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My PhD Journey Part 1: Why a Phd … at Leeds … researching incontinence?

PhD Research

Claire Rosato-Scott, PhD Candidate

*This post is about research conducted as part of a PhD supervised by Dr Dani Barrington and Professor Barbara Evans*

I never imagined that I would do a PhD. I’m naturally curious (I ask a lot of questions!) and I’ve always enjoyed learning, but after finishing my first MSc in History and International Relations I was ready to step out of the world of academia. Fast forward ten years and I swapped a career in corporate strategy analysis with studying for an MSc in Water and Sanitation for Development at Cranfield University.

It was at Cranfield that I met Dr Dani Barrington, and I was also introduced to the topic of incontinence in low-resource settings. Dani supervised my dissertation ‘Incontinence in Zambia: Initial coping strategies of sufferers and carers’, for which I spent time in Zambia talking to adults that experience the condition, or who care for those that do.

I had heard about incontinence before my dissertation, but to me it was urinary leakage experienced by older women and something that I didn’t have to worry about just yet. I was aware of the financial, social and emotional impacts that the condition could have however, and I had applied to do the ‘incontinence dissertation’ from a long list of options to shine a light on what felt like a neglected topic within the WASH sector.

Within just a few days of starting my literature review I quickly realised that there was far more to the topic than I could ever have imagined. For a start, it’s not just urinary leakage (faeces can leak too), both males and females can be affected by the condition at any age, and unfortunately, it’s not rare. On the plus side, I did discover a dedicated group of WASHies, championed by WASH consultant Sarah House, working to push incontinence up the WASH sector’s agenda.

Soon after finishing my MSc a post on LinkedIn caught my eye – a guest lecturer at Cranfield University had left their role and started a PhD. I started Googling, and soon realised that PhDs in WASH were very different to my outdated view of life as a postgraduate researcher. Most importantly, I could contribute towards solving a real-world problem that I felt passionate about. But there were other attractions too, not least the flexibility that PhDs offer – with a one-year old stumbling around my days are rarely 9 to 5!

It took only one conversation with Dani – who had since moved to the University of Leeds – to convince me to apply to do my PhD in their Water, Public Health and Environmental Engineering Research Group. When I applied, I was volunteering for iDE and submitted a PhD proposal building on research I had been doing for them around market supply and demand for rural faecal sludge management. With Dani and Professor Barbara Evans as supervisors, there was nowhere better to apply to.

An impending baby’s due date is a great motivator to meet a deadline, and it didn’t take too long to submit my research proposal to Leeds. Dani and Barbara were consistently brilliant, happy to answer any questions and read any drafts within a very short timeframe. They also encouraged me to apply for a scholarship from the University. I found that the application processes weren’t onerous, and that the online systems were simple to use. I received numerous updates letting me know how my application was progressing, and just before baby arrived I found out that I had a place! With the department’s support, I also secured full funding from the EPSRC. And with that peace of mind I started my maternity leave looking forward to starting my PhD later in the year.

Sarah’s emails kept arriving in my inbox though, keeping me informed about the progress that the group were making advocating for those that experience incontinence. I realised that I wanted to contribute to this group, and that with my experience in Zambia I was well-placed to do so. Dani came to the rescue again – one tentative email from me asking if it was possible to switch topics and if incontinence was a viable option, and 48 hours later my topic was updated. Best of all, Dani and Barbara remained my supervisors.

Once I started at Leeds, I spent the first month reading widely to identify research gaps within the wider topic of incontinence in low-resource settings. Of the many that were identified we have chosen to focus on improving emergency WASH for children with urinary incontinence. Three months of reviewing literature and chatting to specialists in both paediatric incontinence and emergency WASH later, and I have found more enthusiasm for the topic than knowledge about it, but this means that there is a huge opportunity to contribute to the sector, which I’m excited about.  With my first progress report submitted, I now turn to figuring out how to actually do the research. It’s not going to be easy, but with Dani and Barbara as supervisors I know we’ll figure it out!

Lesson learned so far on my PhD journey:

  • PhDs can be lonely, especially when working remotely, so network network network. I’m lucky that so many within the WASH sector have been happy to have a chat with me, either over Skype or a coffee, to share thoughts on a topic we both feel passionate about. So lesson two is …
  • Shamelessly ask. An introduction or recommendation from a mutual contact is always best, but I’ve had success using LinkedIn.
  • Timekeeping is key. I have to be pretty disciplined as my time can be limited, so I set myself tasks for each day and don’t allow any ‘fun Googling’ until they’re done …
  • I then make a note of the tasks I’ve completed, as it’s helpful to look back and remember how much I’ve done even if I did spend one day figuring out how to download NVivo.
  • Learn how to use your reference manager I wouldn’t wish my citation experience of having to redo them all on anyone.