like an eternity. I woke up at 6am for a 10.30am meeting, which is the earliest time I have seen in a very long while. The commute was different from usual; road layouts had changed and I feared I did not know the way despite travelling to Kingston for over 4 years. The mind games had truly kicked in. After an hour drive came the task of finding a parking space, at which point I was so fatigued i did not know how I was going to get through the day.

As I entered the University I was feeling extremely overwhelmed. A lot had changed since I was last here in the summer (just 4 months ago). There was a new shop in reception, the canteen had been refurbished and there was a lot of new faces. I walked into my supervisor’s office and it was the first time in a long while that I thought things are going to be ok, especially after a good cup of tea.

I know a lot of PhD students have problems with their supervisor. Some may have reduced contact with their supervisor or at the other end of the scale, have an overbearing supervisor. I have been so lucky to have a supervisor like mine, he has been so understanding and at no point did I feel pressurised to return. I have just felt supported throughout a very hard time.

During this meeting my second supervisor and Lab Manger were present and it was agreed that I should have a phased return to work. It was decided that I would start back with a two-day week and, to my surprise, I would not start any lab work until January. That was my first-week lab plan and my monthly plans down the drain…

So what was the plan? I would produce a review paper to ease me back into to the scientific field with a publication aim date for the end of December. I was devastated to not be able to go in the lab but realised, this was the best option for my recovery and I could focus on something and get myself ready for January.

I would like to thank everyone for their support and cooperation, especially my supervisor and lab manager. I always set myself high expectations but sometimes, the reality is that I am not ready. I suppose I better get writing…


Lucky Cullen

Kingston University



The Dreaded PhD Suspension

The first year of my PhD was not dissimilar in many ways to most postgraduate students. I spent days on end ploughing through literature to gain an understanding of my topic, I produced a literature review and I experienced the multiple failures of research after spending a good seven months modifying my experimental approach. I am a keen sportsperson and played competitive football during my first year, as well as working every Saturday in a sports club for children and young adults with disabilities. On top of this, like most of us, I had a problem with saying no, and amongst other things, I decided to become an Academic Mentor and look after Undergraduate and Masters students in the lab.

As you can imagine it, was virtually impossible to keep this up and as my experiments now required observation 7 days a week…. I sadly decided to pack up my football boots! Towards the end of the first year the atmosphere amongst the postgrads took a nosedive, as we were approaching the dreaded PhD transfer. This entailed endless sleepless nights, as my transfer report was double the word limit and I was reluctant to remove any of it. After the transfer report came the VIVA and, I can say, I have never been so nervous in my life! Having said that, it went extremely well and I was given lots of suggestions, which I was keen to crack on with. At the same time my experiment was finally starting to work, and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Success!

Another Monday morning came around and I got to university at 7.30am and I sat in the library for an hour, as I felt unwell. I went to the lab to check my experiments, but I knew something wasn’t right with me, and I was told by my lab manager to go home. After progressively getting worse on Tuesday I was taken to my doctors, and from then on everything was a blur. I was surrounded by doctors, injected in the buttock with Penicillin and rushed to hospital in an ambulance. When I arrived in A&E I was surrounded by so many doctors and nurses, and was told I was being treated for Meningitis. As a microbiologist it was the first time I felt knowing too much was not a good thing, and I thought I was going to die. I was placed in isolation and pumped with antivirals and antibacterial agents whilst my Doctor conducted a lumbar puncture. After laboratory analysis it was confirmed that I had viral meningitis, which was a relief to everyone – especially me. As I was lucky and only had viral meningitis, there was no treatment and I was given fluids, antiemetics (to prevent nausea) and pain relief and was warned of the intense recovery period. I was discharged a few days later.

After two weeks of being out of hospital, I received a call from my supervisor who suggested we suspend my PhD. I was inconsolable. I knew that suspending my PhD was almost inevitable, but I couldn’t help remember the blogs I’ve read stating that a suspension is a polite way of your supervisor telling you to get lost. What upset me the most was the length of time of my suspension, which was 3 months. In my head I had that I would be up and running within a month. But that was not the case at all. In fact, it has been the complete opposite.



Two months went by and I had made no significant improvement, so I went back to the back to the doctors who ran further tests. I was then told I was positive for Epstein-Barr virus, glandular fever and (if that wasn’t enough) I also had a urine infection. I was slowly sinking into a depressive state and I felt as though I would never feel well again. The recovery for glandular fever alone is up to a month, with fatigue lasting for up to seven months, so I certainly have a long way to go.

Asides from feeling continually ill for three months, not a day went by where I did not think about my PhD. I felt like my life had been put on hold and the world has gone passing by without me. I would see daily updates and advancements in my field of antibiotic resistance, and targets I had set myself (such as presenting at the SFAM September Conference) had been missed. I felt completely disconnected from the scientific world and my return to life as a researcher seemed further away than ever…

I am now approaching my return to the scientific world that I have felt disconnected from for the past three months. I have to say, I am slightly nervous. But, I have learnt that sometimes you cannot control what life throws at you, but having courage, strength and determination will allow you to overcome any obstacle you are faced with.


Lucky Cullen

Kingston University



News Round-Up August 31st – September 13th

Bioscience news 1

Hello, and welcome to the #bioscisews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

A cure for jetlag? Researchers in Austria have found that, if you can stomach it, a blood transfusion could alleviate symptoms of jet lag. It appears that a lack of sleep has a severe effect on red blood cells, so replenishing them should help reverse the effects of jet lag! On a serious note, this could potentially be very useful for shift workers, where incidences of heart disease are higher.

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Meningitis and starting university. If you are starting university or even returning, it is important you know about meningitis, and how to recognise the symptoms – it could save a life. Common symptoms can include:

  • Fever with cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Severe headache
  • Sensitive to bright lights
  • A distinctive rash
  • Drowsiness and difficulty waking up

Meningitis bacteria, SEM

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The importance of iron-oxidising bacteria. A new study has indicated that iron-oxidising bacteria probably sustained the global carbon cycle prior to oxygen dependent species arising.

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New human ancestor discovered The announcement of the discovery of ancient hominid fossils in South Africa got evolutionary biologists really excited. The original paper is open access, and there is some wonderful coverage by National Geographic.

Hand and foot

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Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Stewart Barker                                                                                                                   The University of Sheffield                                                                                                     @Stewart_Barker