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ihawkes

Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog

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  • May 06 / 2015
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Current Affairs

IHAWKES election special part I: Professor Kate O’Donnell

Health and wellbeing – for some, but not others:

Watch the news – any news – and you may have noticed that there is an election this week! Key battlegrounds have been the NHS, migration, austerity and welfare. Of course, these all get intertwined. We are told by some parties that migrants are coming to the UK – indeed “flooding” the UK – to reap the benefits of our NHS. This, despite the fact that a report commissioned by the Department of Health found evidence of health tourism at best limited. On the other hand, the NHS depends on migrant workers across all professional groups, and may become increasingly reliant on overseas workers to meet the many pledges of increased staff made by parties of all colours.

However, what we have not discussed nearly enough is the awful situation we see unfolding in the Mediterranean and the role that our foreign and domestic policies play in exacerbating that situation. Only the horror of hundreds of migrants drowning in the Med in the last month or so led to the re-instatement of the Mare Nostrum search and rescue missions, something that the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition Government pulled the UK out of, citing the operation as an “unintended ‘pull factor’”. As someone involved in migrant health research and – I hope – as a decent human being, I have to ask is this really true? Is the UK such a Utopia that men, women and their children (small, newborn and unborn) feel it is worth spending a small fortune to board a rickety boat or dingy and set out across hundreds of miles of open sea?

Rather – what is driving this movement of people? Amnesty International ‘s report today sheds some light on the conditions that drive people to move. Shockingly graphic, it describes Syria’s “Circle of Hell”, describing the situation daily facing civilians in Aleppo. Little wonder then that the boat alternative seems worth a try ….. And yet, too often our media glosses over the bigger picture that contributes to this movement of people, preferring instead to talk about “illegal” migrants and benefits seekers.

The WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Clearly, for those now living in war-torn settings, this has long since ceased to be a reality. The UK has a wider responsibility, as part of the EU, to set policies and play a role that may help resolve some of the currently intractable situations that make the WHO definition unattainable for millions of people. In doing so, there needs to be more discussion about the way in which foreign policy, immigration policy and commitments to international aid intersect. We also need to be ready to welcome those in greatest need to the UK and to our NHS.

  • Apr 08 / 2015
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Profcast

The Profcast: Professor Graham Scambler

In our latest Profcast IHAWKES speaks to Professor Graham Scambler. Emeritus Professor of Sociology at UCL.

Why did you become an academic?

It was unplanned drift, but it suited my temperament. Here was an opportunity to read, think, teach and write, a job moreover that – then – offered security, a decent income and substantial autonomy in relation to work practice.

If you were not an academic what would you be?

That’s a tricky question since I would probably opt to do it all over again, despite the changed ecology of academia. Does freelance author count? I’ve never appreciated being ‘directed’ or ‘managed’. A UCL colleague once told me I had ‘oppositional-defiance disorder’, and she might have had a point. Otherwise it’s a toss up between social worker and full-time activist, both tough briefs amounting these days to sociology-in-practice. Continue Reading

  • Apr 01 / 2015
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PhD Experience

Imposter syndrome – you are not alone!

By Siobhán O’Connor:

My sister, who is younger but much wiser than me as she is coming to the end of her PhD, warned me of the sneaky “Imposter Syndrome” that inevitably sets in for any student once they begin the lonely road to being doctorally qualified. At first it begins by questioning yourself – what you are you doing here? – you don’t know enough – you’re not clever enough! Then you start comparing yourself to those around you who always seem smarter and appear to work harder than you. The nagging part of your brain keeps reminding you – you shouldn’t be here, you’re a total phony and somebody is going to find you out!

