On Talking: Some Thoughts on Mental Health

We are told to talk.
Talking will change things;
Talking will ‘end the stigma‘.

I have talked,
I am still talking,
Talking is not enough.


Today is World Mental Health Day; the day that social media feeds are filled with posts about people’s experience of poor mental health, photographs of anxiety meds and anti-depressants flood Instagram and Twitter in an effort to normalise these experiences and end the stigma.

This happens every year, and it’s not enough.

Talking is good, I agree with that, but we are talking. I talk regularly about my mental health – I’ve posted about what it was like to be diagnosed with depression whilst doing a PhD and that post has been read by hundreds of people, and I’m very open with friends and colleagues about the fact that sometimes my brain just doesn’t work how I want it to. I’ve emailed my supervisors and colleagues asking to reschedule meetings because I just couldn’t think properly that day, I’ve convinced my boyfriend to travel to a conference with me because I felt too anxious to go alone. I’ve been there, and I’ve been brutally open and honest about it. I’m not ashamed, I talk about the fact that without my ‘delicious antidepressants’ I might not have got out of bed that day.

I talked to my Doctor. I paid to talk to a counsellor, that didn’t work for me and it wasn’t sustainable (£40 for a 50 minute session). I waited 18 months until I could talk to a counsellor on the NHS, and she told me to think about losing weight, doing some exercise and eating more healthily (she hadn’t asked how much exercise I was doing or what my diet was like).

Talking is not enough.

Talking may work to ‘end the stigma’, but ending the stigma is not enough.
We need action.

Earlier this year I read an article in The Metro that summed up my thoughts pretty well:

Theresa May said last year, ‘We must get over the stigma’. Okay, lip service paid. But then, as part of the same speech, she says it’s ‘wrong for people to assume that the only answer to these issues is about funding’ and that no more money will be available to develop services. It feels like being told: ‘Sorry pal, we know your leg’s broken. We can’t put a cast on it right now (budget cuts), but just know that we’re working to reduce the stigma against users of crutches. Off you go.’”

On this World Mental Health Day, instead of posting on social media, don’t just like and retweet the posts you see about mental ill health, do something about it.

Ask for change:
Petition – Drastically improve funding for Mental Health Services within the UK
Petition – Fund facilities for people who feel suicidal so they always have somewhere to go
Contact your MP
Work to make your workplace more mentally healthy with this 7-step guide
If you are able to, donate to local organisations that are working to keep mental health services and support in place in your community Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Scottish Association for Mental Health, Support in Mind Scotland.

If you are in the UK and you need access to mental health help and support services, please take a look here.

Non-Work Goals: 3 Month Check In

3 months ago I wrote a blog post about setting non-work related goals; something that my PhD supervisor suggested I do in order to combat the post-thesis hand in slump. In doesn’t feel like anywhere near 3 months has passed since I wrote that blog post, but it’s time for a check in.

Goal: Rediscover my love of reading

What I said I was going to do: “Over the next few months I’d like to get to the fiction books I bought from Powell’s City of Books (a selection of the pile shown on the right – I know, I buy too many books) when I was in Portland, and also some books that were released this year (Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, and Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon).”

What I’ve done: I think this has been the most successful of the goals that I set myself in July, so I’m starting on a high. Since then I’ve read 21 books! I’ve read all three of those that I listed, and a good chunk of the books that I bought in Portland too. Here’s a list of my favourites from those 21 books (if you’re on Goodreads then come be my friend on there too! My profile is here):

  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy (4*/5)
  • The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith (4*/5)
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (5*/5)
  • Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (5*/5)
  • Stickle Island by Tim Orchard (4*/5)
  • The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (4*/5) (I listened to this one on audiobook)
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (4*/5)
  • Life Honestly by The Pool (5*/5) (I listened to this one on audiobook)

Goal: Learn how to ride a bicycle

What I said I was going to do: “Now I’ve proven to myself that I can write a whole thesis and actually do a PhD (which I will always argue is more about tenacity than intelligence), I figure it’s time I give the bike thing another shot. Also, I really want a bike with a basket on the front that I can fill with picnic food and gin, and if I can’t ride it then that dream is never going to happen.”

