Wednesday 28 March 2012

Viva la viva!

Posted by Shelina Visram

It’s official – I am now Dr. Shelina Visram. Not a doctor of medicine (which still upsets my grandparents) but a doctor of philosophy. You might think that means I’ve spent the last few years navel-gazing. Sadly not.

For two years I was entirely engrossed in conducting 116 in-depth interviews, as well as following people around, observing them and generally being nosy. Months were then devoted to analysing my data, and it took me almost a year to write it all up into something meaningful – my thesis.

Top tip: use cute stickers to distract yourself during the viva
My little beauty is 289 pages long and makes a good doorstop. As well as (hopefully) a good read. Phew, so that’s the hard work done. I handed it in, became Dr. Visram and went skipping off into the sunset. Right?

Wrong! That’s not how it goes at all. After years of hard work, the hardest part is yet to come.

The viva! A word that strikes terror in the hearts of all PhD students. Viva is short for viva voce, a Latin phrase usually translated as “by word of mouth”. The viva is the final oral examination of the doctorate process.

That’s the case in the UK at least. I’ve heard that students in Australia are assessed on their thesis alone. Which is another good reason to emigrate.

So what exactly does a viva involve? Well, two experts in your field are invited to act as examiners. The viva takes place a few months after thesis submission. During these months you occupy yourself with other things (like finding a job) and forget what your PhD was about. Or you read your thesis over and over again until the words start to lose all meaning. Then on the day of the viva, you turn up in your smartest outfit and prepare to defend your work.

To be honest, the rest is a bit of a blur. I know my viva lasted for almost two hours and that it was hard work. I know there were lots of questions on philosophy, methodology and the importance of my findings. It was helpful to have my supervisor there to keep notes and reassure me afterwards that not everything I said was gibberish. Once the ordeal was over, I was asked to wait outside whilst everyone conferred. Then I was invited back in to hear the verdict and be called Dr. Visram for the first time.

In hindsight, the viva was a great opportunity to discuss my thesis with two people who had actually read it. I got some helpful feedback and an invitation to spend some time with one of my examiners and her research team. I know some people have less positive experiences and I guess you have to prepare for the worst.

But as a friend is fond of saying, just relax and enjoy the process.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

See one. Do one. Teach one.

Posted by Jean Adams

There was a time when finding a man who was having trouble urinating was my main preoccupation in life.

I was a final year medical student and "insert a male urinary catheter" was the final, unchecked, procedure in my log book.

In a dingy corner of the male elderly care ward, I found what I was looking for. A man with a full bladder in great pain. Unfortunately, the final tick in my log book was not to be that day. I admitted to the attending doctor that my only knowledge of catheterisation technique came from a textbook.

All set up and no-one to catheterise
There is an old adage in medical education: see one, do one, teach one. The implication is supposed to be that you'd better be a quick learner, because you don't get much practice in medicine. For me, the implication was that I needed two men who couldn't pee - one to watch being catheterised by someone else, one to catheterise myself.

I think many medics escape to academia because they want a chance to slow down and think problems through, without a constant need to do something, quickly.

Perhaps there is more time to think, this side of the fence. But, ironically, when I'm in the classroom, I quite often feel that I have skipped the "do one" stage.

This week I was teaching our MSc students how to write a press release. I have read a number of press releases in my life; I have sat in how to write press releases workshops; I have even submitted model press releases for assignments; but I have never, ever written a real-life press release myself, let alone a successful one that is picked up by the media.

Delivering a newly devised teaching session for the first time is always a bit nervy. The seat of my pants gets a little frayed. This one had an extra edge of tension. I don't feel an expert in any of the things I teach, but I have come to the realisation that I, if nothing else, have generally thought and read more about the topic than the students. If I have done some actual, published research on it, that alway makes me feel a little more secure in my expertise.

This time, I had nothing but my status as 'lecturer' to carry me through. Early on, I fell back on the rather cruel technique of the trick question to make sure everyone was on their guard. I chose ridiculously bad examples of press releases from other universities to make the students laugh. I filled the time by getting them to do their own writing so that I didn't have to do any of my own. I quite often found myself wondering if what I was saying made any sense at all.

Now I am starting to wonder how many other things I teach without first doing; or do without first seeing. Luckily, my pant drawer is well stocked.