As I come to the end of my first year, I realise that all PhD students experience this phenomenon. There has even been research done to explore this facet of human psychology and apparently women are more prone to it, so you are NOT alone!! Here are some simple tips on how to manage it. Firstly, take a deep breath, you are where you’re supposed to be and you are just as competent and deserving as those around you. Secondly, some suggest keeping a written record of your short, medium and long-term accomplishments as you move through your doctorate. This way you can prove to yourself that you are making progress and it’s down to your hard work and support from your supervisors and other colleagues and it is not your imagination or blind luck. Thirdly, talk to other students and you’ll quickly realise that everyone goes through the same thing, so get involved in postgraduate activities in your department and sit in on annual reviews or viva presentations if possible to put yourself at ease – you CAN do it!!

Remember that self-criticism and self-awareness is an important component of academic life and actively encouraged in researchers. Apparently even Albert Einstein suffered from the syndrome towards the end of his life, reporting to a close friend that, “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler” (Holt, 2005). So don’t be too hard on yourself but do welcome and appreciate that imposter feeling as par for the course because by the time you don that red, black or blue gown in two or three years time you’ll wonder why you ever questioned yourself.

References

  • Mar 18 / 2015
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Academia

We need to talk about *******: Public engagement for “taboo” topics

By Olivia Kirtley:

As a child, I grew up watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on TV and feeling a tremendous sense of excitement as these famous scientists submerged PhD students in ice water baths, cuddled lemurs and dissected brains, all in the name of public engagement with science.  During my PhD, I’ve been on lots of courses designed to equip scientists with the wherewithal to take their research out of the ivory towers and into people’s everyday lives. However, it has rapidly become clear to me that if your research doesn’t go whizz or bang, you are somewhat out of luck.  For those in health research, this can cover rather a lot of areas, e.g. sexual health, alcohol and substance abuse, and indeed much of mental health research.

One day I lamented this fact in a meeting and one of my supervisors asked “Well, what public engagement would you like to do?”  To which I had to answer, “I don’t actually know.”  So far removed does my research seem from all of the activities that are catered for within the existing public engagement courses I have been on, that I am not even sure what opportunities there would be.  I cannot make a jelly cell to talk about psychological distress and there is no plush cuddly microbe for emotional pain.  For me, this raises a question of whether or not health science, or at least some areas, needs some more specialist assistance in making our research accessible to the public.  Particularly for PhD students in these fields, specialist public engagement training catered to the unique needs of topics which are often felt to be “off-limits”, could be of huge benefit, changing the way they think about their research for their entire careers.

When asking for ideas about how we can better talk about suicide research with the public, I have frequently met with the response “Oooh…well that’s quite a tricky topic”. Or “that’s not really something we could talk about.”  If we can’t even get other researchers to accept our topic as something to be talked about in public, how can we hope to engage non-academics with our research?

Maybe we could frame it differently?  Perhaps we should talk about good mental health as a key part of overall wellbeing (which it is)?  But at some point, I am probably still going to have to say “suicide”.  Shying away from topics that may be perceived as sensitive or emotive helps to perpetuate stigma.  Stigma costs countless lives each year and people suffer with mental and physical health conditions, as well as huge health inequalities, in silence because they are embarrassed, ashamed or too isolated to tell someone or seek help.  I feel strongly that as researchers we have a duty to use our privileged position to break down barriers around openly discussing health issues.

Public engagement is in vogue as increasingly more funding bodies require scientists to communicate their research to the public who fund it.  The bottom line though, is that our public engagement activities have so much more potential than acquiring grants; they can start conversations about important health issues that could result in real positive change for individuals experiencing various mental and physical health conditions, as well as those who support them.

What are your experiences of public engagement in health and wellbeing research?  Do you have any good ideas for/experience of engaging the public with sensitive research topics?

  • Mar 11 / 2015
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PhD Experience

Is that the time? How to keep on track during your PhD

By Uduak Ntuk:

Previously, Olivia Kirtley and Arlene McGarty have written about the effort that goes into research and the need to be organised when undertaking a PhD. As PhD students we don’t just encounter academic problems; there are also challenges in time management, motivation and creativity.  I thought I could share some practical ways to be more productive during the PhD journey, some of which are based on my personal experience – things I should be doing and things I have done.

