An Update on What’s in Store for the Next Few Months

I’ve done that thing again where I have a tonne of ideas and things to post, and then life gets in the way and time disappears leaving me with a never ending to do list and a blog that hasn’t been updated in too long. That never ending to do list is currently almost entirely on hold because I have left the UK, and will be returning only to switch out the contents of my suitcase, before returning at the very end of February. For the first time in a very long time, I’ve put everything on hold in favour of one project – my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

I’m currently on holiday in Quebec City with my boyfriend. We’ve only been in Quebec for 1 day, but it’s been a pretty wonderful start to the trip. It’s freezing cold; -18°C levels of freezing cold, so today we’ve spent the day wrapped up warm and wandering around the city. We dawdled down towards the river that we can see from our hotel (incredible view from our room below!), and somehow ended up hurtling down a traditional toboggan run that’s one of the oldest attractions in the city. I did a lot of screaming and laughed so much that by the time we reached the bottom my face ached, my teeth were the coldest they’ve ever been, and I had tears streaming down my face. Today I also had a slice of the best pecan pie I’ve ever tasted – unsurprisingly, Canada suits me very well so far.

Tomorrow we are heading out to Montmorency Falls – a waterfall one and a half times higher than Niagra falls, and just a short drive outside of the city. Montmorency Falls freezes in the winter and it’s apparently a must-see if you’re in Quebec at this time of year. I’m super excited to see the views and take some time to see more of the area than we can on foot.

We’re staying in Quebec for new year’s eve, and then we’re heading to Toronto for a few days after new year. After that, Cameron is heading back home to Aberdeen and I’ll be in full Fellowship mode. Currently my itinerary looks something like this:

  • 5th-12th January: Toronto
  • 12th-18th January: New York
  • 18th-22nd January: New Hampshire
  • 22nd-30th January: Washington DC
  • 1st-3rd February: Berlin
  • 7th-16th February: Singapore
  • 16th-25th February: Hong Kong

So, what can you expect to see on this blog as I attempt to remember what city I’m in over the coming weeks and months?
Hopefully you’ll be pleased to know that I’ll be taking you along for the ride! My Fellowship project is all about science blogging, and using creative techniques to improve the way that blogs can engage the public with science, so it seems like a good idea to keep bit of a diary of my travels in blog form. I’ll also be doing a few more creative blog posts to try my hand at the new techniques and methods that I’ll be learning about from the experts that I’m meeting up with throughout.

On the subject of experts – if you are a science communicator, scientist that communicates their science to public audiences, someone using science as inspiration for creative projects, and you will be in any of those cities when I am scheduled to be, please let me know!
I’ve reached out to a number of people that I want to meet up with, but have purposefully kept my schedule relatively free so that I can make connections as I go. Leave a comment on this post, or tweet me (@heidirgardner), and let’s talk creative science communication.

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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.

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.

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/

Setting New Goals: Non-Work Related

Towards the end of last week I had an annual review with my Line Manager at work. He was my primary PhD Supervisor so he’s known me for over 3 years now, and he’s pretty good at sensing when I need a kick up the backside, well, that and the fact that I’d literally blogged about the post-thesis hand in slump the day before our meeting… Anyway, we had a really good discussion about his experience of the post-PhD slump, what he did to combat it and what I could start doing too. His exact words were ‘avoid work-related goals for the next 6 months’, which was both shocking and comforting. Shocking because, he’s my Manager and therefore explicitly stating that I should avoid big goals at work was weird, and comforting because oh my God, thank GOD he said it. Obviously, I’ll be working away as I’m expected to, but I’m going to make an effort to focus on things outside of work too.

I’ve had a few days to think about what I want to do over the next few months, and thought I’d share them here. Just as with work-related goals, writing things down in a relatively public place is a way to help keep me accountable.

Rediscover my love of reading
Last year I read an average of a book a week, this year it’s week 28 and I’ve read 21 books. I thought I’d be a lot further behind given that I wrote the majority of my thesis this year (yes, I’m still going on about it), but I have a huge pile of books waiting for me to read them. 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).

Learn how to ride a bicycle

Hi my name is Heidi, I am 26 years old and I cannot ride a bicycle. I can drive a car and walk and both roller skate and ice skate to the extent that I rarely fall over, but I cannot ride a bike. I remember learning to ride a bike – my Dad did that thing that Dads do where they tell you they won’t let go of the saddle when in fact they do, and as soon as I realised I was actually riding the bike myself I stopped and my Dad did proud-Dad tears and then we went home. I was about 6 or 7 I think. Since then I have needed to ride a bike once when I was on one of the National Trust for Scotland’s Trailblazer Camps aged 17. I tried and I couldn’t do it first time, so I stopped and admitted defeat. This has now become a shining example of my ‘if at first you don’t succeed.. give up’ mantra – it spread also to tap dancing, playing the keyboard, and various sports. 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.

Do something new and creative
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.. I’ll likely update the blog as the project (whatever it is) progresses, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Now I’ve written this down it seems a bit weird that I have had to go to the effort of setting goals in order to force myself to relax. I guess that’s a product of academic life though – this is the first time since I was a young child that I haven’t had an exam or assessment of some kind to work towards! Hopefully once I get used to having more free time this will all come a bit more naturally 🙂

 

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.