Author Archives: Jess

“So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye. I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye”

I was always warned that my three years of PhD funding would fly by and while I did not doubt it, I am still amazed at the pace with which it has disappeared.  The exciting news is that I will soon be starting as a Research Assistant in the School of Medicine at Cardiff University, but that means that it is time to say goodbye to theSchool of Nursing and Midwifery Studies.

I know that I’ve said it a lot, but the last three years really have been a brilliant experience.  Not only have I learned how to plan and undertake qualitative research, I’ve also learned all about other research designs and approaches.  I’ve had the boundaries of my knowledge and understanding well and truly pushed, although my partner is fed up of me interpreting everything according to a social constructionist perspective!

I’ve also had the chance to take part in such a variety of other activities and projects.  During the last three years I’ve regularly taught clinical skills, which has been a fantastic opportunity.  I discovered that I love teaching students, particularly when they are at the beginning of their journey to becoming a nurse and you can teach the importance of fundamental care, skills and attitudes.  It’s also been a privilege to teach students nearing the end of their nursing journeys research, seeing their enthusiasm for the profession and their interest in learning how to move the evidence-base forward.

My organisational skills have progressed during my PhD to the point of obsessive, which I made great use of when helping to organise two conferences in the University.  Having attended conferences for several years, helping to plan two was a great and unique experience.  In particular, it was very interesting to work with an inter-disciplinary team to organise the Spotlight on Social Sciences conference, highlighting to me the differences between our research projects and perspectives in general of research.

However, it is the people in the School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies and beyond that have made this PhD such a wonderful experience.  I’ve been lucky to share an office with a brilliant group of people, who I will miss terribly when I can no longer fill them in on the banalities of my everyday life.  I couldn’t have asked for better supervisors, while the support from administrators and IT has been fantastic.  I’ve learned such a lot from the research and teaching staff in the school, who welcomed and supported me throughout.

To conclude, I’ve also learned something very important about myself (that I will have to try and change when I leave): that I write best in my jogging bottoms and no make-up, listening to soft opera, preferably in Italian (so I can’t try and sing along), in the morning.

Thanks everybody and I will see you in the evenings and weekends (maybe) when I return to the PhD office to finish the small task of my thesis…

Baking a PhD

Most of my friends would tell you that I am a keen baker, but unfortunately I have to limit how many treats I bake because I seem to lack self-control when it comes to the final product.  However, I have come to think that in some ways baking and undertaking PhD research seem to have more in common than you might think (and not just because both seem to make my waist thicker!)

When baking – as in research – you need to have that initial idea or bolt of inspiration, like yesterday when I decided to bake a pudding for my friend who came to stay last night.  However, you also need to consider whether this idea is achievable, for example I wouldn’t have been able to bake a croquembouche after work, as I wouldn’t be able to undertake a national multi-centre RCT during my three year PhD.  I knew that I had a new brownie baking tin, most of the ingredients and basic baking skills and therefore I decided upon chocolate brownies.  Baking, like research, requires early forward planning, and therefore I considered what ingredients I had at home and considered that I would probably need to buy cocoa powder and additional butter on the way home.  As I don’t have a specific recipe for chocolate brownies with cocoa powder (I have a brownie recipe that uses 350g chocolate, but that seemed excessive) I undertook an internet search to see how others made their brownies and how successful these had been, just as a research student would review the literature and see how other researchers designed their studies.  When I found a recipe that I felt was suitable for my skills, time and ingredients, I set to work.

More preparation was then required, such as switching on the oven, assembling equipment and checking the ingredients, as in a similar way you wouldn’t plough into the data collection phase without carefully recruiting participants and ensuring that your audio recorder works (or importantly without ethical approval).  I then carefully began work, measuring and beating ingredients in the order required.  However, I found that despite my best efforts, I was lacking enough caster sugar.  As in research, baking requires an element of creativity, and while in my research I decided the best way to capture my participants homes (without photographs) was to draw and annotate diagrams, I decided to improvise here with the sugar.  Baking requires self-confidence and I was pretty certain that I could substitute caster sugar for brown sugar (after all, brown sugar and chocolate go together well).  Once all the ingredients were in the bowl, or all the research data collected, the hard work of beating together the ingredients, or analysing the data, commenced.  This took longer than anticipated and patience was required.  Finally, once I had greased the baking tin, as you might prepare the final thesis, the brownies were ready for the oven.

