Monday, 24 December 2012

The twelve days of Christmas

"For many people around the world, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, from the candlelit chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, marks the beginning of Christmas." 
Fuse don't have a choir, an organ, or a college chapel. But we have commissioned a new Christmas carol from Lisa Anderson to mark the festive season.

The tune should be obvious.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my research gave to me…

Twelve stressed PhD’ers
Eleven hours of transcripts (and counting)
Ten ethics form errors (only!)
Nine analysis methods
Eight journal rejections (argh)
Seven policy outcomes (zzz)
Six backs are aching
Five sleepless nights
Four logic models
Three degrees of freedom
Two frozen shoulders
And a cluster analysis tree!!!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Christmas Blogpost

Posted by Heather Yoeli

And so, it’s That Season again. The time of year to do everything with alcohol and food which Public Health Guidelines say you shouldn’t, the time of year to tie-dye six multi-packs of Primark socks as Christmas and/or Hannukah presents for your ever-burgeoning brood of nephews and nieces, the time of year to argue with one’s partner about whose should come to fix your perennially inept combi-boiler. Happy times. Well, maybe; maybe not. This year, things do feel different.

The time of year to think about Those Less Fortunate Than Ourselves
This year does feel very different. It’s the first time – within my lifetime, at least – that such austerity and hardship and poverty in Britain have been so widespread. Certainly, this country has always had its marginalised and disadvantaged and poor... but the food banks, and the stories of people walking ten miles on foot to reach one because they cannot afford the bus fare, and the talk of “nutritional recession”: that’s new. It’s new, and it’s frightening. It reminds us that we live in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world and that, whereas that inequality is getting worse, we are most of us just one job loss, one relationship breakdown or one investment disaster away from destitution.

And so, it’s That Season again. The time of the year to think about Those Less Fortunate Than Ourselves, the time of year to try and decide whether to donate to That Charity or to get angry about the need for That Charity even to exist, the time of year to give an extra few quid to the Big Issue seller and to awkwardly wish him a merrier Christmas than he’ll probably be having. And so, I’m now going to propose that we in Public Health research do need to invest some more thought about what we’re doing to address this new sort of poverty and hunger we’re seeing across Britain. Do we organise collections and donations for our local homeless charity, or do we set up evaluations of cookery classes for vulnerable families, do we invite Osborne round to tea for a chat about the bankers and their bonuses, or do we set up a protest camp and get radical?

I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. But let’s talk about it, anyway...

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Time management

Posted by Lynne Forrest

I constantly worry that I’m not spending enough time on my PhD. When I hear of other people who work weekends and do 60-hour weeks then I definitely feel that I’m not putting enough hours in. I struggle with fitting a full-time PhD around all my other life-commitments. And I worry that this makes me look like I’m not taking it seriously, when I definitely am.

I’m lucky enough to be a full-time, fully-funded PhD student and I’m totally in awe of those people who are fitting in a PhD around working. I really don’t know how they do it. It’s hard enough to find enough hours in the day without having to juggle a job as well.

I presume that if my supervisors thought I was skiving off, they'd have said something by now
Prior to the PhD I worked part-time whilst my children were little. So the switch to a full-time PhD commitment was initially a bit of a culture shock to everyone. I was no longer able to attend all the school plays, concerts and sports events I used to and my children did guilt-trip me with this. Once everyone had adjusted their expectations it became manageable.

When I started the PhD I decided to give up my gym membership as I couldn’t find the time to go. However, as I spend most of my working day sitting down analysing data I found that the weight was creeping on, so this was probably not the best idea. So I’ve decided I need to fit exercise back into my life – I’m just not quite sure how I’m going to manage this. I’m currently experimenting with going running and am in the early, enthused stage of taking up an exercise regime. So when this wears off it can give me something else to feel guilty about. When I’m exercising I can worry about not doing enough hours on the PhD and when I don’t get round to exercising I can feel bad about that too….

A couple of days a week I finish at 4pm to do the school pick-up and encounter the usual guilt as I furtively sneak off early out of the office. I do a further hour or so when I get home but this can be regularly interrupted and so isn’t ideal. I actually find working from home really difficult as it’s too easy to become distracted by all the domestic drudgery that needs done. I prefer to work in the office and, even though I have to factor in travel time, I’m definitely much more productive. To maximise work time I just eat a quick lunch at my desk and do sometimes feel I’m missing out on being more sociable, but I really can’t spare the time.

I am aware how lucky I am to be able to work this flexibly and I know how much more difficult it is outside academia. In one of my (many!) previous jobs I worked as a computer programmer for a large Scottish bank. All staff had to clock in and out and, although there was some flexibility, a core 7 hour day had to be worked. All time spent on a project also had to be logged weekly under different headings and I really hated having to account for every hour in this way. I love the flexibility of academia where, within reason, you can spend as long as you need on a task without your every action being scrutinised.

Anyway, I presume that if my supervisors thought that I was skiving off then they’d have said something by now. As it is, my PhD does seem to be going pretty well. As much as possible I’ve attended conferences, done external training courses that have meant staying away for days at a time and have also tried to get involved with other aspects of the Institute where I work. But I’m aware that other people are in earlier and work later. I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s quality not quantity that counts. And that I’d be worried if I didn’t have something to worry about…

Thursday, 13 December 2012

On tea, and what is normal

Posted by Heather Yoeli

There were two things which drew me to Northumbria University in seeking a Fuse studentship. The first was the refreshingly sociological and social justice based ethos within the health improvement focus of public health within the department. The second was the invigorating friendliness of its Coach Lane East canteen staff. And I’m writing this not to ingratiate myself to my supervisor nor wrangle another cuppa off my Go Catering loyalty card. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise…

One of the greatest contributions which the social sciences have made to the practice of health care has been their critique of fixed notions of norms and deviance. Whereas both conventional biomedicine and the biopsychosocial model assert the existence of an objective, positivist distinction between normality as healthy and abnormality as pathological or deviant, the social sciences tend to adhere to the structuralist or poststructuralist view that what constitutes the ‘normal’ is merely a social construction and thereby likely to change in response to a number of social, cultural or economic processes.

Nevertheless, it is my observation that academics from a range of disciplines of social sciences and health studying and working at a range of institutions possess a disturbing tendency to overlook this vital insight whilst operating a crucial instrument of research equipment: namely, the kettle. Even amongst academics with a resolute and impassioned commitment to language and terminology that is respectful, empowering, enlightened and anti-oppressive, there exists a tendency to express a preference for ‘normal tea’ (or sometimes ‘ordinary tea’). I would even contend that, were tea leaves to possess sufficient consciousness to comprehend the concept of prejudice, such a careless deployment of language would leave bags of Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, green teas, redbush, peppermint, camomile, ginger, rosehip, lemon and numerous other blends feeling seriously discriminated against.

Certainly, such an unreflexively-assumed norm accords very closely with the way in which the UK beverage industry regards tea. Whereas Twinings and Clipper sell ‘English breakfast tea’ and Twinings also sells a cheaper ‘Everyday tea’, all other leading brands (Typhoo, Tetley, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Cafedirect) simply market their product as ‘tea’. It is with Tesco own-brand basic of ‘Quality tea’ that the semiotics of this becomes clearest. However, I’d argue that social researchers possess a responsibility not to allow their attitudes to be determined by the global multinationals in control of the marketing industry. Peppermint tea must not be relegated to the deviant or abnormal.

