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  • 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

  • May 06 / 2015
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Current Affairs

IHAWKES election special part III: Professor Rory O’Connor

Have the major Scottish political parties prioritised mental health in their manifestos?

Although nearly half of all ill-health among people under 65 years of age is attributable to mental ill-health, it is estimated that only about a quarter of those with mental health problems are in treatment (Centre for Economic Performance, 2012).   In addition, a recent analysis has revealed the historic and chronic under-funding of mental health research in the UK (MQ Research, 2015). Add to this the rising rates of suicide in the UK; there are approximately 6,000 deaths each year, with more than three quarters of all suicide deaths accounted for by men (ONS, 2015). The personal costs of suicide are devastatingly clear but many people do not know that the economic burden of suicide is also vast. Take Scotland, for example: it is estimated that the economic and social cost of each death by suicide is £1,290,000 (Platt et al., 2006).   Taken together, it is self-evident, therefore, that the challenge of improving mental health research and treatment is urgent and long overdue. In recent months, mental health has become more visible on the political agenda. However, I was keen to look beyond the media representation to investigate to what extent mental health features in the manifestos of the four major Scottish parties (based on having MPs and/or MSPs). To do so, I simply searched for any mention of mental health in their manifestos. Here’s what I found:

Scottish Conservatives (http://www.scottishconservatives.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Scottish-Manifesto_GE15.pdf)

There are two mentions of mental health in their manifesto. They will “provide significant new support for mental health benefiting thousands of people claiming out-of-work benefits or being supported by Fit for Work.” The only other reference to mental health is in terms of using social impact bonds and payment by results with a focus on mental health (as well as youth unemployment and homelessness).

Scottish Greens (http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2015/03/SGP-Westminster-2015.pdf)

There is only a single mention of mental health in their manifesto. The Scottish Greens aim to improve both physical and mental health by tackling poverty and health inequalities including via the Living Wage as well as affordable housing and a fairer social security system.

Scottish Labour (http://www.scottishlabour.org.uk/blog/entry/the-scottish-labour-manifesto-2015)

There are 12 clear references to mental health in the Scottish Labour manifesto. They highlight the scale of the challenge of mental health as well as the 10-fold increase in young people waiting more than a year to be treated by mental health services. They also mention the issues of parity of esteem with those with physical health problems as well as the need to address the, often debilitating, consequences of mental health stigma. They pledge to invest £200 million in a new Mental Health Fund to help those who are vulnerable and to “improve child mental health by focusing on prevention and early intervention.”

Scottish Liberal Democrats (http://www.scotlibdems.org.uk/manifesto2015)

A document search yields at least 17 hits for mental health within the Scottish Liberal Democrat manifesto. A guarantee of equal care for mental health is on the front page of their manifesto. The Lib Dems pledge that the Scottish Parliament will have the resources it needs “to make sure mental health has equal status with physical health”. There is also specific mention of helping “people struggling not to harm themselves” by providing emergency help at A&E. In the context of helping people find work, they pledge to help provide work placements tailored for those with mental health problems. They also pledge to fund the NHS properly, “ending the discrimination against mental health which has existed too long, and delivering equal care.” They also highlight the scale of mental ill-health, the stigma faced by many and the difficulty accessing services. They propose to expand the provision of psychological treatments as well as developing “new provision to support young people who need urgent mental health support”. If pilots as successful, they may also role out the provision of trained mental health professionals in A&E departments. They also plan to simplify and streamline back to work support for those with mental health problems. Furthermore, they will also establish “a world-leading mental health research fund, investing £50 million to further our understanding of mental illness and develop more effective treatments.” Support for veterans with mental health problems is also mentioned.

 Scottish National Party (http://votesnp.com/docs/manifesto.pdf)

Mental health is mentioned four times in the SNP manifesto. Within the context of ensuring fairness in the welfare system, they “will demand an urgent review of the conditionality and sanctions regime” taking account of the “needs of people with mental health issues.” They also pledge to increase the £15 million already committed to a mental health innovation fund, stating that they will “increase this investment to £100 million over the next 5 years”. They will also focus on treatments in the primary care sector and aim to focus on investment in child and adolescent mental health services.

