Tag Archives: busy

Multitasking academic life with personal events – by Lowri Stevenson

This year has proved to be quite an eventful year for my family – my husband and two children – and me! Not only have I been undertaking the second year of a full-time PhD at the School of Healthcare Sciences, but within the space of seven short months, we have moved westwards as LS2a family, to enable us to enjoy a more rural lifestyle, as well as moved the children’s schooling and got married to boot!

I am unsure whether I would particularly recommend this chaotic way of living (albeit short-term), however, now that the house move and summer wedding are all just lovely memories, I am left with a very happy feeling in my bones that it has all worked out for the best for us as a family. We are a very happy and settled little unit. Thankfully, my PhD continues…

When I returned to studying in October 2013, from working on busy hospital wards as a midwife, I felt that everything should be put on hold whilst I undertook the next three years of study. I initially found it difficult to achieve the right work-life balance and put all other things aside to the studies. I found it quite stressful when anything unexpected cropped up. I remember during the early days of my studies, my supervisors reminding me several times that the PhD journey is a marathon and not a sprint! However, the changes in our lives since last December LS1have shown me, that with military-style organisation, dedication and some busy times, anything can be achieved; particularly if you are fully committed to what you are trying to accomplish. The undo ‘able can be done!

I must say, I did find myself delving my nose into my diary probably more than any other book I own, and utilising the skills of our brilliant family, as well as delegating some tasks out to wonderful friends; particularly with regards to weddingy issues. There were many times when everything else HAD to take a back seat to my studies, and that this had to be my priority at certain times along the way, particularly when there were submission deadlines or organised events. In the main, though, I found that living this double-sided existence became almost enjoyable: PhD student by day, and bride-to-be and full-time mother by night!

I guess the message I am trying to convey, by using my personal experiences, is that when life events occur whilst undertaking a huge professional commitment such as a PhD (which in the majority they will, LS3especially over a three-year period), there are certain attributes which may really help. For me, these were things such as being organised, good time-management, being flexible, not panicking, placing things into perspective and having a fantastic support network of supervisors, colleagues, family and friends to lean on.

Good luck to you all with your studies! Lowri x

Sometimes you won’t feel like talking about “IT” and it’s OK – by Carolyn Graham

As a PhD student, one of the things you will find out quickly is that you repeatedly have to tell people what you are doing, what you are “looking” at. In formal and informal gatherings, at workshops, seminars, conferences and other types of training, university and non-university encounters; either as part of the introduction or in conversations over coffee, a pint or at dinner. It doesn’t matter if you are one day or 4 years into the programme, the FAQs of a PhD student’s life remain the same: What are you looking at? How is it going? What is your topic? What is your theoretical framework? How are you going to collect data? When are you going to be finished? etc., etc. Some think it’s glamourous. “Oh the student life!” they exclaim. “You get to sleep late and work when you want.” If only they knew! IT will become your identity.SNV30975

Your response to these questions invariably begins with, “I am looking at…”

It is beneficial to speak about one’s research. Verbalization is good for formulating thoughts, to try out your ideas on others, to find persons of similar interest, to discover if you are making progress with your understanding of what you are doing, to get assistance, to get assurance, to practice for the times when you cannot avoid talking about IT and many more. Talking about your work is also good training for public speaking, in being concise, in breaking down complex ideas and for the Viva!

A tactic that I have found useful is to ask myself these same questions and write short responses to them or think up responses on the spot. I also practice varying my responses so that I don’t bore myself with my own replay. Recall that different persons are asking you so it will sound fresh and new to them, but not to you. I would recommend attending the 3-minute thesis competition, or even entering, if you are so inclined as it will allow you to develop the skill of being succinct yet thorough, while learning to put your work in a language that non-experts may understand.