The oven baking period, like the viva examination, is a concerning time for any conscientious cook.  You cannot leave the house and leave the brownies to it, as you cannot expect your completed thesis to stand in the viva alone.  However, when the oven period is over and the batch of glorious brownies emerges from the oven, the sense of pride and anticipation is wonderful – as I sincerely hope I feel after my viva.  Any good brownies, like a good thesis, should leave a legacy afterwards – you just hope they don’t flop.

Not alone

Recently we’ve had several potential PhD students coming to see us and a common question that they ask is: have you had enough support during your PhD?  The answer is unreservedly yes, absolutely, I couldn’t have asked for more.  While my family and friends have been brilliant, I thought that I’d focus on the support I’ve received from the University and beyond.  I hope this doesn’t read like an Oscar-acceptance speech, but I think it’s important to give credit where it’s due and reassure potential PhD students that they will not be alone.

The School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies has been a brilliant environment in which to undertake postgraduate research, largely due to a group of motivated, knowledgeable and enthusiastic supervisors. The School has a robust scheme for supervisory support, which encourages regular meetings, documenting the meetings and six monthly reviews.  Within the School are different research groups and regular seminars with external speakers, ensuring that there are links to the wider clinical and academic worlds.  The research administrators and IT staff also ensure that we are well supported.  We’ve also established a great post-grad research student community, aided party by our lovely communal office and encouragement from our Director of Postgraduate Research.  We are a varied group in terms of nursing discipline, clinical/academic experience, research interests and stage of study, age and location, but our different experiences make the support we can offer each other stronger.

All PhD students at Cardiff University are able to make full use of the University Graduate College’s research training programme, which offers a wide range of courses, workshops and conferences, from the use of social media, to statistics and maximise your memory.  We are in an enviable position in Cardiff as not all universities offer such a programme and I’ve made full use of these courses.  These sessions also encourage networking with students from other academic schools, and sometimes other local universities, and hearing the diverse range of subjects that students research is very refreshing.

I don’t have a Masters degree, which I’ve always felt very conscious of.  However, I did have the opportunity to undertake three MSc modules in the School of Social Sciences (qualitative methods, quantitative methods and philosophies of social science research), which were incredibly useful.  I also attended the Ethnography research group in this School, which is facilitated by internationally renowned ethnographers.  This was a brilliant experience and I learned a lot about using this methodology from the group.

I received funding from the Research Capacity Building Collaboration and part of this scheme is research training every other month at one of the six collaborating universities in Wales.  The training we’ve received includes the use of different methodologies, leadership, engaging with the media and the Viva, as well as invaluable peer support. The group includes nurses, midwives, dieticians, physiotherapists and podiatrists, and we learn a lot from each others’ experience.

The University Health Board where I undertook the research also offered research training, which taught me a lot about different methodologies, research ethics and policy governing research.  The consultant who granted access to the patient population and nurses who supported me with recruitment and staying safe during data collection made the project possible.

I hope that I’ve demonstrated that the PhD does not have to be lonely, isolated process.  When I’ve needed support I have found it and also made many new friends in different disciplines.  It’s been a fantastic roller-coaster journey, but one that I have not had to do alone.

And I thought Avatar was just a film with blue people

This week I have been incredibly lucky to attend the Royal College of Nursing’s 2012 International Nursing Research Conference, in the heart of London.  This had always been an aim of mine and I thrilled when my abstract for an oral presentation, explaining my project and findings, was accepted.

