Thesis Writing Full Time #1: Finding My Feet

On January 30th I finished data collection for my PhD (AHHH!), on January 31st I then submitted the final report for the grant that funded the bulk of my PhD research, and since then I’ve been thesis writing full time. Honestly, I was really excited to get to this stage, and it hasn’t gone quite as expected – so I thought I’d write a blog post both to remind myself that I am less than a week in and still finding my feet with it, and to try and shed some light on the process for those that are thesis writing too (or soon will be).

The Good Bits

I’ll start with the good – I’ll ease you in gently.. Doing this thing full time means that I can sit down and really focus on what I’ve done. Before doing this, there was a lot less paper in my life, but I also didn’t have a realistic overview of how much I’ve achieved in the last 2 and a half years. I’ve collected a tonne of data, and I’ve learned to analyse and interpret it so that it might actually be useful for people in the trials community! Hoorah for learning stuff!

Thesis writing full time also means I can work when and where you want to. For me this has been brilliant because I can ensure that I’m the most productive that I can be. Before, I had brilliant intentions of getting up, showered and at my desk for 8am every day, but that just hasn’t happened. The most productive times of the day for me are 3pm until 6pm, and then after dinner until I go to bed (which can be super late). Before 3pm I do a lot of ‘pottering’ – basically, stuff that needs doing but that isn’t actually writing. Reading, finding the right references, putting together draft zeros for different chapters, all interspersed with various life admin and chores. At the weekend I’m pretty good around noon until 4pm, and because I’m able to choose when I work and when I take breaks, the whole working at the weekend thing is working out pretty well. I don’t feel like I’m going to burn out, and I’m getting through the writing at a decent pace.

I’ve also turned my office into a little thesis-writing cave, which has been so brilliant. Firstly, it gave me a kick to sort my desk space out, and secondly (most importantly) me working from home has given my other half a kick to sort out his half of the office too – I hate clutter and can’t work when there’s too much stuff around to distract me.

The desk space – yes that it a bear shaped pencil case, yes that is a dog shaped tape measure, and yes they are tiny wooden desk pets – I’m not allowed a dog and these were a hilarious replacement that arrived in the form of a Christmas gift from my parents. I am 26 and until I’m allowed a dog, this is what my desk space will continue to look like.
The Bad Bits

Ok, now on to the bad. I’ve been having a super wobbly mental health week. I always work best under pressure – i.e. juggling a million things and working from a packed To Do list, but working on the thesis entirely (I do still have some other projects running but for now my input is minimal) has alleviated all of that busy energy and self-imposed pressure, and my brain hasn’t coped very well with this new found freedom. It’s weird.

On the bright side though, the past week has already taught me a lot the coping strategies I need to implement (more on those in a later blog post). Ultimately I think that this little wobble has been a useful learning experience for me (re-reading this for typos and oh my god, have I turned into an academic now?! – ‘no failures, just learnings’), like I said it’s helping me to develop my own coping strategies, and it’ll make sure that I’m more resilient when I’m in a job where I don’t have the luxury of working from home at weird hours.

It still feels a bit weird to say that I’m writing my thesis; it doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing my PhD long enough for it to be that time yet – so, so weird. Anyway, I have a chapter of qualitative research to write, so I’ll leave this one here.
I’ll be posting a few blogs posts as I go through this process, but if there’s a big gap between postings just assume I’m sat at my desk, typing away with a hot water bottle on my knee.

A Day at the Wellcome Collection, London

Last week I was in London for an interview (hopefully more on that later, but until I find out the results of said interview let’s skip over that..). The flight down from Aberdeen was super early and I didn’t fly back until 7.30pm, so I spent the majority of the day at the Wellcome Collection.

Every time I’m in London I mean to come to the Wellcome Collection, but I’m usually so pushed for time that it ends up falling off my itinerary in favour of the stuff that I’m actually in London for. Anyway, with a decent amount of spare time I was delighted to be able to have lunch in the Wellcome Cafe (super busy, but really friendly staff and the best sweet potato salad I’ve ever eaten), spend money I shouldn’t be spending in the Wellcome Shop (everything is gorgeous and I need all of the books and science stuff that they sell), catch up on emails and have a mooch around the Wellcome Library, and have a look around the exhibits before heading back to the airport.

The Wellcome Library

I got a free day pass to use the library and wifi, and honestly, I wish this library was closer to home for me. You can’t take in coats/bags etc, you leave your belongings in a locker outside the library, and take what you need in (laptop, charger etc) in a clear plastic bag. This is the best thing ever. At first I was a bit weirded out by this, but when I got into the library it made more sense. There’s no clutter anywhere, people are working away without ‘stuff’ everywhere, and all of the stuff you do in an effort to procrastinate and avoid work is locked up. I found the library a really good place to do work in; I hate working in cluttered environments because I find it hard to concentrate, so this was perfect. I got through a tonne of emails, a few bits of my to do list, and then went for a wander around.

