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 PhD2Published.com

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...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Things I’ve learnt from being on a funding board

Posted by Jean Adams

A few years ago I was invited to join a research funding board. I said yes, because: I was flattered to be joining the esteemed ranks of ‘important’ people on such committees; I thought it would look good on my CV; and everyone says you learn a lot about writing grant applications from being on a funding board.

So, in the best tradition of reflexive practice, I thought it might be time to try and work out exactly what it is I have learnt from the experience. These are just some initial reflections and I think they’re probably fairly specific to the committee that I am on. Whatever else you think, do not think that this is a set of rules for winning research funding. I am nowhere near confident enough in my own grant winning ability to start offering anyone else advice.

First, an outline of the process. There are 17 members of the committee, including three ‘lay’ members. All applications go through an initial screening process where a sub-committee of three members confirm the application is in scope. At the full board, each application (which contains around 50-60 pages of application form, references, reviewers’ comments, budgets etc) is assigned a lead and second academic assessor, and a lay assessor. The lead academic assessor summarises the application to the rest of the committee, summing up both strengths and weaknesses. The second and lay assessors are then invited to add any additional comments before opening up the discussion to the full membership. Each application gets 15 minutes and once the lead, second and lay assessors have done their bits, this means around 5-7mins of actual discussion. We deal with anything between four and 16 applications per meeting.

Being a member of this board takes up a lot of time. I started out trying to read all applications in detail prior to each meeting. Then I noticed that other committee members didn’t seem to be doing this, and that it was taking me up to two days per meeting. Increasingly, I find that I don’t have time to read each application fully, so I concentrate on the applications I’m lead or second for and skim the others. This means that perhaps only four people (lead, second and lay assessors, and chair) have a really good knowledge of each application. It seems inevitable that some good applications will get rejected, and some not so good ones funded, just because of how these four individuals respond to them.

I find the meetings pretty scary. To begin with I found it absolutely terrifying having to present my critique of applications to a room full of my elders and betters. Now I’m used to that, but am still not immune to the late nights, Sunday afternoons, commitment, and life-compromise that has gone into preparing every application. Often I find it scary how quickly we deal with them. I worry that we don’t treat the applications we receive as we would want our applications to be treated. But, realistically, how could we do it better? The process has to be manageable. We can’t let each meeting turn into a three-day critical appraisal marathon.

The committee know the guidance that applies to our funding scheme pretty well. I am always surprised that applicants don’t read, don’t act on, or somehow don't think this guidance applies to them. It is all fairly standard stuff on the difference between a pilot study and a full trial; the sort of inter-disciplinary working we expect; and the level of patient and public involvement required. Why would people think that it somehow isn’t relevant to them?

Reviewers’ comments rarely make or break an application. I was pretty surprised by this, because when you’re writing, and re-writing, a grant “what the reviewers will think” seems to be a key determinant of what goes in. Maybe I mis-interpreted “reviewers” too literally and what is meant is just “the people who will make the decision”. But, really, we read the applications and make our own decisions then see if the reviewers picked up anything important that we missed. The reviews are often pretty superficial, so we don’t always expect to find much additional information there. The confusion might be that the applicants are fed back the reviews in full, but just a bullet-point summary of the committee's thoughts. So I guess it might feel that these are what matter the most.

And that might be it for what I've learnt. Does any of this surprise you? I’m not sure it will change the way I approach grant writing in the future. But it’s certainly an interesting experience and the hotel the meetings are held in does good cake.