My First Writing Retreat

Last week I attended my first writing retreat. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found that the experience really helped with my confidence in terms of thesis writing, so I thought I’d explain what the retreat was like, where I went etc in case there are any soon to be thesis-writers reading this who would like to know more.

Who, Where and When

Myself and a group of other academic writers from various institutions across the UK; a really good mix of PhD students, post-docs and established researchers, with a diverse range of backgrounds too. The retreat itself was facilitated by Rowena Murray, she’s published a tonne of books on writing and runs writing retreats through her company, Anchorage Education, about once a month.

Retreats are usually based at the Black Bull Hotel in Gartmore, with attendees staying at the hotel or one of the surrounding guest houses. I stayed at Craigmore Guest House which is only a few minutes from the Black Bull Hotel. I was really glad that I was staying at the Guest House – purely because it forced me to get up and get ready earlier, meaning by the time I’d got to the Black Bull Hotel I was properly awake (I am very much not a morning person!).

The retreat started on Wednesday evening (6th December), which meant we got an hour of writing in before a long day on the Thursday. We finished on Friday afternoon at about 4pm. Honestly, that was long enough I think. My head was feeling a bit mushy because of the amount of concentration that writing requires, and I was glad it was the weekend – having a retreat towards the end of the working week also meant that I went into the weekend feeling like I’d achieved a lot, could have a guilt-free break, and then get back to work again on Monday.

What
Retreat programme, taken from the Anchorage Education website.

Rowena’s writing retreats are structured, they have a very clear programme and we don’t stray from that. At first this intimidated me; I was thinking ‘what if I don’t feel like writing?’ ‘what if I need to look something up?’ ‘what happens if I run out of things to write?’. By the end, I was totally converted, and plan to bring some of that structure to my thesis writing over the next few months.

Before I went to the retreat I had planned out what I wanted to achieve, I’d downloaded a squillion papers and resources because we were told that the wifi would be patchy – also, you’re not allowed to use wifi when you’re in the ‘typing pool’ (i.e. where you sit during your writing slots), so took a tonne of stuff with me in case I got stuck and needed some inspiration. In the end I didn’t use many of the papers I’d brought with me; I read a few in the evenings so that I felt more prepared for the following day’s writing, but ultimately the writing slots were brilliant for doing just that, writing. I didn’t find that I wanted to look up references or double check facts – I simply wrote, and added comments or notes where I wanted to check things later. This method meant that I got much more done than I thought I would; when I’m at home or work I tend to write for a bit, stop and check something, and then write a bit more, editing as I go. This retreat demonstrated that my previous way of working was much less productive than I had ever thought possible.

The hour-long writing slot on day 1 was particularly useful as it set the tone for the rest of the retreat. It also showed me what I needed to prepare for the following day – day 2 is a much longer day so it’s important to have clear goals set out.

The typing pool – a desk, lamp and charging points for each attendee.

As well as this practice of consistently writing for an hour or an hour and a half at a time, we were told to set very clear goals – goals based on words; number of new words, number of edited words etc. I was largely aiming to generate new words for the discussion of my systematic review, and came away with 5,500 words more than I arrived with. Without recording my word count at the end of each session I doubt that would’ve happened. More words is great, but they were high quality words too (I think anyway, we’ll see what my supervisor thinks!) – because I was sitting there with no distractions, I felt that I could make connections and get to grips with my data much better than I had done previously. The entire process actually made me much more confident in myself. Data analysis and discussion writing is the bit of my thesis that I was feeling most insecure about, but now I feel like I’ll actually be able to do it, which is good considering my hand in date of next June.

A walk to Gartmore House on Day 1.

The way I’ve described the retreat so far makes it sound as if it was all work and no play! Luckily that wasn’t the case, Rowena structured the retreat so that we had defined breaks and time for walks etc too which I think added to how productive we were in the writing slots.

Overall, I found the writing retreat to be exactly the boost I needed to get going with my thesis. The setting was beautiful, accommodation was comfortable, and the hotel staff were absolutely brilliant. We were treated to delicious food at every break time, and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about other things like food or chores made the process of writing much more enjoyable. I’m already looking at dates for my next retreat and would highly recommend looking into writing retreats if you’re feeling a bit stuck and need to give yourself some headspace for writing.