1. Plan your time effectively

Effective planning requires you set yourself small, manageable goals to work towards in advance and prioritising activities, so you don’t get overwhelmed with the size of the task.  Using the Stephen Covey’s time management quadrant1 as a guide, I begin with a to-do list sectioned into different categorises. I have a research ideas list, weekly, months and daily lists with deadlines to help me organise.

For this you can use a Gantt chart, an excel sheet, your outlook calendar, Google calendar or a simple word document. If you have a smart phone, the Eisenhower app is excellent for helping you manage your to-dos. Splitting up your planning can be an effective way of doing this. You can have:

Long term goals-This will be the overall overview of your PhD journey. Plan each week/month on what you should be working on which part of your PhD project,

Short term goals- This could be a check list of important work, including appointment that should be done daily and have all your appointments. You the

Set reminders on your calendar to help you manage both intended goals.

One great time management technique based on the idea of working in short sprints is the Pomodoro Technique. It can help to create your to-do-list by degree of importance so that that you can quickly identify the activities you should focus on.

2. Track your progress 

During your research, time slips away really quickly. Sometimes we are so focused on the daily tasks that we forget our general objectives, and where our efforts should lead us. It is very crucial you track how much you have done in previous weeks and months and stay on track to achieve your goals.

Don’t be discouraged if things don’t go according to plan because every little effort counts and you have often achieved more than you think you have.

3. Get to know yourself

Having a regular work routine is very important as a PhD student. To achieve this, find out what type of worker you are – do you work best in the morning or evening? Do you prefer to work in the silence or with music? This will have a high influence on your productivity of your work. Once you understand this, you can adapt your schedule to the timing/ambience you prefer and consequently, you will achieve better results. Also, find out how you procrastinate and have a strategy in place to manage that.

4. Put aside distractions

When I have a lot on my mind, I tend to click away the minutes on the internet (do you do this too?). Have designated time set aside in the day for things like Facebook, twitter, personal emails etc. If you think you aren’t self- disciplined enough to do this, installing features such as Leechblock a Firefox add-on on your computer can help block the use of social networking sites during work hours.

5. Flexibility

During the PhD, some unexpected issues and events can occur, so be adaptable in your time management- incorporating and maintaining flexibility into your schedule.

Finally, create time for fun. Add extra-curricular activities as part of your daily planning and make time for your friends and family.

People may have different patterns that work for them. What works for me does not mean it will work for everyone. So, what does your time management strategy for your PhD research look like? Do you have any strategy at all?

References:

  1. COVEY, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: restoring the character ethic. New York, Free Press.
  • Mar 06 / 2015
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Profcast

The Profcast: Dr Marilyn Mcgee Lennon

The Profcast is back with this fantastic interview from Dr. Marilyn McGee Lennon, Senior Research Fellow in Human Computing Interaction at Strathclyde University:

Why did you become an academic?

I always loved researching stuff at school – before I really knew what research was. I never really minded what the topic was – as long as I was investigating, reading, gathering evidence, producing reports and disseminating results. It was only when I was then at University studying myself (starting at 16) that I thought that I could be a really good academic. I also love teaching (shh don’t tell anyone) which is unfortunately a little rare these days. I truly believe that if work hard enough at it I can get almost anyone to understand something. That can be quite an annoying trait to my friends and family but comes in really handy when assigned a challenging new course to teach. In my early career I always apologised for being an academic and told many people “don’t worry I am not a real academic” because I never wanted anyone to think I was aspiring to be a stuffy old professor in an ivory tower. It was only when I began to meet and work with other forward thinking, dynamic and diverse academics that I thought – maybe it is okay to have an academic identity after all and to not be afraid to say yes – I am an academic and I love it! Continue Reading

  • Feb 18 / 2015
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Profcast

The Profcast: Professor Danny Dorling

In this week’s Profcast we’re thrilled to have Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, and expert on social inequalities, answering our questions.