The idea that the language we are given to use will insidiously determine our thoughts and attitudes is generally attributed to the polemic and scare-mongering of the literature of George Orwell. However, the idea has a rigorous and respected evidence base established through the ‘linguistic relativity’ research of Sapir and Whorf and more recently developed by Lakoff and Fairclough. Therefore, if academics within the social sciences can be manipulated by the tea manufacturers into talking about ‘normal tea’, it may only be a matter of time before they revert once more to talking about ‘normal people’. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Oh, you’ve been playing in the Sandpit again?

Posted by Avril Rhodes

When you mention to colleagues or to your nearest and dearest that you’ve spent your working day going around country hotels trying to find the best venue for the Fuse Sandpit residential training event some really sceptical looks are forthcoming. They don’t say it, but each is thinking “What a waste of time – hasn’t she anything better to do?” But, honestly, it really is hard work.

When M’Lord was building his country seat, he thought about creating spectacular grounds, rooms for an army of servants, stable blocks, fine dining rooms and a grand entrance. Strangely, he did not think about the post-aristocratic world of conferencing, or even imagine electricity and internet access. Consequently, whilst ambience, embossed wallpaper, log fires, wonderful views, and curtains that could be turned into seven man (sorry, person) tents are there in abundance, they do not necessarily make for suitable workshop or break out rooms. Country house eccentricity, whilst good for life-size Cluedo (was it Professor Plum in the drawing room with the digital projector or Research Assistant Scarlett in the library with the flip chart?), doesn’t always readily adapt to one’s conference needs.

The final decision: Linden Hall
Some of the country hotels adapted for conference purposes seem to have lost their individuality. The brochure might show a glorious Adam frontage or Palladian columns, but your event mysteriously turns out to be in a windowless, purpose-built block with polystyrene roof tiles, refreshment points (read rubbish coffee machines) or in a wing that separates you from other patrons as if you were somehow infectious.

Never mind, these monstrosities shouldered aside, we have a lovely venue which oozes individuality and charm. Now to envision our use of the space… Yes - the lounge makes a good plenary room, until you realise the public are going to troop through to the dining room. Yes – the library makes a good workshop, until you realise that it only has one socket. Yes – the so-and-so suite would be good until you realise that it’s the wrong shape or size, or might be cold, or doesn’t have enough clear wall space, or is miles away from the other workshop rooms. Debates break out like, “Well, if we use room A for B and space D for C, then we could use room E for G and that will still leave the informal seating area F untouched”, only for someone else to undermine everything you’ve said.

In the end if we’re going to invest properly in the Sandpit style of training, it is worth the effort to get things as right as possible, even if that involves some of us sinking, once again, into the period sofas, or forcing ourselves into yet another lunch in the conservatory. Get the venue right - then the creative juices will flow. The incisive ideas for responding to real problems out there in public health will come, and, everyone will be guaranteed a fun experience that truly beats your average university seminar room and is memorable for years to come!

Ahh… I think it’s time for afternoon tea. Earl Grey, Professor?

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Reaching for the blue rubber chicken

Posted by Peter Tennant

UK Prime Minister David Cameron once quipped, 'too many tweets… make a twit'. OK, so he didn't actually say twit, he said something far ruder. But you get the idea: man says rude things about Twitter, outcry follows. Trouble is, he was only repeating something that many people already think about the world's most famous 'micro-blogging' service; that it's full of the self-absorbed wittering on about what they'd had for breakfast. So a bit like Facebook, only more celebs and less baby photos.

Which is why it was so surprising when David Cameron suddenly joined Twitter last month. No doubt, he had expected the ensuing torrent of abuse. His opening tweet promising not to make 'too many tweets' was almost certainly an attempt to placate the predictable cries of 'U-turn'. But I guess he felt that the benefits of joining now outweighed the risks of looking like a twit.

Twitter evangelists: Ever feel like slapping them with a blue rubber chicken?
For a politician, the argument seems pretty clear. Over 10 million UK residents now use Twitter. Worldwide that figure has been estimated as high as half a billion. If, by sending out a few brief messages, a politician can communicate with just a fraction of that number, then the proceeds are palpable. Twitter provides a person, or an organisation, with a direct line to the public. Why waste your time being misquoted by journalists when you can mis-tweet all by yourself?

I (@Peter_Tennant) joined Twitter back in Summer 2011 to explore how it could be used for 'work'. And when I say work, remember I'm not something useful like a public health practitioner wanting to find new ways to get people to take their flu jab; I'm an Epidemiologist who spends most of his day staring blankly at a computer screen. So my interests were purely in Twitter as a networking tool, information feed, and broadcasting service.

I started out pretty cynical, spending the first few weeks mumbling about how rubbish it was. But as my followers increased, and I got myself involved in more and more conversations, my view began to change. Until, without noticing, I'd converted into one of those boring Twitter evangelists. The sort of person who I'd ordinarily want to slap across the face with an oversized rubber chicken (painted blue, of course, to resemble the twitter logo).

But the annoying truth is, Twitter can be useful. Almost everyone I follow is interested in some aspect of my professional interests. Which means my 'feed' is full of news about higher education, life as a PhD student, or articles about obesity, diabetes and/or pregnancy. I've lost count of the number of relevant articles I've discovered purely through Twitter, and there's not a tweet from Steven Fry in sight. On the flip side, this means that my followers will hopefully be interested when I tweet the results from my latest publication. At least, that's what I like to believe…

But neither of these benefits really compare to Twitter's strength as a networking tool. Not only have I made some new friends in my own building, but I've had several conversations with people at conferences purely on the back of Twitter. In fact, it was probably only when I went to my first academic conference as a Twitter user that I was truly sold.

But it's not all positive. First, there's the spam, which consists either of messages from friendly users who've clicked on a phishing link or, worse, from 'spam-bots' (the giveaway being the scantily clad profile picture). They're easy to deal with, but they’re also rather boring.

My main challenge, however, has been the scope for misinterpretation. Like when I tweeted about a colleague having a giant red nose and for some reason they were offended* It can be difficult getting the balance right on Twitter. If you don't have a personality, no-one will follow you, but if that personality is too open or opinionated, get ready for trouble. After one memorable incident, I had the words 'libel' and 'defamation' thrown in my direction. And that was despite my strict adherence to Peter's Rule:

"Never say anything on Twitter that you wouldn't be willing to say in person, out loud, to a room of your colleagues."

I have since realised that the perceived prominence and permanence of Twitter make even this rule a bit weak. Even when I say things completely consistent with my character, people have still accused me of overstepping the mark. Until I can work out a solution, I've decided to retreat to making bland statements and asking obscure statistical questions. So if you're on Twitter, I really wouldn't bother following me…

And I haven't even touched on the really big issues about power and privacy. Twitter has been simultaneously praised and damned for its roles in the Egyptian Revolution and the London riots respectively. Several people have been arrested following ill-conceived or distasteful tweets. And what about Twitter's unchallenged authority to block someone's account at will (a power that took on a darker twist when one journalist was blocked for attacking one of Twitter Inc's commercial partners)? Does any of this effect Twitter as a research tool? I don't think so. But I'm willing to change my mind if I ever get arrested for tweeting something libellous about Bayes.