 

 

Advertisements

#365papers November Update

In my first post on this blog, I set myself 3 PhD-related goals for 2017. One of those goals was to read more widely, and more frequently, and I decided that doing the #365papers challenge would be a good way to do that.

This reading a paper a day is so difficult when there are a million and one things going on and a thesis to write! I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be doing the #365papers challenge in 2018, but I’m determined to complete this year’s challenge. I’ve enjoyed this month’s reading, but I’ve been doing it in little bursts – meaning I’ve only just finished November’s reading list as this blog post goes live at the beginning of December.. Next month’s reading has to be finished on time because there’s no way I’m panic reading piles of papers on new year’s eve – I’m committed to finishing this thing on a high!

November’s reading:

  1. Research Involvement and Engagement: reflections so far and future directions
  2. The impact of involvement on researchers: a learning experience
  3. Power to the people: To what extent has public involvement in applied health research achieved this?
  4. Factors associated with reporting results for pulmonary clinical trials in ClinicalTrials.gov
  5. A systematic review and development of a classification framework for factors associated with missing patient-reported outcome data
  6. The treatment in morning versus evening (TIME) study: analysis of recruitment, follow-up and retention rates post recruitment
  7. Can routine data be used to support cancer clinical trials? A historical baseline on which to build: retrospective linkage of data from the TACT breast cancer trial and the National Cancer Data Repository
  8. Network methods to support user involvement in qualitative data analyses: an introduction to Participatory Theme Elicitation
  9. A systematic literature review of evidence-based clinical practice for rare diseases: what are the perceived and real barriers for improving the evidence and how can they be overcome?
  10. Improving readiness for recruitment through simulated trial activation: the Adjuvant Steroids in Adults with Pandemic influenza (ASAP) trial
  11. The marketing plan and outcome indicators for recruiting and retaining parents in the HomeStyles randomised controlled trial
  12. Advancing ‘real-world’ trials that take account of social context and human volition
  13. Impact of a deferred recruitment model in a randomised controlled trial in primary care (CREAM) study
  14. Framing the conversation: use of PRECIS-2 ratings to advance understanding of pragmatic trial design domains
  15. Lessons from the field: the conduct of randomised controlled trials in Botswana
  16. Participant recruitment and retention in longitudinal preconception randomised trials: lessons learnt from the Calcium and Pre-eclampsia (CAP) trial
  17. A framework for the design, conduct and interpretation of randomised controlled trials in the presence of treatment changes
  18. Peak Gender Gap: Women at the top of science agencies
  19. Survey of risks and benefits communication strategies by research nurses
  20. The fractured logic of blinded peer review in journals
  21. Choosing wisely: How to fulfil the promise in the next 5 years
  22. Catch-22, clinical trial edition: Protecting women and children
  23. Insufficient recruitment and premature discontinuation of clinical trials in Switzerland: qualitative study with trialists and other stakeholders
  24. Rebranding retractions and the honest error hypothesis
  25. Participation and retention can be high in randomised controlled trials targeting underserved populations: A systematic review and meta-analysis
  26. Rheumatoid arthritis patients treated in trial and real world settings: comparison of randomised trials with registries
  27. Prevalence, characteristics, and publication of discontinued randomised trials
  28. Clear obstacles and hidden challenges: understanding recruiter perspectives in six pragmatic randomised controlled trials
  29. The intellectual challenges and emotional consequences of equipoise contributed to the fragility of recruitment in six randomised controlled trials
  30. Patient enrollment and logistical problems top the list of difficulties in clinical research: a cross-sectional survey

A Trip to Galway, Ireland – November 2017

This week I was invited to the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) by colleagues at the Irish Health Research Board Trials Methodology Research Network (HRB-TMRN). It was a flying visit – I flew into Dublin and then got the bus to Galway on Wednesday evening, and as I write this I’m in Dublin airport waiting for my flight home.

