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.

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So, I Finished My Thesis

I haven’t posted anything on this blog for what feels like a very long time – in actual fact, it’s been about 4 or 5 weeks. In those 4 or 5 weeks I finished and submitted my PhD thesis.

*Pause for dramatic effect.*

I KNOW.

I actually did it, I got comments back from my Supervisors about a week before my submission deadline, and they were minimal. I was incredibly relieved, because by that point I’d mentally checked out. I made the changes over the course of about an hour, checked formatting etc, and then sent it to print.

I’d like to introduce my newborn baby, born 3 days ahead of her due date on Tuesday 26th June, and comprising of 61,622 words spread over 250 pages; welcome to the world ‘Making clinical trials more efficient: consolidating, communicating and improving knowledge of participant recruitment interventions’.

Mother and baby are both doing well – I suspect baby better than Mother at this point.

Really though, I am exhausted. I took a week off after submission and spent time reintroducing myself to my family, my boyfriend, and the idea of having a social life (and books, I have read lots of books). I went to Aviemore for the weekend and spent time clambering about in the Cairngorms and trying to convince aforementioned boyfriend that introducing a baby reindeer into our life would be a really good idea (I did not win this argument and I am still living sadly in a pet-free home). After that though, I felt really unproductive and like I was wasting time (that goes to show how alien relaxation felt), so I relaunched my Etsy shop with a whole bunch of new products.

I’m now back at work. I was lucky enough to secure a job as a Research Assistant based with my PhD Supervisors so don’t have to worry too much about money and that whole being unemployed thing (hoorah!). My brain still doesn’t feel like it’s functioning at full capacity, and I am ridiculously tired all the time, but I’m getting there. I rejoined the gym and yesterday I missed the England match (yes, the World Cup has absolutely sucked me in – it’s coming home etc etc) in favour of returning to my weekly hot yoga class for the first time in about 3 months. I’m getting back to blogging, so you can expect more frequent content over the coming weeks, and I’ve managed to work in some freelance writing too. Life feels a bit more normal.

Actually, now I think about it, it sort of feels like the process of writing my thesis didn’t really happen; time went by so quickly that it’s a weird blur in my mind. The only real evidence I have that it happened is a bunch of blog posts tracking my progress, the thesis itself, and the addition of a significant amount of baby weight.

Thesis Update – T-Minus 3 Weeks

I just realised that I missed my ‘T-Minus 1 Month’ post, so I’m quickly putting together this T-Minus 3 Weeks version so that you can see where I’m up to with my thesis writing.

In my last update post I set some aims:

  • Literature review – STOP MESSING ABOUT AND WRITE THE BLOODY THING!
  • Systematic review – Slot into final thesis structure.
  • Qualitative study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • User-testing study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • Thesis introduction – Get a first draft written for the beginning of May.
  • Thesis conclusions – Get a first draft written for the middle of May.

I want an entire working thesis draft by the end of May – that’ll give me a month before hand-in to ready through it a million times, tweak things, ensure I haven’t repeated myself a million times, and then make sure that the formatting and referencing is correct.”

Spoiler alert – it’s now Sunday 10th June and I do not have a full draft. I am very nearly there, but certain bits of editing and writing have taken longer than I thought they would.

Anyway, where am I at?

Current word count: 63,966 (that’s the entire document, appendices etc included)
Current page count: 247

Introduction

I’m almost there! Just need to rewrite my thesis-rationale section and this bit is officially off my to do list (for now).

Literature review

DONE. It’s done! Weirdly enough, once I’d gotten over the ridiculous amount of procrastination I did to avoid writing this chapter, it wasn’t so bad. Once I’d got comments back from my supervisors, I actually enjoyed the editing part. Weird.

Systematic review

DONE! This chapter has been written, edited and written a bit more. It is complete.

 

Qualitative study

NOT DONE. I got comments back from my supervisors a few weeks ago so I need to go through and edit, refine etc etc. This is the chapter that I’m most dreading – it’s a black hole of imposter syndrome and whenever I go back to it I feel like I’m not good enough. Time to get rid of that feeling and get it done!

User testing study

DONE! This chapter has been written, edited and written a bit more. It is complete (for now).

 

Aims for the next week or so

Looking at that, I don’t actually have that much to do at all. It’s totally doable in the next week or so. Time to knuckle down..