*May not have happened. Thank goodness.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Some memorable participants

Posted by Rachel Stocker

During the last year (which comprised the second year of my PhD) I have embarked upon a roller-coaster of emotions. Not only as a consequence of the usual trials of a PhD journey, but through data collection. I’m primarily a qualitative researcher, and my study involves interviewing people with heart failure, and their carers, to discuss their prognosis.

OK, I thought, no problem. The only issue I would need to consider would be if they found the topic upsetting, and I prepared myself for that possibility and the resources I would need to access. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer diversity of participants, and the depth which I would see their lives.

I have been welcomed into all my participant’s homes and shown, with open arms, how they live. One particular interview which remains firmly in my memory was with a gentleman who I had been advised had severe (physical) difficulties with verbal communication and whose wife could not participate due to similar, cognitive communication, difficulties. 

A nice cup of tea and a biscuit
Oh dear – this is going to be challenging, I thought. I wasn’t really looking forward to the interview. I knew there would be issues with communication, and I wondered how best to sensitively conduct the interview. Upon arrival, I was welcomed as an old friend and given endless cups of tea and home-made scones (fruit AND cheese!). I was taken by the hand and shown round the couple’s quaint bungalow, containing endless self-made paintings and artwork. I was told about their families and their service in WWII. The interview went well and I left feeling happy, with a twinge of sadness at the parts of their lives they had lost. 

Another memorable participant told me about her life, her late husband, and her parents (mother French, father English – she spoke in a perfect French accent despite living in England all her life). She lived with her son, a very personable, jolly fella who joked about her stubbornness. She visited the local hospice regularly to socialise with “other people my own age”, play dominos, and enjoy lunch. (Her son interjected at this point to say that she comes back three sheets to the wind as they all have an ‘aperitif’ beforehand). She did not offer any other reason for attending the hospice and did not think it was related to her health at all. She died three months later, peacefully in her sleep.

I’m conducting six-month follow-up interviews with participants (where possible, however heart failure is a cruel disease), so I get to return to their homes and speak to them again. I noticed one lady was looking much better than when I saw her six months ago, and told her. Her husband said that she had been looking forward to my visit for the past few days and seeing me perked her up. I re-interviewed them like old friends, with their dog sat on my knee – turning my black trousers white with his fur but I didn’t mind at all - whilst I supped my tea and ate two of the five assorted biscuits arranged on the plate.

Interviewing my participants has illustrated to me that there’s much more to life than research (and indeed, living with heart failure) and reminded me of the fine line between living and dying.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

My New Life ‘As a PhD Student:’ Negotiating the Transition

Posted by Yitka Graham

My life is different now.

I’m not sure what has changed, but there has been a definite, almost intangible evolvement, prefixed by the term ‘as a PhD student’ over the last seven months. Superficially, the day-to-day aspects appear to be the same. But they’re not. I have noticed very subtle differences to the way I appear to be perceived by others. ‘As a PhD student’ I am picking up a range of messages from virtually unconditional support to outright negativity. The positive messages are affirming, inspiring, motivating and most importantly, much appreciated. The negative messages are very subtle and difficult to negotiate and unpick. After much discussion with other PhD students, post-docs, my supervisor and (of course), like any good researcher, looking for written evidence, i.e. PhD handbooks, I have discovered this appears to be a common phenomenon.

One handbook suggested the general population does not really understand the PhD process or the motivation for undertaking one. This in itself implies an air of ignorance and arrogance, which I don’t like. However, it is well known people may react negatively to something they don’t know much about. Do PhD students, myself included, come across as arrogant? Are we perceived by others as being arrogant? Are we assumed to be arrogant?

I had lunch yesterday with a dear friend about to submit her thesis. She is in education, not public health, and I raised my observations with her to gain insight from a different discipline. She understood straight away and had also experienced similar reactions. Little things, such as sarcastic comments and insinuations, but related to the status ‘as a PhD student’. We discussed this at great length and she encouraged me to blog, to see if others had similar experiences and how they negotiated the negative reactions from others.

Tightrope Walking
Walking the tightrope between confidence and vulnerability: Tightrope Walking by jackol

I asked her thoughts on ‘confident vulnerability’, my current theory on life 'as a PhD student’. Description below...

‘As a PhD student’, one must be confident. Confident in one’s self as a person to undertake post-doctoral study; in one’s academic ability to develop and expand a variety of skills, academic and otherwise, and to present and indeed defend one’s research.

However, in order to successfully negotiate the ritual of the PhD, one is vulnerable on many levels, requiring submission to a constant process of questioning, negotiation, scrutiny and justification. A place where academia becomes intensely personal with you and your research becoming inextricably intertwined in the journey to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy. It will likely be the most challenging, personal, positive and fulfilling journey one experiences and in order to do it properly and gain the most from the experience, one needs to have the chutzpah to assume a vulnerable position. This again requires confidence. 

Does ‘confident vulnerability’ come across as arrogance to others outside the comforting world of academia and research, resulting in negative reactions?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Evaluating a complex public health intervention – is there an app for that?

Guest post by Oliver Francis, Centre for Diet and Activity Research

When it came to tools, early hominids were happy with a stone axe and a few sticks to rub together to make fire. Now we are massively more advanced and instead have an iPhone App that can blow out candles (yes, really.)

But most problems we face are a bit trickier, and don’t fall easily under the capability of simple tools. Evaluating a complex public health intervention is certainly something that is fraught with nuance and difficulty. Even to a man with a hammer, it doesn’t look like a nail.

This is not to say there isn’t help at hand for anyone considering various types of evaluation – there is. There’s a growing number of high quality manuals and guides that stretch from the academic to the practical – from the MRC’s Developing and Evaluating Complex Interventions: new guidance, to the National Obesity Observatory’s Standard Evaluation Frameworks.

However, when thinking about the evaluation of complex public health interventions there is not always a single path to take, or even necessarily a ‘right answer’. And crucially it is not possible, and sometimes not desirable, to evaluate everything. 
Standardisation is difficult
As the authors of Assessing the Evaluability of Complex Public Health Interventions: Five Questions for Researchers, Funders and Policy Makers (who include CEDAR’s David Ogilvie and Andy Jones and Fuse’s Martin White) put it:

“Evidence to support government programs to improve public health is often week. Recognition of this knowledge gap has led to calls for more and better evaluation, but decisions about priorities for evaluation also need to be addressed in regard to financial restraint.”

Using England's ‘Healthy Towns’ initiative as a case study, the article above presents five questions to stimulate and structure debate in order to help people make decisions about evaluation within and between complex public health interventions:
  • Where is a particular intervention situated in the evolutionary flowchart of an overall intervention program? 
  • How will an evaluative study of this intervention affect policy decisions? 
  • What are the plausible sizes and distribution of the intervention's hypothesized impacts? 
  • How will the findings of an evaluative study add value to the existing scientific evidence? 
  • Is it practicable to evaluate the intervention in the time available? 
It is these five questions that form the heart of a proposed ‘thinking tool’ which will extend the reach of the original paper to a wider practice and policy audience. Built primarily around an interactive website (and maybe in time an iPad app), this tool will help people make decisions about whether to evaluate, about when to evaluate, and about what to evaluate first. So that it doesn’t duplicate existing manuals it will also contain a wealth of links and signposts to the existing resources about how to evaluate.

