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Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog

Posts Categorized / PhD Experience

  • Aug 04 / 2016
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PhD Experience

The Scottish Learning Disability Observatory’s experience of raising public awareness of the health inequalities experienced by people with learning disabilities at the Glasgow Science Festival

LDB Archive.

LDO Archive.

By Lisa O’Leary, Laura Hughes McCormack and Kirsty Dunn

We were delighted to have the opportunity to participate in a table top event at the Glasgow Science Sunday birthday bash. We attended this event in order to promote the work of the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory, and raise awareness of the health inequalities experienced by people with learning disabilities. We also wanted to exchange ideas and network with others who may be interested in our work. We used innovative methods to share what we do at the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory with the public. We developed three games:  Continue Reading

  • Jun 09 / 2016
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Anna Isaacs, Methods, PhD Experience

Fieldwork Reflections

Photo by Telco Kruidenier © 2005. Used with permission under the license of Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Photo by Telco Kruidenier © 2005. Used with permission under the license of Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/


By Anna Isaacs

Recently, during one of my PhD interviews, a participant discussed with me her reluctance to engage in preventive health screenings. Part way through the conversation she asked me if I had ever had a cervical smear test and, if so, how I had found it. I paused for a second and then replied that yes, I had, and while it might not have been in my top ten most enjoyable experiences, it was relatively quick and not unduly painful. “Oh”, she responded. “Well if you’ve had one, then maybe I will too….” Continue Reading

  • Jun 01 / 2016
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PhD Experience, Ruth Agbakoba

The Benefits That Voluntary Work Can Bring To Your PhD

By Ruth Agbakoba

No one has ever become poor by giving” – Anne Frank

This inspirational quote illustrates the value of generosity. In this post I would like to share my personal voluntary experiences as they have positively impacted my PhD Research. Moving to a new city can be a very daunting prospect for students. For me, having a close bond with my twin sister Faith, I knew that the adjustments would take time. However, what we do share close to our hearts is our charitable works from childhood. Glasgow is very much a cohesive and friendly city to live and study. The “People Make Glasgow” slogan was unveiled as the new brand name for the largest city in Scotland. It represents distinct warmth with the people of Glasgow being at the heart of this brand. During my time in Glasgow, I have come to experience this warmth for myself, most notably in a volunteering capacity. Continue Reading

  • Aug 26 / 2015
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PhD Experience

Big data – how to predict our future health and wellbeing

By Siobhán O’Connor:

As a fledgling researcher, I heard the term ‘Big Data’ several years ago when it appeared on the cover of New Scientist. It was billed as an exciting new field that was evolving at the peripheries of lots of disciplines and one that could potentially revolutionise them all. Having scanned the article briefly I didn’t make much of it at the time and resigned it to the realm of techies, one which would have little impact on me and the way I lived my life. However, as the years ago by and the proliferation of digital data seeps into every facet of life; from monitoring what I eat and the exercise I do via mobile apps, to sharing my personal data on family, friends and life events on social media, I realise I may have missed the central point of the article. The technology to continuously monitor human life (both biological and behavioural) and the environment that surrounds us is here.

When the opportunity arose to learn more about Big Data, I jumped at the chance, as I could see its potential for post-doctoral research. The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) was holding a summer school on the topic of ‘Big Data and the Digital Divide’ for postgraduate researchers and I was lucky enough to secure a scholarship to attend. The weeklong initiative was held in Canada and brought together over 20 international researchers from several commonwealth countries.