  • Thesis rationale – By the time I leave the office today, I’m going to re-write my ‘Thesis rationale’ paragraph, that will mean that the entire thesis introduction section is complete to a standard that I’m happy with.
  • Systematic review in context – This is a sort of short bonus chapter that comes after my Systematic Review, and provides information on the other reviews that sit alongside mine. I need to write this. I already have bits of text in various documents so I don’t anticipate this taking a huge amount of time, I’m going to try to get this section done on Monday.
  • Qualitative study – This chapter needs a whole lot of editing, which I think will take me 3 or 4 days to complete. I plan on doing this Tuesday-Thursday/Friday.
  • Thesis conclusions – Each of my results chapters have their own conclusion sections, so this chapter is about bringing everything together and making recommendations for future work. I have a tonne of ideas for this chapter because I’ve discussed the contents of it with my supervisors a few times already, so I’m hoping that means it won’t take me too long to translate those ideas from my head on to the page. I plan on doing this Friday-Sunday.

I’m then going to try and print out a full version of my thesis (oh my god!) on Sunday afternoon, so that I can go through it on Sunday evening and Monday and ensure that I haven’t missed anything obvious. Tuesday 19th I plan on sending my thesis to my supervisors for one final look over, and then I’ll have time to make any final edits, tweaks etc before I submit on Friday 29th.

Inspiring People: Doug Altman

Doug Altman

Today whilst scrolling mindlessly through Twitter I saw a post that began, “So sorry to hear of Doug Altman’s passing.” At first I didn’t really believe it – it was like the first time someone told me that Michael Jackson or David Bowie had died, I didn’t think it was real. I scrolled a bit more and saw more posts echoing the same sentiment. Today, we lost Doug Altman.

I was sat in my Mum’s kitchen when I found out. I told her and she asked who Doug Altman was, and I found it genuinely difficult to put into words, ‘Er.. he, well he’s a statistician, a really good one. A lot of the work that I do has his ideas entrenched in it. He’s a big deal, medical-research-wise.’ Shortly after that conversation I left my Mum’s to drive back to my home in Aberdeen. The journey took about 4 and a half hours, and between podcasts and Jon Ronson’s audiobook of ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed‘, I was thinking about Doug Altman and how I wished more people knew who he was. Clearly, in the medical research world we know that we’ve lost a giant, but there are people in other areas of research and in other walks of life that haven’t yet had the joy of discovering Doug’s work. So, Doug Altman is my first entry in a new blog post series called ‘Inspiring People’, where I’ll be sharing details of the people that inspire me – whether in my working life or in my personal life.

So, where do I start with someone like this?

According to Wikipedia..

Douglas Altman FMedSci (born London, UK, 12 July 1948) was an English statistician best known for his work on improving the reliability and reporting of medical research and for highly cited papers on statistical methodology. He is professor of statistics in medicine at the University of Oxford, founder and Director of Centre for Statistics in Medicine and Cancer Research UK Medical Statistics Group, and co-founder of the international EQUATOR Network for health research reliability.

Why did he inspire me?

On the first day on my PhD, my supervisor furnished me with a large pile of papers, links and books to get my teeth into. He drew particular attention to the Testing Treatments book, and a paper titled ‘The scandal of poor medical research‘. I read that paper multiple times, I’ve cited it multiple times in my thesis, and it’s something that I frequently refer to when constructing arguments about the work that I do. Medical research can be done better, and my PhD is taking a tiny, tiny piece of the medical research landscape, and working to improve it. ‘The scandal of poor medical research’ hasn’t just inspired me, it was voted as the paper that the British Medical Journal should be most proud of publishing.

He wasn’t only a ridiculously intelligent man and a brilliant writer, he was a brilliant colleague. I’ve never worked directly with Doug Altman, but everything I’ve heard about him suggests that he was a fantastic person to work with; down to Earth, funny, sarcastic, kind and supportive.

My first big conference presentation was at the Evidence Live conference in 2016. I was presenting work from the Trial Forge group (the wider group that my PhD is set within), but it wasn’t entirely my work, so I was pretty nervous. Before I got up to the lectern I saw Doug Altman. I knew it was Doug Altman, I knew he was about to watch me give my first ever conference presentation, and my nerves escalated. A few minutes into the presentation I remember looking out into the audience and seeing Doug laugh at one of my ‘medical research is not doing it’s job’ related jokes (I know, major nerd alert), after he stopped laughing I saw him nodding along with my points. That tiny interaction is something he likely didn’t even note, but it boosted my confidence more than anything else had when it came to giving presentations. I still think about it now when I get nervous before a talk, I tell myself ‘well if Doug Altman got my joke and liked what I had to say, I must be doing something right’.

I won’t ramble on any more, I’ll just leave with you a list of further reading so you can find out about Doug’s ideas from the man himself.

