Life as a PhD Student

Find out about the diverse working life of a Kew-based PhD student.

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Each PhD student studying for a PhD at Kew has at least two supervisors, one from Kew and one from the partner university, so how much time you spend at each site will depend on what access you need to the expertise, facilities and resources at Kew, as well as available funding.  

Some PhD students are based at Kew full-time, others part-time or visiting occasionally for a week or month etc, others spend a long placement of six months or a year here during their PhD, and a few work with us entirely remotely, rarely visiting the site.  

Unique resources at Kew (including Wakehurst) include our Collections and Data Resources as well as laboratory research facilities [link to 3 Collections and Resources]. 

These profiles of current postgraduate researchers will give you an idea of the diverse working life of a Kew-based PhD student. 

Carey Metheringham

Carey explains how a search for a PhD that would use her bioinformatics skills led her to working in a team researching the genomics of Ash dieback susceptibility.

After qualifying with a MSc in Bioinformatics (the development of computational methods to solve biological problems), I was looking for a PhD that would allow me to apply bioinformatics to an interesting problem in a practical way. Using the listing site Find a PhD, I found a joint project on ash genomics between Kew and Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), with funding already in place. 

Ash dieback presents a serious problem for European ash trees, and my project is funded by Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), who are concerned about the potential affects losing many of our ash trees could have on both the environment and economy. My research involves developing computational methods to predict which ash trees will have greater resistance to ash dieback.  

As a bioinformatician, I spend most of my day working at my computer, with the occasional foray down into the lab and no field work (yet). I usually spend four days a week at Kew and one day at QMUL. When I was offered the PhD, I was given the choice of where to base my research and chose Kew, as it’s good to be able to take a walk outside when I’m stuck on a problem or just need a break from the screen.  

I’m one of four PhD students working on different aspects of ash trees within the Natural Capital and Plant Health department. Being part of a team where research interests overlap offers useful support but, on the other hand, you have to work at finding your own niche.  

Leif Bersweden

Leif took a Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) route to finding a PhD, here he recalls how this led him to studying orchid genetics at Kew. 

After obtaining my undergraduate degree in biology, then I applied for a place on the London NERC DTP. I liked the fact it was an interdisciplinary course with students from all sorts of different backgrounds within the environmental sciences.  

The big draw for me, as a botanist, was the fact that Kew were part of the DTP. I had always considered Kew to be the ‘end-of-the-tunnel’, the place I would always be aiming to work at, so the opportunity to be here at this stage of my career was very exciting! 

Once part of the programme, the DTP offers the option of choosing a project from a long list of titles that have been put forward by academics at nine universities and institutions across London – or alternatively you can come up with your own from scratch. I found a project about orchids on the list that really interested me so I came to Kew to meet with the supervisors (one from Kew, one from Queen Mary University London) and discuss ideas. All very straightforward! 

It's great to have the opportunity to study for a PhD here at Kew, where you’re surrounded by botanists and mycologists in a wide variety of fields. There are so many different projects going on, ranging from chemical ecology to next-generation genome sequencing.  

My project is looking at hybridisation in a group of European orchids so I spend a lot of time in the lab working with DNA, but there are plenty of different things that might take your fancy. One big advantage of doing a PhD here is the link with, in my case, Queen Mary University. While I spend most of my time at Kew, I have access to the facilities and expertise at Queen Mary’s, which will undoubtedly prove invaluable throughout the duration of my research here. 

I’m on Twitter (@LeifBersweden) so do get in touch if you have any questions about doing a PhD here at Kew, I’d be happy to answer them! 


Lucy Dablin

Lucy applied for a Doctoral Training Partnership to fund her PhD research, here she explains how her studies have led her on a self-sufficient path to Peru. 

After my MSc in Conservation Science at Imperial College London, I helped on Kew projects in the Bolivian Amazon. I really enjoyed the work which involved using a multi-purpose tree legume (Inga edulis) to rehabilitate degraded and marginal agricultural lands. Inspired by the experience in Bolivia, where the local smallholders had enthusiastically taken up the use of Inga edulis, I decided to expand upon the existing work and study for a PhD. 

The focus of my research is to design an agricultural system that combines forestry with cattle (a silvopastoral system) for the Peruvian Amazon. To fund this research, I successfully applied to a Doctoral Training Partnership. I chose Kew as my principal institution and University College London as the university partner. 

I am probably one of the most unconventional PhD students as I live on the experimental silvopastoral system I am studying! I begun in 2015, three years later I am almost self-sufficient here on site. My daily routine involves collecting and entering data, mostly measuring trees and grass, and co-ordinating with my supervisory team in the UK. I also spend my "out of office" hours farming. I have a large collection of native trees and plenty of fruits to harvest, not to mention my small army of 200 ducks! 

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