On our first morning we got a tour around Toronto from our student ambassadors, before travelling to the University of Waterloo where we listened to interesting perspectives on Big Data from two industry speakers. Kevin Keane, co-founder of Brainsights, spoke about a range of wearable technologies like FitBits and Hexoskin that can measure a variety of physiological signs which are enabling us to quantify and understand different aspects of human behaviour. The following day, Mark Damm the CEO of Fuse Forward outlined how cloud-based analytics platforms can be used to process large, diverse datasets that can help us better predict a range of outcomes and impacts. That afternoon, Professor John Hirdes from the School of Public Health discussed how Big Data could impact the healthcare system if we used standardized clinical assessments to collect digital data and create more robust predictive clinical decision support systems for doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

On Tuesday morning, Dr Christian Boudreau spoke to us about how statistical techniques such as survival analysis are being used to query large amounts of bone marrow data. This is helping researchers to understand how long patients will survive if given a particular treatment or drug. A trip to nearby Wilfrid Laurier University to meet Dr Colin Robertson and his team resulted in us appreciating how geographical information systems can contribute to Big Data and help us understand the spread of diseases such as Japanese Encephalitis in Nepal. We were then treated to a real Canadian experience by going camping and canoeing at the nearby Laurel Creek nature reserve. Of course important data can also be gleamed from the natural environment, which heavily impacts our health. We were given a demonstration of a miniature drone or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that remotely collects environmental data such as wind speed and direction, air temperature, agricultural practices and other geospatial data. After a campfire, sing-along and too many roasted marshmallows, we spent Wednesday morning canoeing around the reservoir with Dr Robert McLeman to learn how citizen science initiatives can help us monitor environmental changes in the weather as well as animal and plant species through mobile technology (http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/app.php).

For the last leg of our journey, we travelled to Western University in London, Ontario where Dr Mark Daley and Dr Dan Lizotte spoke about the difficulties of statistically interpreting big datasets. They highlighted the importance of robust algorithms for drawing correlations and causation, as mistakes can lead to glaringly strange results as shown by Google’s initial Flu Trends data which has since been corrected. They were joined by Dennis Buttera from IBM, who reiterated this point from the industry perspective. He outlined the challenges IBM face supporting different businesses from multiple industries with analytics capabilities. This in part is due to a lack of computer and data scientists and he highlighted the urgent need for many more skilled graduates in these areas. He recommended a book called ‘Thinking About Data’ to educate everyone from children to adults on Big Data, which is now at the top of my reading list (sorry pile of JAMIA papers sitting on my desk!). In relation to healthcare, he noted that precision medicine is taking off as people are using large DNA and genomic datasets to personalize drugs and treatments for individual patients and the potential benefits of this for society are still in its infancy.

As the week drew to a close and we said our goodbyes after a trip to Niagara Falls. As it turns I couldn’t have been more wrong about Big Data – it is here and it is going to affect us all as the wealth of digital information at our fingertips will only continue to grow and grow. For health researchers that means more multidisciplinary collaboration with industry and other research disciplines, both from the technical and social sciences, to broaden and enhance our understanding of how Big Data can improve health and wellbeing.


  • Aug 14 / 2015
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Academia, PhD Experience, Ruth Agbakoba

…it’s nice to see you, to see you nice! How to get the best out of a world congress

Photo by Korean Culture and Information Service © 2010. UNESCO WCAE. From Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Korean Culture and Information Service © 2010. UNESCO WCAE. From Wikimedia Commons.

By Ruth Agbakoba

You may be thinking that this week’s blog post is a tribute to Sir Bruce Forsyth or a reminder of the classic TV show ‘play your cards right’! I know!! L “Come on down” Unfortunately and I’m sorry to disappoint you but it is not entirely. Hopefully I have succeeded in getting your attention though! In my previous post I talked about my ‘five top tips for writing a conference paper’. Now your paper has been accepted (congratulations!) and you are due to attend this amazing conference! What do you do next? Well the purpose of this post is to really highlight and capture how best to participate and gain the most value from a research conference in particular a World Congress. Continue Reading

  • Jul 29 / 2015
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PhD Experience

Lions and tigers and theses! Oh my!

By Olivia Kirtley:

Blog posts and advice columns about writing your thesis abound and the vast majority speak about it with great reverence; it isn’t just a thesis, it’s “The Thesis”, “The Big Book”, the Goliath to your David, the magnum opus of the last 3 or 4 years of your life. The thesis as a portrait of academic Herculean struggle can strike fear into the hearts of many PhD students. It feels like an unknown, a dark forest with lions and tigers and bears, but perhaps writing your thesis isn’t as scary as it first sounds?