Doug Altman’s Google Scholar Profile – detailing the papers that have so far earned him 360,483 citations
Practical Statistics for Medical Research (book)
Research Methods for Postgraduates (book)
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
Evaluating non-randomised intervention studies
Methodological issues in the design and analysis of randomised trials
Importance of the distinction between quality of methodology and quality of reporting
Better reporting of interventions: template for intervention description and replication (TIDieR) checklist and guide
A history of the evolution of guidelines for reporting medical research: the long road to the EQUATOR Network
The COMET initiative database: progress and activities update (2014)

Doug Altman – Scandal of Poor Medical Research (filmed at Evidence Live 2017 – I blogged about Doug’s talks at that conference too, see here and here)

We’ve lost a brilliant, inspiring mind today.
In the words of NDORMS (the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences where Doug worked), ‘Thank you, Doug, for all you gave to research and the world.’

An Evening With Bill Nye – Portland, Oregon

Last night I went to see Bill Nye Live in Portland. If you were at school in the 1990s, you probably recognise that name from the TV show ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ – it ran between 1993 and 1998 saved many, many science teachers from terrible hangovers as Bill took over teaching for a lesson.

Now, Bill Nye is not only a science educator – he’s the CEO of the Planetary Society, he provided consultancy on scientific matters to Barrack Obama when he was in office (ahh, the good old days..), he’s written multiple books, and he’s even been on Dancing with the Stars. Most relevant to last night’s event is that’s he’s a board member of the Mount St. Helens Institute, a non-profit aiming to ‘advance understanding and stewardship of the Earth through science, education, and exploration of volcanic landscapes’.

Ticket sales for ‘Bill Nye Live: An Evening of Seismic Importance’ were in support of the Mount St Helens Institute, and on the 38th anniversary of its eruption, Bill Nye and the Institute aimed to educate and entertain on the topic of climate change, the effects of the 1998 eruption, and how we can all work together to, quite literally, save the world.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the event in terms of the level of seriousness in the way the content was presented – Bill Nye has always been funny, but this topic is serious, especially given that it was in honour of the 38th anniversary of the Mount St Helens eruption. 57 people died as a result of the eruption, so I was a bit weary of Bill’s jokey side.

To be honest, there were parts of Bill’s presentation that did make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I agreed with just about everything that he said, but the way that he repeatedly described the eruption as ‘amazing’, whilst only mentioning the victims of it once or twice, and in quite derogatory ways (Harry Truman was one resident who refused to leave despite being told to evacuate the Mount St Helens site; he was killed by the pyroclastic flow that overtook his lodge and buried the site under 150ft of volcanic debris), didn’t sit well with me. I get that he was playing things up for the audience, but Mount St Helens is less than 2 hours away, and given that the eruption was only 38 years ago, it’s feasible that people can remember the devastation that it caused; it seemed insensitive.

Mount St Helens before and after the 1980 eruption.

That said, overall I thought the event was really well done. The audience was very mixed – lots of families with very young children, large groups of adults and older couples wanting to learn more about the volcano, so I thought the way Bill managed to communicate such complicated science was brilliant. I’m not a geologist, and haven’t studied volcanoes since I was about 12 (I think it was in a Geography class with a teacher I didn’t like..), and I followed the graphs and statistics that were presented pretty easily. There was a young boy sat next to me who seemed to follow along easily enough too, and as we got up to leave I heard him say to his Mum, ‘how do you be a geologist then?’ which was a heart-warming end to the evening.

Find out more about the Mount St Helens Institute here, and watch Bill Nye’s latest Netflix series ‘Bill Nye Saves the World’ here.

Some Things I Learned From Taking a #DigitalDetox

Helloooooo internet! It’s weird being back after that little break I had. After a really hectic week back at work it almost feels like I never took the break at all, but I have kept up some of the habits I developed over the course of the week and I’ve felt much more able to deal with my workload. I figured it might be helpful to share those with you.
For anyone that is super stressed out, feeling a bit anxious or unmotivated (Katie’s most recent post is what triggered me to write this one..), these tips are really simple and should hopefully help.

Disclaimer: Some of these tips are embarrassingly simple, so much so that I’m shocked that I didn’t implement them earlier on in this PhD process. Still, if I wasn’t doing them before then I’d guess that lots of other PhD students aren’t doing them now.

1. Turn your notifications off

Before last week just about every app on my phone had notifications switched on; WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Goodreads, WordPress, Etsy, the news, even when Podcasts updated each week. I (naively) didn’t think that these notifications had much of an impact on me, but switching them off has cleared out a tonne of background noise that I didn’t even realise was there. Previously, there were always notifications waiting for me on my phone, always something to think about, catch up on, acknowledge. Now, there’s nothing. Obviously I get texts and calls like normal, but notifications from apps are strictly off. I check apps when I have time to deal with the stuff that they contain, rather than constantly being aware of what I need to deal with later on in the day. Terrifyingly simple, shockingly effective.