Why did you become an academic?

I fell into it – the key thing was doing a PhD in Newcastle in 1989 – of the four of us who did one then in my year group, three are now professors.

If you were not an academic what would you be?

No idea – there is a big range of possibilities – on the basis of what other people who did my degree now do – I’d probably be middle management in a public sector utility. Continue Reading

  • Feb 11 / 2015
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Methods

So you want to go systematic? Three points to prevent you weeping into your keyboard

By Olivia Kirtley:

Conducting a systematic review has become somewhat of a rite of passage for PhD students.  Systematic reviews can sometimes get a bad press for being “boring” or “unwieldy”, but have the potential to provide critical insight into the state of an area of knowledge as we know it (or think we know it).  Often in the cold light of a systematic review, things that we thought were fact are revealed to be spurious.  Doing a systematic review is no mean feat however, from either a logistical or an academic perspective. Based on my own experiences of conducting a narrative systematic review, here are a few pointers to consider:

  • How many hits did I take again?

One of the most important things when conducting a systematic review is to be organised and keep copious detailed notes of every tiny little thing you have done.  And I really do mean everythingThis is a great excuse to go and buy yourself a nice new notebook or set up a shiny new Excel sheet to log everything you do.

Things you will want to keep notes on:

  • Your search terms (e.g. self-harm, suicid*)
  • The dates you conducted your database searches
  • Which databases you used, e.g. PsycINFO, Medline, PubMed
  • How many hits you got from each
  • The exact format in which you entered your search terms into each database (we’ll come back to this in a minute)

In addition to these notes, you should fill out (and include in your review) a PRISMA flow diagram.  PRISMA provides best-practice guidelines for conducting your review or meta-analysis, from producing an accurate, replicable search methodology, to what kind of things your review should cover.

Create an account within the databases you use, so that you can save your searches.  This will save you countless hours of trying to remember the exact format that you used to enter your search terms if your search times out or you end up having to update your review at some point.  Trust me on this! 🙂

You will also want to use some form of reference management software (e.g Endnote), so that you can transfer all of your search hits (not just the ones you think are relevant, that comes later!) to a place where they will not change, disappear or time-out if you get a phone call or start reading PhD Comics.

  • This is not a magnum opus.

You’ve read every single one of these X studies a hundred times and you know them inside out.  If someone asked you how many participants ate breakfast on the morning of the study in Bloggs et al (2014), you could tell them and also say how many sugars they each had in their coffee.  You want to show everyone that you know all of this information. Don’t.  This is a systematic review, not a magnum opus.  It is not supposed to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of details about each study, it is a finely curated set menu which only includes certain, relevant details that are specific to your research questions.

Leading onto the last point, which is…

  • This message could not be delivered…

Systematic reviews are usually longer than other types of papers, but this does not issue you with an automatic licence to bore the socks off people or for lazy (or even zero) editing.  Just as you would do with an empirical article, always ensure you trim the fat; keep the paper as lean as possible and make sure that your take home messages come through loud and clear.  Your systematic review should not be a 50 page list or read like a bibliography.  Even though you are looking at previous work, the insights and conclusions you arrive at should be new, interesting and move the area forward.  This type of paper is about synthesis, not repetition.

As that great orator, Dr Kelso, once said “nothing in this world worth having comes easy”.  Doing a systematic review can be tough, but you will get there!  It is a great learning process and a fantastic opportunity to develop detailed expertise in your area.  Who knows?  Maybe your new insights could provide the platform for a quantum leap in your field!

Do you have any top tips for conducting systematic reviews? We’d love to hear them in the comments or on our Twitter feed @IHAWKES1.

