Thursday, 29 November 2012

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

Posted by Yitka Graham

My life is different now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Destination Start Trek London

Posted by Rosemary Rushmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fun Finding Fees

Posted by Annette Payne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Wordsmith

Posted by Steph Clutterbuck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

My PhD Experience

Posted by Annette Payne

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

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

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

Never an A-grade student

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Healthy Escapism…

Posted by Sara McCafferty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


Posted by Jean Adams

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

My dad remains my public speaking role model.

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

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

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

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

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

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