Tag Archives: top tips

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

Imposter Syndrome by Laura Cassels

A guide to surviving imposter syndrome in science

I sat there, completely intimidated, terrified. I stared at them, zipping through experiments with ease; laughing and arguing fluently in scientific language I wasn’t yet familiar with. Surely he had made a mistake in inviting me to do a PhD? Everyone in the lab had impressive CVs and an incredible knowledge base. The post-docs were extraordinarily experienced, the PhD students seemed like young post-docs, and the PI was (literally) referred to as the rock-star of neuroscience. I was so scared I wouldn’t be good enough to be part of the group. They would surely figure me out eventually and then would come a chase with pitch forks and fire. Or maybe a Bunsen burner and scalpel as we are talking about a 21st century laboratory.

20150604_093946Before joining the lab, after I first received an offer, I had all of these thoughts. Was I good enough to join this group? Or would I just continuously fail, feel awful and drop out? In the end I committed myself and jumped in. What was a PhD anyway if not the chance to challenge myself? I mean, maybe my insecurities were unfounded and with time I would become more confident?

It’s now been 15 months and I still sit in meetings and panic. Actually, despite being shocked by the comments made by Sir Tim Hunt about women in science, I have to shamefully admit that I have (in private) already shed a few tears of frustration in the past year. Why?

Well luckily for me it turns out that a lot of scientists feel the same way. In fact I discovered through several late nights at work that my colleagues who intimidated me originally, it turns out, are intimidated by me too. It’s a well-known phenomenon in academia called the “imposter syndrome”. So at the risk of sounding pedantic, I have learnt a couple of things that can help to battle this wee beastie:Untitled

  1. You are not alone in feeling like a fraud.

Every single academic I’ve met has said they have felt the same, from post docs in Buenos Aires to China, from the PhDs in the US to Italy. It’s a universal epidemic. If everyone feels the same that means even your role model is thinking this from time to time. That means that if you have particularly nice colleagues you can take solace in sharing your woes and giving each other a boost, or by reminding yourself from time to time that even the most smug, know-it-all will have this fear.

  1. Why did I feel intimidated?

Academia, by definition, is a work environment filled with incredibly talented people. No matter what subject you are in the fact is that you are never going to know everything. But the beauty of doing a PhD is the amazing opportunity you have to learn from the worlds brightest. Every day you are learning something new and it’s inspiring. Remind yourself why these people are intimidating to you, and then realise that someone saw the potential in you to at least become one of these people, if you aren’t already.

  1. Why did you start a PhD in the first place?

I guess you’re looking at this because you’re either on, or considering doing a PhD. That means you have some passion to learn about your subject. If you knew everything already then there IMG-20150627-WA0000would be no point in you undertaking a PhD in the first place. It’s a training program for a reason. Accepting that each time you don’t understand or don’t know the answer is an opportunity to learn is tough, but it comes with time.

Being honest, I used to research SO MUCH before a simple catch up meeting with my supervisor. I would freak out and get so anxious. I didn’t want to disappoint him, or to look stupid and that I wasn’t trying hard enough. But one day he said to me “It’s okay, you’re here to learn,” after I had made a particularly embarrassing mistake. Your supervisor and colleagues don’t expect you to know everything, just to try your best and be enthusiastic about your work.

  1. Embrace mistakes.

Make numerous mistakes, not failures. Why? Because 20150625_095658mistakes are valuable lessons. Months of failed experiments (that’s not an over exaggeration) remind me that if my experiments all went smoothly I would probably make an utterly useless post doc. I’d never know how to trouble shoot or tweak experiments. I’d never know how to think outside the box. If everything was going 100% perfect you’re probably doing something wrong without realising it, which is worse if you think about it.

  1. Talk to non-academic or non-scientific loved ones. Seriously. Do it right now.

Two months ago my experiments weren’t going great and I was feeling a little un-enamoured with my research. I was in a funk. I met with an actor friend and when he asked what I was doing my research on, I bashfully shrugged it off as boring compared to his glamorous lifestyle. After his insistence, I explained and his eyes lit up and he shouted “that’s SO cool!”.

You forget how novel the idea oIMG-20150703-WA0002f manipulating DNA in cells is when you’re amongst scientists, but to someone else it’s fantasy from a sci-fi movie involving ugly aliens and Tom cruise. My parents, enthusiastic little dears, hang my past conference posters in the house and from time to time I’ll let them come into the lab. It’s always a massive pick me up to remember why you fell in love with science in the first place and see it through a new pair of eyes.