On Thursday I presented a big chunk of my thesis work in a HRB-TMRN workshop, advertised below:

This wasn’t the first time I’ve presented to an outside audience, so I didn’t think I’d be nervous at all – but for some reason I was.

The HRB-TMRN is a group made up of brilliant people, and the research group that I am part of has built fantastic links with them, so honestly, I just didn’t want to screw up and make the Aberdeen team look bad! All was well though, the 3 hour workshop went really fast, and (I think!) I managed to create a pretty relaxed atmosphere where people could ask questions and discuss issues. We just about stuck to time, even with all the fantastic discussion points that were raised throughout – and everyone seemed to have gained some knowledge from the workshop at the end.

I’m not going to put slides for the sessions up on here, but I will turn each of the sessions into a blog post at some point – I really need to focus on getting this work into papers and thesis chapters over the next few months and the cynic in me is cautious about sharing slides on this before publication!

Group work the Irish way – facilitated by Taytos.

After the workshop ended I went for a coffee with a few members of the team, which gave my brain a chance to decompress after listening to the sound of my own voice for 3 hours. We also used this as an opportunity to discuss pieces of work that we’re collaborating on at the moment, which was really helpful. This was the first time I’ve met lots of members of the team in person (Skype and emails drive the world of research), and it was so lovely to put personalities to names. Such a fab group of people with real enthusiasm for what they’re doing.

My whirlwind day ended with dinner out with the team – a brilliant and hilarious evening filled with laughter and the best seafood I’ve had in a long time. Looking forward to the Irish contingent’s trip to Aberdeen in January!

(R-L) Dr Sandra Galvin, me, Dr Catherine Houghton, Dr Patricia Healy, Prof Declan Devane, Dr Linda Biesty.

My PhD Project in Detail

Last week I got a comment on one of my blog posts asking what my PhD project is about – I scrolled back through my blog and couldn’t find a post dedicated to explaining it (I’ve clearly been too busy banging on about women in STEM, public engagement, and clinical trials in general terms…), so here’s a blog post focussing on my PhD project to remedy the situation.

Project title

Making clinical trials more efficient: consolidating, communicating and improving knowledge of participant recruitment interventions

Where and when?

The University of Aberdeen’s Health Services Research Unit (HSRU), based with Trial Forge.

Study phases and objectives:

Phase 1: To consolidate existing information on participant recruitment into clinical trials.
This will involve completion of a systematic review of non-randomised evaluations of strategies to improve participant recruitment to RCTs (protocol is published here), involvement in updating the existing Cochrane review on randomised evaluations of strategies to improve participant recruitment to RCTs (the 2010 version is published here, and the update is coming!), and involvement with a new Cochrane review led by NUI Galway which will look at the factors that impact participants’ decisions regarding trial participation using a qualitative evidence synthesis (protocol is published here).

Phase 2: To investigate how best to present and distribute this information for the consumption of clinical trial teams. This phase will comprise of a semi-structured interview study with trial ‘recruiters’ (i.e. people who are actively involved in the process of identifying, approaching and recruiting participants to trials), and ‘designers’ (i.e. the people who are in a position to make decisions regarding the methods that a trial uses to recruit – e.g. the person who decides that using a Twitter post, newspaper article, or radio advert would be a good idea to attract participants to the trial), generation of multiple methods of presenting recruitment evidence, and user-testing of these methods using a think-aloud protocol.

Phase 3: To improve the current knowledge base through facilitation of work designed to fill gaps in evidence. To do this I will be producing protocols for a number of SWATs (studies within trials) specifically designed to fill gaps in knowledge found in the reviews that make up Phase 1 of the project. These protocols will be published on the SWAT repository, encouraging trial teams around the world to fill these gaps in our recruitment knowledge.

Clinical trials are at the core of evidence-based healthcare; because they randomise participants to each arm of the trial, they guard against selection bias and therefore offer the fairest way of evaluating healthcare interventions. In more basic terms, randomising participants to Group A and Group B, then you can make sure that you don’t end up with all of one type of participant (e.g. older people, younger people, more ill people, only one gender etc) in Group A, and none in Group B.

