Monday 30 July 2012

How to be the perfect research student, part 2: content matters

Posted by Martin White and Jean Adams
In our first post on what research students can do to make their, and their supervisor’s, lives easier we focused on process. In this second, and final, instalment we address the product(s) of your endeavours.

1. Pay attention to grammar and style. Well written documents are easier to read and increase the reader’s confidence in your abilities. Grammar and style are not just window dressing; they are an essential part of good communication. You may find the BMJ’s house style guide useful.
Pay attention to grammar and style
2. Use sub-headings. They help you structure your text and keep related pieces of information together. They also help the reader understand where your argument is leading.

3. Be critical in your literature review. Try to go beyond just describing the literature, to critically interpreting it. This doesn’t necessarily mean providing a detailed critique of every paper you read. It means identifying the major knowledge gaps in the literature, identifying common methodological limitations, identifying limitations of existing theories, and suggesting reasons for all of these things. This requires you to think for yourself and put your own, personal stamp on your interpretation of the reading you’ve done.

4. Frame research questions, not aims and objectives. Try to state clearly the scientific rationale for your research, identifying the gaps in knowledge that you aim to fill, and then specify the question that needs to be answered to fill each gap. In public health, research questions tend to be preferred to null and alternative hypotheses.

5. Separate your methods, results and discussion. Methods say what you did. Write them like a recipe book, which others can follow. Reference established techniques. Don’t muse about which methods might have been better (reserve that for the discussion). Results say what you found. Don’t repeat what is in tables, figures or boxes in the text. Don’t veer off into discussion of the results. The discussion interprets your findings, sets them in the context of existing knowledge and discusses their strengths, limitations and implications.

6. Don’t confuse association with causation. Finding a statistically significant association between two variables does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. Be careful when you are writing not to imply causation unless you have good evidence of it.

7. Structure your discussion. Many people find the discussion the hardest section of their thesis, dissertation or paper to write. One way of easing the pain is to use the sub-headings suggested by Docherty and Smith (1999).

8. Don’t repeat yourself. Repetition is boring, insults the reader by assuming they didn’t read it the first time you said it, and is a waste of words. Read and reread your drafts to eliminate repetition.

9. Proof read. Once you have a first draft that includes the key points you need to cover, re-read and revise to hone your message. Consider each sentence individuallly and ask yourself if there is a clearer way to convey the idea. Think particularly about if you could use fewer words and less jargon.

10. Try to write your thesis with publication(s) in mind. In a PhD you can nest each distinct piece of work in a separate chapter, each of which will lead to a paper. If you structure these chapters like a paper, then your publishing challenge is made easier. For an MSc or undergraduate research project, try to structure your whole dissertation like a paper if appropriate.

Thursday 26 July 2012

This post would have been about bureaucracy, but it got caught up in red tape

Posted by Bronia Arnott

When your research is funded it is such a great feeling. You have spent hours toiling over your budget spreadsheet, having it rejected by the Institute finance officer, reclassifying your directly incurred and indirectly incurred costs. You have carefully crafted your theoretical argument and honed your methodological choices. You have even agreed to do another systematic review. And all that hard work has paid off; your research grant has been funded. Now that the money is finally in your hands you can do what you wanted. Right? You clearly haven’t worked in a University before, have you? 

If you had, you would have met the Director of the Institute of Red Tape: Mr Bureaucracy*. Mr Bureaucracy doesn’t care what your research project is, how much money you got, or who it was funded by; all that he cares about are rules and regulations. Before his promotion to Direction of Red Tape, he was Head of Health & Safety. The most impressive thing on his CV to date is his design of the Research Passport System.

I wouldn’t mind but I’m not asking to go out and buy a designer handbag with the money, I’m not asking to inflict torture on participants, I’m not even suggesting that my colleagues and I go on a round the world cruise; I’m asking to do what I said I would do and what I was funded to do. If I carefully researched the cost of an iPhone, made sure I put it into the right costings column on my grant application, and then the funding body agreed that we needed it so that we could develop a smartphone app to investigate mHealth then please, PLEASE, don’t tell me that a Nokia is just as good AND significantly cheaper.

Thankfully, all of the staff within my research institute who deal with finance and research governance are absolute stars and are not like Mr Bureaucracy at all. But if you do come across him please let me know; I need to speak to him about an iPhone.

