Thursday 24 October 2013

Recruitment etiquette

Throughout my short experience of the research world, one of the most frequent laments I’ve encountered from fellow researchers and presenting academics is the difficulties surrounding recruitment. Issues include disseminating the study information to the relevant populations, encouraging people to ‘sign up’, attendance/participation and retention. However, have you ever stopped to consider whether your etiquette may be partly to blame?

Trying to be a supportive colleague I frequently ‘advertise’, hand out leaflets or inform by word of mouth any studies which I think certain individuals would be suitable for, or interested in participating. However, without wishing to admonish researchers who are pressed for time or who are inundated with several thousand interested participants (we wish); do you reply to enquiries? Yes, that simple act of returning a phone call or an email! One of the frustrations reported back to me (including a study I applied for personally) was the rudeness of not receiving a reply or even an acknowledgement.  Perhaps the person applying is not suitable for your study but please could you recognise their interest, courage and time taken to apply? 

After all it is only good manners and you never know the interested party might apply for another study for which they are suitable.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Computer says no...

Posted by Martin White

What happens when you bring together informed citizens, academics and a range of professionals, in mixed teams of 12 for a two-day simulation experiment to decide how to reduce the gap in life expectancy at age 55 between social classes by 50% in ten years? Well, quite a lot of things (more of which later), although none of which included fully achieving this objective. Nevertheless, that was the aim of Newcastle University’s ‘Healthy Life Simulation’, which had its first formal outing on 27-28th September 2013. 

The ‘game’ was developed “to bring fresh energy to finding new ways to tackle the unacceptable unfairness that currently exists in the time people can expect to live without debilitating illness”. Although an initiative of Newcastle University’s Biomedical Research Centre in Ageing and Chronic Diseases, some members of Fuse were asked to advise on the simulation model content and participate in the exercise as members of the ‘White Team’. This is the group in a traditional ‘war game’ that makes up the rules and provides expert advice to one or more of the competing teams. When they feel like it. Or not. Or changes the rules or context, when they feel like throwing a spanner in the works. It is a highly responsible job – but one in which you can also have a fair amount of fun.

Many of us in public health and related disciplines in the North East have participated over recent years in ‘accelerated solutions environment events’. Whilst not using the same adversarial approach as a ‘war game’, these offer the same kind of opportunity for concentrated, multidisciplinary, goal-oriented, group work on a future scenario. Hence, the overall dynamics of the healthy life simulation, including some excellent incidental learning and the warm glow of team building, came as no surprise. What I found more revealing, however, was the effect of direct competition. This of course brought out the best and worst in participants.

Socio-economic inequality is familiar to readers of this Blog. Everyone knows how wide the gap is in the North East and elsewhere in the UK. Or so you would have thought. Some of the lay participants were genuinely surprised at some of the data presented on inequalities, and many participants expressed disbelief at the relative lack of evidence to support their favoured strategies. So, the exercise may have had more value for the lay participants than professionals. Nevertheless, participating professionals also remarked that, being faced with the challenge of achieving an ambitious public health goal in a team did bring fresh energy to the challenge. And the learning was not just about the logic needed to address the challenge (i.e. playing the simulation effectively to identify the best options), but also about how the art of persuasion was needed to carry the team with you.

Many familiar themes emerged throughout and were prominent in the final plenary discussion. The health and well-being arena, now firmly located in local government, continues to suffer from the perennial challenges of long timescales but short-term funding, a mismatch between who pays and who benefits (local authority spends on prevention, NHS secondary care gains through reduced burden), and a preference for innovation despite a lack of evidence and evaluation. None of which helps us towards more evidence-informed public health at a local level.

So, what did I learn? For me it was a privilege to meet some extraordinary and committed individuals from entirely different fields who shared their expertise to develop and run the simulation. And to hear the inspirational stories of community members from the poorest areas of Newcastle, who deal first hand with the life expectancy gap from day to day, and are committed to bringing about change. I also learned much about how innovation, research and development are managed quite differently in the commercial sector. For example, there is a more hard-nosed approach to success and failure, and thus a willingness to disinvest in all but the best innovations, funnelling R&D towards sure-fire investments. All of which has got me thinking about our current model for translation. I think there are important implications for Fuse and for public health more generally. But developing a new model, even conceptually, may take a while. There are so many ways in which commerce is fundamentally different from the public sector. But, we desperately need new ideas, so this is a challenge worth pursuing. I hope I can report some progress on this front in due course.