2. Stop checking your email all the time

As with notifications, my emails are on my iPhone (seriously, iPhones are the best and worst things ever), so with one quick click and swipe I’d have checked emails from my personal account, my work account, and the account I have that’s based with one of my freelance clients. It was pretty rare that there were no emails in any of those 3 accounts; now let’s be clear, I’m not saying I’m super popular or important, 80% of those emails were likely from mailing lists or companies trying to get me to buy stuff, but still. Not checking emails was the thing I found most difficult last week – I’m a big fan of getting, and staying, at inbox zero, and I knew in the back of my mind that when I went back that would not be the case. I stuck with it though, and I check them much less often now – I’m not important enough for the world to implode if someone needs to wait an extra hour or two to get a reply from me, and it clears up head space and helps me to stay focussed on what I’m actually doing.

3. If it takes less than 5 minutes, do it now

Previously, my to do list was clogged up with tiny, tiny things. ‘Book dentist appointment’, ‘sort laundry out’, ‘clear desk’, ‘go to the Post Office’, ‘print handouts for talk’, ‘make Doodle poll for meeting’ etc etc – these things are the easiest wins to make on a to do list, so I would allow them to build up and then do them as a form of ‘productive procrastination’. No longer! Holy cow, last week I got through all these tiny little things and my to do list is about a third of the length it once was – and it’s staying that way. If it takes less than 5 minutes, it gets done there and then. This not only means I’m getting more stuff done, but it removes the clutter from a to do list and enables me to focus on the stuff I actually have to do; i.e. write thesis.

I need this print from Sighh Designs.
4. Empty time is not wasted time
How could any of my time be wasted with this little pup around? (Note – that is the feeling of true joy you see on my face).

At this point I need to get this sentence tattooed on my arm. Or printed across my laptop screen, whatever. I was thinking about what I’d done with my week off, and I couldn’t remember what I’d done on Monday and Tuesday. All I could think was that I’d looked after Milo (excellent puppy that I’ve been borrowing), given myself a pedicure, got a hair cut, read my book and watched Netflix (if you haven’t watched Queer Eye yet then oh my god, it’s the best feel good TV ever, it totally didn’t make me cry, nope not at all). That small list of things was all that I did over 2 days, and it was bloody brilliant. I just had a slow few days, I wasn’t running around like a headless chicken trying to get emails sent or writing done – it was totally relaxed. This week when I came back to work I was able to work way more efficiently so that I could then take some time away at lunch, or finish work and not be glued to my laptop long into the evening.

So yep, that’s it! I’m back and feeling super motivated for the next 10 weeks or so. Yhere is so much happening, but I’m feeling excited for it rather than nervous or anxious, it looks like that little break did exactly what I needed it to do – hoorah!

I’m Taking a Week’s Holiday 11 Weeks Before My Thesis Is Due

As you’re reading this, it’s 11 weeks until I submit my PhD thesis. 11 weeks. A decent amount of time, but it’s becoming more real by the day now. I’m writing this post in advance and scheduling it to be posted – I’m taking a break. From Monday 9th April until Monday 16th April I will be intentionally forgetting about my thesis, turning all notifications off on my phone, and logging out of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I am taking an entire week to sort my head out. I’ve mentioned before that I have depression, and I really didn’t realise how how much of an impact that writing my thesis would have on my mental health. It’s not that I’ve been particularly ‘depressed’ if you know what I mean, I’ve just been a bit mopey for a few weeks; nothing major, just a bit numb and unmotivated. I’m getting better at recognising when things aren’t feeling so good, and now is one those times when I need a bit of time to myself.

I miss the feeling of being super motivated and excited to sit down and write (honestly, that was a thing a few months ago!), and this week’s holiday has come at the perfect time. I’d booked it off ages ago because I’m going to see Bastille in Edinburgh on Wednesday night (a Christmas present from my boyfriend), and then I’m going to Brussels with my best friend Friday to Monday to see Air Traffic. Initially I’d thought about just taking the days off that I needed to, but the past few weeks have made it really clear that I need to take the full week.  I need some time to sort my head out so that I can finish the PhD with the same feelings of motivation and enthusiasm that I started with. I want my thesis to be the best piece of writing I can possibly produce, and my brain is too mushy to do it justice right now.

This week I’m avoiding the internet, I’m unchaining myself from my desk and I’m going to have an entire week of doing stuff that I enjoy. Catch up with friends, read, go to the cinema, do some yoga, cook food from scratch (I’m an expert in Tesco ready meals at this point), spend time with my partner (this guy genuinely deserves a medal, I have been a true JOY to live with for the past few weeks), and actually make time to find out how my best friend’s first teaching job is going (I have been the worst friend recently, sorry everyone).

Credit: Pauline Kebuck

There will be no more blog posts from me for the next little while – I’ll be back once my head is feeling less like cotton wool and my thesis is feeling more like it will be something that I’m really proud of when it’s done.