Nicholas Flynn is a 30-year-old psychology doctoral candidate who has come to Queen Margaret University after studying at Edinburgh College. He has completed his master's degree and is now progressing his education by undertaking a PhD at QMU.
He’s stayed with QMU for so long, not only because he finds the staff and university so welcoming, but because the university has offered him plenty of support and opportunities throughout his degrees.
Nicholas tells us more about his experience of studying towards a PhD, his journey to QMU and his hopes for the future.
What were you doing before coming to QMU?
Before undertaking my PhD with Queen Margaret University, I was doing my Master of Research at QMU and my BSc Psychology, before that. Before coming to QMU, I completed my HNC in Social Sciences and COSCA Counselling certificate at Edinburgh College.
Why did you choose to study at QMU?
Initially, I had accepted a place into Heriot-Watt to do my undergraduate in psychology. However, I left soon after discovering they made psychology students take business studies alongside it. I stayed at QMU because I got on really well with all the staff over the years and because I've been offered many different work opportunities.
What was your journey to QMU?
I've taken a long road to get here.
I left school at 16 because of mental health issues, studied social sciences with the Open University, got my Highers at Edinburgh College, my HNC at Edinburgh College, then secured a place at Heriot-Watt, but left, then went to QMU to do my undergraduate.
My parents can't wait for me to get a real job!
Why did you choose to study this course in particular?
Doctor Flynn has a nice ring to it; I love the research Dr Kristen Knowles and I have been working on for the past three years, and this course was the best way to get both a doctorate and continue this fascinating research!
How are you finding studying for your PhD? Do you find there is a supportive environment at QMU?
"At no point during my PhD so far have I felt like I'm struggling to cope because there's always been support when I needed it. I know that if I was struggling or generally in need of advice on anything throughout my course, that I could ask anyone in the department for support."
Did you find enough academic support at QMU? Either through lecturers or through the ELS?
Having struggled with undiagnosed learning disabilities (dyslexia/dyspraxia/dysgraphia) throughout high school and college, it was refreshing to get into QMU, get tested for all of the above, and then get funding and support throughout my studies here. I got funding for a laptop and proof-reader from day one, and more recently have been funded for Grammarly and Evernote to help with my spelling and organisation skills.
I recently had a dip with my depression, and the University gave me six free short-term therapy sessions with the University counsellor, who was invaluable in helping me through my issues at the time.
There have been so many lecturers who have helped me out over the past six years, and I worry if I tried to list them all I would accidentally miss someone out.
First and foremost, Dr Kristen Knowles has been my personal academic tutor (PAT) for four years during my BSc, my supervisor during my dissertation and Master of Research and is now my PhD supervisor. Coming into QMU, my biggest fear was having to present in front of people due to my anxiety, to the point that I was considering leaving in the third year of my undergraduate because of it. However, Kristen gave me the opportunity to present lectures to her students and talked me into actually doing them, and now I love doing something which has plagued me since high school. On top of that, she has given me loads of other opportunities for work at QMU as a research assistant, which has been great for learning how to apply my knowledge to real-world opportunities.
What did you enjoy most about your course?
I have loved being able to dive into the research which actually interests me - it's amazing. It is also amazing to no longer have to write essays on topics I'm not interested in. The freedom is great.
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on exploring the stress response of individuals who have had childhood adversity. Although it is not the entire focus of my research, I use virtual reality methods in order to produce realistic stress responses within the lab!
What has been the most exciting part of your research?
In my dissertation, I attached my participants to a stress monitor and put them in a virtual reality shark dive to explore differences in stress response between those who had experienced childhood adversity and those who hadn’t. I got a great response from my participants. It really was the highlight of my time at QMU to have positive feedback at the end of each experiment from each participant and for them to actually enjoy their time taking part in my research.
Why did you want to explore this topic?
From my dissertation, I found that participants with significant childhood adversity had 50% more stress responses across the virtual shark dive (even in the pleasant sections). This finding has been my inspiration going into my PhD and I am now looking to explore the ways in which this stress dysfunction impacts other areas of life. In my next experiment, I am hoping to put participants into a virtual reality plank walk on top of a skyscraper and look for differences in behavior!
What advice do you have for someone just entering the course?
My advice for anyone going through their undergraduate etc., who is interested in going on to a PhD, would be to find a supervisor who you get on well with, then find something you are both interested in.
Going into my dissertation, I knew I wanted to use virtual reality as my experimental method, and I got on really well with Dr Knowles, who was interested in adverse childhood experiences. So, we thought of the idea of putting participants into a virtual reality shark dive, measuring their stress response, and looking for differences between those with low/high amounts of childhood adversity.
There's nothing better than doing interesting research with someone you get on with and jumping into that research rabbit hole.
Are you involved in any extra-curricular work at QMU?
I've worked as a guest lecturer and research assistant, which has been amazing. Presenting my first-ever lecture, and discovering I enjoy it, has been nothing short of life-changing. Working as a research assistant has been a massive boost to my confidence, and I feel prepared for the world of work beyond my PhD.
What are your plans for after you complete your PhD?
After I graduate with my PhD, I hope to get a job in QMU’s psychology department as I am pretty fond of the people who make up the Psychology and Sociology Division, and would like to earn some money so that my parents can get off my case.