  1. Look back at past reports.

It sounds ridiculous but if you see some of your past work from your undergraduate years you will see how far you have come in such a short space of time. Cut yourself some slack and remember that in three years time, during your post doc you will look back at your PhD self and feel the same way. It is a learning process that takes time, but you will get there.


Laura Cassels, Wellcome Trust PhD Student
(Prof. Yves Barde’s Group)
Cardiff School of Biosciences

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.

Stress; Prevent rather than Cure!

by Shema Ammer

I am currently working on an analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data (mixed methods). Although a mixed method design is challenging due to its inherent complexity, I believe that this method enables me to gather a wide variety of data to measure and compare the outcomes of the intervention. To analyse the quantitative data I used the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS 18). To analyse the qualitative data I decided to use Thematic Analysis. The process of data analysis is challenging and takes time, so to motivate myself I attended several workshops. These included:

  • PhD Comics – ‘ The Power of Procrastination’ (a talk by Jorge Cham)
  • Stress Management
  • Fearless

The things I learnt from all of these workshops are helping me to cope with the stress that I experience from data analysis and my PhD studies in general. The presenters of each helped me to learn how to manage and control my stress in order to feel more happy and productive as a PhD student.

The main thing I learnt through these workshops was that we should prevent, rather than cure, stress by:

  • developing resistance
  • improving productivity by realistic planning and time management
  • setting realistic targets and expectations
  • analysing or recognising ourselves (self-awareness is knowledge, and knowledge is power).

I believe that attendance at these kind of workshops improves self-awareness, particularly regarding the challenges being presented by PhD study.

Sarah Worley-James, who gave the talk on “stress management” taught me that the stress and anxiety produced by undertaking a PhD is unique due to the following factors:

  • Isolation and limited support
  • Pressure from self (perfectionism)
  • international students
  • Pressure of Viva
  • The Imposter Syndrome

I learnt that when we are facing a problem or challenge, one of the key questions we need to ask ourselves is: “Okay. So what do I plan to do differently so I can have a chance at a different outcome?”

If we can succeed in doing this, managing our stress and anxiety effectively will equip us with the ability to:

  • solve problems effectively
  • identify difficult situations
  • think calmly under pressure
  • believe in ourselves and  improve self-confidence
  • cope with deadlines
  • plan our time effectively
  • communicate well with others
  • feel positive
  • avoid procrastination and perfectionism!!


The TOP TIPS I learnt from these workshops:

  1. Take 1 minute at the end of each day to write 3 things that you have achieved. (This should help to build your self-confidence and self-esteem.)
  2. Focus on the evidence for positive outcomes of your efforts
  3. Reduce mental stress by identifying and challenging fearful thoughts, as well as relaxing through imagination and mediation.
  4. Reduce physical stress using muscular relaxation, deep breathing, exercise and a healthy diet and environment.

I hope that these tips will help us to progress along our chosen career path; minimising the risk of stress overload and burn out.


Some websites I would recommend:

Back to Skool II

I met the new group of students enrolled on the Professional doctorate this week. They are all doing really interesting and clinically valuable projects. Although they have two years of taught modules before their research phase, they already have strong research ideas that come from their clinical practice:

Anne Owen: the introduction of the ‘nursing dashboard’ computer interface. evaluating its impact

Sian Lewis: How to improve compliance with dietary advice amongst patients with head and neck cancers following gastrostomy tube insertion

Janice Waters: Developing a tool to identify and assess children with behavioural problems that have a sexual dimension

Suzanne Harris: Evaluating the impact of discharging patients early following surgery

Claire McCarthy: the implementation of a nurse led minor injury clinic- perceptions of clinical and patient populations

Cath O’Brien: Examining the educational needs of trainee pharmacists

Mark Jones: Ensuring evidence based mental health care

Ricky Hellyar: Why haematology patients choose to participate in clinical trials?

Kate Deacon: How can we assess  patients for delirium in intensive care settings?

They asked for my top tips for surviving a phd…..so here they are…

Start writing now and keep writing- the more you do the better you get
Get it written, don’t get it right- we are not interested in perfection
Keep talking to your supervisors
Don’t think of the whole thesis or even ‘chapters’ (too scary), break it down into bite sized chunks that you can manage- from a thesis, down to 10,000 word chapters and in each chapter there could be 5 sections….so think in 2,000 word sections that are doable
It is all about perseverance, so keep calm and keep going….