Reflections on 2018

I’ve come to the end of my little Canadian holiday – Cameron has left Toronto to head back to the UK, and hard work on my WCMT fellowship starts next week. Wahhhhh. Well, it’s hardly the worst thing in the world, but I do miss him already.
Anyway, emotions out of the way… it’s already January 5th and I haven’t spent any time reflecting on how 2018 went, so this what this blog post is going to be. The start of a new year is the perfect time for me to step back and have a look at what I’ve achieved in the previous 12 months, and what I’d like to achieve going forward (that’s coming in another post).

2018 goal: Finish the thesis, become Dr Gardner
How did I do? NAILED IT. To be fair, this goal was a bit of a cheat – my funding ran out at the end of June, so I really had to have my thesis done and handed in before that. I was hugely relieved and happy to have passed my viva with minor corrections, meaning I was able to make those corrections and resubmit in time for the winter graduation ceremonies that take place in November at the University of Aberdeen. It’s still weird when people refer to me as ‘Dr’ – I say people like this has happened a lot; it hasn’t, it’s mainly been my mum.

(L-R) Prof Marion Campbell, Dr Katie Gillies, me (and Tatty, my bear), Prof Shaun Treweek. Three wonderful colleagues who were supportive, enthusiastic and passionate throughout my PhD studies.

2018 goal: Secure funding for after the PhD
How did I do? This was the goal that I was most worried about. When you finish a funded PhD, that funding eventually comes to an end – for me that date was 30th June 2018. During my PhD my tuition fees were paid for by Aberdeen University’s Development Trust, along with a modest stipend; a lump of money that was given to me in monthly installments, tax-free, for me to live on. Whilst I was very lucky to have that funding, it was a small amount of money that enabled me to live, but I wasn’t able to save money during that time so the stress of funding completely stopping was a definite worry of mine in the early part of 2018. I explained this to my supervisors, and made them aware that I wanted to stay in Aberdeen doing research on trials methodology work of some kind.
Being open with those around me meant I had a little team championing my quest for funding and cheering me on – and it worked! I got a 6 month contract as a Research Assistant from June 2018, finishing just before Christmas, I’m now away on Fellowship travels, and when I get back I have a new contract as Research Fellow waiting for me on March 1st. I’ll post more about my new project nearer the time, but I’m really excited to get my teeth into it after having a few months of working on lots of different things at once.

2018 goal: Get involved with some new, innovative science communication and public engagement projects
How did I do? I think this one went pretty well – I did a lot of public engagement in 2018, maybe too much (can you ever do too much? that’s a question for another day, but I do feel like it started to encroach on my research time which wasn’t great).
Anyway, I brought Soapbox Science to Aberdeen for the first time (in 2019 we’ll have 2 events, which reminds me, if you’re based in Aberdeen and would like to take part as a speaker then you can apply now here), I then created another event called ‘Snappy Science’ which followed a similar format to Soapbox, but speakers only had 20 minutes to communicate their science before they were told to get off their soapboxes, I also gave talks about my research to members of the public based in rural communities as well as other academic researchers, I took part in I’m A Scientist which involved online chats with schools across the UK every day for a period of 2 weeks, I contributed to events at Aberdeen’s May Festival and TechFest events, and I continued blogging – though I did have a pretty significant break over the summer whilst I was in a thesis-induced meltdown.

Soapbox Science Aberdeen 2018 speakers.
Collaborative project with Nina Draws Scientists.

As well as public engagement events, I’m really proud of the work that I’ve continued to do with Science On A Postcard, which is a very tiny online business that I run from the office I share with my partner in what should be our spare room. This year I specifically wanted to do more collaborations; I wanted to work with other creative people so that I could create more products that were relevant to

the science community. That went pretty well; Science On A Postcard’s first collaboration was with Nina Chhita from Nina Draws Scientists – we created a set of postcards featuring women in science; they were released in time for International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11th February), and a % of profits went to organisations supporting and advocating for women in science.

Collaborative project with Teddy Perkins.

That little collaboration sparked a few more, in 2018 we’ve worked with Cutie and The Feast, Teddy Perkins (a greetings card business ran by my Mum, who is now looking after the Science On A Postcard shop whilst I’m away), the Scicommunity, the PhDepression, Super Cool Scientists, Designed By Ebony, and Wonk! Science magazine. Writing that all down has made me realise just how much work that Science On A Postcard has taken this year – no wonder I’m so bloody tired!

So I did quite well with the goals that I set myself for 2018 – hoorah!

Professionally, 2018 was a huge year for me, but that doesn’t mean that it was all positive. I’m incredibly proud of myself for what I’ve achieved over the last 12 months, but honestly, it has left me exhausted. Writing this post has really highlighted where I’ve invested my time, and it’s given me some real food for thought for the goals that I’m going to set myself for 2019. Those goals will be up on the blog within the next few days, so keep an eye out if you’re interested to know where I’m hoping 2019 will take me!

