I found out that my PhD application had been successful during a typical day in the pub kitchen – I had started at 5.30am, cleaning litres of grease off the oven filters. What was meant to be temporary work to support my master’s degree had become a full-time job, and in five years I had moved from being a kitchen porter to a shift leader and stand-in manager.
My heart was racing during the breakfast shift as I waited for the news about my PhD. But checking my emails on my phone was out of the question – I had to concentrate. A busy kitchen requires full focus at all times; drift off for a few seconds and you can end up losing a finger. And if I took longer than eight minutes to deliver a full English breakfast, I would have to sit down with my manager and explain where I had failed. So I finally got the good news at the end of my shift and walked out of the pub feeling like the luckiest person in the world.
Today I am just over two years into my PhD in political science at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna. I am exploring the communication between members of parliament and their constituents. We elect MPs to represent our beliefs, ideas, and interests, but without communication, they may never know what our interests actually are. And so this back and forth is crucial for a healthy, representative democracy.
I want to discover how MPs choose what to communicate to their constituents. My initial plan was to talk to MPs themselves, but, as my supervisor had wisely warned me, this didn’t work. I soon found out that MPs don’t want to communicate with PhD students – they would rather invest their time in conversations with people who will help them to earn votes.
So instead of asking MPs about how they communicate with their constituents, I decided to use email contact from constituents to analyse MPs’ behaviour. My experiment was one of the first to use this methodology to study elected representatives in Europe and I was thrilled to win the 2015 Pademia Student Paper Award, for the best student research in parliamentary democracy in Europe.
I love my PhD because research is what I live for. I don’t see it as a job like the pub. Days off from the kitchen were precious and never enough, but now I have to force myself to stay away from my office to rest and recuperate. I often find myself spending the weekends there reading, analysing data and writing, not because I have to but because I love to.
My days in kitchen provided valuable experience for my research. The physical and mental grind of the long hours gave me a strong work ethic and mean that I have a sense of perspective when things get tough on my PhD.
And I have kept the early-morning starts – well, almost. I begin work at 6.30am, so I get an extra hour in bed. Although I can now check my emails whenever I want and procrastinate without getting into trouble, I know how to avoid getting too distracted.
Putting in these hours on my PhD has helped me to overcome some of the mistakes that I have made along the way. Assuming that MPs would respond to my questions, for example, meant that I wasted 10 months designing questionnaires and interviews. But I am on course to finish writing my thesis within two and a half years, six months ahead of time.
My story so far goes against the stereotype of the PhD as a long, torturous journey that students have to suffer through. I enjoy working on the answer to the question I have chosen because it really matters. When I start working before sunrise, I know that I am not making multimillionaires slightly richer while they sleep. I know that my research will never make me rich either, but I hope that it will benefit society.
An exceptional outcome, whether it’s an English breakfast or a PhD thesis, is difficult to achieve with average ingredients, no matter how hard you try. I know how frustrating it is to be without support from my days in the kitchen, where we were often understaffed. Thankfully I have all the resources that I need now, including two inspirational supervisors. It was worth waiting, and working, for the right opportunity to come along.