I come from the least academic family you can imagine and attended one of the worst public schools in the UK (special measures, abusive teachers, and weapons in school kind of bad). Yet, I’ve studied at some of the top universities in the world, published papers in renowned journals, and received multiple academic awards. Oh, and recently won a fully-funded scholarship to study a PhD in Marine Ecology!
I’m not telling you all this to brag (contrary to popular opinion). The purpose of sharing my story is to inspire those confused kids who, like me, felt disadvantaged by the system from day one.
So, how did I escape the turmoil of a terrible high school to thrive in academia?
Bullies, bad teachers, and confused teens…
At high school, academia was a very alien concept for me because I was the first in my family to complete any form of qualifications (hence first-generation student). My parents didn’t get the opportunity or support to finish school as I had. In terms of academic support, I was very much on my own.
Don’t get me wrong, I was always a great student because my parents relentlessly emphasised the importance of school (thanks mum and dad). I loved to learn and worked hard but still had no clue what I wanted to do as a career. I was passionate about all the sciences, especially Biology, yet showed talent in English Literature. My teachers pushed me towards Medicine, yet I wanted to travel. What even was a degree anyway?!
This confusion was not helped by the distractions and drama of a terrible school. There was a fight every second day. Teachers didn’t show up to class or didn’t know the curriculum correctly. I was a target for bullying for years, mainly because I was quiet, dedicated, and talented.
In all honesty, I couldn’t wait to leave. I kept my head down and got the grades I needed to secure a place at The University of Sheffield to study Biology, with the help of a few rare, good teachers and my amazing parents who knew absolutely nothing about university.
Imposture syndrome was my unwanted imaginary friend…
When I started my undergraduate degree, I questioned every move I made. I felt isolated from my peers because most had parents or siblings who had been to university. More students than I ever imagined went to private schools, had holiday homes abroad, and paid their way to A+ coursework. Imposture syndrome was my unwanted imaginary friend throughout my degree.
Yet, I absolutely thrived without even realising. My illogical fear that I was inferior to my peers pushed me to work harder which consequently produced higher quality work.
Discovering my potential…
To my surprise, I started getting top grades and winning grants. I was able to travel to the most amazing places, including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sweden, to study. I was inspired by great lecturers and professors who cared about helping a young budding scientist. For the first time, I felt confident in my abilities as an academic and believed I could go as far as I wanted. Confidence is the biggest hurdle to overcome I’ve realised. I stopped comparing myself to my peers and shaped my own path.
In 2020, I graduated from the University of Sheffield with a first-class honours integrated master’s degree and received a graduate award for my research project. I felt like I could do absolutely anything!
Confidence came crashing down…
After I graduated, I failed to secure a PhD position. I’d done everything right! How could someone not want me?! All my old insecurities came flooding back and my confidence ended abruptly.
Well, it turns out marine science is extremely competitive and has limited funding opportunities. The bottleneck at the application process is unreal. I didn’t know that rejection was normal when applying to PhDs or graduate jobs (probably due to a complete lack of exposure to the world after graduation). A global pandemic didn’t help the matter. I felt like a very small fish in a massive ocean (or maybe in the Sahara Desert).
I put in close to 60 applications for jobs and PhDs. After 18 months of searching for a long-term position, I finally got an acceptance in March 2021. Yes, one acceptance and 59 rejections. Ouch. Although I’d secured a PhD, my confidence still felt shot, and the experience had triggered mental health issues that I’d never experienced before.
A Happy ending?
I start my PhD with the ACCE doctoral training partnership at the University of Liverpool in October 2021. Hurray! I even have the Marine Biological Association as an industrial partner (fancy!).
I’ve been getting help from the NHS to improve my mental health. My confidence is still not back to pre-pandemic levels but that’s ok – it’s a work in progress and I’ve learnt so much about myself. I decided to start sharing my experiences through social media to help other first-generation students navigate the minefield that is academia.
My advice on finding the right career path for you…
1. Take the pressure off specialising so early
I felt a huge pressure to get on the correct path and prepare early for a specific role. The truth is, there is no such thing as the correct path. Very few 17-year-olds know how they want to spend the rest of their lives. I decided to pick a degree that offered flexibility in the broad topic of biology. I could dip into neuroscience, plant physiology, or molecular biology. I spent most of my third and fourth year working on tropical forest conservation, yet my PhD is in marine ecology. It’s never too late to switch paths.
2. Get experience in many different areas
If you don’t try a job, you’ll never know if it’s right for you. It’s important to remember nothing is permanent if you don’t want it to be. Throw yourself into lots of different experiences to understand what is best for you.
3. Get advice from other academics
Some of your lecturers and professors will have been through similar journeys to you. They know the ins and outs of academia and are usually very inspiring. Utilise their support and knowledge outside of modules. Don’t forget about student services!
4. Apply to opportunities and grants you think you won’t get
In my head, I was never good enough to win prizes or grants. They were for the ‘special’ and ‘gifted’ kids (whatever that means). My turning point was when I applied for a big grant for my year abroad in Singapore. Only three exchange students across Europe would receive this large cash prize. I applied with little hope of getting it. But sure enough, two months after my application, I was informed I’d won.
The academic journey for a first-generation student will most likely be a challenging one. University can pose additional hardships for first-gens, including lack of ‘inside’ knowledge, no alumni connections, financial insecurity, imposture syndrome, and very little academic support at home.
BUT that doesn’t mean a first-generation student can’t succeed. The resilience, patience, and determination of first-gens usually create the best researchers. Believe you can achieve anything…because you can!
Written by Dina-Leigh Simons
I share my academic journey plus PhD hacks across social media platforms under the brand No Ordinary Biologist.
All my pages can be found at https://linktr.ee/no_ordinary_biologist.