But what do we mean by a thinking tool? Well, in a pre-digital world, this can be as simple as making a list of pros and cons for a decision. Or something more involved such as Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats, a stakeholder mapping chart, or a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). And in the online and mobile world, there are a growing field of thinking and project tools such as Mindjet or Basecamp. Obviously our thinking tool will be more tailored than these, but the goal is to produce something that can be applied to a wide range of intervention within – and possibly beyond – public health.

We’re keeping an open mind about exactly how our thinking tool might work, so it would be good to hear your thoughts. You can read some more about the plans here, or get in touch with me at / 01223 746892.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Destination Start Trek London

Posted by Rosemary Rushmer

Ok, so I am a Trekkie...(always have been, always will be – feel better now I’ve ‘fessed-up’).

A couple of weeks ago I went along to the first Star Trek convention in the UK for ten years – Destination Start Trek London at the ExCel centre. I was amazed at the number of people who turned up, the place was mobbed. There were fans dressed as ‘Q’, Klingons, STNG crew members and lots of female ensigns from the original series, even one Seven-of-Nine

Poster of William Shatner as Captain Kirk at Destination Star Trek London; Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Now, these were people who could really get into the spirit of things! It was colourful, crowded and loud. I felt a sense of community…literally thousands of people who shared the same love of a TV franchise, each eager to see and to learn about their own favourite series, characters, plots and behind-the-scenes news. It was simply – completely out-of-this world…and fun! 

I listened as Sir Patrick Stewart discussed the similarities between Shakespearian drama and the sets, plots and acting on STNG, and was persuaded by his insights. I smiled as I saw the ages and mix of people there and wondered what enabled the franchise to have such ‘reach’. I was in awe as I stood just centimetres away from the Heroes of Star Trek – the Original Series, who, each week as a child, had beamed me light years from my small home to alien and exotic worlds. I remembered the gift of imagination and ‘what if…’ they helped me realise and how (I hope!) that has never left me. 

I was intrigued as the producers (Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga) talked about the creative aspects (and compromises) behind the plots. They recalled how when they created the Cylons in Battlestar Gallactica their aim was to create the most despicable, evil and scary villains possible and planned to clad them in hi-tech uniforms to achieve this. However their dreams were cut-down by financial constraints. 

They next tried to computer-generate the Cylons in uniform, but the technology was not possible. Then, the ingenious twist occurred to Ron Moore – ‘why put them in uniform? Why not make them look exactly like us?’ The ‘creative process’, (and its clash of pressures), resulted in a villain, undetectable, and much more formidable. It opened up plots which were not possible if we had been able to spot the Cylons before us. It set me thinking about getting research evidence into practice (typical!). There will always be multiple pressures, and the need to change tack, but maybe, this could lead to better blended solutions. 

To end the weekend, my youngest son went to get an autograph from Data, and was surprised when Brent Spiner told him that had he been raised in the USA, his nickname would be ‘Bert’ – so guess who has a new family nickname (one small comment can change a life forever…sorry Robbie!) 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fun Finding Fees

Posted by Annette Payne

I’m one of those rare, unusual PhD creatures…..The Self Funder (waits for gasps of shock and horror).

I work for the NHS, where funding for academic study is based upon the qualifications required for the role, identified in your job description. For my role as a band 7 Health and Housing Specialist an MSc is the highest qualification deemed necessary. Now don’t get me wrong it isn’t that the NHS doesn’t support academic study, they do…..but that support might not be financial.

Selling your soul for your PhD fees?
Once I made the decision that I was actually going to embark on this PhD journey, I just automatically thought ‘I’ll self-fund’. I’m studying part time at Sunderland University and the fees aren’t too bad (gulps). I calculated that at around £2000 a year, or £166 a month, it was a financial investment in my future that I was prepared to make. Then the reality hit that it would be £2000 a year, or £166 a month, for maybe the next 7 years: a potential £14,000 financial investment in my future. That of course didn’t account for any printing costs, travel to conferences, poster prep and all those other hidden PhD costs. Now the cost of my PhD was hitting my poor brain and my purse!!

I started to get a bit annoyed. Whether justified or not, I was a bit jealous of those PhD students who didn’t have the financial responsibilities that I did. I live alone (yes, yes, I’m 40, live alone and I DO have cats!!). I pay my mortgage, cover the bills, run a car, and go on holiday and I fund all of this via my full-time job. I do admittedly earn a decent salary, some would say more than decent (I judge my salary in relation to my sister who works in banking so I consider myself the poor relative!). I can’t just walk away from my job to study full-time with a research grant - that would be too significant a drop in income.

I also started to get annoyed with my employer. I was doing my PhD for my own personal development, because it was something I wanted to do. But ultimately, my employer, the NHS, would be benefitting too. Why shouldn’t I be a little cheeky, push the boundaries and ask for a bit of financial help…….and that is exactly what I did!!

I’m a qualified District Nurse by background; a qualification that opens up certain channels of funding to me. For my first year fees I applied to the Non-Medical Education and Training (NMET) fund. I was successful and was awarded nearly all my fees. I covered the shortfall myself.

For my second year I did the same. But with huge organisational changes, the policy and process had changed. I was awarded the maximum for PhD study of £1500 again with me covering the slightly larger shortfall myself.

The fees for my third year are due in February and NMET is no more so I have applied directly to my Hospitals Trust for funding. For the first time I have been awarded my full fees (woops of joy) and a full 10 days study leave (broad grin as my social life takes a turn for the better). I have of course had to sign my life away in exchange for the cash. You know, the normal: I can’t leave my job for x many years or I have to pay every penny back. But for the moment I’m happy. I’m awaiting the outcome of an application with the Burdett Trust; a charity that helps nurses, midwives and allied health professionals with postgrad study. I have my fingers and toes crossed as if I’m successful this will mean the end to my yearly round of funding applications. I can actually just sit back and concentrate on the PhD job at hand!

I’ve made finding funding sound easy haven’t I?? Fill in a form=cash. But I found out on 5th November this year that I had my fees for 2013 from an application that was submitted in March, lost four times, and required numerous phonecalls and soul selling just in order to get that £2000. I am prepared to play the funding game, I make sure that my application highlights clearly how my PhD work meets the knowledge and skills outcomes on my job description, and how the skills developed will benefit the trust and meet organisational outcomes. I let the charity know how my work will improve patient care and service delivery. I have become funding savvy.

So why do I bother apart from the obvious payment of fees from somewhere else other than my purse?? Well I see these funding battles as an opportunity. Once I’ve gained my PhD I will also have shown that I can write an application to secure funding. I’m adding to my marketable skills post doctorate and therefore my prospects. I have indeed invested in my future and for once it’s not all about the money.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Wordsmith

Posted by Steph Clutterbuck

I can’t write. Not this blog post, I have no difficulty waffling on, verbally or otherwise, about trivial things to anyone in the general vicinity willing to listen (just ask my fiancĂ©! *Ba doom ching!*). Rather, I can’t write my thesis.

This poses a bit of a problem to someone trying to successfully complete her Ph.D. I don’t think it is an issue of being lazy as I had no problem getting stuck into all the other areas of my research, i.e. the ethics, the recruiting participants, the running experiments, the sorting the data, the analysing the data. Nope all of these tasks I took on with enthusiasm, gusto even. But now it’s time to write and I am stuck. Luckily, I know I am not alone. Inevitably postgrad student small talk at conferences or in lunchrooms will at some point turn to the reluctance/inability to write. It is the most daunting part of the wild ride that is the postgraduate degree. But why is it so daunting? Why does something that we are clearly capable of doing and exercise hundreds of times each day by way of emails, texts, various research related documents and reports, suddenly seem so impossible?