What I’ve done: I DID IT I DID IT I DID IT! This was the goal that I thought I’d struggle with, but I can actually ride a bike!! My lovely boyfriend lent me his bike and then spent a few hours at the park near where we live holding the seat whilst I squealed “I’m going to fall, ahhh I’m going to fall!” Turns out, I did fall pretty spectacularly and then I had to be taught how to fall off a bike… yes, I can write a thesis worthy of a doctorate but when time’s going really fast I completely forger to put my feet on the floor.

Anyway, I’ve got actual real life video evidence for this one, and I don’t care how embarrassing it is because I am 26 years old and I can ride a bicycle!

Goal: Do something new and creative

What I said I was going to do: “A few months ago I bought the ‘How to be a Craftivist’ book by Sarah Corbett (right) after listening to a podcast that she did with Leena Norms, I haven’t yet read the book, but just listening to the podcast gave me tonnes of ideas about how I could use craftivist ideas to spread awareness of scientific concepts. All of those ideas are still in the back of my mind but I haven’t had time to do anything with them, now I do have some time and I think this could be a brilliant little passion project before Christmas. Not sure what the creative project will be just yet – maybe a zine? Not sure.. ”

What I’ve done: This is the goal that I’ve barely made a start on, but given that the other two have gone so well I think that’s ok. In August I bought Joe Biel’s book, How to Make a Zine (photograph to the left taken from Syndicated Zine Reviews), and I’ve had a very quick flick through it, but I haven’t done anything about said zine making challenge yet. I also thought about taking on board some of Sarah Corbett’s ideas on craftivism, but I haven’t got around to reading the How to be a Craftivist book yet. I did order a little craftivism kit from Sarah’s website though, so I think I’ll do that before I start making plans for my own craftivism.

I’m pretty pleased with the status of these goals just 3 months on – in particular I hadn’t realised that I had read so much, so that was a lovely surprise. How have you been doing with striking a work/life balance over the summer months? I feel like during summer it’s easier to strike that balance because it’s sunny and people are making plans to go adventuring after work. It’ll be interesting to see how I do with maintaining this new found balance into the autumn months when the nights get darker and it becomes all too easy to stay sitting in front of my laptop.

Saying No, Nicely

I originally wrote this post in September 2015 when I was just a few months into my PhD, but I wanted to repost it now as it remains relevant. I am lucky that there are still lots of opportunities to get involved in different projects coming my way; I am grateful for them, and excited to see where they take me, but it’s still important to learn where you boundaries are and when to say no.


During your PhD you’ll be given opportunities to get involved with multiple different projects; from attending conferences, training courses and workshops to blogging and volunteering at public engagement events. It’s easy to get caught up in these opportunities and sign up for lots of different tasks – but it’s also important to remember why you’re here. You’re here to do a PhD, to do your own independent research, not to be attending irrelevant events or volunteering too much of your time for writing outside of research.

I think I fell into the trap of PhD FOMO (fear of missing out) initially. I signed up for a lot of training courses and workshops and then found myself wishing I had more time to sit and sort through the questions that remain about my project. I spoke to my supervisor and was assured that this is pretty common at the start of a PhD. You want to make sure you’re super well-equipped to deal with every potential problem you might come up against so training is good, but being honest you’ll never be prepared for every issue you may encounter. It’s also very easy to gravitate to tasks which are less diffuse. In the early stages your project will be a bit vague in parts as you’re still nailing down the specifics of your work; courses and defined tasks are attractive, they’re easy to tick off a ‘to do’ list and they give you a sense of accomplishment.

My supervisor sent me a paper – 13 ways to advance your career by saying ‘no’ nicely, part 1: why to say ‘no’ (nicely), and saying ‘no’ to email. Every PhD student should be given this paper!

