Feature article

The PhD – is it for me?

Dr Frances Henshaw

Clinician, Researcher & Scientist

As an experienced clinician, researcher and scientist, Frances Henshaw has over 15 years’ experience as a business owner, 20 years as a clinician and more than four years as a Board Member. The overarching theme of her research has been understanding the mechanisms of foot ulceration so that targeted prevention and treatments can be developed. This aligns with 20 years of clinical specialism and current teaching activities. Frances’ research can be found in papers in peer reviewed journals, conference presentations, and as contributions to diabetes care guidelines. Following seven years as an academic, Frances now looks after Clinical and Professional Development for ConvaTec.

PhD degrees are considered ‘terminal degrees’, meaning that the recipient has achieved the highest formal degree in their field. Whilst this can bring significant credibility and enhance career prospects, it is not something that should be undertaken lightly, explains Dr Frances Henshaw.

I am frequently asked for advice from podiatry graduates who are contemplating this PhD pathway of post-graduate study, here are my thoughts.

I completed my PhD in 2014, looking at the wound micro-environment of the diabetic foot. This involved  ‘bench to bedside’ research taking samples from patients' wounds and analysing them in a lab. I am frequently asked for advice from podiatry graduates who are contemplating this PhD pathway of post-graduate study, here are my thoughts.


Getting started

First of all, let’s look at what is involved in a PhD, how to enrol and how long it takes to complete. A PhD is an academic degree focused on original research, data analysis, and the evaluation of concepts.  Along the way you will be expected to advance the body of knowledge in your field through original research, and be able to communicate effectively to an academic audience and general stakeholders. You will also likely learn a whole lot about statistics!


Involving at least three years of concentrated research, you’ll need to produce a genuinely original contribution to your academic field to be awarded a PhD. Getting accepted to undertake a PhD can be highly competitive. Firstly, you will need to find a supervisor who is willing to take you on. PhD scholarships are advertised by universities and sometimes by not-for-profits, and of course networking with academics whose research interests align with your aspirations is key.


The most important advice I can give at this point is to seek a supervisor who has a good track record, or PhD completion and publications in the field that you wish to enter.  Someone you get along with and who has a deep understanding of the subject matter for your PhD. Some PhD candidates are very fixated about what they want to study, but if this is not closely aligned with your supervisor's agenda, then it will be very difficult for them to offer the level of supervision that all PhD students need.


Before being accepted as a PhD candidate, you will be required to demonstrate a track record of having completed some kind of prior research. For example, an honours degree (2:1 or greater) or a Masters of Research; having published journal articles will also help to strengthen your application.  Occasionally, other demonstrable experience of research may be able to get you over the line, such as authorship of peer reviewed publications, but usually a formal post-graduate qualification is the gateway to a PhD.

...the sheer volume of work required to produce a PhD thesis means that trying to do so whilst having too many other competing interests could seriously harm your mental health

Be realistic

As Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “It's supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Often people tell me their aspirations to complete a PhD whilst working full time or as a hobby whilst they are on maternity leave. Look, nothing is impossible but that would be a very tough gig!


Firstly, it is important to understand that senior academics take on PhD students in order to help produce university research. On one hand this is good as it means that PhD students are often given scholarships and do not have to pay for their degree. On the other hand, these academics are judged on their research output and rate of PhD completions, and therefore are unlikely to want to take on a student who is taking the part-time ‘slow boat to China’ approach to their studies. Secondly, the sheer volume of work required to produce a PhD thesis means that trying to do so whilst having too many other competing interests could seriously harm your mental health.  Indeed Nature’s biennial PhD survey showed that almost half of the 5700 students surveyed had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD. You have been warned!


It’s not all doom and gloom

Getting a PhD is a lot of work that includes countless hours of research and quite often sacrifice of life’s normalities. However, there is an upside: being able to make a positive change in the world and helping to resolve challenges that society faces can be really satisfying. Here are some reasons that make this tricky pathway worthwhile:


  • Accomplishing your career goal
  • Indulging your curiosity and passion for a particular field or subject
  • Making other people’s lives better through your original thought and contribution
  • Getting into academia
  • Gaining transferable skills
  • Higher earning potential
  • Networking and travel opportunities
  • Having people call you ‘Doctor’ (this is possibly the least compelling reason!)


A PhD requires a great deal of motivation, grit and resilience. As a PhD student, you need to have a valid reason for doing a PhD so that it motivates you to overcome the challenges, even when the worst case scenarios materialise. Make sure you identify this. If your motivation is solid… go for your life!

...spending seven years slaving in a biochemistry lab was a hard slog

My story… was it worth it?


For me personally, I am very happy with where I have landed in my career. I have a varied and interesting job looking after professional development in a wound care company, and I doubt I would have landed this job without the PhD. That said, spending seven years slaving in a biochemistry lab was a hard slog.


There are probably easier ways of getting a PhD. Not only was I juggling my clinical work, running a business, PhD studies, and trying to get to grips with lab work that was totally alien to me, but I took an enormous financial hit too. Dropping down to two or three days a week’s work for seven years so that I could complete my studies meant that even though I did not have to pay to do my PhD, it wasn’t exactly free!


Fortunately, I had exceptionally supportive supervisors, I learned so much about so many things, I have gained a high level of scientific knowledge, am very good at locating information and can explain the difference between parametric and non-parametric data! I have a fantastic job, with a company whose values really align with my own.  Importantly I feel that I am respected by my peers.  The PhD… would I do it all over again?  Not an easy question to answer - it took a toll. I think the answer is ‘yes’ but maybe not in a biochemistry lab.  It’s no place for a podiatrist… not this one anyway!


The Wound Doctors is a light-hearted podcast series featuring ‘Dr Frances’ along with many other experts in the field of wounds. Each episode delves into the world of wounds, offering insights and expertise for you and your patients. Check out ‘The Wound Doctors’ on Apple Podcast or Spotify.