I Graduated!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Science On A Postcard X PhDepression

Another post that’s late in the day for #Blogtober.. today was just a bit hectic and I feel like I’ve been constantly busy since I left my flat at 7.15am. It’s now 10pm and I’ve just finished putting new listings in the Science On A Postcard Etsy shop, so I figured I’d give them their own little blog post.

A few months ago Susanna Harris from PhDepression messaged the Science On A Postcard account on Instagram to talk to me about a potential collaboration. I’ve spoken a lot before about my own struggles with mental health, and I think it was pretty clear to Susanna that I thought that what she was doing with PhDepression was fantastic.

From the PhDepression website:

The PhDepression LLC founder Susanna Harris explains her passion for this project: “When the Nature Biotech article showed nearly 40% of graduate students struggle with anxiety or depression, I felt a sense of belonging. A year before, I was in a deep depression, and this paper made me feel less alone. But I couldn’t name 5, let alone 50, students in my cohort that might be struggling. There was a disparity between the public faces in our universities and the underlying stories.

The PhDepression LLC aims to increase visibility of those who have struggled with mental health issues, from students to postdocs, future PhDs to those who have long-since graduated. Many of us deal with these problems, and we must support our community by breaking the stigma around mental illness. Academia would be a stronger, kinder place if we could talk about these things openly and get the help we need”.

So, what is this wonderous collaborative product that we came up with? Well.. it’s 2 products actually. One is a pin badge, and the other is a set of 5 notecards; all fit the theme of mental health and self care.

‘Self Care Is Not Selfish’ enamel pin badge (Available to buy here for £6)

Funds from the sale of both of these products goes towards keeping PhDepression going – that will likely include costs for the website, potentially travel to help the team spread the PhDepression message through giving talks, whatever they need to help support the project and enable the team to carry on the important work that they are doing.

If you are a graduate student or researcher that’s struggling with your mental health, please go to The PhDepression for help and support – if you would like someone to talk to, or somewhere to go to find out about what sort of help is available to you, these people are offering a completely free network designed simply to help.

‘Thank You/Self Care’ Set of 5 Notecards (Available to buy here for £7.50)

For more information on The PhDepression head here:

thephdepression.com
twitter.com/Ph_D_epression
instagram.com/ph_d_epression

Wait, You’re Still Not a Dr?

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

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

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

I know. ANNOYING.

Post-viva, pre-corrections.

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

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

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

From PhD Student to Research Assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HI, I’M DR GARDNER NOW!

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

I think this photograph sums it up pretty well.

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

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

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

The Bit Between Thesis Submission and the Viva

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

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

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

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

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

Unhelpful Things to Say to a Final Year PhD Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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 🙂