In the weeks leading up to the event I carefully planned, changed and tweaked my presentation, with my ever supportive officemates Catherine and Dominic kindly listening to my presentation (in Cath’s case this was more than once – thank you).  Equipped with my new iPad (I am in fact sat in the exhibition hall of the conference writing this while my memories and enthusiasm are still fresh) and the odd new outfit, I arrived in a soggy central London on the morning of the conference raring to go.  Set in the Grand Connaught Rooms in Holborn, right next next door to the imposing central Masonic Hall, this made an impressive setting.  The grandeur of the venue was almost overwhelming, with sweeping staircases and high ceilinged rooms, opulent chandeliers hanging boldly.

I presented in the conference’s only renal theme group on the first day and the session went very well.  The first presentation considered an intervention aiming to promote patients’ quality of life when receiving haemodialysis, followed by my session considering living at home with peritoneal dialysis, with the final session exploring experiences of kidney transplant failure.  The three sessions complimented each other well and there were transferable themes throughout the presentations.  The subsequent questions I was asked were challenging and encouraged me to think differently about my data and project overall.

During the rest of the conference, and with a huge sigh of relief that my presentation was now over, the range of sessions has been incredible.  The conference is truly international and interestingly the challenges faced by our respective health organisations are in many ways similar, for example staffing issues and budget cuts.  I have attended sessions very relevant to my research, exploring reflexivity and decision-making in qualitative research, long-term conditions and end of life care, as well as workshops on publishing and the viva.  Other sessions have also been relevant to my clinical practice, particularly the theme considering stroke care as I work regularly these days in neurosurgery and stroke rehabilitation.  Networking is, as many of you know, vital at conferences and I have met many experienced nursing researchers and academics, who have been welcoming and supportive.

However, one of the sessions that I found the most revealing considered the use of internet based research, in particular the use of virtual worlds. The researcher explained interviewing people in the virtual world about health information, showing us the virtual space where she conducted interviews (a cosy 3D room complete with rug, armchairs and plants) and her ‘avatar’.  Now, I thought that Avatar was a film with blue people – that I’ve actually never seen – but in fact an avatar in the online person that the user creates and that they use to interact with others.  While this could theoretically take any form, apparently people tend to create a slightly more attractive version of themselves.  Using virtual worlds enables researchers to recruit and interview people from across the world, allowing this to take part through verbal or written interviews.  Although this method and space has complex ethical issues, it opens up a new and exciting world to researchers.  I felt both very old, never having heard of virtual worlds, and that my research was a touch old-fashioned!  Perhaps I need to begin thinking about the virtual world, after all, I do now have twitter – although I’m yet to tweet – and of course blog…

So overall, this has been an interesting, diverse and relevant conference, beneficial both to my research and clinical practice, and I am looking forward to next year already.

Imposter Syndrome


Shema’s recent blog discussed the seven secrets for successful research, the seventh of which is thinking “I can do it”.  In her blog, Shema reported feeling like an imposter, a feeling that is not uncommon to me, but it is only as I rapidly approach the end of my PhD that I feel confident to talk about this insecurity.  Throughout my PhD I have felt like an imposter, fearing that at some point somebody would find out that I do not belong here, I am not good enough and throw me out.  In fact, whenever people eventually get out of me what I actually “do” (see earlier blog for my ramblings on this difficulty) and they ask me what I will “get” or “be” at the end of my PhD, I answer “well IF I am successful at my Viva I will be Dr, but it is a very big if”.

This insecurity is nothing to do with my academic school, who have been welcoming and supportive, nor my academic supervisors who have been wonderful and encouraging.  I felt so lucky to be awarded funding to undertake my PhD in a topic that I feel strongly about and I threw myself into the opportunity.  Within the school, my confidence and sense of security has been very slowly increasing since my first year, when I finally admitted to my supervisor that I felt like I was an imposter and was not good enough to be a PhD student.  Her reassurances that I was good enough helped, as did passing my end of year review.  Gaining approval from NHS ethics also bolstered my confidence – other people believed in my study and deemed me suitable to undertake it.