Monday 26 March 2012

Systematically unsystematic: confessions of a novice reviewer

Posted by Amy O'Donnell

Two years ago, I somehow found myself agreeing – nay proposing – that I should do a systematic review as part of my PhD.

For those unfamiliar with the term (*searches Wikipedia*) a systematic review involves a literature search focused on a clearly formulated question that aims to identify, appraise and synthesise all high quality research evidence relevant to that question.

As far as I was concerned, the findings would usefully inform the other elements of my research, the process would enable me to learn valuable new skills, and the material might even be publishable. What was not to like?

Well for starters there was finding out exactly how to do it (the starting point turns out to be a 281 page guide that drops vaguely menacing terms like ‘stochastic’, ‘bootstrapping’ and a whole bunch of ‘a priori’s). Then there were the hours of screen time trawling through journal abstracts, thousands of which were irrelevant to my research. Throughout, I was keenly aware that the path from conception to realisation was littered with the exhausted shells of well-intentioned PhD researchers.

Fast forward to today, and I am only now (almost) in a position to start writing that elusive final report. So I ask myself – as indeed my supervisors have asked on numerous occasions – just what went wrong?

Well aside from the dithering, the various displacement activities (another colour-coded spreadsheet anyone?) and a general lack of get-up-and-go, I think it all boils down to one major problem.

I didn’t really know what I was looking for.

Sorry, where am I supposed to be going?
Don’t get me wrong, I had a vague idea. But it turns out that a vague idea just won’t cut the mustard when it comes to navigating your way through the twenty-one million plus records available via PubMed. Without a clear question to be answered or hypothesis to be tested, you are looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I didn’t know what literature to keep in, and what to throw out. I couldn’t articulate exactly what the review would contribute to my research. And I simply hadn’t thought carefully enough about how I would synthesise the results at the end of the whole process.

I confess it took the shame of failing my second year assessment to wake me up to this sorry state of affairs. But after several months of repeated trips back to the drawing board, and countless discussions with supervisors and other colleagues, I think I’ve finally got it. It’s not perfect, it’s going to be hellish to write up, and I’m annoyed with myself because I know I could have (should have) got here far more quickly and far less painfully. But it’s giving me some relevant and useable material, and I’ve learned a lot. Which I guess is the point.

As poet Edward Hodnett (sort of) wrote “If you do not ask the right questions, you don’t have a hope in hell of getting the right answers”.

Friday 23 March 2012

Twittering, not skiving

Posted by Bronia Arnott

I work in an open-plan office. A quick saunter to the coffee room is all it takes to find out who’s working and who’s on Facebook. Sometimes I find myself furtively opening up Twitter and hoping that nobody thinks I’m skiving. Because it is work, really…

Ollie the Twitter bird

Twitter is my social networking tool of choice. I have my own personal account and I also tweet alongside colleagues on the Reflect project account. We also use it to connect with others, including relevant government departments and charities. We use Twitter to share new posts on our blog and update our followers on recent news including publications.

There is evidence that tweets can increase citations of research papers. It’s called Twimpact of course. Some of this effect is through other networks of academics who follow each other on Twitter. But I know that in my case I also have a number of friends and other ‘normal people’ who follow my account and read, favourite and re-tweet my work. In some cases I even think it is because they genuinely find what I have to say interesting or useful, and don’t just feel sorry for me and my boring job.

The benefit of Twitter for non-researchers is that you can keep up to date with recent research without reading hefty journal articles – let the academics on twitter do that for you. And because tweets are limited to 140 characters even normally verbose researchers are forced to focus on the message, not the caveats!

I think the true value of Twitter has yet to be mined, however. In our project we hope to use social networking sites to link participants to our study in the next few years. A great example of innovative use of Twitter is the TWeetAsyouGO project which links up people investigating transport habits through the use of a common hashtag (#TWAGO)

If you are already on Twitter, you can find a number of Fuse members active on the site. Fuse also has an official @fuse_online Twitter stream.

If you are not already on Twitter yourself why not give it ago? You might find out that we are not a bunch of twits.

Thursday 22 March 2012

A perineal what?

Posted by Peter Tennant

You're at a party, tucking into a sausage roll (OK, a pineapple stick, this being a public health blog), and then someone asks: "So what do you do then?"