Exhibits at the Wellcome Collection

I missed the ‘Can Graphic Design Change Your Life?’ exhibition, it finished on the 14th of this month and I’m still not over it – if you’re interested in that I’d recommend Chloe Turner’s blog post here which gives a good summary (and some sneaky photos) of the exhibit. Anyway, what I did see were the Medicine Man, Medicine Now, and Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine exhibitions.

Medicine Now was my favourite of the exhibits, and the one I was most impressed with. It offered something for everyone, there was an activity station at the back where children (and adults!) were playing and making postcards to communicate their feedback (left).

The Medicine Now exhibit also had some ridiculously cool exhibits aimed at increasing understanding of the human body. First – this slice of human, yes, it’s a slice of an actual human being. When the person died they donated their body to science, and the fluids in their body were replaced with plastics to allowed a clean cut to be made. This is a controversial technique, but if it’s your thing I’d also recommend trying to get to a Body Worlds exhibition. I went to one at the Centre for Life in Newcastle a few years ago and it was fantastic.

Behind the slice of body (wow, that does sound gross) above, you can see a transparent model of a body, complete with organs, blood vessels and bones. In my opinion this was the best bit of the entire exhibit. By the body’s feet was a panel of buttons, no instructions, just buttons. Clearly my curiosity got the better of me and I went on to press each and every one of the buttons in front of me – thankfully, that was the idea. When I pressed the buttons, the corresponding organ lit up. I took a little video clip for Instagram so you can see what I mean:

As well as the super cool bodies, Dolly the sheep made an appearance (well, her front-page Time magazine, some droppings and a handful of wool, as did a wall of chromosomes made out of socks.

If you’re in London and have a few hours to spare, I’d definitely recommend heading to the Wellcome Collection! The Medicine Now exhibit is permanent and free.

Organisation for PhD Success: Task Management

A few months ago I published a post on organisation to do with reading and referencing – that post was triggered by a conversation with my friend and fellow PhD student Lyuba (side-note, she’s started blogging – hoorah! Check out her blog here). This is the second post that came out of that conversation – how on Earth to keep track of all the things that you juggle as a PhD student?

Over the past 2 and a half years I’ve tried lots of different things, some have stuck, and others lasted little more than a week. Now I have a pretty set way to organise and keep track of everything; I’ve been using this method for about 18 months or so and it’s working well. I’m hoping that this post will help those of you who are struggling to keep track of multiple projects, and might encourage you to get a structured method of organisation in place going forward.

Working from a single, continual to do list

This is the thing that most people disagree with – but give me a chance. I work from one single to do list that never ends. It covers PhD work, other project work that I’m involved with, public engagement stuff, blog posts I want to write, Science On A Postcard work, household chores, self-care stuff, everything.

Previously, I’ve split tasks into different to do lists – one for work, one for home for example. That didn’t really work for me because I was spending too much time writing the lists, sorting tasks into lists, and then attempting to keep up with them all. One continual to do list means that everything I need to get done is written down in one place – granted, if I lose the list everything becomes a nightmare, but luckily that hasn’t happened yet! That list spans includes everything, at the moment it includes: ‘manicure before Thursday’, ‘book dentist appointment’, ‘drop dry cleaning off’, ‘finish systematic review chapter edits’, ‘review comments for journal manuscript’, ‘pay for writing retreat’, ‘upload new products to Etsy‘, ‘check interview location for Thursday’, ‘buy batteries for hallway clock’… I could go on.

I use a small To Do list pad I got from Paperchase last year  (left)- it’s nothing fancy, it was pretty cheap, and I don’t mind scribbling in it. It’s also got little boxes at the end of each line, meaning I can tick tasks off and easily see what’s done/needs doing. At the start of every year I used to spend so much money on stationery in an effort to get organised, none of those tools ever worked as well as this single list pad.

Long term tasks

When I spoke to Lyuba a few months ago, I explained the wonder of my single to do list, and she said ‘but what about really long term tasks?’. When she first asked I didn’t think that I had any one to keep track of these, but when I thought about it, I’m doing this without actively thinking about it. I use the desktop version of Outlook on my computer at work, and the Office 365 version at home – to track long term tasks that don’t fit on my single to do list, I use the ‘tasks’ function on Outlook.

