Category Archives: phdpostdoc

Reflections on 5 months as an ECR

It has been a while since I’ve blogged here, despite good intentions; this is not indicative of inactivity, far from it! I have now been in post at the University of Edinburgh for 5 months, and this seems as good a time as any to reflect and take stock, and note some of the joys, challenges and experiences of life as an early career researcher (ECR).

Firstly, as I’ve not said anything here about the project I am working on, I’ll give the briefest outline. I am undertaking a longitudinal qualitative research study attached to a randomised control trial (RCT) of two treatments for type 1 diabetes. This involves interviewing a sample of participants on both arms of the trial, within 2 weeks of them having an initial training course and then again 6 months later. Although I have a nursing background I am by no means a diabetes expert, and it has been a fascinating few months learning about diabetes and how people live with and manage it. I am really grateful to all who have given up time to speak with me for the project, it has been a real privilege hearing and being entrusted with people’s stories.

The project is in a very different area from my PhD, which looked at sexual and reproductive health services in central/eastern Europe. Although I have worked in the NHS over many years this is my first experience of researching in the NHS, and one of the first things I learnt when coming into post was that the bureaucracy involved in research in eastern Europe is as nothing compared to that encountered when researching in the NHS! This is all for very good reasons of course, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of research participants who are potentially vulnerable, but I quickly found that being on the other end of the decision-making process waiting for permissions to be granted required levels of patience and fortitude I previously did not realise I had!

Another issue which came up for me early on was the feeling of not being entirely in control of the research and also (relatedly) that of ownership of the research. Because the proposal for the RCT and the qualitative sub-study had been drawn up some time ago, I was recruited into a project which was already established and to which I had therefore at that point contributed nothing. Clearly this is very different from PhD research (at least in the social sciences) where the design and intellectual development is entirely the responsibility of the researcher from the very beginning, and I found this aspect quite difficult in the early couple of months. My colleagues were very clear that they expected my intellectual input in the refining of the research and direction of the interviews, but it wasn’t really until I started actually observing and interviewing that I really felt much of a sense of ownership and intellectual investment in the project. The intensity of the feeling of lack of control and ownership surprised me, and is something I would caution new ECRs to prepare for (or at least be expecting!). It has largely been the support and encouragement of colleagues, as well as (most importantly) the willingness and openness of research participants to share their stories, which has provided the impetus I needed to feel that this is my research and that I can make a significant contribution to ensuring that the stories with which I am being entrusted can be used not only to advance academic knowledge but also to improve diabetes treatment and management.

I also discovered quite early on that a qualitative study attached to an RCT is a relatively rare occurrence. The trial also involves a significant psychosocial study measured by questionnaires at various points throughout the duration of the trial, led by a team at another university, and I think that we are fortunate that there is such a commitment not only to the medical methods and aspects of the treatment but also to the psychosocial aspects of living with and managing a chronic condition. I hope that our results and publications are able to advance the case for more such studies to be incorporated into future RCTs. I am attending a conference in Sheffield in November reporting the findings of a study precisely looking at qualitative research and RCTs, I am really looking forward to this.

As well as this study, my post has a career development aspect, and to this end I am being actively encouraged to publish from my PhD. I recently submitted an article adapted from a conference talk I gave 3 years ago to a leading journal, so am hopeful that something will come from that. I am also planning and writing a few further articles currently and so hopefully my list of publications will be significantly enhanced in the next year. Before I submitted my recent article I gave it to my boss to have a look at; this was quite scary as other than a blog post and my CV she had not yet actually read any of my writing, and I was surprised at how protective about it I was and how anxious I was for positive feedback. It was really useful though to take the risk – I did my PhD in an area studies (Central & East European Studies) department, and with only one exception all of the conference talks I have given have been to CEES conferences, so I am used to writing and talking in contexts where people are familiar with the area and the contexts within which social and political changes are happening there. Given that the journal I was submitting to was not an area studies journal it was really useful to have someone unfamiliar with CEES to look at the article and highlight where I had made assumptions about the level of knowledge of my audience. Her feedback was really useful in terms of giving me the confidence to chop out the weaker aspects, but also left me shocked at just how much I had assumed prior contextual knowledge! So one of the things I will be doing as a priority over the next few weeks is writing up a basic background which I can draw on for future articles which hopefully addresses the gaps left by my assumptions of prior knowledge.

