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.

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Thesis Update – T-Minus 3 Months

I’m now 3 months away from handing in my thesis. 3 months sounds a lot friendlier than 12/13 weeks, so I’ve going with that. I’m coming strangely close to the end of the PhD process, and to be honest I am feeling a bit sad about the whole thing. This PhD has been brilliant – even the bits that have been tedious or boring, I’ve enjoyed because I’ve found a subject I’m passionate about. It will be very, very strange to have this thesis done and handed in, but I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to secure a short term contract that will keep me working with the wonderful team at HSRU until the end of 2018 at least. That’s a big weight off my shoulders, and means that my thesis needs to be done! Anyway, here’s an update with 3 months to go; I wrote a blog post with 6 months to go and said “there’s work to be done but I think it’s doable!” – that’s where I’m still sitting now, I know that I can get this done and handed in on time, I just need to really knuckle down for the next 3 months.

So, how far have I got?

Literature Review

In my last update post, I aimed to:

  • Sort out the categories of papers into more manageable subsections, and work them into a sensible order. Get at least 3,000 words written.

I’ve sorted the categories of papers into various folders that will help me to write sections of the literature review, and they are in some sort of sensible order. Confession time – I have not written 3,000 words. To be honest, I have done absolutely everything in my power to avoid writing this literature review; my flat is spotless, there is no dirty laundry at all, I’ve seen all the films that I’m interested in that are currently showing at the cinema, and I’ve found complete strangers to puppy-sit for on Borrow my Doggy (if you don’t know what this is and you really like dogs, I suggest you go and sign up asap) – proof below.

There’s also an unfinished 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle taking over my living room floor. Seriously, the jigsaw thing isn’t a joke. It’s been there for over a week now.

ANYWAY. This week I’m locking myself in my office at home, and I’m getting a first draft of this literature review written. I am done messing around, avoiding it and finding literally anything else in the world to do instead – this thing is getting done this week – pinky promise.

Now, moving on to a more positive part of thesis progression..

Systematic Review

Last time I checked in, my systematic review was sitting at 33,496 words, and it had gone to my primary supervisor for comments. The comments were pretty limited, which I was pleasantly surprised about. The majority of the comments were related to changing the presentation of the results section to cut down words and make the chapter as a whole flow more easily. I made those changes and the chapter is pretty much done – it’s now 25,387 words which I’m much happier with.

I’ll have a final read through it when I put all of the thesis chapters together to ensure there’s no repetition in the introduction/background sections etc, but for now, it’s off my to do list (hoorah!).

Qualitative Study

I’m pretty happy with where I’m at with this – I handed in a first draft and got comments back from both of my PhD supervisors with lots of brilliant pointers of how to build on what I’ve already got, expand my points and set my findings in context with the wider literature. Next steps are to go through these comments and make improvements etc. I feel pretty confident with that though, which is nice; I had a meeting with my supervisors to talk through changes etc and they were really helpful so it’s just a matter of me making time to do it, and getting on with it.

Currently, it’s sitting at 15,610 words and it will undoubtedly grow by another thousand of two by the time it’s finished.

User-testing Study

In my last update I mentioned that the qualitative document that I had then, needed to be split up into 2 separate chapters – I’ve now done this, and I have a ‘qualitative study’ chapter, and a ‘user-testing study’ chapter. I used the writing retreat that I went on at the beginning of March to work exclusively on this user-testing chapter, and I made some really good progress. I handed in a first draft to my supervisors in the middle of March, and already have comments back to work on (side note: having supervisors that actually engage with my work and want to help me develop my skills is the absolute best thing; if you’re looking for PhDs at the moment, please, please make supervisor choice a priority – it makes a huge difference to your experience).

This chapter is currently sitting at 8,384 words, and I expect it to increase to ~9,500 words or so once I’ve gone through and addressed comments etc.

Aims for the next 2 months
  • 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. Phew. This is all getting, very, very real.

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 🙂

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!

Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

At the beginning of 2017 when I first started this little blog, I published a post on my goals for this year. Now we’re in that weird time period between Christmas and New Year, so I thought I’d reflect on what progress I made with those goals, and then set some new ones for 2018.

Reflecting on 2017

2017 goal: Begin piecing together the thesis
How did I do? I’m pretty happy with this one, and with 6 months to go until I hand in I’m not feeling tooooo terrified. I attended my first writing retreat and finished a full first draft of my systematic review chapter (currently sitting at over 30,000 words), which is a really nice foundation to work from – much better than beginning to tackle the thesis with a blank page in front of me. I’ll go into more depth about where I am with my thesis in a post over the next few weeks, so there will be more details there. Overall though, I’m feeling relatively happy with the progress in made in 2017.