*This character is entirely fictional, and any resemblance to any individual dead or alive is coincidental.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Working effectively with patients and public in research

Posted by Dorothy Newbury-Birch

I’m chair of the Engagement Strategy Group in my research institute. I’m not sure, like most things, how that came about, but I’m here and I’m on a steep learning curve. You see, like most of us, for a long time I thought that patient and public involvement meant that we should have a couple of lay people on our steering groups. And I was wrong, so wrong. It is so much more than that and if done properly can make your research much better in so many ways. I can only talk for myself but I’ve really started thinking about this differently, in particular, in relation to one of the trials I am the Principal Investigator (PI) for.
How not to do patient and public involvement in research
SIPS JR-HIGH is a pilot feasibility trial of alcohol screening and brief interventions in schools with 14-15 year olds. On the program management group we have a representative from the education department at the local council. He has expertise in alcohol and drug education in schools and we’ve met with him a number of times both at the project management group and separately to discuss the intricacies of the work. He’s a co-PI on the project and his input was invaluable to its success in being funded. He was also our link to getting the schools on board.

We have the Young Mayor (yes, North Tyneside has a Young Cabinet) on our Trial Steering Group, who we have met and spoken to a number of times. The Young Cabinet also looked over all our paperwork prior to submitting our application for university ethics approval. We also have a young person and their mum on the steering group. They were interested in the research, trialled our intervention and gave us valuable feedback. We've been to a couple of the schools a few times to trial the questionnaires and to ask them what they think of the information leaflets we’re using.

So what are my tips from my new found knowledge? Firstly, don’t just expect people to rock up to a meeting after sending them piles of paperwork and expect them to engage. Meet with them prior to the meeting; explain what is going to happen at the meeting. Talk through some of the issues and the paperwork and get their views. Explain to them that their input is important. Check to see if they need any help in coming to the meeting i.e car parking or childcare. Make sure you have spoken to them about financial reimbursement for their time. A great resource is available from INVOLVE which can help.

Secondly, have someone in the group meet with the person a few minutes before a meeting and have a coffee and introduce people as they turn up for the meeting. Have this person sit next to the lay member and explain things if necessary and encourage them to have their say if they want to. Don’t rush them away after the meeting; ask them what they thought and if they have any questions. Make arrangements to give them a call in a couple of weeks to chat through things if necessary. Work at their pace, don’t assume they can or can’t do things.

If you take these things on board, your research, I promise you, will be better and more fulfilling for yourself and the people we are doing the research with and for.

Monday 23 July 2012

How to be the perfect research student, part 1: process matters

Posted by Jean Adams & Martin White

Being a research student isn’t always easy. But nor is supervising research students. We have spent many unproductive hours ranting about the things that research students should, but don’t always, do to make their, and our, lives easier. Here they are in one easy list (in two parts…).

1. Prepare for meetings. Send an agenda of things you would like to cover in advance of supervisory meetings. Ask your supervisors if there are items they wish to cover too. If you don’t have anything you need to discuss, ask if the meeting should be cancelled. But remember, sometimes it’s good to touch base even if there's nothing specific to discuss.

Lisa Simpson: the perfect student?
2. Send documents in good time. If you've written something that you would like to discuss during a meeting, send it in advance – it’s hard to discuss your work without having had time to read, think about and comment on it. If possible, agree in advance when you will send documents so that reading can be timetabled into busy schedules.

3. Don’t send things you’re still working on. When you send documents for comment it should be on the understanding that you’ve done your best with them. They might not be the finished article and part of a supervisor’s job is to offer advice on how your best effort can be made better. If you ask for comments on something that you are still actively working on, chances are you will just get suggestions for things you were planning to do anyway – a waste of everyone’s time. An exception to this is getting comments on outlines, which can be useful to check you are on the right track.

4. Negotiate realistic deadlines. One way to avoid sending things that you are still working on is to be sensible when negotiating interim deadlines. If you find that you’re nearing the deadline but are not going to be finished in time, request an extension.

5. Say if your supervisor has got it wrong. Everyone makes mistakes – in designing studies, understanding the literature, interpreting data, and lots of other things. One of the joys of supervising is the new insights that students bring.

6. Use a citation manager (e.g. Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley). These help you store details on things you have read and automatically insert citations into your text. Some are free, others available via your university. On-line tutorials are available for whatever programme you choose.