It’s the question I dread most of all.

I used to have a nice prepared answer: "I'm a health researcher". But aside from being a tad patronising, this didn't really hold up once I started to meet people who were asking less out of politeness and more out of genuine interest. So for the last couple of years, I've just taken a deep breath and declared, "I'm a perinatal* epidemiologist".

"A perineal what?"

I've heard many guesses. Skin doctor? The study of epilepsy? Something to do with epidurals? Sometimes I start talking about the etymology. "Epi comes from the Greek for people. No wait, that's demos. What was epi again?" But, as well as my complete incompetence with Greek, I find etymology to be one of those words that seems to send people scurrying off for another sausage roll. So now I tell them, "think epidemic".

According to A Dictionary of Epidemiology, it's "the study of the occurrence and distribution of health-related states or events in specified populations, including the study of the determinants influencing such states, and the application of this knowledge to control the health problems."

It's a decent description, but not one that's easy to fit between sips of wine. So usually, I find it's best just to give examples.

You remember last week when they said that eating red meat raised your risk of cancer? Or last month when we found out that women with diabetes had a higher risk of their baby having problems such as congenital heart disease? Well, that's epidemiology.

Of course, this is fraught with its own problems, mainly because most of these stories tend to be slanted towards death and destruction, leaving you at serious risk of being branded one of those boring scaremongers.

But the problem remains that this still doesn't really explain what I do all day. Even after a lot of discussion, most people still go away imagining I spend my day prodding study 'participants' and taking blood. In fact, in four years I've never actually seen a study participant, let alone prodded one. This is probably a very good thing for the participants.

So what does my day involve? Well, it varies. Some days I'm trying to describe a year's work in a couple of paragraphs. Some days I'm filling in forms. Some days I'm just thinking. But the days when I most feel like an 'epidemiologist' are the ones where I'm sat at my computer, staring at bright green and yellow text on a black screen. The days when I'm playing statistics with my favourite statistics software.

Stata - my favourite statistics software

 Unfortunately, nothing sends people scurrying off for another sausage roll faster than telling them you're a statistician.

*Perinatal, by the way, means 'around birth' – so I generally study things that happen in and around pregnancy. In fact, that paper about women with diabetes having a higher risk of babies with congenital anomalies is one of mine.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

No magic tricks required - recruiting adolescents for research

Posted by Stephanie O'Neil

At a recent event, a speaker began to muse on the difficulty of recruiting adolescent boys into research.

Having spent most of the last decade avidly researching the mystical things we call ‘youth’ and ‘sociology’ whilst trying desperately to combine the two,* I have more experience than most when it comes to working with ‘young people’. So recruiting adolescent boys – right up my street.

Three years ago, I set out on my PhD journey to examine young people’s relationship with alcohol and how they framed their choices about drinking. I knew instinctively that, to some degree, I needed to conduct qualitative research (I also did a systematic review and a Q methodology study, but those are sagas for different posts). This ruled out working in schools, who couldn’t see what was wrong with handing out a survey to the masses. Instead, I wanted to speak to young people alone for up to an hour. And I wanted to do it without parental consent (a topic for yet another post). Absolutely no go in schools, I’m afraid.

So I set out far and wide for youth centres, youth offending teams, and youth and inter-generational projects. I hung out with the youth parliament, on ‘mobile youth buses’ and toured Eldon Green on Friday evenings with youth workers. I took part in air hockey competitions to ‘win’ an interview, made home-made jewellery and watched more Emmerdale and Eastenders than is healthy for your psyche. I became known to the young people of Newcastle as ‘that Mackem alcohol bird researcher’.

Young people in Newcastle
Sometimes, I had to spend several weeks attending a youth group before anyone would agree to be interviewed. Other times, young people would agree straightaway. Regardless, I ended up with fascinating, rich interviews, from an equal split of boys and girls. And all of this was achieved with no incentives. Each young person gave up their time freely and willingly.

I don’t believe that the ability to engage young people (and I do think this is a better term than 'recruit youth') in research rests on being young, female, or a native to the North East – although I am all of these things. What I do think it rests on is how you treat the people you interview.