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I Graduated!

Look at me, updating the blog when I said I would…

(L-R): Prof Marion Campbell, Dr Katie Gillies, me (that’s Dr Gardner) and my bear, Tatty, in full PhD robes, and Prof Shaun Treweek.

I graduated yesterday, I did the actual graduating with all the people and everything! That’s it, my PhD is officially over, and I am so, so proud of myself. The last 3 years and a half years haven’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve had some pretty huge changes in my personal life (the majority of which I’ll never talk about online), I was diagnosed with depression, and there have been multiple times when it would have been much easier to give up than it was to carry on. I didn’t though, I dug deeper than I thought I ever could, and I learned how to ask for help when I needed it.

I had a really lovely day yesterday. My Mum and Dad flew up to Aberdeen in the morning, so that we could all (my parents and my long-suffering boyfriend) go for lunch before the graduation ceremony in the afternoon, and by the time the ceremony was over it was pitch black. The day went so quickly, but after a few weeks of wishing I’d chosen to graduate in absentia, I was glad to have been encouraged (read: threatened) by my Mum to attend the ceremony.

Thank you to my family, friends, and colleagues at the Health Services Research Unit for supporting me over the last 3 and a half years, but mostly, thank you to Prof Shaun Treweek and Dr Katie Gillies, who have been the best supervisors I could ever have wished for.

All Aberdeen University graduations were streamed live online, and available for free on YouTube. Head to the 1 hour mark of the video below to see me graduate without falling over, accidentally hitting anyone or swearing – a Christmas miracle 🙂

 

Wait, You’re Still Not a Dr?

This post is inspired by my friend and fellow science blogger, Soph Arthur from Soph Talks Science; earlier this week she wrote a blog post about handing in her PhD thesis (huge congrats, Soph!), and why she hasn’t made the jump to Dr Arthur yet. I thought her post was a brilliant way to explain the process of PhD examinations and awards – handing in the thesis is often seen as the final step before gaining your PhD, but there’s actually quite a lot more to go after that.

I handed my thesis in at the end of June, and had my viva at the end of August. The viva is an oral examination (usually face to face) that is designed to push you to your limits, to check that you did the work contained in your thesis, and to have some discussion around what you might have done differently and why. Mine had 2 examiners – 1 external (someone from outside my University), and 1 internal (someone that’s based at my University), and it last an hour and a half. At the end of those 90 minutes I was asked to leave the room, and 5/10 minutes later I was called back in to be told that I’d passed with minor corrections. That’s a pretty common result. At the University of Aberdeen ‘minor corrections’ means that you have 3 months to make the changes requested by the examiners, and only after that can you apply to graduate.

So it’s currently the beginning of October, and I’m STILL not a Dr.

I know. ANNOYING.

Post-viva, pre-corrections.

Anyway, that’s entirely my own fault. I completely avoided the thesis until last week; I just didn’t want to make the corrections, I didn’t want to read what I’d written for what felt like the millionth time, I just wanted to continue being super proud of myself for getting to this point and passing the viva. Unfortunately though, if I don’t make the corrections and get my ass into gear, then I will never be Dr Gardner.

After a very helpful catch up with my supervisors, I began tackling the corrections earlier this week, and I’m on track to finish them by the start of next week. I will finish them, and I will send my (hopefully final) thesis to my supervisors so they can have a quick look over it before I send it back to my examiners. Hopefully they will be happy with it, and I can then start getting excited for graduation – if I get things in order and turned around quickly I should be able to graduate on Friday 23rd November.

If I get my act together, that means I’ll be able to call myself Dr Gardner in about a month and a half. No pressure.

From PhD Student to Research Assistant

Hoorah, hoorah! It’s officially the first day of #Blogtober!

In this post I wanted to answer a question that I’ve been asked by a few people; what’s it like to go from being a PhD student to working in a full time Research Assistant role? How do you secure a new role, are there similarities, differences, details on if and how my work/life balance has changed, how has the transition been generally etc. It’s a pretty long and wordy post, but I hope it gives those of you that are interested a little snapshot of what post-PhD life is like.

So, a bit of background for those that aren’t aware..

My PhD funding officially ended on Saturday 30th June 2018, which meant I was aiming for a hand in on Friday 29th at the very latest. I ended up submitting my thesis a few days early on Wednesday 27th and then took a few days off to recover. During the month of June whilst I was finishing my thesis, I was also working part time as a Research Assistant at HSRU – the same department where I was based for my PhD.