Don’t forget however, depending on the situation, you can politely ask for a reprieve from talking about IT, and it is OK. The PhD life is like new parents whom everyone asks about the baby and forgets the parents, sometimes to their dismay. “What about me?” Is the silent lamentation. “I need some attention too!” At some point you feel like screaming. “Hey, I’m not my PhD, I have a life, an identity outside of my PhD. I am multi-dimensional!” Particularly if you are at a frustrating phase, just had a not-so-good supervision and you just want to forget the PhD, even for the two hours you are in a pub gathering some strength to get back to IT. You don’t always have the resolve to speak about IT. The first stages, when there is only a chaos of literature and ideas and you are struggling to put the pieces together yourself, can be a particularly dubious time. The imposter syndrome sets in and it is not made any better when asked “so, what are you looking at?” The writing up phase as well seem to be another daunting time. I am not there yet, but I have heard the tales of woe from others.

Sometimes when asked “what are you looking at?” it’s like a bombshell. The moment immediately becomes surreal, you hear the question but you are not sure what it means. When you, in slow motion, grasp the notion, your brain takes a scramble to put together something coherent and interesting. Of course, all this takes less than 10 sec11759033_958990500818475_1651712378_nonds, but for you it’s an eternity. I don’t know the full psychology, but added to the imposter syndrome is fear of sounding stupid, of not sounding intelligent enough, that your research sounds lame relative to others (all of us think everybody else’s research is more interesting) and even fear of public speaking, or speaking to strangers.

There are also those of us who, having passed through the valley of chaos and began to make sense of our work, have repeated the response so often that it becomes dreary. We have to then think of more creative, and interesting ways to answer the same question, which is itself a challenge. This is where practice helps. We also realize that, depending on who asks, we have to approach the response from different angles, and sometimes we are not sure at what level to pitch the response, ensuring the person understands but we are not patronizing.

Responding to questions about your work is a balancing act and it depends on who, when and where the question is asked. One can politely say, “wow, my brain is a bit tired now I just want to relax.” I have done that. Alternatively, you can beat the question to the punch and ask first. If you realize you are speaking to someone who likes talking about their work (and there are those who do), you continue asking them questions and this should save you. Sensitivity is important here however, people may be in a similar position to you and may really not wish to speak. In that case, it is OK to suggest a different line of conversation, such as “both of us seems to be tired of talking about our PhDs, so where are you from?”, or something similar.

10259561_723480654369462_1859309068_nThe bottom line is, like many other experiences, each person’s experience of the PhD, although there are broad similarities, is different. Personality, support, whether one is an international or local student, culture, language, and so on, all come together to influence the experience. Be reflective, know your strengths and weaknesses, and don’t be afraid to take a step back if your mind and body ask for reprieve. It is ok if at times you do not wish to speak about your PhD and it is also ok to say so; but you shouldn’t make a habit of it – discussion will benefit your ideas in the long run.

Carolyn Graham

Running Up Hill – by Sarah Fry

Three years ago, when I was working as a full time prostate cancer Research Nurse, I asked myself why there didn’t seem to be any, or very few, black men in the prostate cancer clinics. Having an enquiring mind I conducted a review of the literature on ethnicity and prostate cancer and was surprised to find that men of African and African Caribbean origin have twice the risk for prostate cancer than white men. I quickly realised that this was something I wanted to research, and applied for PhD funding from RCBC Wales to explore what was known by men in the African and African Caribbean community in South Wales about their risk for prostate cancer. From the very beginning I was faced with a number of obstacles. My initial application for funding for this PhD topic was declined; the panel’s main concern being that I would “not be able to get a black man to talk to me about his prostate”. By my second round of funding they could see that I was not going to let this stand in my way and I secured the funding on the basis that I would find novel ways to recruit to my study.

I started my PhD on a part-time basis, keeping my toe in clinical waters, and decided to conduct a qualitative study using interviews and field work to find out how men living in black and white populated areas construct their beliefs about risks for prostate cancer. The aim of this being to find similarities and differences between these men to devise ways of targeting those most at risk in a meaningful and effective way.

The area in which I’m conducting my research is a suburb which is densely populated by people of African and African Caribbean origin. Of course the majority are now second generation but they have worked hard to hold onto their roots and this meant some were suspicious of ‘outsiders’ Butetown Mile committeeand at times just rude. Knowing I had to earn the trust of people in this community, doing something with not to them and not solely for myself, I learnt about a historic 1-mile running event which used to take place along a stretch of road going through their community. Most people spoke about it with fond memories; talking about the crowds it brought to their area, and expressing sadness at how they now feel they are isolated and separated from the city by new developments. So, why not re-launch this event? I saw this as a great opportunity to work with the community and soon set-up a small committee of myself and two key men who had been involved with the run in the past; one of Caribbean origin and one of Somali origin. The local council was thrilled. They had been trying to work with this community for years and so agreed to close the roads for free.

