The Bit Between Thesis Submission and the Viva

My PhD viva is very, very soon. I submitted at the end of June, and my viva is at the end of August, that little interlude is  a pretty good outcome – 2 months. Some people wait much longer, and I’m grateful that my supervisors and examiners were able to organise a date that did not mean I was left hanging.

At this point (bear in mind that I’m writing this pre-viva), I think that the 2 month gap has been pretty perfect. It has allowed me to take a step back from my research, relax a bit and get back into a new routine, and also feel ok going back and reading my thesis. I’ve heard that some people find it difficult to go back to their thesis after submitting; I spoke to a colleague last week who said “Ooh, have you read it again yet? I couldn’t read mine for months”. Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case. After taking an entire month away from it, I’ve now gone through my thesis a few times – it’s full of post it notes, scribbles, and little tabs directing me to each section. I’m just getting to know my own writing again, but on the whole I’m pretty happy with it. I know that there are bits that could be improved, pieces of text that could be re-written to improve clarity or flow, but it’s unrealistic to think that a thesis is ever going to be perfect. My thesis is the result of a 3-year training degree, if it was perfect I may as well quit research now. I know I can keep learning, and that’s the thing I’m most excited for when I think about pursuing a career in academic research.

That said, the last 2 months haven’t been particularly easy. Truthfully, I am exhausted. My brain doesn’t feel the same as it did when I was writing my thesis; I keep making silly mistakes with things – nothing major, just stuff like scheduling a meeting on the wrong day and having to re-schedule, or forgetting to do simple things. I’ve spoken to a few very lovely people who have experienced this weird not-yet-a-Dr stage, and I’ve been assured by every single one of them that this is totally normal. That’s a relief, but it’s still irritating.

If anyone has any hints and tips for the viva, please do let me know! At the moment I’m using Rowena Murray‘s ‘How to Survive Your Viva’ as a bible. I found her book ‘How to Write a Thesis’ really useful during the writing process, so I’m hoping that this one will get me through the viva too.

For now, I’m taking a few days off work to really focus on the thesis. Hopefully the next blog post I write will be with good news post-viva.. keep your fingers crossed for me!

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Unhelpful Things to Say to a Final Year PhD Student

I’ve now been out of the loop of PhD life for about 6 weeks. During that time I’ve been able to re-discover how to live without carrying my laptop everywhere, I’ve read so many books that are totally unrelated to my field of research, and I’ve been learning to ride a bike (spoiler alert – it’s been SO FUN). Over the course of those 6 weeks I’ve also been able to take a step back and begin to process all of the advice and comments that people made throughout the write-up process.

Mainly, I’m writing this because I’ve been thinking of sarcastic replies for the unhelpful comments that people gave me but would never dream of saying those replies out loud. For fellow PhD students I suspect this will provide some light relief, and for those who have thought or said things along these lines, I hope that this makes you think twice…

Comment: “A good thesis is a finished thesis!”
The response in my head: “Firstly, that’s not true. A good thesis is a well-written and well-researched thesis. Yes it needs to be finished but it’s also important to invest time in crafting the words properly so that it’s actually good. Also, please don’t patronise me.”

Comment: “No one’s going to read your thesis anyway so you can relax.”
The response in my head: “What a fecking fantastic thing to say. It’s almost like the last 3 years has been a waste of my time, brilliant! What a relief!”

Comment: “Time is ticking isn’t it?!”
The response in my head: “No shit. Reminding me of this is not helpful.”

Question: “Oh, so you’re not working as well as the PhD?”
The response in my head: “DOING A PHD FULL TIME IS A FULL TIME JOB IN ITSELF. THAT IS WORK.”

Question: “How does your partner feel about you becoming a Dr?”
The response in my head: “I want to say he’s proud and excited for me, but honestly I’d imagine he’s just glad this whole thing is coming to an end so that I shut up talking about it.”

Comment: “Funding is really hard to find isn’t it, you’d probably do better in industry.”
The response in my head: “Tremendous, thank you for your unwavering support.”