7. Learn to use your software. A little pain getting to know your software will almost always pay off in the long run. As well as learning how to use your citation manager optimally, you should also learn how to get the best out of your word processor (in particular, the formatting options) and your data management package.

8. If you’re a PhD student, offer to supervise an undergraduate research project. This will help you to appreciate the art of good supervision and the frustrations of a student who fails to do any of the above!

9. Be proactive about the possibility of publication. Lots of our undergraduate, masters and PhD students have published papers based on the work they did with us. The main point of most student projects is to achieve the relevant educational objectives, but many are also worth publishing. This lets you share your findings with the world and gives you something extra to put on your CV. And who doesn't get a buzz out of seeing their name in print?

Thursday 19 July 2012

Seeing is believing: exploring qualitative methods beyond text and talk

Posted by Shelina Visram (with Ann Crossland)

In the run up to the recent UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence meeting, I received an email asking for volunteers to help organise and deliver workshops. One of the suggested topics – ‘The use of novel qualitative methods in evaluation research’ – immediately caught my eye. I’ve been involved in a number of evaluations and most have relied on qualitative methods. So I put myself forward and was glad to hear Professor Ann Crosland had volunteered too. We decided Ann should do the bits on using commonplace methods in novel ways and I’d do the bits on visual methods. Then we went our separate ways to work on the content.

That’s when I stopped and thought: how much do I really know about visual methods? Yes, I’ve used them in a number of projects but I’m certainly no expert. I wondered who would attend this workshop. Would they be expecting to explore the philosophy of creative methods? Should I be using words like epistemology and ontology? Or could I get away with showing cute pictures drawn by small children? I decided the most sensible approach would be to hedge my bets and do a bit of both (without getting bogged down by philosophy).

Picture drawn by a 7-year-old when asked “What things affect your health?” during the evaluation of a weight management programme 
Here comes the science… Qualitative research relies heavily on the things people write or say. If you’re a positivist, you might ask how we know whether this information is ‘true’, i.e. does it accurately reflect the ‘real world’? We interpretivists tend not to worry about those things and instead accept the existence of multiple realities and therefore multiple versions of the ‘truth’. However, we still assume that what people write or say is a reliable account of their truth. Yet we know that people have different capacities and motives for sharing information. During interviews or focus groups, participants are telling particular stories in a particular social context. To what extent can we use these stories to draw interpretations about their lives outside of that context?*

This is part of the rationale for using visual methods. We acknowledge that the information people provide verbally or in writing is only ever partial and cannot be taken at face value. Visual methods give us an alternative means to examine their beliefs, attitudes, experiences and ideas about themselves. These methods are particularly useful in exploring the routine of daily life that tends to go unnoticed. For example, how many of us could describe our journey to work in any great detail? Yet if we were asked to draw, map, photograph or film our travels, we would undoubtedly provide a far richer picture of the same journey. Other examples of creative methods include spider diagrams, clay modelling, body mapping, and something called Lego Serious Play which I am desperate to try (but maybe with Fuzzy Felts – remember them?).

Advantages of using visual methods include the fact that they are interactive, encourage free expression, and often generate unexpected findings. They are also inclusive, in that they don’t require participants to be especially articulate in speaking or writing in English. I’ve used drawing in a project involving children from 4-years-old and this helped to give them a ‘voice’ in evaluating a service. Challenges include the potential to generate vast amounts of data that can be difficult to interpret, although visual methods are generally used alongside interviews and focus groups. This helps to engage participants in the process of interpretation. There are also ethical issues to consider; for example, consent is required if others appear in photos or videos.

It can take a lot of time, energy and resources to use creative methods in any research or evaluation activity. But I would argue that they represent one way of overcoming some of the criticisms about the validity and anecdotal nature of qualitative research. And they’re fun too.

*For an in-depth discussion of this argument, read this book.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

From middle-class to world-class

Posted by Peter Tennant

I enjoy watching tennis, use words like 'loo' and 'supper', and open my Christmas presents after lunch. In the UK, this makes me firmly middle-class. But much as I might protest (usually by wittering about my 'deprived' schooling), I know it's the truth. Why else would I feel so at home in academic research, a profession dominated by the middle classes?