Young people are not a group that should be considered ‘different’. In fact, thinking of ‘adolescent boys’ as a distinct group that might be hard to recruit is probably the reason why they become difficult to recruit. Like everyone, young people just wanted to be listened to and to know what they were contributing to by taking part in research .

That’s it folks. No other magic tricks required.

*Yes, I’m a sociologist working in a public health department. Please don’t judge me.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

10,000 steps? Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy!

Posted by Jean Adams

I admit it. I am a health fascist.

Well, now I’ve read the Wikipedia entry on healthism, I think I am only a part-time health fascist. I’m strongly in favour of living a healthy lifestyle and of the government going out of its way to make this easier for everyone to achieve. I don’t necessarily think that “the problem of health and disease [is situated] at the level of the individual." In fact, I read a great article this week taking an evolutionary approach to socio-economic inequalities in health behaviours. The phrase that most sticks in my mind is: “if you want to change an organism’s behaviour, you need to change its environment”.

But, anyway. I’m all for the healthy lifestyle. As a public health insider, I try to set a good example without the need for environmental or motivational interventions. I don't buy any of that "these targets are unobtainable" stuff. I eat my five-a-day. I do my 5x30 minutes of physical activity per week. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t have multiple partners (well, not in bed). OK, I admit it, I do drive marginally (a lot) faster than the speed limit on occasion (every day).

Surely I do enough running to make the grade? (photo: Martin White)
If totally motivated, no kids, decent salary, partner who definitely does almost 50% of the housework, me can’t meet the guidance, who can? 

So, it was with rather gay abandon that I took on a step-challenge competition with some colleagues. The idea is that we should be taking 10,000 steps per day. This is, apparently, equivalent to walking about 5 miles. At a brisk pace of 20 minutes per mile, that would be an hour and 40 minutes per day. So, quite a lot more than your 30 minutes, five times a week. Unfortunately, I didn’t stop to work all of this out until after agreeing to the challenge. 

The bottom line is that I thought it would be easy-peasy. My colleague reports he manages his 10,000 steps easily. Obviously super-healthy me is going to totally Whup. His. Ass. 

As health researchers, we know all about the problems of measurement error and the importance of comparing like with like. The competition will, therefore, involve standard issue pedometers – a step counting gadget that my colleague has taken the trouble to validate against more expensive gadgets. 

Yesterday was my first day on the pedometer. I had a fairly normal day that included a short bike commute and a six mile run. I only managed 9089 steps. 

Now come on! That’s not fair. How can a six mile run not be enough? This gadget is obviously useless. Everyone knows that a running step is longer than a walking step. And think of all the extra energy involved in running versus walking. My steps are clearly worth a lot more than other people’s steps. 

So you can take your 10,000 step challenge back. Your targets are totally unrealistic and unobtainable. I’m not playing anymore.

Monday 19 March 2012

Would the real 'expert' please stand up

Posted by Amelia Lake

My advice to you is, be careful what you tweet. I discovered this to my cost as my eagle-eyed colleagues in Fuse spotted my frustration in 140 characters and persuaded me to write this post.

My tweet-anger or ‘twanger’, as I might coin for the urban dictionary, followed an interview on BBC Radio 4’s drive time news programme, PM. A ‘food’ author was being interviewed about the highly publicised Harvard study warning about the risks of red meat to health.

New research suggests red meat increases all-cause mortality

At the time, I was driving home from work and seriously considered pulling over on the motorway to tweet the PM programme right there and then.

I wanted to know why they did not have a Dietitian or a qualified nutritional expert on their programme, rather than an author who has just released a new book this month and appears to have no nutritional qualifications. A real expert might have at least provided a balanced view and reflected the current evidence around red meat and health. An author on the book tour trail appeared incapable.

Reader, I was very cross!

This was in contrast to the British Dietetic Association’s spokesperson on the BBC’s Today programme who gave an excellent summary of the study and made clear what the implications were for practice. Well done Ursula Arens.

The Department of Health recommends that people should limit their intake of red and processed meat to no more than 70 grams a day in cooked weight. The dietary advice to reduce red and processed meat in our diet is not new; this new study has re-enforced the message. For more information and practical suggestions see the World Cancer Research Fund web pages.