Comment: “It’ll be difficult to get funding afterwards, people will expect you to be having babies in the next few years.”
The response in my head: “Wow you are very interested in my womb, it’s worrying to hear that funding bodies could be interested too – I suspect that they have other stuff to be getting on with. Also, no.”

You Can Be Involved in Research Right Now, Wherever You Are

A few months ago I wrote a ‘publication explainer’ post on the PRioRiTy Study. That post focussed on this paper: Identifying trial recruitment uncertainties using a James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership – the PRioRiTy (Prioritising Recruitment in Randomised Trials) study. Read that post here if you’re interested.

Anyway, back to this post; w are now in the midst of the PRioRiTy II Study. PRioRiTy I prioritised questions about recruitment of participants to trials so that we could provide focus for the research community. PRioRiTy II takes a similar approach, but this time we’re prioritising questions about retention of participants that have been recruited into trials. It makes sense if you think about it; there’s no point in figuring out how to effectively recruit participants into trials if they then go on to drop out later on – we need participants to be recruited and retained in order for trial results to be reliable and useful to patients, members of the public healthcare professionals, researchers and policymakers.

The method that we are using to conduct this project has been used lots of times by the James Lind Alliance (again, more information on that in the publication explainer post I mentioned earlier), and we’re currently in the middle of it.

A few months ago we did an initial scoping survey (I say we, I hadn’t actually joined the team at that point!), that survey generated lots of responses. Those responses were questions and statements about things that people want to know about retention – once this survey closed, I joined the team and worked on data analysis for some of the results.

That data analysis resulted in a list of questions that have now gone on to be included in the ‘interim prioritisation survey’. This is a survey that asks respondents to look at the 27 questions that we currently have, and pick the 10 questions that they think is most important.

If you are:

  • A person who has been asked to take part, or has taken part, in a randomised trial
  • A parent or carer of someone who has been asked to take part, or has taken part, in a randomised trial
  • A person who has taken part in aspects of randomised trials as a partner in the research (eg, helped to get the funding, been on a trial steering committee, commented on patient information such as leaflets, letters etc)
  • A health professional or any member of a research team whose work includes encouraging people to stay involved in randomised trials once they have agreed to take part
  • Someone who has designed, run, analysed, reported on or regulated (eg, ethics committees) randomised trials
  • Someone with experience of the methods of randomised trials (ie, how trials are done)

Then we’d love for you to spare a few minutes to complete that survey – take a look here.
For more information on the PRioRiTy II project, head to the Trial Forge website, and take a look at the video below.

Why I Think Scientists Should Take Inspiration from the Likes of Kylie Jenner

I have been gently simmering about this for over a week, so I’m getting my thoughts out – be warned, this is a long blog post. It may not be the most coherent piece of writing I’ve ever done (if anything, I hope it isn’t – that award should go to my PhD thesis – yep, still talking about it!) but I hope it gives people something to think about.

A few weeks ago the New York Daily News Twitter account shared this tweet:

People were not happy. I don’t follow New York Daily News on Twitter, but I was aware of this tweet because people that I do follow (colleagues, scientists, academics, people I think are brilliant (highlights include Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley), and lots of PhD students) were retweeting it or responding to it. The majority of these responses were from PhD students and scientists describing what they are doing with their lives in increasingly condescending and belittling ways. I’m paraphrasing, but a lot of the responses that I saw were along the lines of:

  • “I’m in grad school working to try and find a cure for cancer.”
  • “I’m getting my PhD at X institute, and my research aims to improve quality of life for people with X disease.”
  • “I do research for X charity which is aiming to improve treatment for X disease, X many people die from it every year.”

Alongside this weird moral one-upmanship, a lot of the responses critiqued the post’s use of the term ‘self-made’.
If you don’t know who Kylie Jenner is, she isn’t someone who has grown up with nothing – she is the half-sister of media giant Kim Kardashian, and she’s featured on the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians for years. Kim Kardashian was first made ‘famous’ by the release of a sex tape in 2007. Since then, Kim Kardashian (now Kim Kardashian West – she married Kanye West in 2014) has launched various businesses, accrued 58.5million Twitter followers, published a book made entirely of selfies, been on the front cover of Vogue magazine, and lots more. It’s fair to say that Kylie Jenner has had a very privileged upbringing.