Strawberries and cream at Wimbledon
On the plus side, this makes for some delicious bring-and-share lunches, what with all the Marks & Spencer nibbles, and home-made cakes (made, of course, with organic locally-sourced ingredients). But much as I enjoy free-range cupcakes, is it good for research, especially in a subject called 'public' health?

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair might have once declared that 'we're all middle class now', but the gap between the UK's rich and poor is arguably wider than any time since the Second World War. And where there are income differences, there are also differences in health status and health-behaviour. Which has left me wondering, are a largely middle-class community best placed to understand and empathise with the UK's most deprived, so often the 'public' we are trying to target in 'public health'?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that great work isn't being done by great people. And I'm not saying any researcher is actively biased. Anyone who's ever met a Scientist will agree; we are generally quite objective. After years of being drilled to act like a robot, some of us have even converted to running on petrol and oil, rather than continuing to rely on the inefficiency of food and water.* But even the most robotic researcher will find it harder to accept something, or even think to ask about something, that doesn't fit with their own experiences or world-view.


Could this narrow demographic also (partly) explain why researchers find certain groups so hard to recruit? Or, to put it more bluntly, are UK public health researchers sometimes talking a different language? As an unhealthy person working in an Institute with the word ‘health’ in its name, I know how patronising it can feel:

“Post-exercise endorphins you say? I’m afraid all I get is wheezing, cramp, and a sensation of impending death”

I doubt it’s a coincidence that successful commercial organisations like Weight Watchers employ members of the local community, who have previously lost weight and maintained a healthy weight thereafter, to run their meetings. In other words, people who speak the same language. Could you imagine the same meetings being run by an average public health researcher?


OK. Slight over-exaggeration. In fact, the best public-health interventions draw on detailed qualitative research (i.e. where brave researchers have ventured outside the ivory tower to speak to real members of the public) to ensure it addresses the needs and barriers of the target population. But I still think a bit more demographic diversity wouldn’t do the profession any harm.

*This sentence may contain factual errors
**MVPA, by the way, is public health research speak for 'Moderate or Vigorous Physical Activity'

Monday 16 July 2012

NICE work

Posted by Linda Penn

Just being in that auspicious oak panelled room, breathing history, made me feel delightfully important, although I had done absolutely nothing to warrant the illusion. Then a nice NICE person suggested I might apply. ‘Well’, thought I, ‘no harm in applying, shy bairns etc.’ So I did. And I was eventually enrolled as a member of the NICE Programme Development Group (PDG) for: “Preventing type 2 diabetes: risk identification and interventions for individuals at high risk.” This NICE guidance was published last week, accompanied by a summary in the BMJ.

The National Institute of Health & Clinical Excellence
There is good evidence for prevention of type 2 diabetes, but evidence is not NICE guidance. Guidance may be based on evidence, but there is a huge chasm of reviews, discussion, expert testimony, drafting, comments, more reviews, debate, more comments, economics, considerations, redrafting, more redrafting, consensus and hard work; between literature and guidance. I am full of admiration for the patience and professional endeavour of the NICE team. I do not think I have ever listened so closely, or thought so carefully. ‘Do I have something to say? Is it really worth saying? Am I sure of the point and if so how can I comment in a clear, concise and constructive manner?’ The feeling that ‘This is important, it matters’ never really goes away. The guidance is published. So how did we do?

However good or otherwise, the guidance is one thing. The real importance is in implementation, but that’s a whole different story.

Thursday 12 July 2012

From aged PhD to aged Intern

Posted by Lynne Forrest

I’ve previously blogged on why I’m doing a PhD in my forties and how I regard it as a career ‘second chance’, having not really quite got it together, career-wise, for the first 20 years of working life. As part of that spirit of positive thinking, when I started my PhD I decided I would embrace all the opportunities that came along. One of these was the chance to do a three month Internship, via my PhD funder the ESRC.

Now Internships don’t generally get a very good press, being pretty much regarded as a way for businesses to avoid paying someone a salary whilst offering ‘job experience’ that mostly consists of filing and making the tea.

However, I’d recently read that doing an internship was a good PhD career move. Also, as these were paid internships that were being offered by a range of high profile Government and charity organisations which required specific skills (of which tea-making wasn’t one), it seemed like a good idea. As a mature student, I didn’t need an internship to gain general work experience. I was looking for an opportunity to develop my skills base and gain experience in an area that wasn’t covered by my PhD.

