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School of Geography

Stella leading a workshop

Practicing community empowerment while in debt:  A participatory action case study at the urban grassroots

Supervisors: Prof Paul Chatterton, Dr Sara Gonzalez
Funding: ESRC White Rose DTC studentship

Why did you decide to study for a PhD, and why Leeds?

I decided to do a PhD after finishing my Master’s in Activism and Social Change at the School of Geography and then having a year off from study.  I had done my dissertation about a local community group that I was also employed by, and I found it really enriching to combine academic study and reflection with my practical work.  Doing a PhD seemed like a good way to take this further, and applying for an ESRC scholarship through the University of Leeds meant I could be funded for three years to continue working with the community group I felt passionate about and also design my own research project.  Studying at Leeds meant I could do my research in the place where I live, work and feel at home, with supportive and experienced supervisors to guide me.

What is your experience of PhD study in the School and what skills have you learnt?

Being a PhD student has been both challenging and enriching.  It is not without its ups and downs – like any learning experience – and, for me, doing an independent research project has been an enormous opportunity for personal growth as well as intellectual and professional development.

As a student in Geography, it’s great to have office and computer equipment and a designated place to work.  I’ve found all the staff who support us with IT, administration and facilities really friendly and helpful.  Leeds’ library provides access to a good range of journals, and although it doesn’t have every book in every specialist field, it is responsive to requests to purchase particular texts. 

Geography has a friendly environment – with lots of opportunities to chat with colleagues over tea and cake or lunch, if you’re willing to introduce yourself! – and our research cluster has been responsive to PhD students’ requests for more opportunities to share and discuss ongoing work.  No supervisors can make a PhD easy, but mine have done a great job at both pushing and challenging me and also providing encouragement and recognition. 

I’ve also been glad for the opportunity to get involved in teaching work at the School – this has been one of my favourite parts of my PhD!  Other highlights have been finding support and space for discussion with my fellow PhD students and meeting people from other universities at conferences, talks and training events. 

What are your career aspirations?

Doing a PhD has helped me become more skilled in self-management as well as building up other career skills like project planning and working collaboratively.  Personally, things like presenting my work in public and writing for publication have challenged me to develop more confidence and the ability to seek out, and act on, constructive criticism and feedback.  I’ve taken advantage of a lot of training opportunities offered by the School of Geography and the University – in things like time management, teaching, and writing skills.  I’m not sure whether I will carry on in an academic career or return to working in the community sector, but either way I feel better equipped to develop my career in a direction that will be rewarding and interesting for me.

More generally, what would you say to someone else who may be considering studying a PhD in the School of Geography?

Researching for a PhD will be a different experience for everyone who does it, depending on your interests, your previous experience, your style of working and your field.  However, what is certain is that doing a PhD will bring all of these things together in an intense and demanding project, which will draw on all your existing skills and knowledge and give you cause to develop a lot more in the process.  If you have a good opportunity to move straight into postgraduate study after your first degree, and a really clear idea about what you want to study and why, why not seize the moment?!  But if you aren’t so sure and you have the chance to get some relevant work experience, consider doing this before studying a PhD.  It will help you build skills and knowledge that will serve you well during a PhD and will help you be really sure you want to study again – as well as serving as a useful reminder of why you decided to do it when you hit a rough patch!  Either way, a PhD is an opportunity for a challenging, all-round learning experience that can help you develop in all kinds of ways, not just academically.