PhD with Laura: Trinity geneticist shares the ins and outs of PhD life online

Laura Whelan runs a successful Instagram account where she discusses her work and advice

Recent years have seen a surge in the use of social media as a platform for academics, for students, and for everyone in between, to discuss and discover all things learning. We’ve seen the growth of studytube and studygram as motivational tools and platforms for students to help one another. In addition to this, we’ve seen students further along in their academic journeys take to the internet to share their wisdom and to learn from others at a similar level. The #phdlife has nearly one million posts on Instagram, showing that this subset of university communities, which is so often forgotten in the public eye, is really starting to use its voice.  

One such PhD student here at Trinity is Laura Whelan. Whelan is in the third year of her PhD in ocular genomics, in Professor Gwenyth Farrar’s lab. Her research area is the genetic causes of blindness and, more specifically, inherited retinal diseases. The work determines genetic diagnoses via the use of various types of DNA sequencing. But aside from time-consuming research work, Whelan also runs a successful Instagram account where she discusses her work and gives her advice and experience she has gained so far: PhD with Laura. 

Whelan started the account as recently as December last year but has quickly amassed an engaged community of followers. Her account is rapidly growing, with currently almost 8000 followers, alongside a smaller following on Twitter and TikTok. Whelan says there were several reasons she decided to take the plunge last year and start her PhD with Laura account: 

Often the research we do is publicly funded, so the public should have access to that research without scientific jargon or barriers.”

“One was that doing a PhD during the pandemic can be very isolating. I had seen other academic accounts on Instagram and it seemed like a nice community that I wanted to get involved in. I also have a keen interest in science communication and I wanted to do it in a way that was as open and accessible as possible. Often the research we do is publicly funded, so the public should have access to that research without scientific jargon or barriers. Again, given the current situation, I felt like there was never going to be a better time to start talking about science and doing a PhD online.”

Now, just a little over three months since its inception, Whelan’s project seems to be more successful and rapidly growing than she could have anticipated. She remarks that the response to the account is incredibly positive: “I’ve had so many nice messages from other PhD students, and undergrads. Lots of questions about my day to day lab life. It’s been a little overwhelming – I didn’t really expect it to gain the following that it has!” 

The success of Whelan’s account could be chalked up to many factors. Her content is very engaging, and she skillfully uses tools such as humorous and informative reels, story polls, and day-in-the-life type videos to keep her audience interacting with the account. But aside from this, Whelan lets her personality shine through in the account, candidly talking about feelings imposter syndrome, the difficulties of work-life balance in academia, and the small daily struggles she faces in her work, like an experiment failing. The tone of the account is open and honest, and Whelan addresses topics that are sometimes taboo, such as PhD pay and what her income and expenditure generally look like as a PhD student in Ireland. This is refreshing as there is often a lack of clarity on the financial aspects associated with undertaking a PhD when students are making the decision whether to embark on one. 

Whelan studied human genetics here in Trinity for her undergraduate degree and says that for a long time her future after finishing that degree, what she would do, seemed uncertain. “Then, in the summer of my third year, I did a research internship in UCD with the Kennedy group in The Conway Institute. After this, I knew I liked research and working in a lab environment. I’m also generally a very curious person so I thought it [a PhD]  would suit me! My final year project in Professor Farrar’s lab really cemented this. I loved genetics and I wanted to work somewhere where my research would have a direct impact on patients. The project that I’m working on, Target 5000, is the perfect combination of these two things.” For undergraduates or recent graduates weighing up the pros and cons of embarking on a PhD themselves, accounts like Whelan’s are an invaluable resource. 

Whelan also uses the account to share the benefits of her growing platform with other PhD students; in her “Share Your Research” series other researchers with growing accounts share their work on the PhD with Laura page. She seems at home in the online PhD community and enjoys the content from many creators with accounts not dissimilar to her own: “@thephdstudent is a PhD student in UCD who I have followed for a while who is a dry lab scientist doing her entire PhD from home. @holly__studies makes very funny study-related reels.” says Whelan “There are so many more as well, #phdstudent is full of brilliant and diverse people!” she recommends to anyone looking to fill their timeline with a little more PhD or research inspiration.

I want to dispel any stereotypes there are around people who work in a lab or do a PhD.”

Whelan hopes the account, as part of the wider community of other PhD students, will help to break down myths and generalisations about the type of person who undertakes a PhD: “I want to dispel any stereotypes there are around people who work in a lab or do a PhD. I’m just a normal person pursuing science as a career. I didn’t meet a PhD student properly until I was in my final year of undergrad and I’d have loved to have had a better insight into what it was like before that point. So I hope my account can provide that for current undergrad students. I also hope that in the time I’ve been doing my PhD I have gained a little experience – some tips and tricks that I can share with newer PhD students to make the process easier.”

In terms of issues that PhD students across Ireland face, such as lack of funding, unpaid teaching, non-living wages, Whelan says she could write an “endless essay.” She acknowledges the TCD Postgraduate Worker’s Alliance as doing an excellent job at “advocating for PhD rights and raising awareness of the challenges PhD students face, including pay, much-needed employee status and future job prospects.”

There are many challenges PhD students, and indeed those at any stage of their academic career face. Some of these are far-reaching societal problems that will only change with reform, regulation and funding. But some are much more personal issues, such as rampant imposter syndrome and inadequacies felt by PhD students, or outdated and stereotypical notions of PhD students that deter talented young students from becoming them. In these cases work like Whelan’s, and her honesty, and clarity about her experiences could be a catalyst for significant change. 

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.