I’ve also realised that, having not done CEES research for a while, coming back to my PhD material and reading up on recent scholarship has been brilliant and I am still absolutely passionate about it. I am lucky that I think there is a lot I can be writing from my thesis and lots of places I can disseminate that research, and am enjoying the planning a lot. I’m really happy that I was contacted by my PhD external examiner recently and asked to be on a panel she is proposing for a conference next year; this along with the Health in Transition conference I attended in June in Bucharest makes me feel that I am still keeping my hand in with CEES research and that makes me very happy.

The last 5 months have been a bit of a rollercoaster – as well as getting myself established in post and working through my identity as an ECR, I also had some health issues which amongst other things reminded me that no research takes part in a vacuum and behind every piece of research are personal stories that are never told. I can say though that I have definitely landed on my feet, I love my job and am grateful for supportive colleagues, and I am committed to doing my best to make the most of it.

Catching up with myself

My poor neglected blog! I have done a number of things in the last month, including attending and presenting at the Health in Transition conference in Bucharest, and spending a week down south observing a course in preparation for the interview stage of my current research (which I start next week).

Casa Presei Liber (House of the Free Press) from Herastrau Park, Bucharest

Being back in Romania was wonderful. I was delighted that my language skills were still up to the job, I reacquainted myself with my favourite Bucharest restaurant and – probably for the first time – felt relaxed and ‘at home’ in Bucharest (previously I have lived and worked in other towns and cities there, and whenever I was going to Bucharest I would be regaled with tales of muggers, thieves and ne’er-do-wells, so I was always on edge whenever I went). The conference was great, quite small but that meant that delegates had the chance to listen to all the other papers and do lots of networking. There is a lot of fascinating research going on in central/eastern Europe, and some really interesting debates (such as around the validity/utility (or not) of the terms post-socialist and neoliberalism) which have been going on for ever but it was good to still hear some new and refreshing takes. There is also a lot of research going on with various vulnerable groups – as you might expect in a conference focusing on health – much of which was very moving.

My own paper (on morality and its role in sexual/reproductive health in Romania and Moldova) went well, I think – I was nervous as when I had practiced the night before it had gone way over time and I’d had to chop quite a bit out of the talk, so I was worried about it not making sense, but I got some great questions and people seemed interested in what I had to say. I now need to think about turning it into a journal article – my challenge is finding somewhere where it will best ‘fit’. That is one of the good things, but also one of the disadvantages, of research in area studies: there are lots of journals, either area studies-specific (Central/East European Studies, CEES) or discipline/methodology-specific where the research could be disseminated, not least because a lot of area studies work is cross-disciplinary, but the best ‘fit’ journal might not necessarily be such a great idea if I am looking for a position in a department which is not an area studies department. I have a couple of journals in mind, but will need to think (for the non-area studies ones) how to explain the contextual background for non-CEES specialists, background which is much more familiar to those working within the CEES field. It’s a good dilemma to have though, I do like writing so once I know where I am aiming I will enjoy writing this paper.

My week down south also went well – although observation isn’t strictly part of my research, intensively observing one course generated lots of insights which have now informed my interview topic guide. I am really looking forward to the interviews next week and getting into a new project. It is in an area I’m not so familiar with, but as a colleague pointed out yesterday, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – hopefully it will mean that I will let the participants talk more rather than interrupting them with all my vast knowledge!