The responses that really frustrated me though, included jibes about her half-sister’s sex tape, the fact that Kylie posts revealing photographs on Instagram, and that she’s had cosmetic procedures like lip fillers.

What exactly has it got to do with us (as scientists) if she’s showing what is considered ‘too much’ on Instagram? Personally, I think it’s completely up to her, and if she feels comfortable with her body then why shouldn’t she flash a little side boob every now and again?! I don’t do that on my own social media profiles, but it’s got literally nothing to do with me what Kylie Jenner posts. In the same vein – so what if she’s had lip fillers? She was insecure about an aspect of her appearance (which likely came from years of being dragged by the media), she was an adult, and she made the decision to change that. The key bit here is that it’s her decision. Her decision has nothing to do with anyone else.
The reference to Kim Kardashian’s sex tape is troubling because initially it was leaked, she never released it herself. She initially sued the company that had it to prevent its release – she later settled out of court, but this essentially started out as a case of revenge porn. That’s not something that anyone wants, ever. Who are we to question what Kim Kardashian (and the rest of her family) then did to capitalise on it? Plenty of people have had sex tapes released to the public; very, very few of them are now as a successful as Kim Kardashian and co. Their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

In addition to this, Kylie has made the majority of her money from her own cosmetics line; Kylie Cosmetics. Many of those same people (overwhelmingly PhD students and early career researchers) that were tweeting their moral superiority in comparison to Kylie Jenner, also regularly take part in campaigns to support women in science, to prove that women in science are just as entitled to hold prominent roles in scientific disciplines as men are, and to break stereotypes about the ‘type’ of person that a scientist is.
This time last year there was a big Twitter campaign to try and get cosmetics company Benefit to change an advertising campaign that suggested that girls should ‘skip class, not concealer’. I wrote about my thoughts on that campaign here (spoiler alert: what a dumb marketing move, girls are perfectly capable of wearing makeup (or not) and going to class as well). In response to that campaign, people tweeted their makeup filled selfies (myself included: below) and discussed how their looks are not linked to their intelligence. So, why are those same people bashing Kylie Jenner for everything she does? I understand that the wording of the original tweet that started this post wasn’t great ‘What are you doing with your life?’ is not a useful or fair quip, but the responses demonstrate that people are not just against what the New York Daily News started, they’re calling Kylie out for simply doing what she wants to. They’re being unfair and condescending to Kylie’s intelligence just as the Benefit Cosmetics campaign was condescending to women and girls that chose to wear makeup.

This constant bashing of media stars like the Kardashians and Kylie and Kendall Jenner isn’t cool. They are a family of strong and powerful women, and they have created an entire empire based on one family member’s sexual encounter with a guy I’m betting you’ve only heard of in conjunction with Kim Kardashian. I’m not saying that I’m a fan of the Kardashians or Jenner and her sister – I don’t want Keeping Up With The Kardashians, I don’t follow any of them on social media, and I care very little about what they do or say. In fact, sometimes the things that they do and say actively annoy me; I’ve previously written about how Kendall Jenner’s pushing of so-called detox teas is shite, the whole Kardashian crowd have been known to advertise vitamin gummy bears, and recently Kim Kardashian advertised the use of ‘appetite suppressant’ lollipops. None of those things are good, and the fact they regularly pedal poor science is damaging, but the backlash against the Kylie Jenner tweet wasn’t about that – scientists and PhD students were using it as a way to show their moral superiority. In the process, I argue that they lost any moral high ground they may have had.

So, instead of calling Kylie out for how she makes money, I think that there are things that scientists and researchers can and should learn from her and the rest of the Kardashian family; their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape 10 years ago, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

Using the media to your advantage is something that, in general, I don’t think scientists are very good at. Talking as a scientist, I think we’re too close to our research, too precious about the way that details are reported, and I think we find it difficult to let go of the fact that the public do not need (and often don’t want) to know every minute detail about what we do – often, they want a story, some emotion, and an outline of what we do that they can understand and repeat to their mates. I don’t say that in a belittling way; when I go to science engagement events that’s exactly what I want – I don’t care about how many chemicals you used or how the powder you used had to be weighed in a special container, I want to know what that should mean to me, and how your work could impact on my life.