2017 goal: Read more widely, and more frequently
How did I do?
This year I have been doing the #365papers project – reading a paper every day (on average) for a year. I did a decent job with this, but let my reading slip in December meaning I haven’t finished the challenge. In previous years, I’d have forced myself to finish the project and completed the whole thing, but this year I just don’t want to. I’ve taken a proper break over Christmas – I don’t go back to work until January 9th, and I haven’t opened my laptop for anything work related since I left the office on December 22nd. Over the next few weeks whilst I’m off I’ll  start getting myself organised for going back, but I’m not going to force myself to spend my Christmas break reading papers. I kept up with the project until the end of November which was pretty good though! Outside of academic reading, I’ve read 52 books this year – a mix of non-fiction and fiction, and I think that’s helped with my writing too.

2017 goal: Seek out opportunities to publish
How did I do? One thing I’ve learned this year is that publishing takes AGES. Really, it takes a very long time. This year I’ve been involved in lots of different projects that will give me publications, but it looks like they’re all going to come in a bundle in 2018. To be honest, that’s no bad thing – I’m really excited to see them coming out, and I feel like lots of hard work on this goal has paid off.

New goals for 2018
Rowena Murray’s ‘How to Write a Thesis’ – a book that I’ll be carrying everywhere with me for the next few months!

Finish the thesis, become Dr Gardner
This one’s obvious – it’s the biggest and most important goal of 2018! I am aiming to hand in my thesis on June 30th 2018. So far I think I’m on track to meet that date, but there’s a lot of work to be done over the next few months to make sure that things work out.

Secure funding for after the PhD
This is the goal that I’m most terrified about. Academia is a competitive game, and I want to stay in health services research after my PhD is complete – this means finding funding. Keeping all of my fingers and toes crossed for this one.

Get involved with some new, innovative science communication and public engagement projects
I have a few ideas for projects and ideas that I’d like to put some work into, but the bigger ones will need to wait until after my thesis is handed in. Between now and thesis hand in, I do want to keep up with public engagement work – but on a smaller scale. I’m thinking of creative projects linked to Science On A Postcard, collaborations with other makers (I’ve already got 2 lined up for the beginning of 2018!), and small-scale projects that I can do alongside the thesis.

2018 is going to be a big year for me, and I’m looking forward to sharing it on this blog – hope you all have a wonderful break and a productive year ahead too!

#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

#365papers October 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.

Last month’s #365papers update was late.. again. This month though, I’m perfectly on time! I’ve caught up on reading thanks to a burst of motivation, reading for a writing retreat I’ve booked on to for the beginning of December, and reading for potential fellowship applications over the next few months. I’ve enjoyed this month’s reading more than previous months – I think it’s because I gave myself a bit more freedom to read papers that weren’t clearly and obviously linked to my PhD work, and allowed myself a bit more exploration within the subject of recruitment.

October’s reading:

  1. Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream?
  2. ‘It’s not a hobby’: reconceptualising the place of writing in academic work
  3. Time is not enough: promoting strategic engagement with writing for publication
  4. Increasing academic output and supporting equality of career opportunity in universities: can writers’ retreats play a role?
  5. Developing a community of research practice
  6. An integrated conceptual framework for evaluating and improving ‘understanding’ in informed consent
  7. Specific barriers to the conduct of randomised clinical trials on medical devices
  8. The necessity of randomised clinical trials
  9. When are randomised trials unnecessary? Picking signal from noise
  10. The James Lind Library: explaining and illustrating the evolution of fair tests of medical treatments
  11. What is the best evidence for determining harms of medical treatment?
  12. Comparison of evidence of treatment effects in randomised and nonrandomised studies
  13. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t
  14. The crisis in recruitment for clinical trials in Alzheimer’s and dementia: An action plan for solutions
  15. Alzheimer’s disease therapeutic trials: EU/US task force report on recruitment, retention, and methodology
  16. Participation in dementia trials and studies: Challenges and recommendations (whitepaper)
  17. Dementia trials and dementia tribulations: methodological and analytical challenges in dementia research
  18. Obstacle and opportunities in Alzheimer’s clinical trial recruitment
  19. Recruitment of subjects into clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease
  20. Commentary on “A roadmap for the prevention of dementia II. Leon Thal Symposium 2008.” Recruitment of participants for Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials: The role of trust in caregivers, clinical researchers, regulatory authorities, and industry sponsors
  21. Recruitment rates in gerontological research: the situation for drug trials in dementia may be worse than previously reported
  22. How redesigning AD clinical trials might increase study partners’ willingness to participate
  23. Number of Alzheimer’s clinical trials almost doubles in 3 years
  24. Comparison of recruitment efforts targeted at primary care physicians versus the community at large for participation in Alzheimer’s Disease clinical trials
  25. Addressing the challenges to successful recruitment and retention in Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials
  26. Are biomarkers harmful to recruitment and retention in Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials? An international perspective
  27. Recruiting community-based dementia patients and caregivers in a nonpharmacologic randomised trial: What works and how much does it cost?
  28. Attitudes toward clinical trials across the Alzheimer’s disease spectrum
  29. Why has therapy development for dementia failed in the last two decades?
  30. Predictors of physician referral for patient recruitment to Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials
  31. Recruiting to preclinical Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials through registries