The internship that I was interested in involved working in the Strategic Research Team at the Scottish Government conducting health research and translating the research into policy and practice. They were looking for someone with systematic reviewing experience, advanced quantitative skills and who had worked with large datasets, all of which applied to me. It seemed a perfect fit. And it was – they’ve offered it to me!

Although I’m very excited at this opportunity, the same age and status-related worries apply to doing an internship as to doing a PhD. However, for the most part, PhD students are treated similarly to staff in my department* and so I’m sure I will cope just as well as an aged Intern as I do being an aged PhD student. Unlike young interns I also have children, who are not best pleased that I will be away for 3 months. I’m hoping to negotiate flexible working hours and will be home every weekend, so I’m ignoring the emotional blackmail and guilt and am going anyway. It’s just too good an opportunity to turn down.

I think it’s going to be very interesting to be able to observe the reality of how the translation of evidence to policy actually works in a political environment and, indeed, to see how much policy is, in fact, evidence-based.

As well as the amazing career opportunity, the other positive for me is that I will be spending three months in Edinburgh, my home town. Having spent the past 15 years in Newcastle, I’ve latterly become terribly nostalgic for Scotland (getting all misty eyed over VisitScotland adverts and watching tartan and bagpipe-style programmes at New Year. I know. I need help). The reality of a few months in dreich Edinburgh over the winter may be just what I need to get over this.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how I get on….

*except that PhD students are required to ‘hot desk’. When I complained and got a proper desk it was on the understanding that I gave it up if someone ‘more important’ required it…

Wednesday 11 July 2012

How to get the evidence message across

Guest post by Katie Cole

The mantra of “but there’s no evidence for it!” is one I’ve said or thought many times, both in my work, discussions with family and friends, or when shouting at the BBC Today programme.

But as an early-career academic, I’m increasingly aware there is a complex web of considerations when trying to translate evidence into policy, and that there are times when chanting our mantra may do more harm than good.

I recently attended a Royal College of Physicians/Alma Mata seminar on alcohol advocacy. At one point, a panel member suggested that social norms interventions to address excessive alcohol consumption on university campuses “sounded very promising” and policy-makers were considering it. I’ve looked into US research into these interventions: a national evaluation concluded that they are ineffective in reducing alcohol consumption. Whilst I could have made this point, I felt it was more complex than that. Don’t we need to test the policy in the UK drinking context to make a more robust contribution to the debate? Shouldn’t we seek to support policy-makers to integrate evaluations into pilots, or to finance full-scale trials?

Another challenge I’ve had was during a placement at a Primary Care Trust. I was involved in the Individual Funding Request process, where the PCT considers funding treatments and procedures not normally available on the NHS. I worked up a number of cases, looked at the evidence base and presented the case to a panel of clinicians and non-clinicians. In most cases, the evidence base was of poor quality: finding a case series for the exact condition and treatment in question represented a minor professional achievement. Usually, the case series found that, lo and behold, most cases improved, which often sparked disproportionate optimism that we had a justification for funding the treatment. In contrast, when I found a randomised controlled trial with only modest results, the panel were more inclined to propose not funding the treatment. Here I was challenged to explain the difference between the strength of the evidence base, and the strength of the effect size; whilst at the same time, acknowledging the difficulty of decision-making against a poor evidence base.

A final challenge has been in developing The Lancet UK Policy Matters website, which includes short summaries of the evidence underpinning a range of UK health-related policy changes. In developing the format of the summaries, we had to be very clear to authors that statements purporting the intended benefit of the policy should not be included in the ‘evidence’ sections of the summary – this was reserved for peer-reviewed research or evaluations. Our experience in guiding authors highlighted to us how meticulous we as professionals need to be in the choice of language we use when drawing on our scientific expertise.

Above all other lessons, these experiences have taught me that advocating for evidence in policy making is challenging, complicated and requires skill. It demands an understanding of the evidence itself – its strengths and limitations – but also of the policy making process. Whilst these issues can be difficult to reconcile, the above experiences have only strengthened my drive to communicate effectively with all actors in the policy making process.

Katie Cole co-founded The Lancet UK Policy Matters website with Rob Aldridge and Louise Hurst.

Monday 9 July 2012

The joys of systematic reviewing

Posted by Dorothy Newbury-Birth

I’m often asked what my methodological expertise is. Hmmmm, expertise aye…..