Oil can!

Just like the Tin Man, if your writing is going to go smoothly, your writing skills will need regular oiling, which means…more writing! From the very start of your PhD, if you do a systematic review, try and write it up for publication. If you have data, write it up for publication. If someone “scoops” you and publishes that dream study that you have carefully planned in your head for months or years, why not blog about it or write a commentary on it? Reports, book reviews, blog posts, articles for the university magazine; all of these things will keep your writing skills from becoming squeaky. I was very lucky that I had the chance to do quite a bit of writing before starting on my thesis and I definitely feel this made it a lot less terrifying. Having received feedback on my writing from my supervisors and peer-reviewers meant I was aware of areas where I could strengthen my arguments or stylistic holes I may fall into. Obviously, you can write things without showing anyone, but opportunities to get feedback on your work are truly invaluable. Take some lion courage and let other people look at your work. Your future self will thank you.

If only I had a brain! But don’t forget to have a heart.

There is something about the prospect of writing a thesis that can make one feel completely overwhelmed. Maybe it is the idea of writing so much, the amount of time it will take, having to weave together all of your work into one story, or indeed, all of the above. How will you accomplish this? If only you had a brain. But you do! You designed your studies (or at least had some input into them, if it was a pre-organised grant), you have worked with your data, you have read all the papers. You are the expert! Own your research (warts and all) and tell its story.

But also don’t forget to have a heart. Why did you do this research? What does it mean to you? What could it mean for other people? By the time you get to the stage of writing your thesis, it is easy to feel tired and jaded, but take some time to remind yourself why you love your research. Not only will this enthusiasm shine through in your thesis, making it much easier to write and also for others to read, it is this love for what you do that will see you through the long nights and working weekends of your final year. Thinking about the hundreds of people who have shared some of their most private and painful experiences of suicide and self-harm with me, is the strongest possible motivation; my thesis is made up of their stories and I have to tell them with my data. Maybe the contents of your petri dish will cure cancer? Maybe your research could change policy and help millions? Always have a heart and always put that in your research.

A hippopotamus? I’d thrash him from top to bottomus!

When your thesis is finished and in its nice shiny binding, it is a big book. But, before that point, it is a much smaller beast. Your thesis is made up of chapters, and these are made up of sections, containing sub-sections and sub-sub-sections; small chunks of writing that when all fitted together, will form the complete picture of your work. When I first began to write my thesis, I would set up a blank word file for each chapter and write in the major headings, e.g. abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusions. Then I would go back through again and add in sub-headings for each of these sections. In the introduction of a chapter, for example, I may have sub-headings for self-harm, self-harm and physical pain, self-harm and emotional pain, the relationship between emotional and physical pain, etc. These sub-headings could change and I often found myself adding more in as I wrote. Sometimes I would sit down to write one sub-section and then realise that actually I got through it more quickly than I thought I would, so I went ahead and started on another sub-section. Your thesis ends up as a hippopotamus, but that’s not what you sit down to write. A little bit at a time, persistently plugging away writing small sub-section after small sub-section will eventually turn into a finished thesis.

Writing your thesis will be hard, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. As long as you keep putting one red slipper in front of the other, you’ll be in Emerald City before you know it.

  • May 20 / 2015
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Matt Jamieson, PhD Experience

Networking advice for introverted researchers

Photo by Samuel Zeller. © 2014. © Creative Commons Zero via Unsplash.

Photo by Samuel Zeller. © 2014. © Creative Commons Zero via Unsplash.

By Matt Jamieson

Every researcher has to network in order to develop their career. However for some this can feel like a difficult and potentially stressful task. Personally I find the idea of approaching admired professors and researchers at conferences daunting, and the prospect of engaging in intellectual conversation as equals seems unlikely. A bit like trying to impress Beyoncé by challenging her to a dance off. With this in mind I asked a few more experienced colleagues how they networked successfully at the beginning of their career and curated together the following pieces of advice: 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.


  • 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?


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