Undertaking postgraduate research at Cardiff University afforded me the opportunity to attend research training for the Graduate School and attend I did – 23 sessions so far and counting!  Having chosen ethnographic research methods, which the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff is renowned for, I joined their Ethnography group and attended regularly, barely saying a word.  They were again friendly and the sessions were fascinating, but I worried that my clinical background and being a novice researcher did not make me qualified to comment on the incredible research they were undertaking.  I also had the opportunity to attend three modules on the MSc in Social Science Research methods – qualitative methods, quantitative methods and philosophies of social science research – and again I worried that the other students were much more worthy of postgraduate study than me.

However, I have had a breakthrough.  I submitted an abstract for an oral presentation to the Spotlight on Social Sciences conference, an event for postgraduate researchers.  The abstract was accepted and I gave my presentation to a group of interdisciplinary research students last Friday.  As the Twitter feed on this page announced, I was very fortunate to be awarded a prize (third) for my presentation.  I am rather bashful re-announcing this, but I have to say I was thrilled.  This gave me a boost that, as a nurse adopting social science research methods, my work sounded legitimate to social scientists.

I have been recently encouraged to discover that in fact friends of mine who are undertaking PhDs (in engineering, the social sciences and indeed within our post-graduate office) also feel like imposters – so why have we not discussed this before?  Perhaps we feared that articulating these fears would lead to our rapid expulsion?  I think that not being over-confident is important, as well as seeing the PhD as a learning opportunity – we may well not get it right straight away.  However, maybe we should be more open about “imposter syndrome” and try to reassure each other a little?  Having said that, a friend of mine who recently completed his Professional Doctorate has admitted feeling like an imposter now he is working in industry – maybe this insecurity never really leaves us.

What do you do then?

People regularly ask me the same question: “what do you do?”  A simple enough question perhaps, but one that I struggle to adequately answer.  Sometimes I say “a staff nurse”, but this leads on to further questions about where I work and if I enjoy my work and I am forced to admit that actually I work as a “bank nurse”, working on whichever ward is offered to me.  Additionally, saying that I am a staff nurse does not really describe what I do on a day-to-day basis – my clinical work on the ward is limited to two Saturdays per month.  Therefore, I sometimes say that I am a “researcher”, but this seems a little overzealous as in fact the research study I am conducting is my first and realistically I am a researcher-in-training.  Replying that I am “a student” generally conjures up a reply about what am I studying or a quip about attending only four hours’ lectures per week (when in fact I do not attend lectures at all).  Occasionally I tell the truth about what I do.

I am a PhD student, now entering my final year.  A nurse by background, I was awarded funding to undertake a full-time PhD back in 2009, and I am investigating how adults and their families live with home dialysis in Wales.  The fact that I am a nurse and a PhD student appears to perturb people.  My colleagues in the hospital wonder why I wanted to return to university full-time and thus work seldom hours clinically.  Sometimes, people seem to take offence that I no longer work full-time as a staff nurse, asking whether I do not like being a nurse.  A common response from people outside the academic or nursing world is “how can a nurse do a PhD?  I thought nursing was a practical job”.  This question forces me to take a breath and explain that as I have a bachelors degree I too am able to undertake a PhD, the evidence-base behind nursing practice is vital, and I am (hopefully) helping to generate the evidence.  Therefore, I often skirt around the issue of what I do.

However, I am intensely proud that I am undertaking my PhD.  I love it.  It has been an enormous challenge, but one that I have enjoyed at every step of the way.  Undertaking this challenge has enabled me to interact with other PhD students from many different disciplines, giving me insight into the rich and diverse research that is taking place.  I have learned about philosophy and sociology, as well as learning the principles of clinical research and health economics.  Collecting data, which involved me visiting individuals undertaking dialysis at home, has been the most fascinating aspect of the study, and I felt so lucky that families welcomed me into their homes and shared their experiences with me.  Although I started planning this project nearly three years ago, I continue to be enthralled by the topic and moved by the stories told to me by participants.  I feel incredibly fortunate that I was given the opportunity to embark upon my PhD and the process has thus far been rewarding and interesting.

Therefore, I need to find a new way to answer the question of what I ‘do’, which conveys how interesting my work is and my passion for it.  Failing that, perhaps I should make up a fantasy career?  I do like baking cakes…