Tallinn University of Technology

Embark on a captivating interview with Sophie Graul, a passionate geologist and geo-metallurgist pursuing her PhD studies. Discover her motivation for pursuing a PhD, her rewarding experiences, and valuable advice for aspiring graduate students. Explore the transformative power of research and Academia through Sophie Graul's remarkable journey.

1.    What inspired you to pursue a PhD, and what are your main research interests?

välitöö Pakri saartel
Field work in Pakri islands. Photo: Sophie Graul

I am a geologist/geo-metallurgist by background, and during my internship, I found an interest in applied research. I was looking to work on a project for the long term, not just for a few months. 
My research interests are Earth sciences, mineralogy and mineral processing.

2.    Describe the application and selection process for a PhD program and what factors did you consider when choosing your programme.
The procedure (if the PhD project is already official and funded) consists of submitting a complete initial application. This should contain your professional/research experience, academic results, letters of recommendation and a presentation of why you wish to join the programme. After this, there is often a pre-selection procedure. Successful candidates are usually required to present their previous research work/perform various tasks in front of the project supervisor(s) to prove their skills.

I think it is important to have a PhD project with clear targets and a team behind. The subject is significant, but you have to look at the broader context to have a 'realistic' approach.

3.    What has been the most rewarding aspect of your PhD journey so far, and what challenges have you faced?
I like to find answers and do something from scratch. So, the aspect of starting from 0 and progressively understanding, developing and finalizing a research project is something I strongly appreciate. It is an achievement to realize that you can do so much and give it meaning.

Unlike my previous experience in the industry, I had to get used to the 'delayed gratification' in Academia. First, spending many months on experiments and then writing and submitting articles. Since the ultimate aim of a scientific research project is to publish the results, the whole process can take several years to complete. And it is often difficult to appreciate the progress/work done beforehand, which can be somewhat discouraging if you don't pay attention.

4.    Please explain your current research project and its relevance to your field, emphasizing how your doctoral studies have enabled you to contribute to the field?
I work on Estonian phosphorites. My PhD project involves quantifying and classifying rare earth elements (REE) from different deposits. REE resources are a crucial subject for renewable energy infrastructure, as most technologies need these elements to be developed. It is also a critical issue for the EU, as we currently import almost all our resources from abroad. 

Currently, this subject and related projects are contributing a good deal of new information in terms of resources and understanding of deposit formation for a number of geological issues. It is only in the last few years that this type of deposits have been studied, so it is a hot topic for geologist these days.

5.    What advice would you give to graduate students considering a PhD?
I would advise some points, the first being to consider thoroughly the field you want to go into. It is by no means specific that you will continue in the exact area of your PhD. Still, it is useful to choose a field with potential for the future that will be competitive in the professional market in the years afterwards.

It would be best if you also think about your autonomy. Am I capable of managing my ideas and projects? Am I sufficiently self-reliant? Knowledge and practice can be learned on the job (don't worry about that), but the 'transferable skills' need to be developed, or otherwise, you progress will be chaotic.

And do something you love. It's a project for four years or more; inevitably, there will be times when you get fed up, but working on something close to your heart is always a source of motivation. I'll always remember, during my BSc, having to attend certain courses for months on end and not being able to imagine myself ever working on these matters. Do something that makes sense for you.

Don't forget your life, your hobbies and those close to you - your entourage is essential, especially if you are an international student, as solitude can be a trap at first. 

6.    How has pursuing a PhD helped you develop your academic and professional skills?
Completing a PhD has given me a lot of hindsight and maturity (at least I hope so) when it comes to carrying out projects over the long term. It also allowed me to meet many people from different backgrounds, and I think that brings a lot in the way of people's comprehension and communication.

7.    Why did you choose to come to study in Estonia?
I first applied for the topic, which was a unique opportunity in Europe. I also wished to pursue my PhD abroad to gain a ’life experience’.

And also, the starships robots – they bring me joy on a daily basis!