Thursday 10 October 2013

How to finish your PhD on time

Posted by Lynne Forrest

So, with a few minutes to spare, I submitted my PhD thesis within the three-year deadline. But, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some smug blog on how I successfully managed to do this. No, the writing-up period was a total nightmare that involved 90-hour working weeks and then staying up all night to send the thesis off for binding at 4.30am on the day of submission. There has to be a better way.
"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham;
These are my rules for successfully submitting on time, all of which, on reflection, are pretty-much common sense but yet, somehow, I (mostly) failed to do:

Go on a course to ‘how to manage large documents’ if your institution offers it. 
I’ve been using Word for years so was pretty blasé and thought I didn’t require this. But, a bit too late, I realised there was a lot of functionality that I had never used. With two days to go I had to learn how to create a Table of Contents automatically, as well as a Table of Tables and Figures, so that I didn’t have to manually update page numbering each time I moved text and tables. Really useful, but I should have done it far earlier.

Don’t leave the document-formatting until the last minute. 
It takes far longer than you think to do all this and I left it to the final fortnight. I had dozens of tables that I then interspersed within the text, some of which were landscape and thus required the insertion of section breaks and different, customised margins to the portrait text. Once the custom margins were inserted tables had to be re-sized to fit. Tables split over pages needed headings repeated. All of this is tedious and very, very time-consuming.

Don’t go on holiday shortly before your submission date. 
Save your holidays until post-submission. It’s really no fun trying to get a dodgy wi-fi connection as everyone else enjoys themselves, and thesis drafts do not make for relaxing poolside reading.

Don’t go to a conference 2 weeks before your submission date. 
I’d barely returned from holiday when I went off to SSM2013. I’d seriously thought of cancelling but luckily my presentation was written well in advance and actually the conference turned out to be really revitalising during a real low-point in my write-up. So maybe not such a bad thing to do after all if you can handle the stress…

Write the literature review and methods early on – in the first year if possible. 
At the beginning of the PhD it feels like you have plenty of time but you really don’t. So get on with the stuff you can do as soon as possible. Then it just requires some last minute tweaking and updating in the last few months. I did actually do this one!

Focus single-mindedly on the write-up. 
My husband lost his job shortly before the end of my write-up. I coped with this by ignoring it and ploughing on. Personal-life crises will inevitably happen and sometimes you just have to be ruthlessly single-minded and concentrate on getting finished. You can have the meltdown once you submit.

Know when to stop. 
I think the best piece of advice I received was being told that your thesis does not have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough to pass. If I’d had a few more weeks my thesis could definitely have been better but I also think there are diminishing returns here. The more time you have the more you revise and re-edit. If you’ve made the changes recommended by your supervisors and they say it’s fine then just STOP. (However, I haven’t had my viva yet so we’ll need to see how this one pans out…)

Ultimately I finished on time because I was given a non-negotiable deadline. If I didn’t submit on time I would lose the three month funding available to write-up papers. This was such a good opportunity that drifting on was not an option. I’d have preferred to have done it without putting in ridiculous hours, never seeing friends or family and doing nothing but working in the final weeks, but it’s done.
It is possible so good luck!

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Thoughts on a research tangent…

Guest post by Heather Ohly (Fuse loves guest posts too)

As an academic and Registered Nutritionist (RNutr), I get really annoyed with so-called professionals who give diet advice to members of the public that is not grounded in science. I’m not the only one. High profile writers like Ben Goldacre have been very critical of them, unfortunately tarring all ‘nutritionists’ with the same brush. My work includes nutrition (and public health) research, guidance, education and consultancy, all of which I aim to ensure are evidence-based.

Anyway, I decided that if I was to continue harping on about evidence-based nutrition, I really ought to learn how to do systematic reviews. This is the gold standard method used to review high quality scientific evidence. It follows a structure approach to identify, select, appraise and synthesize evidence relevant to a research question.

My opportunity came with a six month post at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School. The subject…Attention Restoration Theory, or in layman’s terms the effect of nature on our ability to concentrate or focus on a task…environmental psychology!

The great thing about systematic reviews is that the process is always fundamentally the same and you don’t need to be an expert in the field to do a good job. That is what I said in my interview, hoping it to be true! I have learned that, although it can be tricky to understand the terminology and research methods of different disciplines, a critical eye and an understanding of research principles are the most important skills. I would almost go as far as to say there are some advantages to not being an expert, since you do not have any conflict of interest or prior beliefs about the outcome of the review.

Working on this review has encouraged me to think about my own discipline from different perspectives and to step outside my comfort zone. It has been great working with an interdisciplinary team to shed new light on a subject that, while not my area of expertise, is really interesting. I hope that my next systematic review will be about nutrition or public health, and I know I will do a better job having done one on something completely different.