The Kardashians and Jenners show us how to turn any situation into an opportunity, they demonstrate how women should be confident and proud of their bodies, they teach us about feminity and gender by taking ownership of their sexuality, and perhaps most importantly they are marketing magicians. Science needs more of that.

To close on a lighter note. Some responses to the Kylie Jenner tweet were brilliant, this was a personal highlight:

 

Setting New Goals: Non-Work Related

Towards the end of last week I had an annual review with my Line Manager at work. He was my primary PhD Supervisor so he’s known me for over 3 years now, and he’s pretty good at sensing when I need a kick up the backside, well, that and the fact that I’d literally blogged about the post-thesis hand in slump the day before our meeting… Anyway, we had a really good discussion about his experience of the post-PhD slump, what he did to combat it and what I could start doing too. His exact words were ‘avoid work-related goals for the next 6 months’, which was both shocking and comforting. Shocking because, he’s my Manager and therefore explicitly stating that I should avoid big goals at work was weird, and comforting because oh my God, thank GOD he said it. Obviously, I’ll be working away as I’m expected to, but I’m going to make an effort to focus on things outside of work too.

I’ve had a few days to think about what I want to do over the next few months, and thought I’d share them here. Just as with work-related goals, writing things down in a relatively public place is a way to help keep me accountable.

Rediscover my love of reading
Last year I read an average of a book a week, this year it’s week 28 and I’ve read 21 books. I thought I’d be a lot further behind given that I wrote the majority of my thesis this year (yes, I’m still going on about it), but I have a huge pile of books waiting for me to read them. Over the next few months I’d like to get to the fiction books I bought from Powell’s City of Books (a selection of the pile shown on the right – I know, I buy too many books) when I was in Portland, and also some books that were released this year (Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, and Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon).

Learn how to ride a bicycle

Hi my name is Heidi, I am 26 years old and I cannot ride a bicycle. I can drive a car and walk and both roller skate and ice skate to the extent that I rarely fall over, but I cannot ride a bike. I remember learning to ride a bike – my Dad did that thing that Dads do where they tell you they won’t let go of the saddle when in fact they do, and as soon as I realised I was actually riding the bike myself I stopped and my Dad did proud-Dad tears and then we went home. I was about 6 or 7 I think. Since then I have needed to ride a bike once when I was on one of the National Trust for Scotland’s Trailblazer Camps aged 17. I tried and I couldn’t do it first time, so I stopped and admitted defeat. This has now become a shining example of my ‘if at first you don’t succeed.. give up’ mantra – it spread also to tap dancing, playing the keyboard, and various sports. Now I’ve proven to myself that I can write a whole thesis and actually do a PhD (which I will always argue is more about tenacity than intelligence), I figure it’s time I give the bike thing another shot. Also, I really want a bike with a basket on the front that I can fill with picnic food and gin, and if I can’t ride it then that dream is never going to happen.

Do something new and creative
A few months ago I bought the ‘How to be a Craftivist’ book by Sarah Corbett (right) after listening to a podcast that she did with Leena Norms, I haven’t yet read the book, but just listening to the podcast gave me tonnes of ideas about how I could use craftivist ideas to spread awareness of scientific concepts. All of those ideas are still in the back of my mind but I haven’t had time to do anything with them, now I do have some time and I think this could be a brilliant little passion project before Christmas. Not sure what the creative project will be just yet – maybe a zine? Not sure.. I’ll likely update the blog as the project (whatever it is) progresses, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Now I’ve written this down it seems a bit weird that I have had to go to the effort of setting goals in order to force myself to relax. I guess that’s a product of academic life though – this is the first time since I was a young child that I haven’t had an exam or assessment of some kind to work towards! Hopefully once I get used to having more free time this will all come a bit more naturally 🙂

 

The Post Thesis Hand In Slump

I submitted my thesis at the end of June, and things have been a bit weird since then. After talking to a few people that handed in months ago, I’m realising that this feeling of weirdness is totally normal, and incredibly common. So, in true Heidi style.. I’m blogging it out.