  • Feb 04 / 2015
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Matt Jamieson, PhD Experience

After your PhD – what’s the next step

Photo by Rama Krishna. © 2016. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Photo by Rama Krishna. © 2016. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

By Matthew Jamieson

In the months before began my PhD I worked in a shopping centre in the suiting department. During this time I would tell my colleagues I would soon be a doctor (though not a proper one) and, being mostly undergraduates, they seemed suitably impressed that I was embarking on what was presumably quite a professional career. This reaction made me feel like I knew where I was going. I was an executive academic, with shiny shoes and wearing a slim fit shirt and tie. Continue Reading

  • Jan 28 / 2015
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Methods

A good thesis is a finished thesis!

By Arlene McGarty:

I bring you my first IHAWKES blog from the “preparing to write up” phase of my PhD. And boy, what a nice phase it is. It’s that point in a PhD when all the research has been conducted, the stresses of recruitment and data collection are a distant memory, that never-ending analysis did in fact end, yet the dreaded “writing up” phase has not fully begun. It’s a very welcomed, albeit short, period of calm in an otherwise hectic process. So, in a bid to prolong the serenity a little longer, I’ve put together 5 top tips which I’ve found particularly helpful as I prepare to write up.

1. The writing should have started a long time ago

You’ve probably heard this from day one of your PhD, from everyone that has ever done a PhD. And I’m sorry to jump on the bandwagon, but they’re right – writing as you go makes a huge difference. It’s not a case of starting chapter one on day one, but simple things, such as taking notes whilst reading or drafting method sections when data collection procedures are still fresh in your mind, will prove extremely useful as you prepare to write up.

2. Plan ahead

It’s important to develop a general plan for your thesis and think about how it will be structured, what your chapters will be, and to familiarise yourself with your Institute/College thesis guidelines. This initial plan will give a structure to what you’re writing and soon you will start to see how different elements of your thesis fit together. As you prepare to write up, a plan of each chapter – detailing the information to be included within each section and subsection – will keep your writing focused and will let you view your thesis as many small, achievable sections of writing, rather than a single, daunting piece of work.

3. Set deadlines

Deadlines are an important aspect of keeping the writing process on track…and I love them! If it were not for deadlines, I’d still be aimlessly trawling through BMJ Christmas issues and watching Still Game best bits on YouTube. When it comes to writing up, working towards a thesis submission deadline that is months away is unrealistic and more than a little demotivating. Set short-term deadlines with yourself for sections of a chapter and plan deadlines with your supervisor/s for sending them completed chapters. If you struggle with keeping deadlines you set for yourself, get a friend involved who can encourage you to stick to it.

4. Make use of other people and resources

Even though writing a thesis is a very individual piece of work, there are still plenty of people and resources to support and guide you through it. Within the University, there are numerous classes to help you develop the skills required for writing up. There are also books and endless online resources covering writing strategies and techniques; however, top tip 4.1, make sure that reading about writing doesn’t distract you too much from actually writing! Then there are the people around you – fellow PhD students, staff, and supervisors will have a wealth of do’s and don’ts when it comes to writing. Remember, however, that everyone is different, so find a writing routine that works for you.

5. Look after yourself

As the end becomes nearer, there’s a feeling that the more you work the sooner you’ll be finished, which makes non-stop writing seem oddly tempting. However, the most important part of writing up is you, so if you’re not in good health your thesis will suffer. It’s important to get away from writing now and again, so don’t forget to keep active, socialise, and relax.

Finally, as I reflect on my top tips, I find myself questioning the validity of my opening comment – am I really in the “preparing to write up” phase? Maybe this is not a standalone phase but a continual and gradual process over the course of a PhD, as the skills and information required to write a thesis are accumulated and honed over time. As thesis writing goes, those little things you do throughout your PhD – going to classes, writing here and there – are the things your future self will greatly appreciate. And when you put all these little things together, the prospect of writing a thesis will not feel like the overwhelming task that it once did.