For really long term tasks, I track these as ‘no date’ tasks – and the fact they’re on the list means that I’m still aware of them, but might not be actively be working on them. Other tasks get ‘next week’ or a custom date, which tends to be the following month. I check these tasks regularly because they’re right there when I’m writing and sending emails, which means that I don’t forget those tasks that I’ve said I’ll do months into the future.

Tracking your time

I’m aware that I’m in danger of looking like an organisation freak at this point, but my methods seem to be working so hopefully they’re helpful, rather than just something that people can mock.. Anyway, alongside my to do list and long term tasks list, I’ve started to block periods of time out of my calendar too. I use an Outlook calendar which is also on my iPhone too. At the start of each week I sit down and figure out when all my meetings are, what tasks need doing, and when I’m going to achieve each of those tasks.

An example week looks something like this:

This started because I was writing to do lists for each day, but I was finding it hard to strike the balance between lists that were too long (i.e. days when I had lots of meetings and not much time to get through work), or too short (i.e. days when I had no meetings, where I’d end up ‘finishing’ my daily to do list early on in the day). Blocking out pieces of time helps me to manage what I’m getting done and when, and also means that I’m more likely to say ‘no’ to things that aren’t working towards my goals for the day. Saying no isn’t something I like doing a lot a work, but with my thesis hand in date getting closer all the time, I’m finding that I really need to get my head down and write rather than helping out with this project and that. Blocking out a few hours to write makes me think twice about saying yes straight away – and that’s something I think a lot of postgraduate students need to do more often.

How do you keep track of everything that goes into your day-to-day life? Are you a fan of to do lists, or do you track everything through your phone? Leave a comment below – let’s share tips 🙂

Publication Explainer: Routinely Collected Data for Randomized Trials: Promises, Barriers, and Implications

This week I had a new publication come out – hoorah! Told you that all the effort I put towards my 2017 goals would pay off eventually. In another post later on in the year I’ll explain what my experiences have been like as a co-author on a publication, as well as what it’s like to be a first author, but today I want to use this post as a starting point for a new series on my blog. I’ll add to this ‘Publication Explainer’ series whenever I have a new publication out, and these posts will be a place for me to answer 3 of the most common questions I’ve been asked by people around me (here I mean colleagues that haven’t worked in this field, other scientists, non-scientists.. basically anyone who doesn’t work in the same research area as I do).

What is routinely collected data?

When we’re taking about health, routinely collected data (RCD) refers to data that has been collected during routine practice – basically, the stuff that your doctor adds to your medical record. This could be height, weight, blood type, blood pressure, blood levels, drug dosages, symptom frequency… the list goes on. As technology improves, RCD can also refer to things like number of steps, time spent sitting down, time spent standing etc – the sorts of things that a fitness tracker collects.

Why should we use routinely collected data in trials?

Routinely collected data could enable us to do trials better; whether that means more cheaply, with reduced patient burden, with less work for the trial team, more quickly, more environmentally friendly.. whatever ‘better’ means. This area of research is of particular interest to me because I’m trying to solve the problem of poor recruitment to trials. Recruiting volunteers to take part in trials is difficult, and if we can somehow design trials that are integrated into existing care pathways so that patients don’t have additional clinic visits to go to, then problems with recruitment could be solved much more quickly. In theory, we could design a trial that is fully integrated into routine care – meaning that when you visit your doctor and they collect data from you, that data can go straight to the trial team without the need for the patient to come in to the clinic on a separate occasion, which is what usually happens in trials.
This has been done before, the most well-known trial being the Salford Lung Study. This pioneering study involved over 2,800 consenting patients, supported by 80 GP practices and 130 pharmacies in Salford and the surrounding Greater Manchester area. You can read more about it here.

Ease isn’t the only reason to use RCD in trials. There is a huge field of research into what we call ‘pragmatic trials’.

Every trial sits somewhere on a spectrum from ‘explanatory’ to ‘pragmatic’. ‘Explanatory’ being used to describe trials that aim to evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention (a drug, a device, a type of surgery, or a lifestyle intervention like an exercise or diet change) in a well-defined and controlled setting. ‘Pragmatic’ being used to describe trials that aim to test the effectiveness of an intervention in routine practice – i.e. some people might not take their tablets as directed, they’ll likely skip an exercise every now and again, they might forget to pick prescriptions up or get their doses mixed up – these trials reflect real life. The more pragmatic a trial is, the more likely that the results of that trial will then translate into the real world if/when the intervention is rolled out for public use. Using routinely collected data could help to ensure that trials are more pragmatic.

Why aren’t we already using routinely collected data in trials?