Here’s a quote from the paper:
We think how to say ‘no’ is one of the most important skills we can impart to our mentees and younger colleagues. Having to do this for them originally struck us as odd, given that most of them learned the power of the word ‘no’ between the ages of one and two. Then we realized that most of us, having learned to say ‘no’ at an early age, lose this power during years of regimented, authoritarian schooling.

It’s completely true! We’re taught throughout school and university, to take every chance we’re given and to make the most of it. This isn’t bad advice but it can lead us into situations where we’re simply not getting enough of our actual job done; ‘saying ‘yes’ too often and too soon can do more harm than good to your career and to your ability to help others.’

So this week and going forward, I’ll be nicely saying no more often. I’m looking forward to being reunited with my desk and being able to get to grips with my research.

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.

5 Podcasts You Should Listen To This Month

About a month after I handed my thesis in, I bought a new car. It was a very exciting day – it’s the same car that I had before, but with 100,000 miles less on the clock, and the addition of a USB port that means I can listen to stuff on my phone, through my car radio. I KNOW. It’s been a mind-blowing few weeks of discovery. I’ve listened to some absolutely brilliant podcasts, so I thought I’d start #Blogtober by sharing them; they’re all science/healthcare related, but with topics communicated in such personal and accessible ways that one of them genuinely made me cry.

Healthcare is HILARIOUS

What’s it about? Casey Quinlan describes her podcast as ‘Snark about Healthcare’ which covers things pretty well. She’s a ‘Comedy Health Analyst’ who advises people to stop screaming because laughing hurts less. A lot of her content focusses on the American healthcare system and the frankly laughable systems that it is made up of. It’s frustrating, upsetting, but with a brilliantly hopeful and rebellious streak.

Any standout episodes? The most recent one! #CochraneForAll – Bagpipes, science and crisis comms. My friend Lyuba Lytvyn is interviewed on this podcast, and she mentions me! Obviously, that’s not the only reason why this is a fantastic episode, but it helps. Aside from that though, the episode covers the need for healthcare consumers to be involved in research (#100in100), the importance of capacity building in patient and public involvement, and more from the Cochrane Colloquium that was held in Edinburgh in September. Also, the episode with Victor Montori as a guest is brilliant – listen to it, he’s calling for a revolution in healthcare, and he’s talking a lot of sense.

Links: Listen here | Support on Patreon here

Science Talk

What’s it about? This is a much more standard podcast than ‘Healthcare is HILARIOUS!’ – it’s an interview format that features various guests joining host Steve Mirsky each week to talk about the latest advances in science and technology. As well as podcasting, Steve is also an Editor and columnist at Scientific American.

Any standout episodes? The episode that first got me listening to this podcast was ‘Out with the Bad Science’, where Richard Harris (Science Correspondent for NPR) joined host Steve Mirsky to talk about the problem of poor quality science in the Biomedical Research community. He also discusses his book, ‘Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions‘ – I bought that book whilst I was still listening to this episode of the podcast, and I’ll be reading (and hopefully reviewing it on the blog) later this month. Going on what Richard Harris was saying during the podcast, I suspect it’s going to be brilliant.

Links: Listen here

The Story Collider

What’s it about? This podcast is probably my favourite of this entire list, because it’s so personal, so emotional and yet it’s still communicating science and stories from scientists. The show is presented by Erin Barker, a writer and storyteller, and Liz Neeley, a marine biologist and science communicator – the partnership between the two makes for an incredibly powerful podcast full of important stories that I’m very glad are being shared.

Any standout episodes? There are three episodes that have stood out to me whilst listening to the Story Collider back catalogue, one of which made me cry:

  1. Science Saved My Life – Stories About Life-Saving Passion
  2. Abortion – Stories From Doctors and Patients (Part 1)
  3. Abortion – Stories From Doctors and Patients (Part 2)

‘Science Saved My Life’ is the episode that had me in tears – particularly Rose DF‘s story; listen to it, please.

Links: Listen here

The Recommended Dose

What’s it about? The Recommended Dose is a podcast produced by Cochrane Australia and presented by Ray Moynihan – a multi-award winning journalist and health researcher. ‘This new series tackles the big questions in health and offers new insights, evidence, and ideas from some of the world’s most fascinating and prolific researchers, writers and thinkers,’ says Ray. ‘Its aim is to promote a more questioning approach to health care.’