About a year before I submitted I started having conversations with my supervisors about what might happen after the PhD. At the time, that felt very early, a bit panic-inducing, and like everything was far off anyway. As expected, my supervisors were absolutely right to start talking about things early; time went much faster than I  anticipated it would, and the world of funding in academia is often so slow that you need to start preparing applications etc a year before you can expect to get the funding through (and that’s if you get the funding at all!).
Anyway, we started to work up a grant application to the CSO (Chief Scientist Office), which is part of the Scottish Government Health Directorates. This is the funding body that part-funds that Unit that I work in, and also funded my first grant which covered the qualitative and user-testing parts of my PhD project. My experience with them has always been really positive, so I was happy that they were going to be our target for post-PhD funding – but even so, I wasn’t massively confident that we’d get the grant. I thought the project was good (obviously..), but sometimes you just don’t know with grant applications; it depends who you’re up against and what the panel reviewing applications are looking for on the day. Anyway, we knew that whatever the outcome was, the funding wouldn’t start until the beginning of 2019 so I was still on the hunt for something to fill my time (and pay my rent..) from July 2018 (at this point I hadn’t yet found out about the outcome of my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship application).

A few months later (around February time) one of my supervisors was advertising for a Research Assistant. It was only 6 month contract but by this point I had just found out that I’d got the WCMT Fellowship, and would need to slot in my travel time (I know, such a hard life..) which would require 7 weeks away from whatever I was doing, so it sounded perfect. I interviewed for the RA role, and just hoped and hoped and hoped that I’d got it. About a week later I found out I’d got the job and the relief was unreal. This meant that I would do the role part time in June, and then go full time from July to December before leaving for my WCMT travels. It all worked out perfectly.

The timings had all worked out so that I left work one day as a PhD student, and then returned as a Research Assistant; it was all pretty seamless. I moved desks in an afternoon between meetings, and kept on doing whatever was on my never ending to do list (that’s not me boasting about how busy I am, I use a to do list that by design, never ends, to keep track of tasks I need to get to). I didn’t really give my head any time to adjust to my new role, and looking back now, I wish I had.

The role itself means I’m working across lots of different projects:

  • The PRioRiTy II project – a project I’m pretty comfortable with because I was involved (in a minor role!) in the PRioRiTy I project
  • The ImproveHD project – this looks at how we can improve care delivery for people with Huntington’s Disease; something that is completely new to me
  • ELICIT – a project I’m really excited to be involved with, that’s based in trial methodology and links with participant recruitment (the topic of my PhD thesis), but uses methods I haven’t used before

As well as those projects, I’m also working away on my PhD corrections (I hope to get them finished within the next week or so), and public engagement work; you’ll hear more about the latest event that I was involved in tomorrow. This has been a bit of a shock to the system after focussing on my PhD pretty much all the time for the last 3 years.

The transition has been fine, the first few weeks were good – I think I was still working on the adrenaline of thesis submission and then viva success – but after that I found it really difficult to focus and actually make progress with the projects that were in front of me. I took a week’s annual leave in September and then returned to Aberdeen with a horrendous cold that floored me for the best part of a week after that (I am unbearable when I am ill, in the eyes of both myself and everyone around me). I’m now back at work and getting through things with a bit more focus, but the environment is definitely different to when i was doing my PhD. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just something I’ve needed to get used to – and something that I think most PhD students transitioning to another academic role will experience too.

I’m glad that this role is for 6 months – and that’s not because I don’t want to be in the role. Honestly, I think after completing a PhD it’s important to get out of the place where you did it, do something else for a little while, and then move on to something new. For me that means leaving for Quebec on December 28th, and then returning from Hong Kong February 25th. Thankfully, we got the CSO grant that I mentioned earlier, so I’ll be returning to HSRU to start my new role as Research Fellow on March 1st. This Research Assistant role has taught me a lot of new skills – juggling projects, prioritising which to work on first and when to stop to give attention to something else, how to work with people with different working styles than I’m used to, and knowledge around new patient communities and how those communities can work with research to produce unique research projects. Working across lots of different things has taught me a lot, but I’m really looking forward to having my own project to get my teeth into when I come back from my travels.

HI, I’M DR GARDNER NOW!

A week and a half after my viva, and I’ve just realised I didn’t update you with a blog post to share how it went.

I think this photograph sums it up pretty well.

On Wednesday 22nd August, I passed my PhD viva with minor corrections!

The viva itself latest an hour and a half, and it was full of good discussion. Now that 90 minutes is a bit of a blur, but I do remember kind of enjoying it. It was really nice to hear what other people thought of my work and what I could do to strengthen the thesis. The corrections are pretty minimal and shouldn’t take me too long, so I’ll be working on getting those done over the next few weeks to aim for graduation in November.

Those three years went incredibly quickly – now on to the next challenge..

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!

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.”