The recruitment of participants into clinical trials is difficult – lots of trials have problems with recruitment, and many require extensions to both time and budget as a result of these recruitment issues. In the worst cases, trials can be abandoned entirely because they can’t recruit enough participants; this causes huge waste. What is surprising then, is that the process of recruitment has very little evidence behind it. Largely, we’re relying on gut instinct, experience, and hope.. none of which seem to be working all that well.

My project aims to begin to tackle the problem of trial inefficiency by getting to grips with how participants are recruited into trials, ultimately aiming to improve recruitment methods in order to alleviate recruitment problems in trials on a global scale.

Why this project?

As part of my undergraduate degree, I did an industrial placement year – I swapped student life for a year working in recruitment. I worked for a recruitment agency that supported clinical research companies in industry to recruit staff (Principal Investigators, Research Nurses, Project Managers etc). Essentially, I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn, a lot of time on the ‘phone, and a lot of time annoying people by calling them after seeing their CV on job sites.. Anyway, as part of that role I set up a bank of Research Nurses for an international clinical research organisation. I hired 15 nurses who would do ad hoc shifts when the trial sites needed some extra pairs of hands. I really enjoyed that part of the job, it was nice to get someone from application through to being hired, and to go on that person’s journey alongside them. What wasn’t so nice though, was when those Research Nurses that I had hired started to get turned away from work. This was because the trials that they were working on didn’t have enough participants – no participants, means no data collection, and therefore no need for my Research Nurses.

When I went back to Uni to finish my degree, I was still searching for ways to recruit participants effectively – I didn’t find much, other than an advertisement for a PhD. I applied, interviewed, and was offered the post the same day. I started a month after graduating from my Undergrad, and I’m still working out how on Earth to recruit participants to trials.. it looks like it might be a career-length question, which is totally fine by me 🙂

The Importance of Having a Creative Outlet

One of the most important things I’ve learned throughout the course of my PhD, is that having a creative outlet is a non-negotiable for me. I enjoy my PhD, so it’s not a rare occurrence for me to get lost in my to do list and even up working in the office during the day, and then from home at night. That isn’t an ideal situation. It’s important to take breaks, to step away from your work and to focus on something entirely unrelated.

Earlier this year I decided that I needed to make time to read – I don’t mean to read more scientific papers (though that was on my radar too); I wanted to find my love of reading for pleasure again. I made a point of buying new books, renewing my library card, and forcing myself to go to bed an extra half an hour earlier each day so that I could read and switch off before I went to sleep. That worked for a while, until it sort of became part of my day – I now read on average 1 book (not related to anything PhD) each week, but because it’s such a routine thing, I don’t find that I’m getting the same relaxation/reward from it. So I’ve started something new.

I started Science On A Postcard a few months ago, and I’m having so much fun with it! I’m giving myself an hour or so each week to doodle and draw, to think up products that I never would have thought of otherwise – and I love it. I’m not aiming to make any money from my little shop, it’s just an outlet to facilitate more creativity; the more products I sell, the more products I can then create.

As well as Science On A Postcard, I’ve started actively seeking out little creative activities that force me out of my comfort zone, or will introduce me to new people and/or new skills. One of the things I’m most excited about over the coming months is Say It Ain’t Sew. Say It Ain’t Sew run free hand sewing classes each week in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Ellon and Aberdeen. I haven’t been to an Aberdeen event yet but I’m really looking forward to attending one of the Christmas ones – basically, you turn up (the Aberdeen one is based on a Wednesday night in Brewdog), all materials etc are provided for free (such a winner for students!), and you sit and sew a little project with some cool people and a beer. 2 hours on a Wednesday night is not going to de-rail my PhD, and I think it’ll be a really good forced break. Taking a step back from work often means I’m super excited to get back to my desk too – and I’m in a much better place in terms of concentration, focus, and creativity in terms of my academic work.

What do you guys do to force yourself to have a break? Any weird and wonderful creative outlets I should be looking for? Leave a comment and give me some inspiration!