Well, I love a randomised controlled trial – the more complex and difficult the better. But I have grown to love systematic reviewing aswell. As funding becomes harder to get, funders are looking more at systematic reviews and meta-analyses (and modelling) to get to grips with what research is already out there.

As with most things I fell into my first systematic review (which was actually a rapid review so not quite as difficult) on alcohol and liver disease. My role was to manage the team and I found the process fascinating. It was all about preparation and organisation.

I am the module leader on a 10 credit MSc module in Systematic Reviewing. The first thing I tell anyone who asks about how to do a systematic review is that it’s important to do get your team around you. You wouldn't do a trial without a statistician and a methodologist, so we shouldn’t do a systematic review without the necessary expertise. I’m sure I could come up with a half-decent search strategy but I know that our Information Specialists can do it much better than me. I could make a half-decent attempt at meta-analysis (I’ve been on a course you know!) but there are statisticians who can do it far better.

First thing's first: get your team together
So the first thing to do is get your team around you, and then work out what you want to know and how you’re going to do it. Write a protocol like you would for any research work. Importantly, scope the literature, find out what’s been done before. You really don’t want to get half way through and realise someone else has done the work that you are doing or, even worse, not find anything because your question is so obscure. Have regular team meetings to discuss progress. Divide the work into sections – writing the protocol; designing the search strategy; first sift of the data; second sift of the data etc. Draw a gantt chart and be realistic with it – ask other people for their advice on time frames.

Stay positive, lots of people will tell you horror stories of the process of carrying out a systematic review but that is really not the case. It’s like anything, if you go in negatively you will hate it, but if you are positive you will enjoy it.

Finally, be organised, use Endnote as your management tool and make it your friend, make it work for you.


Thursday 5 July 2012

How to improve your productivity: don’t read this blog

Posted by Jonathan Ling

One of my first office mates was Roger.

He was an older academic who had just been recruited by my department. As I helped him carry boxes of books into our room, I noticed that at the top of one of them was a book with his name on the cover. I was impressed – I was sharing my office with an author! I told him how great it must be when someone said to him: “I’ve read your book”. He agreed that it was a nice feeling, but what felt even better was when, having written a couple more books, he was able to say: “Which one?”

I’d never really thought about writing a book myself, until I was asked a couple of years ago to co-author a short textbook. It was on a topic I knew a bit about, but I’d never met the co-author who came from a university at the other end of the country. The editor suggested that the process would be reasonably straightforward and fairly speedy. As he had written several books himself I thought he obviously knew what he was talking about.

With hindsight I now realise he must be significantly more methodical in his approach to writing than I am.

I eventually finished my part of the book and it was published last year. Mostly by trial and error, I learnt a few things as I went along:

1. Have a writing routine. Take time out of every day to write. If you don’t block out a specific time each day to write (and stick to it), you won’t get anything written. It doesn’t matter when it is (I work better in the afternoons), just hang a “Do not disturb” sign on your door, or around your neck, and get going.

2. Don’t get side-tracked. See point 1. Your writing time is for writing – it’s not time for admin, catching up with emails, fitting in meetings or reading engaging and erudite blogs.

3. Seek feedback from your target audience. Unless it’s your diary, everything you write is for an audience. Think about who the audience is, and make sure they get a look at it. For a textbook, this was undergraduate students and other lecturers. For a journal article, most likely it would be fellow academics, as well as practitioners or policy makers.

Egg timer, by Martin Lopatka

4. When all else fails, get an egg timer. There were some parts of the book where I really struggled – topics I was unfamiliar with, that required lots of reading and which I wasn’t particularly interested in. But I just had to grind these sections out. In one of my more (possibly only) fruitful side-tracks, (see point 2), I came across the Pomodoro technique. In essence, this is just working on your chosen task for 20 minutes (no email, no looking out of the window – just work!) and then having a 5 minute break before another 20 minute session. Try it sometime – it did the trick for me.

Eventually, with the help and support of my co-author, editor and publishers, the book was finished, proofread and published. It is nice to have a book on the shelf with my name down the spine. But it was a huge amount of work, on something that’s not REF-able. So it’s not something I can see myself doing again.
Although, in my weaker moments I can’t help but think that one day it might be quite nice to say “Which one?” when someone tells me that they’ve read my book….

