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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 –

A Reflection – by Jane Davies

Reflection – Year two, Term two

Having just returned from the Easter weekend to begin the final term of year two, I realise how quickly time is moving. I am now half way through the study with writing, data collection and analysis ahead of me. In many ways this has felt like one of the most productive phases of the work to date.

It began in January when I returned after the Christmas break to finalise the R and D approval from the main site for my research. This had been in the only word I can think of a tortuous process, which became more and more frustrating leading up to the Christmas break. I was fully aware that it was going to be difficult but I think I underestimated my ability to cope with just how much energy it takes to get to the data collection stage. I was well supported throughout the process and many people gave advice and helped.

Nevertheless I was given approval at the main site and my research passport was issued, which meant that I could begin the work at the main site. I still had to wait for approval at the subsidiary site, which did not come until April. I met with my contact for recruitment in mid-January who as always was extremely encouraging and helpful. She offered to have a look through the current patient list and then we could discuss who might be a suitable case, taking into account the inclusion exclusion criteria. She soon contacted me saying that she had two possibly three young people who might be suitable for the study. She offered to give an information sheet to those selected and I waited for her to contact me.

I have to say I have been heartened by the fact that the young people approached so far have been keen to take part. I was of the view that this wouldn’t be the case and that I would have trouble recruiting. I undertook my first interview on 3rd February 2014. I felt nervous and unsure of my ability to conduct the interview successfully. I checked and re checked my tape recorder for fear that it would not work to an almost ridiculous extent. I think this was that I realised how precious these conversations were and that I would be unable to recapture them a second time. It went quite well but I am not sure if I probed enough and felt that I probably could have learned more.

Jane blog 2Even though it was only the beginning of February I was already feeling tired. It was good that I had booked a holiday in February and a short break with friends in March as these trips have since re-energised me particularly with reference to data collection. I was advised that data collection would be tiring and that my sample would probably have some stories that I found upsetting. This indeed was the case. I have spent many quiet moments especially when out walking when I have reflected on the difficulties and challenges which face these young people. This was brought to life more than ever very recently. I was on my way to attend an outpatient appointment for a young man with an osteosarcoma who before his cancer had been a keen sportsman. He had required an amputation just above his knee. As I was walking, I saw a young man in the distance who I recognised I had watched playing school age rugby. He is now a professional player who has an international cap and is a first year student at medical school. The contrast in the two situations really struck me and I thought about how their two lives were so different for young men of the same age.

I have continued to recruit cases and now have three young people in the study. My interviewing is improving as I gain confidence. I have also interviewed family and friends of each case which has provided a different but very worthwhile perspective. I still swing between absolute terror and a feeling that I am coping better and understanding more. It is very uncomfortable (the terror aspect) however I am reassured that this is a normal part of this type of study. I am beginning to write reflexive accounts following the interviews and to try and look for key messages in the transcripts. I have used a small number of codes, which are enabling me to identify specific decision making events within each interview. I have no idea what a lot of it means yet but hope it will start to fit together at some point. It certainly occupies a lot of my thinking time!

I have continued to access training throughout this term and have been to some writing clubs, a rapid reading programme and some seminars in SOCSI. I have also made progress in disseminating my work with a poster accepted at a local and international conference. I have also secured a residency in Geneva next year in July, which will provide an opportunity for writing and sharing my work and ideas with others who are also writing for various purposes. This is something that I am looking forward to enormously. I need to stay focused and ensure that when I go to the residency I am at the right stage to really do justice to the writing that I will undertake there.

I am looking forward to the summer term and the experience of meeting with more young people and their families and to developing some more skills in research data collection. I am also going to try and write alongside this when I can, which will include the submission of a paper which I am currently working on.

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?!)