Well, since you asked, the following is my sage opinion: There is no place for hiding anymore.

Canadian women’s 2012 Olympic soccer team. Our valiant warriors of the Great White North! (Photo by: Toru Hanai/Reuters)
When I was growing up I played a lot of soccer. Apologies, but I am Canadian with a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan for a father. Football to me will forever be synonymous with giant muscle laden men wearing very tight stretchy pants and overhyped million dollar Superbowl commercials. 

Anyway, sometimes when playing a particularly good team our coach could be heard screaming from the sidelines, ‘Clutterbuck! Stop hiding out there and get in the bleeping game!!’. Coaches aren’t always known for their diplomacy skills. What I imagine he was attempting to communicate, if he had taken a moment to compose himself was, ‘Stephanie, please refrain from shying away from your responsibilities on the field as a defensive midfielder. Your teammates would appreciate it if you would mark your opponent properly and stop cowering behind the keeper.’ 

Now I loved playing soccer, I loved my teammates and I was generally able to hold my own, so to speak, on the field. So why was I hiding? I was hiding because the girl I was meant to be marking was stronger or faster or more skilled than me. Sometimes she was all three of these things at once. The dreaded triple whammy. Quite simply she was a challenge and a challenge can be terrifying. Don’t get me wrong when you think you stand a chance challenges are exciting and even energizing. However, when you think you won’t quite cut the mustard a challenge can be paralyzing. And at those times it always seems easier to hide. If you hide then no one finds out you are actually a crummy soccer player and your spot in the starting line up must have been a fluke. Likewise, if you never get down to writing your thesis no one realizes that you actually know nothing, are in fact a fraud and your supervisor(s) have made a massive mistake in giving you the Ph.D. post.

So how did I manage to stop hiding on the field when my opponent threatened to damage my pride? Well, to unabashedly steal and conjugate a catch phrase, I just did it. I did it to stop my coach yelling at me. I did it to avoid being benched for the rest of the season. I did it because I loved the game and I knew it wasn’t always going to be easy but that’s what I signed up for. 

As for writing my thesis, again, I will just do it. I will do it to stop my supervisors yelling at me (they don’t actually yell but disapproving silences are somehow worse). I will do it because I don’t want to be kicked out of grad school. And I will do it because I love the game (i.e. research) and I know it isn’t always going to be easy, but that’s what I signed up for.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

My PhD Experience

Posted by Annette Payne

The world of ‘The PhD’ was a complete unknown to me, one I never thought I would be part of until a ‘casual’ conversation in 2010.

I remember in 1988 waiting for my GCSE results thinking I would be lucky to pass any…..I ended up with 10!! Don’t get me wrong they weren't ‘A’ grades but they were C and above and got me onto my A-level courses……

I remember in 1990 waiting for my A-level results thinking I would be lucky to pass any…. I ended up with three!! Don’t get me wrong they weren't ‘A’ grades but they got me into university…….

Never an A-grade student

HANG ON! HANG ON! There is a theme here!! I'm now 40 (coughs) and can look back on my academic achievements (BA Hons, BSc Hons, Dip He, PGCE, MSc in case you’re interested) and see that I have finally found myself academically. I was never an ‘A’ student and always having degrees of shock when I academically achieved. I still don’t class myself as an ‘A’ student. Ask if I'm clever I’ll say no (my basis for this is I hate trivial pursuit, am rubbish at geography and can’t really speak any foreign languages apart from my bad hybrid Greek). BUT I have gained a few qualifications along the way. 

I was approached about doing a PhD in 2007 to which the polite version of my response was NO WAY!! I had just completed a three-year part-time MSc in two years while working full time and the thought of any other study, never mind the elusive PhD, was not on my to do list!!! The seed must have been sown however, because in 2010 I ventured over to Sunderland University for a ‘casual’ chat with the Professor of Nursing. I walked away with the offer of a PhD ringing in my ears. I remember my journey home that day so clearly. The words ‘oh my goodness I'm doing a PhD, I’m doing a PhD’ were being chanted non-stop in my head. I wasn't entirely sure how it had happened but from that moment, so began my PhD journey.

The reason for my shock was twofold. Firstly I never believed I was capable of completing the study required for a PhD - again not thinking I was clever enough. Secondly I was totally taken aback at the ease at which I was offered my PhD and the surprise the Prof demonstrated when I questioned my ability.

So after 12 months of work-up I finally registered in Feb 2011 and am now heading at speed towards the end of my second year. To my amazement I've sailed through all of my reviews, received a highly commended for my research at a nursing conference, had a couple of poster presentations, achieved some success with funding and had national interest in my research all of which without actually having any results. I've received my postal surveys back and have my first interviews scheduled next week OH MY GOODNESS I'M DOING A PHD!!!

As I said at the start of this post (my first by the way) the world of the PhD was a complete unknown to me and one I never thought I would be part of but I am now fully immersed in it. I can negotiate the bureaucratic process, the on-line library facilities, the studying alongside a full time job while having a life and finally realise I am quite bright (although still maintain that I'm not classically intelligent) but I have I think learnt how to study. My PhD has shown me that if you enjoy, or even love, what you are studying you can achieve as much as you desire. When I was at school my choice of subject was restricted (funnily enough I had little interest in learning Russian) and I think my academic attainment reflected this. As my academic career has progressed my choices on what I study have broadened and therefore so has my academic attainment and self-belief. You may ask why at the age of 40 (coughs) am I so determined and excited to complete my Doctorate?? The answer to that is very simple I long to be Dr A Payne. Mwhaaha haa ha ha (evil laugh).

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Healthy Escapism…

Posted by Sara McCafferty

My mother lent me a book at the weekend, her only sales pitch: ‘it’s a little high brow for me’.

On the one hand this hardly encouraged me to read it, a novel – I hardly have time for novels at the minute – I am in the, somewhat dreaded, ‘writing up phase’, so the last thing I feel like doing after a long day at the office is more reading. On the other hand, my (healthy) competitive nature spurred me on to at least pick it up: my mother is not one to easily admit defeat, nor is she lacking academic qualification herself.

Without going into the whole plot, for one I haven’t finished yet, for another you can find a synopsis of the book here, the author (who has a background in economics and psychology) essentially describes how the world would be if she ran it, in the modestly named ‘Darcy’s Utopia’.

Fay Weldon's Darcy's Utopia
Now I was interested – you see, these sorts of things tick over constantly in my mind, (not running the world specifically, I am not some sort of power crazed junkie), more generally how should we best make things work? Granted, not just how anything works…mainly with regard to health, and probably the NHS. How can we stop people eating ‘junk’ food? How can we get people to exercise more? Should we provide gastric band surgery on the NHS? If people were happier would we have better health? When is down to personal responsibility? How should we organise the NHS? Does policy work?...the list goes on.