The idea of using routinely collected data in trials sounds perfect, right? Patients won’t have to go to clinic visits, trials will recruit more easily, therefore they’ll be completed faster and more cheaply, trials will be more pragmatic – why aren’t we already using RCD in trials?

If only it were that simple! Just because data are collected, doesn’t mean that researchers are able to access it, never mind access it in a useful format at the time that they need it. There are lots of concerns about using RCD in trials as standard, but these issues are likely to be overcome at some point in the future (as for time, that’s the big unknown – it could be 50 years, could be longer!). This is an exciting field of research, and one that I’ll be keeping a close eye on over the next few years.

BioMedCentral as a publishing group is open-access meaning that their publications are not hidden behind paywalls, if you’d like to read the full paper you can find it here.

I also wanted to flag up a blog post that Lars and Kim wrote to go along with the publication, essentially it’s a more condensed, relaxed and easy to understand version of the paper – you can read that here.

Self-Care Tips to Keep You Sane: Active Hobbies

Last January I wrote about the importance of academic self-care for PhD students; I didn’t delve too far into the specifics of what I do in my downtime and a lot of people asked. ‘It’s hard to switch off’ and ‘I find it hard to relax’ were the two phrases I encountered most frequently, so I began a series of posts to provide more information and recommendations on what to do to force yourself to relax. Other posts in this series cover podcasts, reading for pleasure, and I’ve discussed the importance of having a creative outlet too.

This is the third installment in this ‘self-care tips to keep you sane’ series, and this week I’m talking about being active. At the beginning of a new year everyone it’s difficult to avoid talk of diets and fitness, and gym memberships are suddenly used for the first time in months. That whole ‘new year, new me’ thing is not what I’m about, what I’m talking about here is finding hobbies that you enjoy, and that actively get you away from your desk and demand that you concentrate on something other than your PhD. The enjoyment bit is crucial – work to try and find an active hobby that you really look forward to, and your mental health will thank you for it, particularly during deadline season when you’ve been sat at your desk for longer than usual.

In this post I wanted to give you an idea of the active hobbies that I’ve started and maintained over the course of my PhD.

Hot yoga

Winter Solstice candlelit yoga a few weeks ago.

If you’d told me 5 years ago that hot yoga would be something I look forward to every week, I’d have laughed in your face. Really though, this has become a central part of my routine, and I notice the difference in my productivity and motivation if I skip a week. For those of you that don’t know what hot yoga is, it’s basically yoga (I go to a vinyasa flow class) that’s in a room heated to 30-35 degrees Celsius. It’s hot. It’s particularly hot when contrasted with an Aberdonian winter. I’ve been going to Hot Yoga Aberdeen for about 18 months now, and I’m so excited to get back to it after the New Year break!

Kettlebells

This is a new one for me. I’ve done kettlebell classes through various gym memberships before, but never anything so focussed on technique and form. I have a gym membership but dread going because it’s really busy, and often the equipment I want to use is full. I’ve been looking for an alternative for a few months now, and earlier this week I found it – Kettlebells Aberdeen.

The Kettlebells Aberdeen studio.

KBA is a small, local gym focussing on kettlebell handling and training. I went along for a beginners workshop (which you need to attend before joining), and the owner, Ray, talked me through the benefits of kettlebell training, as well as showing me various lifts, and then correcting form etc when I gave them a go myself. I was there for 2 hours in total, and got a really detailed overview of the training structure that they use; I loved it. I’m going to ditch my traditional (and expensive!) gym membership in favour of regular training here, and I’m really excited to get started.

Walking

This sounds like a total cop out, but taking time out for walking is the one thing I make sure I do every day – no matter how busy I am. I walk the 1.5 miles to and from work most days and even though it’s not a huge distance, it sets up me for the day. It means I arrive at work ready to get started with a clear head. If I’m having a particularly stressful day I’ll try and make time for 15 or 20 minutes away from my desk to go for a wander too. I think this is a really important point for people that don’t live super close to their workplace and have to commute via public transport or by car – take half an hour out to go for a wander on your lunch break, it will change your mindset and make you feel much less stressed. If you don’t fancy walking about it silence, check out my podcast picks!

A few other ideas that you could look out for; Crossfit (I’ve never tried it but Lisa from In A Science World is a big fan!), home workouts (not really my thing but Andrea from PhD Fashionista is really into them), running, weightlifting, swimming, trampolining…
There are so many activities that you can get involved with during your PhD – look out for societies, local gyms etc, and really try to build some sort of active hobby into your routine. I’ve found the PhD a great time to try new hobbies because it also helps to refocus your mind on learning something with a quicker win than the PhD usually offers. It will not only help your physical health, but it’ll support your mental health too.