Any standout episodes? Again, the standout episode has been the episode that first drew me in and pushed me to start listening to the rest of the series; in this case, it was episode 14 that featured Gordon Guyatt as Ray’s guest. Professor Gordon Guyatt is known as the ‘Godfather of Evidence Based Medicine (EBM)’, and this podcast is a brilliant look at his career, his beliefs in terms of why he coined the phrase, what evidence-based medicine really means in the current healthcare climate, and what the future might hold for EBM. I’ll be doing an ‘Inspiring People’ blog post on Gordon Guyatt later on this month, so keep an eye out for that if you’d like to know more about him and how he’s impacted my views on medicine and healthcare too.

Links: Listen here

Strange Bird

What’s it about? Strange Bird is hosted by Mona Chalabi, the Data Editor of the Guardian US, and it focusses on the use of numbers to help answer questions on difficult topics. The aim of this is ultimately to make people feel less lonely – to show that the birds that seem like strange outliers often aren’t.

Any standout episodes? Strange Bird only has one episode at the moment, so clearly that’s what I’m basing my entire recommendation on. That episode, ‘Miscarriage’, sees Mona Chalabi (who I’ve fan-girled over in the past) talk about this sensitive subject using numbers to help her answer questions on the topic. The conversations and thoughts can be uncomfortable – in this episode Mona discovers that her Mum had a miscarriage – but it’s presented in a really gentle and caring way.

Links: Listen here

What podcasts have you been listening to recently? Leave a comment with your recommendations and I’ll be sure to check them out 🙂

Hello, I’m Back

My PhD viva is over and done with (that’s still weird to think about), and I was feeling a bit weird about blogging – do I still blog about my research? Do I blog more on general science topics that make me rage because they can be reported so badly in the mainstream media? Or, do I just stop?

I guess the fact that I’m now blogging about what to do shows that I haven’t decided on the latter option (#meta), but I do want to change some things on the blog. I can no longer tell people about my PhD experience, but I can open this blog up a bit more into what the life of a researcher is like day to day. I’d also like to share my views on topics that are linked to the environment in which I do research (peer review, funding, diversity in the research community, potential problems in the way that we think about things etc etc), and also a little bit about what I do outside of work. I’m mentioned my side hustle a bit on this blog before, but I want to do more of that; explain why I decided to create Science On A Postcard, where I want to take it in the future, and why I think it’s important for me to have a designated side hustle to keep my mental health in check. On the subject of mental health, I want to talk more about that as well. A while ago I posted about having depression – expect more of that. A few weeks ago I was talking to friends and colleagues about my experiences of poor mental health, and how I wish that people would be more open about it; I figure I should lead by example and start talking about good days, down days, and everything in between.

So, yeah. Things are going to change around here, and I’m excited to keep sharing this weird little academic journey with you through this blog.

To kick things off, I’ve decided to do #Blogtober18. Blogtober essentially means that for every day during the month of October, I’ll be posting something new on this blog. Some days these will be wordy posts on complex topics, some will be continuations of existing series (Inspiring People, Clinical Trials Q&A, and Publication Explainers), other days there will be less formal posts to do with product development for Science On A Postcard, and I’ll throw in a few new styles of posts too.

Anyone else doing #Blogtober18?
Tagging a few people here that may want to join in, even if it’s just 1 post every day for a week!
Soph – https://sophtalksscience.com/
Jennie – https://muddledstudent.wordpress.com/
Sophie – https://sophiefquick.wordpress.com/
Kylie – https://happyacademic.wordpress.com/
Chelsea – https://chemicallyinquisitive.wordpress.com/
Katie – https://katiesphd.wordpress.com/
Jack – https://inquisitivetortoise.wordpress.com/
Gareth – https://friendlybacteria.wordpress.com/
Bella – https://bellastarling.wordpress.com/
Rebecca – https://biologybex.wordpress.com/