We decided, for the first year, to do the run for a large charity that I have connections with to help with administration. This seemed simple enough. The course is a straight line which generated interest in the past, and it now quickly became popular with club runners who started making noises about entry. Here we had two distinct social groups coming together. As a keen runner myself I am safe in the knowledge that most club runners are white professionals largely worried about how fast they run. The community I was working with, and particularly the men on the committee, were not used to the demands of the running group and bringing the two communities together has been almost impossible. The charity taking responsibility for administration has also seemed inflexible on accommodating to the cultural pace of the local community and I have started to see why the community might feel left behind. It is a matter of cultural competence; a concept which has become an extremely important thread in my PhD.

Last year, after months of stress and two weeks of sleepless nights, our first event was a success. The outcome was worth it; we had 65 runners pounding the streets on what turned out to be a great event. The club runners won and kept themselves separate from the local Butetown Mile flyer 2015community but I feel sure that integration will come with time. Integration does not happen with one event. The fastest child was from the local community and had never run before – so I feel we have something to build on. This year we have sponsorship and more engagement promises from the community, although I have learnt about pace and try not to get frustrated.

You may ask what this has this told me about the men in the community and how they think about their risk for prostate cancer. Firstly, it has allowed me access to this community and a depth of knowledge that will be invaluable, but it has also opened my eyes to what is important to these men. Surprisingly – it’s not what we as healthcare professionals think it should be.

Enter the Butetown Mile at –
http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/support-us/find-an-event/2015-butetown-mile

Mummy, Mortgage and Mature (ish) Student – Gemma Harrison-Thornton

I’ve been thinking about writing a “blog” for a while, but finding time to even go to the toilet is difficult in my situation, so sitting down to type something pleasurable became a sort of fantasy; a nice thing to think about on my commute to university. Yet, the urgency to write about my experiences has been increasing and I vowed to myself I would do it! I was then reminded by my partner of six years ( I thought it was five years but after some careful memory recall and calculation it’s actually six years in May that we met!) that there is a certain irony to writing a blog about the intricacies of juggling being a mum, having a house and being a student. Unfortunately he is right…. Firstly, because the purpose of this spiel is to highlight how being a working mum is an extremely busy role with “downtime” being a thing of the past.

IMG_0001By the end of the day there is little fuel left in the hypothetical tank,   other than to crawl into bed with the intention of watching a happy, ‘don’t have to think about anything’ programme with my partner, yet usually falling asleep within about three minutes. The good thing about my situation is that I usually sleep very well – the kind of sleep I associate with being dead. I feel this may need a little more explanation…you sleep without dreaming, without remembering falling asleep without stirring, until you wake up and wonder where the time has gone. That kind of sleep. When I get the chance, I’m pretty good at that (thank goodness!) Needless to say the opportunity to sleep like I’m dead is rare with our four year old (soon to be five…where has the time gone?!) son. We had a pretty good routine going with regards to bedtime, until we went on holiday and I wanted him to sleep in with us for safety reasons. Since that holiday in 2013 He has slept in our bed every night. The routine is rather hilarious when I think about it/ write it down. Noah has to start his sleep journey in our bed. When he falls asleep we have to wait for a little while to move him into his own bed, because if he wakes up then we have no chance of getting him there. Once he’s in his own bed, I quickly jump into my own bed to enjoy a couple of hours of space…because Noah then comes back into our bed for the remainder of the night. This means that I spend the rest of night dangling off the edge of the bed with a small corner of the duvet for warmth! On these occasions, when sleep is off the cards, I often think back to the days when I was first at Uni and would come home for about 4pm and get straight into bed to watch countdown. I would fall in and out of sleep as I when I felt like it…often staying up late because I didn’t have to worry about lack of sleep. Nowadays, I’m preoccupied with getting to bed as quick as I can to get as much interrupted sleep as possible before the nightly ‘routine’ commences.

