Reflections on PhD life with Tom Gerard – Part 2

Welcome to the second installment of a two-part interview with Tom Gerard. Last time, Tom described how he experienced a crisis in confidence at his very first lab meeting. This time, as he comes to the end of his PhD, Tom shares his plans for the future and offers some top advice for new students.

This blog is part of a series we are running throughout December highlighting the thoughts, experiences and achievements of our student researchers as they navigated a hugely challenging and uncertain year. 

tom spain deskHow did the pandemic impact your PhD experience this year?

The pandemic ultimately proved a blessing for my write-up. I had planned a staggered process, writing for a few months interspersed with lab work and submissions for conferences. However, when the lockdowns began, laboratories were all closed, and conferences were cancelled or moved online. Therefore, I moved to Spain to write up while living with my partner and gave the thesis my full focus over the following months. I am certain that this has made for a better thesis – and was probably for the best given how long it took to finish!

What’s your advice for new students joining the team?

My advice for new students is twofold. Firstly, context is king. You will naturally become the expert on your specific topic – but understanding how your research fits into the wider field will really show its significance and where it has the most potential. Therefore, I advise you to shamelessly question everything you can, especially ‘basic’ questions – what is that device? Can we look inside? Why do we do X/Y/Z? When did that become possible? These questions will help you learn specifics, but also the research trends of the wider field.

Secondly, get involved at every opportunity – poster sessions, academic meets, student teaching, inter-group collaboration, art and poetry competitions, presentation opportunities, and so on. Meeting people, learning about the work of others, and winning small successes along the way will keep the PhD social, creative, and break up the long slogs of difficult solo work that can otherwise dominate your research.

What’s next for you?

I am lucky enough to begin working with the major optical networking company Infinera from January, where I’ll be experimentally investigating the next generation of wideband transmission systems that make up the backbone of the internet. New students take note – my primary experience on this topic came not from my main PhD work, but from collaborating with others and branching out!


Tom joined the Optical Networks Group at UCL as an MPhil/PhD student in October 2016 with funding from Microsoft Research. His thesis title is ‘Optical Switching for Scalable Data Centre Networks’ under the supervision of Professor Polina Bayvel. Tom has been a member of the TRANSNET Programme since 2018.