PhD life can throw up a seemingly never-ending series of challenges 

The UK lockdown happened while I was editing my final thesis chapter, meaning I’d have to do a virtual viva and miss celebrating with my colleagues in the office afterwards. This wasn’t quite the carpet-pulling moment you might think it would be for a late-stage doctoral student – it was just another small hurdle in the saga of getting my PhD. I can certainly say it’s taught me to be resilient.

My first hiccup actually happened just before the start of my degree. I’d had a suspicious lump on my thyroid for about a year. After having it surgically removed, it turned out I had follicular thyroid cancer – a somewhat ironic diagnosis given I was just about to start an oncology-focused research project.

After delaying my degree start date, another operation and a smidge of radioiodine therapy, my newly healed neck scar and I set off from Perth for Brighton to start at the University of Sussex. My project got underway, and I settled into my post-cancer life on the south coast. I hoped the fresh start would make up for the time I lost in hospital.

And then a few months into my degree, my supervisor announced they were moving institution. I’d just arrived in Brighton; I wasn’t sure if I was ready to pack up my life again so soon. Thankfully, after some back and forth, we decided it made sense for me to stay at Sussex working on similar projects to my colleagues. I adjusted to remote supervisor life and carried on – in hindsight, this was quite helpful for having some consistency in lockdown life.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of my long-distance woes. My project involved an international collaboration which required sending the compounds I made to a research group in Brazil to test in a biochemical assay. This arrangement worked well for the most part; then, in my second year, one of those packages was held in Brazilian customs for a month! The mix of a customs staff strike and a box containing ‘small quantities of unnamed compounds for research purposes’ did not work out well. But hey, everyone experiences delays in their research project, right?

I thought nothing more could go wrong

Fast forward to my final year. It was my last week working on new stuff for my project before remaking a few compounds for NMRs etc., when I received a phone call from my letting agent.

‘Can you come home, please? There is a large amount of water leaking from your flat into the one below.’

I stabilised my reactions as quickly as I could, jumped on the next bus, ran up my street and up the stairs to find… a bone dry flat. I had been picturing all my drenched possessions, but (fortunately for me) it had only been a leak from under my bath into the flats of two of my poor neighbours below (less fortunately for them). I needed to stay on the premises until a locksmith arrived, so those final ’new’ experiments just had to wait.

Then, a few weeks later, as the countdown to Christmas and the end of my time in Sussex beckoned, I was involved in a minor car collision. Brighton has some very strange road junctions, and another driver rolled forward when they shouldn’t have, and clipped my little red car. Phone calls to insurance brokers between final repeat experiments is definitely not good for stress levels.

At this point I thought nothing more could go wrong – I must have used up all my bad luck by now. But a week or so later, on what was supposed to be my penultimate day in the lab, I arrived at the office to hear the fire alarm blaring. My colleagues said it had been ringing all morning and attempts to fix it had been unsuccessful. By lunchtime, it was still going, so we had to close the lab until we could safely know when there was a real fire – not ideal timing. I pressed on with updating my lab book with Christmas carols blaring through my headphones until the alarm eventually stopped ringing around 4pm. Finally, I could carry out my last few melting points for the thesis.

But that still wasn’t the end of my troubles. The last thing I needed to do before leaving the lab was to archive a year’s worth of samples. I spent most of the weekend making a lovely spreadsheet of my last batch of compounds and where they needed to go in the big freezer – only to find the campus printing network was down when I needed it. I had already given away my printer on freecycle in preparation for a one-way drive home to Scotland. I had no way to print my spreadsheet and it was too big to redo by hand. Instead, I just left the compounds in a box on my bench to archive when I returned to campus to submit my thesis in March…

… And then there was the small matter of a pandemic closing universities across the country and a ban on non-essential travel. I hope those compounds stay stable at room temperature. C’est la vie!