Thesis Update – T-Minus 6 Months

I’m now 6 months away from handing in my thesis, so that’s terrifying. That means I’ve been working away for 2 and a half years, which feels so strange. I wrote a blog post when I was 12 months from handing in, and looking back on that has helped me keep some perspective on how much I’ve done since then. So here’s an update with 6 months to go – there’s work to be done but I think it’s doable!

So, how far have I got?

Structure

In my last post I explained that I had a skeleton structure – that remains relatively unchanged, apart from adding an additional results chapter. This doesn’t include any new work, it’s just made the write-up process easier and less messy, and hopefully the contents of the thesis will flow better as a result.

Again, I’ll reiterate; getting a skeleton structure together early on has been so, so helpful, and I would highly recommend doing one of these if you’re doing a big piece of writing too; whether it’s a PhD thesis, an undergraduate dissertation, or even a novel. Splitting the writing into manageable chunks makes the entire task much less daunting, it feels a bit like you’ve written an instruction manual that you can then follow to get to the final piece.

Literature Review

As I said in my last thesis update post, the literature review is the bit of the thesis that I’m looking forward to writing the least. I have made a decent amount of progress in the last 6 months though, which is a relief!

I have screened the results of the literature search – a total of ~4,000 abstracts, and each of the papers that I want to include in the review has now been allocated into one of three very broad categories:

  • General trial recruitment stuff (a huge mixed pile of literature that is interesting, and links well with my topic generally; e.g. why poor recruitment is bad, how many trials suffer from poor recruitment, what types of trials are at the highest risk of poor recruitment etc)
  • Ethics of clinical trial recruitment
  • Perspectives and opinions on trial recruitment (from both healthcare professionals, patients, members of the public etc)

In my last post I mentioned that I wanted to have written at least 2,000 words of the literature review – this hasn’t happened. The abstract screening took quite a long time, and then I had to go through the pile of screened papers to find full texts which was something I hadn’t factored in time-wise.

Systematic Review

This is the part of the thesis that I feel I’ve made the most progress with. In my last update I’d written a draft of the entire chapter without the discussion, and the document looked like this:

After my primary supervisor had taken a look at this, we decided that the results section needed to be rejigged a bit. The way I’d written it initially was in quite a traditional way, and it just wasn’t flowing as well as I wanted it to. After a few different ideas and conversations with my supervisor, we settled on a new way of presenting the data that made it much easier to follow, and cut down the word count too.

I then went on a writing retreat, where I focussed only on the systematic review chapter of the thesis. This was the most productive time I’ve spent on the thesis so far, and it’s really got me excited and enthusiastic to write the rest of it. During the 2 and a half day retreat I finished the results, and wrote a first draft of the discussion too – bearing in mind that I started the retreat with a blank page for the discussion, I was really happy with that.

This is what the chapter looks like at the moment:

It’s sitting at 33,496 words, and it’s gone to my primary supervisor for comments. This feels like a huge weight off my shoulders – obviously, the chapter will change after comments, and then probably change further down the line after more comments, but it’s really nice to have a big chunk of words on the page at this stage in the write up process.

Qualitative Study

As I said in my last thesis update post, the qualitative work is the part of the thesis that I’m most nervous about writing up. I still feel like that, but the structure of this part of the thesis is much more clear in my head now. I haven’t done any formal training in writing up qualitative research, but I read snippets of books on the subject, and of course papers reporting qualitative studies – after that it felt like I was reading in an effort to avoid writing, so I just needed to get started.

I have just about completed the first draft of a results chapter  for this section – though this needs splitting into 2 distinct parts, but there are words on the page and that’s good.

This is what my qualitative document looks like at the moment:

There’s 15,437 words there which is decent. Our grant funding for this part of my project runs out at the end of January, which is perfect timing as it requires us to submit a final report. I’ll be focussing on this report throughout January as it needs to be submitted on January 31st – this will give me a really good starting point for the rest of the qualitative chapter too.

Aims for the next 3 months
  • Literature review – Sort out the categories of papers into more manageable subsections, and work them into a sensible order. Get at least 3,000 words written.
  • Systematic review – I’m leaving this with my supervisor for at least the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at comments when I get them back and then re-assess when I’ll get to the edits. Hopefully the first round of edits will be back with me and completed within 3 months, but that might be pushing it.
  • Qualitative study – Get a full first draft together and off to my supervisor.
  • Attend another writing retreat – I’ve booked another one for the beginning of March, and I’d like to focus on the qualitative write up for this one.

Have any of you starting writing your thesis yet? If you’ve got any tips or resources that you’ve found helpful, please pass them on!

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.

 

 

#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 🙂