A day in the life of a PhD student in Psychology

Hi everyone! I’m Elizaveta, a first year PhD student in Psychology here at Surrey!

In my PhD project I am studying the longitudinal neural correlates of counting in pre-schoolers from the ages of 3 to 5 years old. Basically, my job is to observe how children’s brain activity changes as they learn to count. I will observe one and the same group when they are 3 years old, 4 years old and finally, when they are 5 years old. Studying the very same group is incredibly important in order to understand how we, humans, come to understand what numbers are and what we can do with them. It is surely not an easy job, but very rewarding! In fact, I fell in love with studying brain development in various areas (e.g. language and memory) during my bachelor and master’s degrees, so when I saw the advertisement to come join a project that does exactly that, plus uses up-to-date equipment, I couldn’t say no. Well, plus the fully funded scholarship, of course! Anyway, this post is about my day-to-day life, so let’s take a dive.

8 am – Time to wake up and get ready – I live at Hazel Farm, so I am located fairly far away from the Stag Hill campus where I work, which involves factoring a bit more time into my daily routine. There are several ways to get to campus, but my favourite one – and also the fastest – is cycling! On average, it takes me around 20 minutes to get to campus, but bear in mind that I am a slow cyclist. 🙂

9 am – I am on campus, and so is our lab’s research assistant, and our task is to check whether we have enough study materials. We need to be quick: today is the day we are going to a nursery for a data collection. Our sample consists of 3-4 year old children, and our goal is to assess their level of counting via several simple behavioural tasks. Though it does not take more than 30 minutes, the tricky part is making sure they remain entertained the whole time, so we make sure we pack loads of toys and stickers (my office cupboard contains around 100 toys)!

9.30 – 10.30 am – We are at the nursery, playing with pre-schoolers! This part is always an adventure, as each child is different and we need to figure out the best approach. Overall, time flies by quickly here, with lots of laughter and stickers!

11 am – 1 pm – Back in the office, sometimes it feels like you are doing everything at once, which is why it is so hard to time-track the activities. There are weeks when I am hosting tutoring sessions for first year undergraduate students, and we get to talk about making a poster, writing an essay and many other things. This week is still Spring break, so I have a bit more time for other activities. For example, I am currently in the middle of helping out with essay marking for one of the modules. Typically, I receive around 30-50 essays to grade. While it is definitely hard work, it is rewarding in lots of ways – I get to improve my teaching skills and help students improve their writing skills. Plus, I get paid for it. 🙂

1 pm – 2 pm – Lunch time! If my PhD friends are around, this is the time to hangout and relax a little bit. We usually have lunch in our common room or go look for food in one of our cafes right on campus.

2 pm – 6 pm – The rest of the day is a mix between my work and meetings. There are definitely days when I have so many meetings that I do not have enough energy for the rest of the tasks. Luckily, not everyday! The focus of these meetings can be different: sometimes they are supervision related, sometimes these are lab meetings, and sometimes they are mostly administrative. These days, in between these meetings, my main goal is to figure out how to use my most important lab equipment – functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). fNIRS is an innovative method for recording brain activity that measures changes in blood oxygenation by beaming light into the skull. This method is perfect for toddlers, which is why I will be using it in my next upcoming data collection this May! For the past few weeks, I have been struggling to make it work, but today is my lucky day because it is finally working!  🎉

The brain signals fNIRS is recording – red and blue lines indicate changes in blood oxygenation!
Me, proudly wearing finally working fNIRS!

6 pm – Midnight? – Today was a good day and I am in the mood for a hangout! Every once in a while I go out with one of my friends to the town centre to grab something to eat and just have fun. PhD time can definitely be a lonesome period, but I am happy I have people I can rely on, have fun with and just enjoy life outside of working hours. 

Life here reminds me of LEGO: every day is unique. On some days there’s more work and late hours, and on some – you take extra time to hangout with your friends during lunch or at Wates pub or somewhere in the city (there are quite a few awesome places). There are many good days here; and there are tired and worried days as well. For all these days, I am in luck to have support and encouragement from my peers and my family, which makes it a wholesome and rewarding experience. 

What do I plan to do after my PhD? I am open-minded about my career choices; my main priority is to continue doing something that will benefit communities. I am definitely interested in doing a PostDoc and following an academic path. However, I am just as open to industrial opportunities – e.g. data science, project management and so on. After over 6 years in sciences I now do keep an experimental approach not only in the lab, but in the life in general.

Thank you for taking a tour on one day of a PhD life with me!