This is something that they* didn’t warn me about before I embarked on a PhD. When you spend so much of your time critiquing articles and exploring concepts, you are required to ask a lot of questions. [How does that sit with x? Isn’t that in conflict with y? Is that not dependent on a range of other conditions being present? Can you really illustrate that this is a causal link?] Coupled with considerable quest to provide a solution, or at least an adequate attempt to address your thesis question**, this is a powerful concoction that seemingly conditions one’s mind to adopt a position of continually questioning. Sometimes the questions themselves are circular, which can result in many hours whiled away in procrastination. This is true for me at least, and I have been known to drive friends and family slightly barmy over a glass of wine, when I am floundering around in the ‘big questions’, provoking them to join me in at least proffering solutions, when really they would much rather discuss frivolities of ‘Downton Abbey’, or ‘X-Factor’.

Aside from the implications of a reduced quality socialising on a Friday night, a more pressing implication is the need to find a way to ‘switch off’. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, I have found marathon training a really useful endeavour to help me run away with my thoughts for an hour or two and return centred and all out of questions. It is, however, Newcastle and winter, thus running, at least outdoors, in the dark and rain is quickly becoming an unfeasible option.

As such, I am very grateful for the loan of said novel which has reawakened me to the joys of fiction, helps me to switch off, and all this can be done whilst curled up snugly indoors – result!

*who this elusive ‘they’ applies to is not quite clear, however it must remain in order for me to devoid myself of personal responsibility for fully identifying all the pros and cons pre-PhD registration.

**this may of course change, to be more in line with the solution that you have actually unearthed over the course of your research.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


Posted by Jean Adams

During most of my childhood, my dad worked for the Scottish Tourist Board. The main perk of doling out grants to tourist attractions was to be a guest of honour at said attractions. When I was about 14, he was asked to open a gliding centre on Deeside. It was during the school holidays, so I was allowed to tag along for the ride, so to speak. My one and only experience of gliding was absolutely, literally, and totally awesome. But before I got to go gliding, I had to listen politely, along with everyone else, to my dad speaking. He did so, in the middle of an air field, without notes, eloquently and succinctly.

My dad remains my public speaking role model.

Is it just me, or was he better at it last time around? (from:
Prior to beginning their dissertation project, all our MSc students have to give a presentation on their research plans to an audience of fellow students and course staff. This gives them a chance to get some feedback on their methods, to perhaps link up with the right supervisor, and to get some experience of presenting research is a reasonably unthreatening environment.

The first batch of this year’s presentations was last week. As usual, they were in a room that was just a little bit too small for the number of people in it. Everything felt a bit cramped. As usual, the confirmed staff attendance a few days before was abysmal, but we all stepped up at the last minute and there ended up being more staff than students in the room.

I didn’t do our MSc. Back in the day, perhaps before someone had worked out that it was fairly dumb to deliver the same course twice, intercalating medical students did a separate, but similar, course. But we still had to do the presentations, in the nerve-wracking environment of a lecture theatre. It was pretty scary. Despite what we’d been taught in our digital communications lessons, I’d never seen anyone successfully get a computer to speak to a digital projector. So I used overhead projector slides – perfect for a bit of added nerve-related fumbling.

I am now rarely nervous about presenting. Occasionally when the stakes are high – like the presentation you have to give at the start of a fellowship interview – I am still pretty petrified. But I think I would be in that sort of situation whether or not it involved a presentation. Sometimes I find the wait to ask a question in a seminar oddly nervy. I’m still waiting for the flood of invitations to be a conference keynote speaker. But I suspect that would also make me a bit uncomfortable.

Most people find that presenting gets less nerve wracking as they gain experience. The more you do it, the easier it gets. But standing up and speaking in front of a bunch of people who are there to judge your ideas is inherently scary. So it doesn’t quite make sense that it gets easier with practice. Perhaps all that diminishes is the nerves about forgetting what you’re going to say, or that there will be a computer meltdown. The more you do it, the more you convince yourself that you’ll be able to blag it, and that any audience would be sympathetic to things outside of your control.

Despite my apparent ease, I have still not developed my father’s skill for speaking without props. I have never not used Powerpoint, Prezi or some other visual aid. I always have notes. In most situations, I no longer practice ad nauseam, but I still do a quick run through. One day I hope to be brave enough to take the plunge and ditch the projector. One day I will stop presenting and just learn to speak.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The yes-no game

Posted by Jean Adams

I try hard to be a ‘yes’ person. Not a yes-(wo)man - I like to think I’m fairly critical and independent minded. But the sort of person who will be helpful and enthusiastic and say ‘yes’ when I can. I am, after all, pretty off the scale in conscientiousness and tend to think that yes is inherently a good thing.

This is in contrast to the ‘no’ people: the lazy, unhelpful people who can be relied upon only to say ‘no’. Or at least nothing much until you’ve given up hope and asked someone else.

The yes-no game
Public health is a collaborative science. It is probably still possible to while away a career in epidemiology without speaking to many people – especially if you have a big cohort study, or other data set, nestled up your sleeve. But once you get into the realm of developing and evaluating public health interventions, or even just collecting another round of data from your cohort study, you start to need big teams of people with varied expertise – a systematic reviewer, a statistician, a health economist, a qualitative researcher (goodness me I sometimes wish I was did one of those tangible things that people could give a name to). The effect is that there are all sorts of people asking you to say yes to taking part in this and that.

University research departments are also supposed to be pretty collaborative places – more than just the sum of their parts, but interactive groups of people getting stuff done together. There’s teaching, and supervision, and tutoring, and marking to be done; committees to contribute to; strategy to be developed and executed; a website to be maintained; a Christmas party to be organised. A whole lot more things that you are asked to say yes to.

At the same time, I have all of ‘my’ stuff to do: projects that are supposed to be finished sometime around when the funding expires; papers to write for my REF return, and those I just want to write; new grant applications to develop; ideas for blog posts to dream up.

Faced with so many requests to say yes, is pretty easy to develop a no mentality. In fact, not so long ago, my partner and I decided that the only way we were going to free our weekends from the tyranny of work was to get a lot more strict with our yes’s and a lot more liberal with our no’s. There was going to be a daily fess up about yes’s and communal pats on the back for each and every no. No was going to be the new black.

It didn’t take long before we worked out that this wasn’t going to work. Partly because it turned out we couldn’t remember all the yes’s and no’s we’d said by the end of the day, or even to remember to talk about them; but mostly because it turned out that each yes and no needed to be qualified.

There were the things we really wanted to say yes to, but couldn’t because of all the other previous yes’s. And the stuff that we wanted to say no to but said yes because of the possible fall-out of saying no to particular people. Fairly quickly we’d worked out a 2x2 table of: what you said x what you should’ve said if you only did the stuff you wanted to do.

We abandoned the scheme before it deteriorated into unknown knowns.

The problem is that I want everyone else to say yes to my things, but to be able to say no to just about everyone else’s. And so does everyone else.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

My first blog post

Posted by Emma L Giles

Okay, so I’d better come clean and own up straight away…this is my very first blog. Now, it’s not like I didn’t know what a blog was before now, but I had never been that interested. I have a Facebook account and log on occasionally. I even tried twitter once, but I failed to ‘see the point’ of it. So when I thought I might venture into this blog business I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose was. However, since reading the Fuse blogs in particular, I think I may have seen the light.