So, some contextual background (forgive the academic terminology). I am a twenty-eight year old woman; I have a four year old son, a partner, a cat and a sausage dog. I am also a full-time PhD student. I feel extremely privileged to have been awarded funding to undertake my research and having the opportunity to do something that I am passionate about. Of course, everyone who has done or is doing any form of study will know, there are always peaks and troughs in the journey, times of high stress and overwhelming guilt. Guilt which is not only associated with being a working mum but also guilt about not getting enough words on paper (or rather word document)! As I’m sure will resonate with many of you, the prevailing feeling in my emotional bank is guilt. Added to this is a dollop of worry, flavoured with relief (at making it through the day) happiness (that I’m managing being mum and student at the same time and most of the time do it well) and contentment at the end of that long day when the house is calm (but always untidy!!! NOT DIRTY)

IMG_2866So a day in the life of being mum, partner and student goes something like this…. I always feel like I’ve done a day’s work before I get to university, resulting in the need to lie down in the common room with a cup of tea before any creativity can begin! A morning alarm clock is never needed; Noah is up in plenty of time. I negotiate breakfast for Noah (and Bunty and Vegas), while pulling washing out of machine, re loading it, emptying and re filling the tumble dryer. I do make myself a cup of tea and carry it from room to room taking sips when I can, although it usually ends up cold. I have a shower, get myself ready and then negotiate getting Noah ready. Now this is not an easy task. Noah, although a very bright young chap, is not a big fan of school. I don’t think that it has anything to do with the education side; he just wants to be with me at home. He is very good at making my heart strings pang and the guilt gates open. “Mummy why do you have to go work?”, “Mummy can I come to work with you?”, “Mummy don’t go to work I’ll miss you too much and my heart will hurt”, “Is it the weekend yet?” …just some of the statements my son says to me on a morning. My standard response to this is you know mummy has to go to work so that I can pay for nice things for us”, “If I go to work we can afford to go on holiday”, ” mummy can afford to buy you birthday presents and pay for swimming”. This final statement usually does the trick. So I drop Noah off to school, and then drop Bunty off at my Bampis (Welsh for grandfather). It is at this time, I take a deep breath, a sip of my tea in my travelling mug and a long drag on my e cigarette. This is one of the nicest feelings in the world. I begin my journey to Uni. Now this is a very interesting part of the day. I do a lot of my thinking in the car. I start writing paragraphs In my head, and if I think of something good I record myself or if I hear an interesting word on the radio I record it! I always wonder if anyone does this…I know I’ll forget it by the time I get to Cardiff otherwise. I wish these thoughts would come to me when I’m sitting at my desk trying to write!!

Now driving back and fore to Uni has its ups and downs. It’s been great for getting some down time before and after Uni; an opportunity to have an hour with myself uninterrupted and a chance to catch up on Radio’s 4 Woman’s Hour (yes since starting my PhD I have become a self confessed Radio 4 addict). However, I have witnessed some of the most extraordinary driving. As the months have passed doing this commute and negotiating the M4 I have decided to take a more laid back approach to other drivers. They were driving me nuts (no pun intended!), so much so that the commute to work was putting me in a bad mood – I was having to de brief with colleagues in the office before I could get down to any work. On a daily basis I gave myself a pat on the back for making it to work in one piece!

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So, how do I negotiate my time to ensure that I am first and foremost mum to my little boy while keeping the house in a habitable state and getting down to studying? The answer to this question is easy for me! I have a rock solid support network and parents and in laws who adore our son and love to spend time with him. My mum is my wing man. Not one day has gone by where my mum has not helped me – practically and emotionally.   There is not enough space to write down the things she has done for me and my family and I am eternally grateful to her for supporting me to pursue my dreams (I can’t help but be soppy when writing about my mum!). I am also extremely lucky that I get most of our ironing done by my mum and my partners mum! In my defense I am useless at ironing – I have ruined many clothes in the process! So for the sake of my partner and sons appearance (in school and work) this arrangement is helpful for all involved! I don’t want readers to think that the only way to negotiate this situation is by having amazing support…because I know for a fact that there are many students who do all these jobs by themselves and do it well. I have tremendous appreciation for those who pursue their dreams whatever their circumstances, and it is this point I want to finish on. There have been a few people who have said to me things like “I don’t know how you do it!”, “when do you find the time?” and “maybe you should have waited until your son was older! I just laugh out loud (literally lol) and say “It’s easy!!!!!”…The look on their faces is priceless!

