Why should you study a PhD? Student Profile: Chris Moran - PhD

Posted on: 21 Aug 2023

Why should you study a PhD? Student Profile: Chris Moran - PhD

Hello there, my name is Chris Moran and I’m currently in the 4th year of my PhD in the department of Management and Marketing in Cork University Business School (CUBS), University College Cork. If you are reading this then there is chance that you are interested in learning more about undertaking a PhD overall and perhaps more specifically doing so in CUBS. I will therefore try to tell my own personal story and share my perspectives in this post in the most relevant manner possible with the hope that it may provide some food for thought for anybody considering a PhD. Here goes.  

So, to start, it’s worth rewinding the clock slightly to give some context. I completed my Bachelor of Commerce degree with a major in Food business and development in UCC in 2015 and was genuinely unsure as to what path to pursue afterwards. I was interested in exploring different countries and cultures, learning languages, and working in humanitarianism so I tried to combine these ambitions by living and working in France and Colombia in the two and a half years after graduating. After stumbling across an advert for a new launched Master’s in ‘Co-operatives Agri-food and sustainable development’ in UCC which seemed right down my alley I decided to return to the university in September 2018. A few weeks into my master’s, I spoke to a close friend of mine undertaking a PhD in CUBS about my interests in sustainable food consumption and food systems- when he suggested that a PhD could be an opportunity worth considering I laughed and thought he was crazy. I thought no more about it. By January of the following year (2019) I was 99% sure that I would be packing my bags and heading off to work with food related cooperatives in Chile from April to September 2019 as part of the ‘Practice based research project’ of my master’s programme. Alas, the opportunity in Chile fell through at late notice and I had to find an alternative project to work on.  

This is where, in hindsight, I feel that stars somewhat aligned and things somehow fell into place without me necessarily planning it. I attended the Climate Change conference organised by the UCC Environmental Society on a Saturday morning in February 2019 hoping to look for potential leads but genuinely wasn’t expecting much.  I was particularly struck by a presentation delivered by a researcher and lecturer in UCC who was working on a European wide research project on sustainable food consumption. She mentioned during her talk that the Irish research team were actively looking for a research assistant to work with them from April to September 2019- at first glance the relevance and timing of the opportunity were almost too good to be true. Long story short, I was fortunate enough to obtain the research assistant position which subsequently turned out to be a launch pad for applying to, and thankfully being awarded, a PhD scholarship under the supervision of the two lead researchers of the Irish research team.  

Why did I choose to apply despite laughing at the prospect of a PhD a few months earlier? Because I realised over the course of a few months that completing a PhD would help me to put pieces of my puzzle together. I knew that I wanted to try to contribute in some way to developing more sustainable food systems and I knew from my time abroad that I enjoyed teaching. I chose to undertake a PhD as I viewed it as launch-pad for my ideal career path, that is, engaging with third-level students as a lecturer, informing government policy as a researcher and supporting businesses to operate more sustainably as a consultant. Having a positive working relationship with my PhD supervisors prior to starting my PhD also reassured me that I would have solid foundations and support along with their expertise through the highs and lows of the PhD journey. 


Conversations with personal contacts who have completed a PhD inspired me to embrace this unique opportunity as a learning journey, one that can be an extremely challenging and at times a gruelling one. I think that a PhD is best described as an ‘apprenticeship in research’ which , in my case, is helping me to develop my reading, writing, analysis, critical thinking, time management and public speaking skills. Undertaking a PhD obliges you to focus on a narrow research topic and consequently become an expert in your chosen area. To illustrate, if we think about food systems as involving elements such as production, manufacturing, distribution, retailing and consumption I’ve chosen to focus on consumption specifically. Within food consumption, I am particularly interested in the impacts of food choices on environmental sustainability. Within sustainable food consumption, my research focuses on how emotions can act as trigger or an outcome of our food behaviours and consequently how communication campaigns may be able to use emotions to promote more environmentally sustainable food behaviours. The PhD can also be described as a ‘contribution to knowledge’ given that the end goal is to essentially demonstrate that your research provides novel insights to what we already know about the world. We are essentially ‘adding a grain of sand to the beach of knowledge’. However, our PhD does not ‘pigeonhole’ us into a specific area for life. It can be a starting point that equips us with research skills that are transferable to a plethora of potential research domains and other professional roles.  

For anybody considering a PhD, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of identifying and contacting potential supervisors who fit with your research area of interest and with whom you feel you have a good rapport. In this regard, taking the first step in sending that email, making that phone call, or approaching a potential supervisor at an event can be intimidating. I would say that any potentially suitable supervisor should be more than happy to speak to you about your research area of interest and try to answer any questions or concerns that you may have. If not, then I would argue that they would not be a suitable supervisor anyway.  

In relation to the day-to-day reality of undertaking a PhD I have a few reflections to share that will hopefully be helpful. A PhD is a very substantial commitment and challenge and can force us to face our inner demons and imposter syndrome on a regular basis. If you come out the other side of the PhD journey then you’ve mostly likely developed your professional research skills to a relatively high standard. I was pretty sure that this would likely be the case for me too. However, contrary the many sports related mantras that I grew up with, I realised that I do NOT want to obtain a PhD ‘at all costs’ or ‘do whatever it takes’ to complete. I promised myself before starting the PhD that I would do my level best throughout the experience to take care of my mental, physical, and emotional health and well-being. First things first. Also, I like to remind myself that when I’m happy and healthy on a personal level then I’m subsequently productive at work too. This can obviously be easier said than done but acknowledging the importance of this point is a good start.  


What does this mean concretely? I feel that having a ‘game plan’ or system in place to get you through this journey is important. This can be different for everyone based on your lifestyle and personality. For example I identified two golden rules at the beginning of my PhD. #1) I am generally a relatively sociable person who enjoys regular contact with others. I was told that the PhD would involve quite a lot of time sitting down alone in front of a computer and less time directly interacting contact with others- it can be a lonely journey. I therefore concluded that I would need to establish healthy and regular social activities that would become routine, not just asking a friend for coffee and chat whenever I felt lonely and deflated. #2) Given the relatively personal nature of a PhD (it is essentially ‘your’ research and nobody else’s) I realised that I would need clear mental and physical separation from my work. For me that meant only working in the office in UCC and avoiding as much as possible bringing my work home. I needed the mental trigger of arriving in UCC every morning and leaving in evening to help me establish boundaries between personal Chris and professional Chris. Of course, these two golden rules essentially went out the window during the COVID pandemic but that’s a story for another day. All that to say, I would encourage any prospective PhD student to reflect on what you feel you will need to keep you relatively happy and healthy over the course of what can be a topsy-turvy journey. At this point of my PhD, I couldn’t be more grateful for the office space and comradery with peers and staff members that I enjoy daily in CUBS and UCC more widely. Lunchtime seminars and courses such as ‘Everyday matters: healthy habits for University life’ have been invaluable for me personally in this regard.  

Finally, at the risk of plagiarising so many well-known motivational speakers I would argue that the core question to answer with confidence before starting a PhD is: Why? Like so many areas of life, if you have a clear idea as to why you want to complete a PhD then this motivational clarity will help you to shine a light in the darkness when you face obstacles and start to doubt yourself and why you’ve taken this path. What motivates me from time to time is to remind myself that if I won a million euros in the lottery tomorrow, I genuinely think would not drop the PhD. Why? Because no amount of money can buy the lessons learned, skills developed, relationships forged and experienced gained during my PhD journey so far.

Learn more about PhD offerings at Cork University Business School at University College Cork here.