The little book of anxiety, by Kerri Sackville
I am a post-doc, which basically means that since handing in my thesis (aka a large door stop that I have since looked at about ten times) in 2009, I have been working at Newcastle University as a Research Associate. My first post-docs were largely teaching-based, and so I would never have even contemplated writing a blog at that time. My topics would largely have been around such thoughts as: oh heck, what do I do when 300 students pile into the lecture theatre?? Oh my goodness, I was caught in the headlights today when I couldn’t answer a student’s questions, what to do, what to do??? I…honestly…cannot…mark…one…more…assignment…that…reads…the…same…

Gladly, such issues are no longer the reasons why I lie awake at night. Mainly because I have moved to the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle and now I actually do research as a research associate, but also because after six years of teaching groups of 50-300 students I am no longer scared by large groups. I can think of a semi-professional and intelligent answer to most student questions, and I have learnt that every student contributes something different in their assignments (most of the time).

So why then am I writing this blog? Well, I was actually going to write about my experience of publishing academic papers as a new career researcher. However, this thought abruptly ended when I started to type. I realised that my first blog might actually be somewhat lacking: would it be entertaining? Would I need to be funny (I’m not naturally a comedian)? What happens if the editor rejects my blog? What DO I WRITE? 

I think, funnily enough, this blog has actually taught me something. It’s taught me that I’m a born worrier and that there will always be something that I am anxious about. However, this is where I can see some advantages of this blog business (I may even have started to like them as well). Blogs allow you to air your thoughts, to share concerns with others, and to (sometimes) receive helpful comments and advice.
I think I’m going to write that second blog soon, surprisingly about my worries around publishing. That is, if the editor doesn’t reject this first blog.

However, don’t ask me to go on twitter again.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Posted by Jean Adams

If you think being an epidemiologist is a difficult job to explain, you should try being a lecturer with 85% dedicated to research. “Me? I'm a lecturer at the university....Well, no, I don’t actually do much lecturing....”

I think I only give two classic, big lecture theatre, lectures a year. I do a bit more classroom-based seminar teaching. But most of my teaching is one-to-one with students doing research projects.

The big (anatomy) lecture theatre at Leiden
I generally look after one or two undergraduate students doing final year projects each year, two or three masters students doing their dissertations, and I have four ongoing PhD students. We tend to supervise in teams, so I am not solely responsible for all of these people and two of the PhD students are due to submit in the next few months. Hopefully one will be replaced by someone else I am currently helping to work up a doctoral fellowship application.

Research projects were the part of being a student that I enjoyed the most, and I enjoy supervising research students. But despite the advice from students, and some mock bravado on my part, I don’t always find supervising students that easy.

The great thing about supervising is how different each journey is. Every project is different, with different challenges, and every student struggles with different things. For me this keeps the task interesting and engaging. But it also makes it difficult. Just like it is vaguely ludicrous to suggest that there could be a simple list of ‘rules’ for how to be a successful research student, so there is no simple rule book for how to be a supervisor.

I particularly struggle with how much direction and feedback I should give.

Student research projects are rewarding because they allow students to guide and own their work. Particularly at undergraduate level, they are one of the few parts of university learning that truly belong to the student. Having a supervisor that spends most of the time saying “do this”, “do that”, “definitely don’t do that” seems almost like robbing the student of this precious experience. But it is not uncommon to get a bit of a blank response when I ask what should, or even could, been done to solve a problem. Perhaps it is not a question that many students are used to hearing as an undergraduate. And when someone is nearing a deadline and feeling stressed enough already, sometimes “well, what do you think?” can push them right over the edge. It can be a tricky balance to get right.

Recently, however, I have been struggling with almost the opposite problem: how many times I should give the same feedback before becoming insistent that my suggestion is acted on.

Perhaps the problem is the very terminology of ‘suggestion’. I often tell my students that they don’t have to do what I say, that my comments are just ‘suggestions’. But clearly they aren't always. Every now and then a project will get stuck and, as far as I can see, there is only one way to unstick it: my way.

Sometimes it doesn't matter if the student and I dance around the issue for a month or two – there are other things to be getting on with, the deadline is still months, if not, years off. Other times, something has to be done right now. I don't like being insistent – it is just the sort of supervisor (person) I don't want to be. I don't want to lecture. But if the situation really is critical, then perhaps I am letting the student down by not insisting?

One of the common things that students do is to get personally and emotionally wrapped up in their work. I hesitate to call this a 'mistake'. I did it when I was a student. I do it now that I am not. I try not to be personally offended when my grant applications fail to get through to the short-list, or my papers are rejected without review, but I still am - a bit, sometimes. It can certainly mean you experience more of a blow than strictly necessary when things go wrong. But it probably also helps drive good quality. So maybe a 'risk', more than a 'mistake'.

What I hadn't quite realised was the risk of getting personally and emotionally wrapped up in my students. I have found that it matters to my personal sense of my professionalism that my students do well. The rare ones who do badly feel like failures. At least in the short term, until I have convinced myself that I did all I could: often including rather desperate lectures on standards expected and taking responsibility.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The pensiveness of the long distance runner*

Posted by Jean Adams

Have you been following #episongs? It’s like a game. But for epidemiologists. On Twitter. You’ll appreciate this lends it a certain in-crowd, geekiness:

     Bayesian Rhapsody (from @martinwhite33)

     One way or ANOVA (from @soozaphone)

     Geoffrey Rose the boat ashore (from @gingerly_onward)

     You say use StAYta, I say use StAHta (yours truly)

I have been using my running time this week to dream up contributions.

The loneliness of the long distance runner, Dir. Tony Richardson
I run most days. I down tools sometime between 5 and 6pm, gather up my stuff, head down to the toilets in the lobby of our building, where a secret door takes you through to a tiny changing room, and change from smart young professional into Supergirl. Well, more often it is from slightly scruffy climbing hut chic (as my dad once graciously labelled it) into rather smelly day-glo shirt and running tights.

Often I can’t quite be bothered. But I have found that this thought can be turned off long enough to get changed and out the door and by the time it comes back there’s no choice left.

I run because I like to be fit enough to keep up with my climbing hut buddies, because it gives me licence to eat a certain amount of cake, because it gets me outside for at least 45 minutes, and because it allows my brain to think in a different way from normal. I think it keeps me healthy. But it might not.

When I'm running, my thoughts take on a different quality. I don’t have to stop them because I need to focus on getting an abstract down to 250 words, wording an email just right, or so I can work out what exactly the person speaking is trying to say. I can just let them happen. But it’s not like there is a jumble of thoughts. Often it’s just one thing. Going back and forth. Round and round. Upside down.

I have some of my best ideas when I'm running. Ideas for research projects. Ideas for how to solve the problem I've been sweating over all day. Ideas for how to teach the cohort study session without killing everyone in the room with boredom. Ideas for #episongs.

Sometimes I think that the quality of my thoughts is so good when I'm running that running time should be reclassified as working time. Other times, my thoughts are not about work at all and I would feel resentful of having to think about something in particular when I'm running.

I presume the two things are not unlinked: my thoughts happening differently, and the good ideas coming. I presume there’s a technical term for the thoughts thing too. Once when my brother was particularly frustrated about something or other, I suggested he take up running. He said he was going to go on a meditation retreat instead. I suspect they might amount to nearly the same thing.

I'm a bit of a running evangelist  But I try not to be a running bore. Pounding the same loop, or variations of it, day after day is not that interesting of itself. Beyond the occasional wildlife spot, hardly anything interesting happens when I run, apart from in my head. There is not much about running itself to talk about. And, to be honest, I can get the same thought effect from swimming, walking and various other repetitive physical pursuits.