Gemma Harrison-Thornton,

PhD student, Cardiff University

Today I forgot my friend

To be perfectly honest, this may not come as a massive shock to a number of my friends. I have been known, on occasions, to be less than organised. Forgetting a real person – an asset to my life- however, is a step further than normal.

My only excuse (if there ever is an excuse for leaving a loved one standing outside your house in the cold while you obliviously type away at a drafted piece of work 5 miles away), was that I am SUPER busy.

The last few days have been a blur of courses, training, and desperately playing catch-up.

Monday started on a bad note. I arrived back in Cardiff at 8am, after a 2 hour train journey I had planned to be taking the previous evening (Rail works had meant that an attempt to return sooner would have cost me an extra 3 and half hours of my life). I was greeted by the pouring rain, and a bitter chill. Nevertheless, I was fairly pleased with myself; I had spent the entire train journey working on the latest piece of writing for my PhD, rather than my more common habit of sleeping. I got out my laptop and was faced with my first problem; without yet being connected to the University’s network, I could not transfer my work from my laptop to my office computer. After a bit of problem solving I popped next door to the ever-helpful Kath, who promptly provided me with a USB pen. PERFECT. I returned to the office to find that my laptop had turned itself off in my absence. On turning it back on I discovered it had decided to commit suicide with no warning, and I was unable to pass a rather sombre looking black screen. Despite many attempts (at least 10, I would guess) – the “turn off and turn back on again” rule had failed me, and I was forced to once again return sheepishly to Kath’s office with a slightly larger favour to ask. After about half an hour Kath returned with the dreaded words…“I think I’m going to re-format it. Have you backed everything up?” I was struck by sheer horror; those two precious hours of sleep that I’d sacrificed in order to work had been wasted. (Luckily, Kath was being modest about her abilities. The laptop was returned the next day good-as-new).

Not allowing myself to be disheartened by the morning’s events, I opened my unread text book and started to apply the concepts learnt in the previous day’s “Rapid Reading” training.
– Recap (what did I already know about this topic?)
– Set my objectives (what did I want to gain from reading this book?)
– Do an Overview (scan the pages)
– Preview the writing (Cross out all irrelevant parts…sorry Billie – I promise it was pencil and will be erased!!)
– Inview (re-read with an aim to make sense of it all)
– Review (make notes from memory)

After about 10 minutes I was in the firm belief that my own methods were best and that all I was doing with this new technique was giving myself a headache. However, remembering the stern instructions given by the facilitator of the course, I powered through. After two pages of notes (admittedly some cheating occurred – not all were from memory!) I decided to review what I had altogether so far. EIGHT pages of notes; EIGHT. To write a 4 page document. Despite the niggling thought in my head that I hadn’t covered half of what I wanted to, I made a firm decision to stop (supported by my colleague Dave, who reassured me I had done more than enough note-taking to cover the piece of writing I’d been asked to complete – thanks Dave!).

After a swift break to make myself another cup of coffee (fourth of the day, by that point!), I attempted to start WRITING; turning notes into beautifully flowing sentences. It was about 15 minutes into this process that I got the phone call from my friend asking me to “let him in” to my house because he was cold. Oh. OOPS!

Needless to say, my friend was not overly impressed that I was nowhere near home, and therefore he would have to turn around and go back to the warm sofa he had only recently dragged himself away from. But luckily my tale of the events of that day somewhat pacified him (I think he felt as though I’d suffered enough with the loss of my laptop) and we re-arranged for that evening.

I find myself ever-busy…and although the pace is sometimes rather frightening and all-consuming, I quite enjoy it. I always have something to DO. I’m always learning…teaching…being a part of something. It’s proving rather difficult to juggle training, conferences, workload, and a social life (and I imagine it will only become more so)…but getting that balance is something that will develop with time. (Or at least I hope so – for the sake of my friends!). Bring on the next 3 years! (And maybe a new laptop?!)