Gabriel Strain has recently completed the MRes Experimental Psychology with Data Science course and is preparing for a postgraduate research programme. Here, he reveals how he went from starting an undergraduate degree in medicine to getting ready to begin a PhD in computer science.
Switching from medicine to psychology
My A-level choices were almost entirely dictated by my desire to study medicine. My perseverance paid off, and I was eventually offered a place on the MBChB at The University of Manchester.
By the end of my first year of university, I knew deep down that this was not the career, nor degree, for me. I had failed my first year practical exams pretty badly, mostly due to my complete lack of motivation to engage with anatomy. Spurred on by my family, friends, and tutors to just give it another go, and not wanting to be seen as a quitter, I took my resit and passed, allowing me to progress onto second year.
Second year was hard. As before, I failed my practical exams, but this time, instead of passing my resit, I failed. I could appeal this decision, and, if successful, could redo second year with even more stringent assessment rules: one fail and I was out, no resit, no appeal, that was that. This, surprisingly, I never pursued.
I knew that I still wanted a degree, and there was plenty about medicine that I did enjoy – talking with patients, writing coursework and working with people – so I set about deciding what new direction I would go in. After a very close friend’s mental health took a particularly bad turn, I started thinking about going into psychology.
Psychology was something that, from my limited experience of it in medicine, I knew I enjoyed, so it seemed like the natural progression. Thankfully, I was accepted onto this new programme without any hassle, and so started, in 2017, my second undergraduate degree.
This time I really was prepared. I was a little older, a little wiser, and was much more confident that what I was doing I could do well. Some of this new-found confidence was the result of my being a little older, some of it because I’d already done the nervous fresher thing, and some of it because I was, for the first time academically, genuinely excited to learn and to contribute to the generation of knowledge.
I enjoyed every second of my psychology degree. I rediscovered a passion for writing that had been dormant since my GCSEs. In third year, when I was responsible for taking a research project from conception to completion as part of my dissertation, I also discovered a passion for research. I ended my undergraduate achieving a high 2:1, with a 1st in my dissertation. It had taken me a total of five years, but I finally had my degree.
Moving into postgraduate study
I started to think about what to do next. I had originally applied to psychology with a view to being a clinical psychologist, so it seemed the next natural step was to apply for a MSc in something to do with that – I thought I could always pick up the research later.
As it happened, I was unable to get onto the particular course I applied to, and was talking over my options with my supervisor when he mentioned the MRes in Experimental Psychology with Data Science. This wasn’t a course I had considered, or even heard of. I decided to take a chance on it – I thought I could always pick up the clinical stuff later, and in September of 2020, amidst a global pandemic, I began my MRes in Psychology.
Not getting onto the MSc I’d originally applied for turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened. Despite my entire MRes being online, I felt like I had arrived. For the first time in my academic career, I felt I had the motivation for everything I was doing. I loved my undergraduate psychology degree, but as you would expect, there were aspects of it I was less interested in than others.
Now, though, it felt like the course had been tailored to my interests; I was working with my supervisor and his PhD candidate and carrying out interesting, original research. I finally felt like I was contributing to the creation of new knowledge, stuff that hadn’t been investigated before, and I was loving it.
I started learning to code on a course in R, I built my own website using VSCode, and had the chance to develop my own ideas for research, all whilst learning the skills I would need to take this even further.
Applying for a PhD
From the get-go my supervisor encouraged me to think about applying for a PhD. I was concerned that I didn’t have the requisite research skills to even entertain the idea. However, doing the MRes allowed me to develop these skills through practical application and working with people who were doing PhDs themselves.
The fact that my contribution seemed genuinely valued made me gradually believe that maybe I did have the skills to take my academic career to the next level and, by Christmas, I had decided that this was what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, I had pretty much missed the deadline for ESRC funding, but my supervisor encouraged me to press on regardless.
The research I was doing represented an intersection between perceptual psychology and the human-computer interactions side of computer science, so I decided to apply for funding through the computer science department at Manchester. After a very stressful interview, I received confirmation that my proposed PhD had been accepted, and that I had also been awarded a full internal scholarship in support of my tuition fees and a doctoral stipend.
If the last six years have taught me anything, it’s that with hard work and perseverance, things have a way of sorting themselves out. I have no doubt that the next three years will be challenging, but I am confident that these challenges are ones that I will enjoy facing.
The path I took to get here has been winding, occasionally frustrating, and frankly, a bit strange, but I wouldn’t change any of it. The sum of my experiences have made me who I am today, and I am eager to see where I am taken next on my journey.
This blog post is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Gabriel’s blog.