Please, please, please radio researchers (or researchers working in any media for that matter) when booking your ‘experts’ think carefully. As a Dietitian and Public Health Nutritionist I do not consider an individual who does not have any nutritional qualifications to be an adequate spokesperson on what constitutes a healthy diet.

Both the British Dietetic Association and The Nutrition Society have qualified nutritional experts who give up their time (without books to promote) to discuss new studies or diet related recommendations. Most media coverage on the study was by qualified experts, and this piece on PM really disappointed me.

I didn’t stop on the A19. I drove home safely (while muttering angrily to myself) and tweeted my frustrations to PM in the car outside my home. I was rallied by support from another Dietitian who’d also heard the piece. However, I’ve yet to get a response from PM!

Friday 16 March 2012

Trial by select committee

Posted by Jean Adams

Well, trial by select committee has been and gone. It was certainly interesting. But I’m not sure it will achieve anything in particular.

I have never been inside the Palace of Westminster before. I was surprised how National Trust it was. A lot of unfinished stone staircases and grand halls that are clearly impossible to heat, followed by corridors that are far too narrow for modern life. Using my special academic congregating powers, I bumped into my fellow ‘experts’ long before finding the room I was looking for. When we finally arrived at our destination, we were greeted by a rather under-capacity committee. The Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell was in the chair. Other members came and went during the session.

Surprisingly National Trust
Disappointingly, the only refreshments were House of Commons branded bottled water. The coffee and pastries clearly flow a lot freer in the West Wing.

The session itself was pretty informal. After we ‘experts’ introduced ourselves, the members of the committee just seemed to think out loud and bounce ideas of us. What a remarkably priviledged position to be in – hmmm well when I was told that I would live longer if I gave up smoking, it really motivated me to quit...I wonder if that would work for would be good if I could just ask some– oh, look, three professors of alcohol studies, I’ll ask them!

Aside from Stephen Dorrell, who was John Major’s Secretary of State for Health, the committee includes a number of doctors, as well as a range of other members. The questions ranged from very sensible (do you think the alcohol industry should be ask to help set policy?), to a bit bizarre (does gin makes you more depressed than vodka?). Talk of ‘evidence’, and what counts as ‘evidence’, varied and there were a couple of occasions when one of my fellow ‘experts’ stated, perhaps a little too emphatically, that whatever the honourable member might think, the scientific evidence very strongly suggests the opposite. One member was rather obsessed with the idea of ‘anecdotal’ evidence and used this term as equivalent to any other sort of ‘evidence’. I hope he didn’t notice me snigger when he launched into another long and winding anecdote...

So what next? Well, the government has promised to publish its new alcohol strategy within the next few weeks. This may or may not be evidence-based or based on expert input. The committee will then begin a formal inquiry into alcohol and hear evidence from a variety of experts. They will make recommendations to the government on how their strategy could be improved. But the government will be under no obligation to act on these recommendations.

So that’s it. No more gallivanting around the corridors of power in my glad rags for me. Time to get back into my jeans and do some real work.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Network or perish

Posted by Lynne Forrest

If you want to get on in academia you have to get published. That’s ok, I don’t have a problem with that. But there aren’t that many jobs available post-PhD and lots of people chasing them. So that means, as well as writing papers for journals, you’ve got to get out there and sell yourself - which translates as going to conferences and giving presentations. Even worse, you have to go to conference dinners and ‘network’. Just the thought of it is makes my heart sink. 

When I was growing up, ‘showing off’ was a bad thing so having to stand up and talk about how fabulous your research is, is a real trial. Plus I’m pale and Scottish so I go bright red. For those of us who’d really rather just sit at our desks and play with our data, this whole self-publicity thing is not fun. But I guess it is a necessary evil. You could be doing a brilliant job but if nobody knows about it then what’s the point?

I’m giving a presentation next week. Luckily it’s just an internal one but I’m stressing about it already. I’ve been on the training though. I know what I should be doing to give an effective presentation. But, by the time I’ve remembered to talk slowly and not look at my slides or stare fixedly at one person, I’ve forgotten what it was I was planning to say. Plus I’m presenting the results from my systematic review – I have a lot of data. There’s a danger of boring everyone to death with data overload. That’s a lot of things to stress about.

On the plus side, I am sharing the presentation slot with someone else. Is it wrong to hope that she’ll be rubbish to make me look better?