Comment

Mental health appears to be a priority for Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. It is encouraging to see the specific pledges made by each of these parties in terms of the provision of mental health services. However, as a researcher who knows first hand how poorly funded mental health research is, I was particularly pleased to see the Scottish Liberal Democrats pledge to establish a world class mental health research fund – with funding ear-marked. Whoever (and in whatever configuration) is in power after May 7th, it is incumbent on each of us to hold the Government to their election promises!

Disclaimer: I acknowledge that my search strategy was crude but each manifesto was subject to the same ‘analysis’, and therefore, I believe it provides a valid (albeit high level) overview of the each party’s pledges on mental health. Due to idiosyncrasies of search functions in pdfs, I may have missed one or two mentions of mental health in the manifestos that contained multiple references to mental health.

References

Centre for Economic Performance (2012). How mental illness loses out in the NHS. A Report by the Centre for Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Group. http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/special/cepsp26.pdf

MQ Research (2015). UK mental health research funding: MQ landscape analysis. http://www.joinmq.org/news-opinion/entry/new-analysis-reveals-historic-under-funding-of-uk-mental-health-research

ONS (2015). Statistical Bulletin. Suicides in the United Kingdom, 2013 Registrations. http://ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom/2013-registrations/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom–2013-registrations.html

Platt, S et al (2006). Evaluation of the first phase of Choosing Life: The national strategy and action plan to prevent suicide in Scotland: Annex 2 – The Economic Costs of Suicide in Scotland in 2004. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government http://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/146980/0038521.pdf

  • May 06 / 2015
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Current Affairs

IHAWKES election special part II: Professor Andy Gumley

£1 doesn’t mean the same thing to all:

One remarkable moment in the electoral campaign was David Cameron’s reassurance to the UK public that the proposed Conservative budget cuts amounted to a £1 reduction for every £100 – something that every family or business could cope with. I guess in a society where the principle of equality is cherished and where policies are geared towards improving equality and minimizing inequality then such reassurances are well grounded.

Equality is related to better physical health, greater feelings of trust and lower levels of violence. Inequality measured by how much richer the top 20 percent than the bottom 20 percent is in each country, is related to increased rates of mental illness (r=0.73) and drug problems (r=0.63).

Psychosocial factors are key in understanding the associations between income inequality and health where social hierarchical organisation favours those ranked highly and disfavours those ranked at the bottom. Internal threats arising from the experience and perception of inequality increase stress through feelings of shame, threat and distrust, which acts on psycho-neuro-endocrine mechanisms. External threats acting on the person include exposure to antisocial behaviour, reduced civic participation, less social capital and reduced social cohesion increase feelings of disconnectedness, loneliness and paranoia.

Not just perception of rank but the availability of resources within systems are key to understanding the health effects of social hierarchies. Lynch and colleagues (2000) argued “the effect of income inequality on health reflects a combination of negative exposures and lack of resources held by individuals, along with systematic underinvestment across a wide range of human, physical, health, and social infrastructure” reflecting the manifestation of the sum of historical, cultural and political-economic processes.

In the past 30 years alcohol and drug-related deaths, violent deaths and suicide have increased to a greater extent in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK and Europe. Physical health inequalities have increased in Scotland relative to the rest of the UK evidenced by premature death due to cardiovascular disease, cancer and stroke. McCartney and colleagues have shown that these increasing inequalities are associated with the Index of Economic Freedom (or in other words the extent to which neoliberal or monetarist economic policies predominate).

So £1 isn’t the same to every individual and neither is £1 the same to every community or every nation within the UK. Problems of inequality and its terrible consequences cannot solved by austerity. Austerity can only further hit the more vulnerable groups in our society who already experience greater risks of disconnection, alienation and hopelessness. What’s happened in Scotland during the last 30-years in terms of inequality and what is happening in Scotland during this election provides an important opportunity for UK based parties to start to seriously rethink the impact of policies that increase inequality, and the associated costs to us all. Maybe adopting a principle of Equality in the UK would be a good start.

References:

Lynch, JW., Davey Smith, G., Kaplan, GA. & House, JS. Income inequality and mortality: importance of health of individual income, psychosocial environment or living conditions. BMJ. 2000 April 29; 320(7243): 1200–1204.

McCartney, G, Walsh, D., Whyte, B., & Collins, C. (2011) has Scotland always been the ‘sick man of Europe’? An observational study from 1855 to 2006. European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 22, No. 6, 756–760

  • 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