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Turning the corner

Posted by Jean Adams

In university research there are two sorts of jobs: research jobs and academic jobs.

Research jobs are all about getting a particular research project done. Contracts are time-limited and you do research – collect data, analyse results, write reports. Academic jobs tend to be permanent and involve the classic triad of research, teaching and administration. The research bit is more about leadership than in research jobs – submitting grant applications, and supervising researchers employed on your projects. But there is also classroom teaching and student supervision. And let’s just not talk about the admin.

You can see why many people might aspire to an academic position - for the job security if nothing else.
Turning the academic corner
I wouldn’t be an academic if I didn’t now say “well, that’s actually a bit of an oversimplification, really – but it gives you an idea, doesn’t it?”.

Even before I finished my PhD I wanted an academic position. I wanted to ‘lead’. I wanted to teach. And after all those years as a full-time student (n=9), you betcha I wanted a nice, healthy pay-check every month forever.

I spent four years as a post-doctoral researcher before getting my first academic position. Less time than many, and for this I am very grateful. Now, a further four years on, it occurred to me recently that only now am I actually doing the job.

Although I knew all that stuff about the difference between research and academic jobs, when I first made the transition myself it seemed like nothing changed. Yes it was nice to stop getting those letters telling me that my contract was due to expire in three months. Yes it was nice to get a little bump in my salary with promises of more in due course. Yes it was nice to put “Lecturer in Public Health” in my email footer. But that was about it. My day-to-day job was pretty much the same. I analysed data, wrote papers, suggested ideas for projects to senior colleagues, shied away from any real responsibility.

And then I got scared. I wouldn’t be the “new lecturer” able to hang on the coat-tails of more senior colleagues forever.

And then I got more scared. I knew I had to get some grant funding, make sure my post-grad students flourished, and deliver good teaching. I tried to do all these things. But I didn’t seem very good at any of them. My grant applications were rejected. My post-grads seemed unable to tie down their research questions, let alone do some research. The big lecture theatre petrified me.

But, you know, it does seem true what they say. Once you’ve started, it gets easier; you just have to start. I got a little grant funded. Then I got another, bigger one. Then I got another. My post-grads are making their own, individual, journeys towards completion. I look forward to teaching seminars (although not preparing them) and whilst the big lecture theatre still scares me, I don't think it shows so much anymore.

So here I am just starting to think that I have finally turned the corner and might truly be doing the job I’m paid to do. And guess what? From August, they've promoted me.

Monday 2 July 2012


Posted by Dorothy Newbury-Birch

I’m at a conference in Venice and I think it's the most beautiful place I've ever been to. But, with a bit of time on my hands (there’s no English TV in the apartment I’m staying in), I'm wondering why we come to conferences. I've probably been to about 50 conferences, heard around 300 speakers and seen hundreds of posters. I can only remember a handful of any of them.

We’re told that its important for us to attend conferences and disseminate our work. But as I stood in front of my carefully crafted poster today for an hour and a half in the baking heat and spoke to a grand total of three people I wondered just how much dissemination was happening. I once gave an oral presentation in America to three members of my research team and someone who I think was in the wrong room but felt too bad to leave. I have, of course, also given presentations in front of hundreds of people.

So why is it so important and why do I keep coming to conferences? Well the reason is that by coming to these conferences I ‘connect’ with other like-minded people from around the world. I chat with people about their research and my research and we talk about how we can perhaps collaborate on future work.

I sat on the boat to the conference venue today (yes in Venice it's a boat not a bus!) and talked with an academic from Kansas about research in schools - a really useful conversation for a project I'm currently working on. During lunch, I chatted with some colleagues from Barcelona about a European project we are involved in. Over coffee yesterday I talked with someone from Cardiff about complex methodologies and had a chat with a member of the steering group for a recent UK trial we worked on. On the boat back from the venue, I chatted with a researcher from the USA about the differences in obtaining ethical approval in America and the UK.

These are just a few of the many conversations I have had in the last two days. I have also been introduced to some important people in the field who I didn't know before.

I know others find this whole networking thing really difficult. Anyone who knows me will know that my two greatest loves are talking and biscuits, so for me it's fantastic. But it's more than just chatting. These events give me time to think about past, present and future research and to explore ideas with others who are giving themselves the time to do the same.

They give me time to ponder and that's a good thing and that's why I come to conferences.