Actually it probably doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t go well as it’s just to give me some practice for the real thing. I’ve got a few conferences I need to attend this year. So I’ve drafted a couple of abstracts and submitted them. I’ve ticked the ‘poster or oral presentation’ box (because my supervisors made me) but you know that, really, I’m hoping it’ll be ‘poster’.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

I wasn’t looking for academia, it came looking for me

Posted by Dorothy Newbury-Birth

I often sit at my desk and wonder how I got here. My path to academia wasn’t the usual one. I think many academics know what they want and how to get there and work towards it from an early age. I didn’t. When I saw the careers advisor at school, I told them I wanted to be a long distance lorry driver!

Dot's desk
I left school with a handful of CSE’s. I never for one moment thought of college or university – it was never an option. I wasn’t looking for academia but I do think it was looking for me.

When I became a single parent at 24 I decided I needed some ‘qualifications’ to get me an office job. I was absolutely determined that I would work and not be on benefits. I started with a GCSE in Sociology, as it was the only thing I could fit in around working in the wool shop. Five years later, I left university with a 2:1 in Social Sciences and a husband who I’d met during my time there. It was time for me to find a job.

I was invited for interview for the first job I applied for– a part time junior researcher at Newcastle University studying alcohol and drug use amongst medical students. During the interview I was asked if I would consider doing the research as a PhD over the next three years. I smiled very confidently and said yes, that sounded fantastic and I would love to do that.

About half an hour after the interview I got a phone call to say that I had got the job/studentship. It was then that I rang my husband and was able to ask the question that I hadn’t been able to ask in interview. “Mark they’ve offered me it”, I said. “Mark, they’ve offered me it as a PhD. Mark, what’s a PhD?”?

There was complete silence – “Dot, its fine. Its great”, he said. “But what is it?” I asked. “You need to write a book” he replied. Hmmmmmm. Oh well, that sounded okay. I started my PhD in April 1997 and loved it from day one. In September that same year I called Mark at work. “Mark, I’ve had a journal article accepted in the Lancet”, I said. “Mark, what’s the Lancet?”.

So here I am sitting at my desk, looking at my lovely daffodils and thinking that it doesn’t matter how I got here. I am here. I love my job. I do wonder though if I will ever get another paper in the Lancet.

Monday 12 March 2012

An expert in a day

Posted by Jean Adams

A few days ago, I got an email saying I'd missed a call from someone at the House of Commons. Oh. That could be a good or a bad thing. My first thought: what have I done wrong now?
The House of Commons Health Select Committee are going to have an inquiry into alcohol. No, no. I have not been called to give evidence. I have been invited to a preliminary seminar to acquaint members with the issues, and set terms of reference. Yeah, I know. That's not quite the real deal. But it is sort of important.

Palace of Westminster
The thing is, I'm not really an expert on alcohol. I don't mean that in the "it's not my area" way that academics say when they mean that they can't be bothered, or it's not exactly the sort of stuff that they're thinking about right now. I mean alcohol is really not my thing. Food advertising is my thing. Time perspective is my thing. Inequalities are my thing (I highly recommend chapter 5 at that link). Alcohol is not my thing.

I wrote a paper on alcohol marketing because food marketing is one of my things. I saw a gap for using a method I'd already worked out for food and applying it to alcohol. To be honest, it wasn't my finest piece of work. But the BBC got excited by the paper. Suddenly I'm an expert on alcohol.

So I agreed to do the House of Commons thing because what would my Mum say if she knew I'd been asked and had said no? But then I had to spend a day doing my best to become an expert on alcohol.

First port of call - BBC website for an update on Westminster (strong words, no movement yet) and Holyrood (making progress) policy. Next, recent NICE guidance on preventing excessive alcohol consumption. Plus three related systematic reviews and a massive mathematical simulation of what might happen with various different price restrictions. This leads me to a previous House of Commons Health Select Committee Inquiry into Alcohol.

Now hang on a minute. In 2009 there was an inquiry into alcohol. This drew on evidence that was being prepared for the NICE guidance. The NICE guidance was issued in 2010. Less than two years later we're doing this again? Has the evidence changed? Doesn't look like it to me. Has anyone acted on the guidance and recommendations from 2009 and 2010? Doesn't look like it to me.