What I really want to get out of running right now is a running related #episong

*with apologies to Alan Sillitoe

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Are we asking the right question?

Posted by Bronia Arnott

Recently I wrote about using twitter to recruit participants for a research study and how others said it couldn't be done. But were they asking the right question? Should they be asking if it SHOULD be done?

When I tweet to my followers on twitter I am sending information out to people who are like minded individuals. They probably follow me because they share some of my interests and probably because they like me have been caught up in the fallout from the weapon of mass distraction that is the Internet. So are these the kind of people I should be trying to recruit for a research study? A large proportion of them have a PhD and many work in academia (and I know how strange academics can be!). Even if they don't fall into those categories they tend to be those interested in mental or physical health, quite well educated, or my friends - which might not be very inclusive!

Reduce, reuse, retweet
But before I shoot down my research paper with the biased sample bullet let's take the finger off the trigger for a moment. Of course those things are true of my followers, but what about the followers of those who re-tweeted (RT'd) my requests for participants? Their followers may be more diverse than my own - especially those such as local radio stations who kindly RT'd. So, in theory, the further the RT was RT'd the more likely I was reaching people who were not that similar to me.

Taking another step back from the big red button, what kind of participants did I want to recruit? Well I was actually looking for adults of working age who regularly commute and own a smartphone – so if twitter users tend to be adults of working age who regularly commute and own a smartphone then perhaps that isn’t a problem?

However, while most twitterers are lovely (and recruiting this way allowed me to meet some of them who I may not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet) they are clearly different in many ways to those who don’t use twitter. Therefore while I do think people can and should recruit via twitter I don't think it should be the only method of recruitment. Unless you want to measure the effect of the weapon of mass destruction that is the Internet, then go ahead.

But enough about what I think, what are your thoughts?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Collaborative writing

This post is reposted with permission from

Posted by Peter Tennant

I once showed my brother one of my papers.

"Why is it written in such a dull and lifeless style?"

"Oh, that’s the editor’s fault. It read much better when I submitted it."

Neither of us was convinced.

There’s no shame in being a scientist who can’t write. Science is fairly well populated by people with exceptional skills in the most extraordinary areas, but who can’t write for toffee. Then again, even the best communicator would struggle writing a scientific paper. Because scientific papers are almost always written in teams.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
This is fairly sensible, given most scientific studies are performed in teams, but there are also some serious advantages. For a start it allows contribution from people with a range of skills. Having medical co-authors means my papers can discuss the clinical significance without risking a life-threatening blunder. It also means you’ve got plenty of people to celebrate with when the paper gets accepted. And, it gives you someone else to blame if anyone ever calls your paper, 'dull and lifeless'.

But, did I mention, it’s also very challenging? As the lead author (most commonly the first name on the authorship list, though not for all disciplines), the main challenge is to your sanity. As long as it might take crafting the first draft, this is nothing compared with the time spent sending it back and forth to your co-authors for more and more comments. It’s this process that I think produces that instantly recognisable multi-author style (the one my brother kindly referred to as ‘dull and lifeless’). Like washing a colourful shirt a hundred times. This is why (against the advice of senior authors like Martin White and Jean Adams, see bullet point 3) I rarely waste time overcooking my first drafts. There’s simply no point spending days writing a stunning introductory paragraph, only for it to be completely mauled by your co-authors.

Broadly speaking, co-authors come in one of three factory settings; the Rampant Re-writers, the Sweeping Suggestion-Makers, and the Utterly Useless.

The Rampant Re-writers get the most flack. These are the people who so heavily drench your draft in tracked-changes that, by the end, it stops feeling like your paper. Draining as this can be, these co-authors are actually the nice ones, generously spending their time to improve the paper. Until they start changing bits that everyone’s already agreed on. That’s when they get really annoying. And when it’s especially important to remember the Golden Rule of Rampant Re-writers: edits are only suggestions – as the lead author, you should always have the final say.

Next there are the Sweeping Suggestion-Makers. Wielding the deadly comment box, they add things like, 'this bit needs shortening' or 'I think you should add something about X'. Sometimes I’m tempted to send it back and say, 'I think YOU should add something about X if YOU think it’s so important!' But they’re usually too busy. And they’re usually right. Damn them with their helpful comments.

By far the most harmful authors are the Utterly Useless. The ones who don’t reply to emails, or who get back saying vague things like, 'looks great'. In the absence of praise from your other authors (sadly the academic for, 'this is amazing, fantastic work' is often simply, 'no further comments'), these people can seem like your friends, but they’re not. They’re useless. That’s why I call them Utterly Useless. In fact, these authors are the ones that can cause genuine ethical dilemmas. Do they even satisfy the conditions of authorship? Occasionally a senior academic will insist on being an author due to some historical connection with the study, even if they then add nothing to the paper. This is unethical. But not something that the average PhD student is in a position to do anything about. More pertinent is the risk of being pushed down the author order, despite doing the most work. It’s common throughout the history of science. It’s also morally repugnant. Always try to discuss the authorship list and the author-order before starting writing a paper and this risk can be reduced (though, sadly, not eliminated).

If being the lead/first author is most difficult, it’s not necessarily easy being a support author, where the big challenge is in getting the right balance of comments. Despite years of therapy, I still fall firmly into the Rampant Re-writer category. On more than one occasion, I’ve made the first author cry by overdoing the edits. Some support authors try to soften the blow by spreading their edits over several revisions, e.g. making the 'essential' changes first, then the less major changes later. But I’ve experienced this as a first author and actually found it more depressing! It’s like getting to the end of a marathon, only to be told to run another five miles. Short of making them cry, over-editing might still annoy your co-authors, especially if they are senior. For some reason, Professors don’t always react very well to having their words rewritten by a PhD student. So here’s my advice, try and get all your comments in first time, but make sure they are all essential. If in doubt, leave it out. Unless you’re happy making your colleagues cry.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

They said it couldn't be done…

Posted by Bronia Arnott

Recently I needed to recruit some participants for a user engagement study that we were organising as part of our research. I had had in my mind for a while that I would probably try to recruit some participants via twitter. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a twitter advocate. I had been thinking about this idea for a while. However, when I mentioned my plan to others they said that they didn't think it could be done...

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio
Due to some unexpected delays on the project I realised that my brief recruitment timescale was going to coincide with moving house and my daughter starting preschool. I negotiated to have time off as long as long as I could recruit participants while I was on leave. The appeal of a twitter recruitment drive became even more appealing. I thought maybe I should probably have a strategy (or maybe I was just procrastinating) so I checked out what times of the day were most likely to get Re-tweets and put my academic writing skills to the test trying to summarise the user engagement studies into the 140 characters allowed by twitter. I also thought about targeting specific people who I followed or who followed me (or our research project twitter account) and asking them to Re-tweet to their followers. "Shy bairns get nowt" and all that.

Soon the RTs were coming in and so were the hits on our project website. Slowly but surely the sessions filled up. So were the doubters right? It wasn't as successful as I would have liked but I think there were a few reasons for that: we had very specific inclusion criteria, limited time, no funds, and for some of the time I had no Internet access (the provider who messed up not once but twice will remain nameless).

I think in the end researchers probably can recruit using twitter. Whether they should or not is a different question...