The day of thesis hand in was fine, the weekend after thesis hand in was great (I’m still telling people about the baby reindeer that I wasn’t allowed to bring home), and then I started to feel… weird. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, but it’s definitely weird. It’s like I’ve lost motivation but at the same time I want to achieve more than ever before – my ambition is in tact, I just don’t have the drive in me right now. I am emotionally and physically exhausted, and at the same time I’m frustrated that I’m able (and willing) to nap for at least an hour at any point during the day.

As I said in a recent post, I’m back at work having started a Research Assistant role. Honestly, I think this job is absolutely perfect for me right now. I need a very clear list of things to do that can be broken down into manageable tasks. Achieving those tasks and staying on track is helping me to feel some sense of satisfaction, whilst ensuring that I don’t have an entire project that I’m fully responsible for. This role allows me to do that whilst freeing up time at evening and weekends to spend time doing stuff that isn’t work.

So, what’s the plan for the next few months?

First, I’m going to give myself a few more weeks to let this weird feeling linger. During the coming weeks I’m going to make sure that my Research Assistant stuff is done on time and to a high standard, and then after working hours I’m going to keep working on creating products for Science On A Postcard, and getting involved in public engagement projects. Those creative projects are fun but help to keep me feeling productive, and they always remind me why I love what I’m doing. Then in the first few weeks of August I’m going to kick myself into touch and start looking at my thesis again ready for my viva.

Essentially, this blog post has been a pretty self-indulgent way for me to say that after you’ve handed in your PhD thesis, it’s totally cool to feel a bit lost and weird. Hopefully those of you that have handed in/are about to hand in will get some comfort from this – no wonder I’m exhausted (and you will be too), I literally just wrote a book.

International Day of LGBTQ+ People in Science, Technology and Maths (#LGBTSTEMDay)

Today is the first International Day of LGBTQ+ People in Science, Technology and Maths (#LGBTSTEMDay), so I’ve put together this blog post to try and do my bit to draw attention to this initiative. In the past I’ve spoken about my passion for supporting women in STEM, but it’s not only women that are underrepresented and struggle to participate, contribute and thrive in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) environments. The LQBTQ+ community continue to struggle to openly be themselves within our society, and that is unfortunately a situation that bleeds into the world of STEM specifically.

Note: I’m using LGBTQ+ here as an all-encompassing term for people identifying as part of lesbian, day, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual communities. Not sure what these mean? Head to Stonewall for a glossary of definitions.Image result for LGBT

So, why is #LGBTQSTEMDay a thing?

As I said, the LGBTQ+ community are not being supported as they should be in STEM environments. As a straight white cis woman I’m in a pretty privileged situation. The only real battle I might face in terms of discrimination in the workplace is sexism, and while I don’t want to diminish the seriousness of that in any way, the issues encountered and experienced by the LGBTQ+ community are much more complex than that.

  • Studies across Europe indicate that ~20% of LGBTQ+-identifying people felt that they experienced discrimination when job hunting due to their sexual orientation.
  • Many LGBTQ+ employees are closeted at work due to fear of the consequences of them being openly themselves; more than 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ employees lie about their personal lives at work (presumably in an effort to remain closeted).
  • Talented LGBTQ+ employees are known to leave workplaces as a result of unwelcoming environments; 1 in every 10 people identifying as LGBTQ+report this as a reason for leaving a job in the past.

For more evidence see these resources which I found on the LGBT STEM Day website:

Today is all about raising awareness of the issues encountered by the LGBTQ+ community, and more importantly, a day to encourage support to change the landscape of STEM environments to increase diversity and inclusion.

In the spirit of things, here are a few ideas on how you can mark #LGBTSTEMDay yourself:

Image result for being an LGBTQ ally