Tell me this is not how government normally works.

My recommendation Mr chair? To read the last two sets of recommendations, which are largely the same, and act on them.

Friday 9 March 2012

A PhD is hard work, or why I feel the need to justify doing a PhD

Posted by Lynne Forrest

I’ve tried telling people that doing a PhD is just like doing a job, just with slightly more flexible working patterns, but no-one seems to believe me. Honestly, doing a PhD is hard work.

As part of my PhD I’ve been able to go on training courses in quantitative methods, undertaken a systematic review and meta-analysis and published my first paper. All of which should be very useful for a future academic career. However, I get the impression that most people don’t really understand what a PhD actually involves and think that going back to university for another three years is a bit self-indulgent and, quite frankly, a major skive.
PhD = major skive
Luckily I have a supportive husband with a science background who understands what a PhD entails. Not everybody does. My parents wonder when I might actually get a proper job ("we were very proud of Lynne when she got accepted for university in 1986; we just didn’t realise she’d spend the rest of her life as a student”). Honestly mum, I worked for 15 years. This is a career move, really it is. And soon you’ll be able to tell everybody I’m a doctor.

Other people enquire how my ‘course’ is going and seem to think I spend my time attending a couple of lectures and having extended summer holidays. I’ve given up trying to explain that I do research, it’s full-time and I just get standard holidays.  It's a bit like a PROPER JOB, just with low pay and writing up an 80,000 word thesis at the end of it.

Ok, there are some perks. I get 25% off my council tax and student discount in New Look. The latter is not much good to me but excellent news for my daughter. As Jean has said, you get to wear jeans to work (and I know this shouldn’t be a reason to do a PhD but I did put it in my ‘pro’ column when weighing things up). If my supervisor thinks it’s ok to admit to this then I guess I can too. Getting to put ‘Dr’ rather than ‘Mrs’ when you fill in forms was on the list too, I’m afraid.

So, honestly, I’m not just farting about for three years. I work hard and I like to think that my research, even in a really small way, is actually important. I just hope that someone, somewhere gives me a ‘proper’ job at the end of it.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Mid-life crisis or late-developer?

Posted by Lynne Forrest

So why would anyone decide to go back to university to do a PhD nearly 20 years after their first degree? I was going to put it down to a mid life crisis but maybe I’m just a late developer, career-wise.

Although I’d managed to sort out most of the things you’re supposed to do on the conventional route to mature adulthood (degree, marriage, kids, mortgage) somewhere along the way I’d forgotten to get myself a ‘proper’ career.

My pre-PhD CV could be described as eclectic (if you were being kind). Although I’d done loads of different things that were pretty interesting in themselves (lab-based researcher, computer programmer, Brain Bank Manager*, amongst others) they didn’t really join together to make a coherent career path. Taking a few years off when I had kids and then working part-time did nothing to help.

Fozen brain slice
So as I approached 40 (I told you it was a mid-life crisis), with children now in school, I decided it was time to sort out my career. As we’re all probably going to be working until we’re at least 70, I didn’t think it was too late, although my chances of ever making it to professor are probably slim.

Having systematically thought about what parts of my previous jobs I’d enjoyed - the health related aspects, data analysis (I know, I’m a sad geek, but I love that sort of stuff), constant variety (I think it’s fairly obvious I get bored easily) - a health-based research career began to make lots of sense.  Just so long as I never had to work in a lab again.

To pick up the necessary statistics and epidemiology skills I needed, I funded myself through an MSc in Public Health and Health Services Research. Which I hope makes me look serious about all this. I had planned to get a research job after my MSc but began to realise that, really, you need a PhD if you want an academic career. It’s very difficult to get your foot in the door without one and so a further 3 years as a ‘mature’ student were required.

I do have occasional qualms about doing the PhD. Will I ever earn a decent salary again? Will my age be a problem when I’m looking for a research job? I’m hoping that my previous work experience as well as my research training is a plus for future employment. But generally I’m really grateful to my supervisors for taking a chance on me. There’s quite a few of us ‘old’ PhDs in IHS so I presume they know how grateful, and therefore motivated, we are. In fact, I think we’re becoming a bit of a demographic trend. It might have taken us a bit longer to get here career-wise, but better late than never.

*Yep, that’s exactly what it sounds like. I looked after a bank which stores slices of frozen human brain used in dementia research

Wednesday 7 March 2012

A full time part-time job

Posted by Bronia Arnott

You may think that the title of this post is an oxymoron, but sometimes I do feel as if this is an accurate description of my job. Many years ago an ex-colleague told me to never go part time. "There was no such thing as a part time job in academia – even the part time ones are full time", they said. Needless to day, I didn’t listen.

I have chosen to work part-time since I returned from maternity leave just over two years ago and I am currently employed three days per week as a Research Associate on the Reflect project. I enjoy working part-time and being able to balance the needs of my family with work. I have found employers to be very accepting of flexible working requests and I have found part-time job opportunities available.
Part-time clock
However, there are a number of drawbacks to part-time research. Some of these are probably common to all professions.

I am not allowed to attend meetings on a pro-rata basis. If only I could get up and leave after 40 minutes saying sorry that is my 0.6FTE. I can’t just write 60% of a paper and submit that to a journal with a note to the editor that I haven’t written the discussion or conclusions because I only work part-time.

Also, there is a perception among some that by working part-time you somehow aren’t as committed to your job as someone who works full time. Thankfully, I think that this attitude is dying out.

Working as a part-time researcher has taught me three important things. Firstly, I am passionate about my work and I want to spend time doing what I am passionate about – even if I am only paid for doing it part-time. No-one could be in academia for the money. Secondlly, it isn’t about how many hours you work, but what you do when you are working (orsupposed to be working). Finally, you get out of research is what you put into it. I know that many of my full time colleagues work more than their contracted hours. It isn’t just me who is working ‘out-of-hours’.

But the most important thing that I have learned is that part-time working works for me.

Friday 2 March 2012

I love my job

Posted by Jean Adams

I have spent the last week trying my best to write another grant application in the few spare hours that manage to survive among the sea of student supervision, project meetings, teaching, and helping people to calculate Index of Multiple Deprivation scores that dominate my diary. What I want to do is focus on my grant application. What I’m actually doing is feeling harassed and resentful of all the other things I have to do. So I thought it might be time for a Pollyanna moment and reflection on all the things that make my job great. 

1. My diary is flexible and varied. I don’t have a typical day or week or month. This makes it difficult when people ask me to tell them about "a normal week”. And sometimes it catches me out when I forget to check my diary and saunter on into work in jeans when I should be wearing a skirt (see point 2 below). But ultimately I love the variation. I particularly love that I am in charge and that I can say Fridays are working at home days without anyone thinking that it’s totally inappropriate. 

2. I get to wear jeans to work on most days. The novelty of this is wearing off a bit, but when I swapped clinical medicine for academia it was certainly one of the most amazing perks. I hate wearing stupid tights. I look fat and short in ‘smart trousers’. Besides, I am not very accomplished at clothes shopping, but I do know which jeans I like (Levi 571 slim fit since you asked - I don't think they make them any more but I have three pairs so am good for a while).

3. I get to speak to interesting people. It would be nice if I truly did spend my days sitting around, drinking coffee and speaking to interesting people. I don’t. However, I do, on occasion, get the chance to speak to some really interesting people. I am currently cultivating a collaboration with an evolutionary behavioural anthropologist sort of person who might be one of the cleverest and most interesting people I’ve ever met. I am also enjoying getting to know our not so new anymore health psychologists. And despite the stupid amounts of driving involved in a regional research centre, I do enjoy hanging out with many of my Fuse friends.

4. I get to travel. Actually I really don’t like the act of travelling. But I like what it gets me – which is mostly getting to speak to other interesting people. I'm just a public health gossip. On my travels recently I have met remarkably interesting and clever psychologists, GPs, sociologists and one guy who certainly thought he was interesting, but who I just found obnoxious.

5. I get to learn new things all the time. Right now I am most excited about the fact that I blagged the time and money to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Science Communication on work. Fantastic teaching, fantastic coursemates, annoying amount of travel and coursework. But it gave me the motivation to start this blog and maybe it will lead to some other exciting things soon.

So there. I am very grateful to the universe for setting it up so that I got this job. Thank you.

Now I need all the other nonsense to go away so that I can write my grant.