It will almost feel odd this time that I am doing the interviews in English, with English-speakers. I spoke briefly at a Doctoral Training School event co-hosted by my former department on language issues in research this week (although sadly I had to leave after I had said my bit, as I was not well; up to then the debate had been really interesting and I may well come back to revisit the issue here as well as possibly in another journal article). I think most of us who were either conducting or writing up our research in languages that were not our first language had found language a ‘magnifier’ for our reflexivity and for noticing things which may otherwise have been taken for granted, so it will be really interesting to see if I experience any differences interviewing in my first language this time round.

I think that’s me caught up now, after a month of not blogging. The #acwri targets fell by the wayside slightly due to travel, but I have plans to get myself back on track so am still bearing the at least 100 words a day in mind and will hopefully get back to that with a vengeance in the next couple of weeks.

Health in Transition conference and preparing for a new start

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this year’s Health in Transition conference, being held in Bucharest, Romania in June. As well as presenting my own paper in panel 3, I am also down to be both chair and discussant for panel 6. The entire conference looks fascinating, I’m really looking forward to it – plus as well as the conference, I am looking forward very much to being back in Romania, a place very dear to me. Hopefully my language skills won’t be too rusty and forgotten! I have really enjoyed getting back into my PhD thesis as I prepare my paper for the conference. There is still a lot there I want to get ‘out there’ and known more widely, so this conference is a great opportunity.

By the time I get there I will have been in my new post just over a month and immersed in the new research project; I start my new job next week. I am really excited about starting, although I am also a little nervous and hope that this ‘imposter syndrome’ feeling doesn’t last too long! I am going to have to hit the ground running, and after the conference in Bucharest I will be starting the ‘fieldwork’ aspect of the new research almost straight away. Actually I think doing interviews in English is going to be quite a novelty! 🙂

PhD viva – one year on

Today marks the first anniversary since my PhD viva, so I thought it would be a good time to look back and offer my experience for anyone who is coming up for their viva. I found this account of someone else’s recent viva rang quite a few bells with me – the whole site is worth a read as there are lots of viva tales there.

I eventually submitted my thesis in December 2010, the submission was not without drama as the day I had planned on being my last day of finishing up before taking it into town for binding was rudely interrupted by a burst pipe meaning that I had to put the thesis on hold to run up and down a ladder from bedroom to bathroom emptying and replacing the buckets on top of the wardrobe (my husband said all I needed was giant comedy foam feet and I would have looked like a contestant in ‘It’s a Knockout’/’Jeux sans Frontieres’) (now there’s a reference for the ’70s kids amongst us!). Luckily the department and university were very understanding (helped by the fact that the originally planned submission day was the day the faculty receiving office were moving offices themselves so they were also in complete chaos) and let me submit a day late.

The drama continued with the eventual viva date, which was originally scheduled for 17th March, St Patrick’s Day. 2-3 weeks before I was informed that there would be a UCU Scotland one day strike on, you guessed it, 17th March, which meant that at the very least I wouldn’t have an internal examiner or a chair! There was some suggestion of making it a couple of weeks later, but I had already taken the annual leave for that week and had arranged for cover for clinics, etc, so in the end we all agreed to hold the viva the day before, on the 16th. This did leave me with a day less to prepare, but on the plus side it also left me with a day less to flap and panic.

Work (both clinical practice and my OU work) was quite busy at the time, including if I recall correctly having to do an OU tutorial the Saturday before the viva, so I didn’t actually feel like I was able to put everything to one side and concentrate on the viva till the weekend before the Wednesday viva. (I had of course been flicking through the thesis for a week or so beforehand, but due to work this wasn’t very concentrated reading). I was worried that that wouldn’t be anything like enough time, but in the end had to just make the best of it. Over the weekend I did a full read-through of the thesis, this was useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most mortifyingly for a grammar/spelling nerd like me, I spotted I don’t know how many typos, and wrote every last one down. Secondly though, and more encouragingly, I had quite a few “ooh did I write that, that sounds really good!” moments which did wonders for my confidence. Also, I found that reading the thesis all the way through reminded me of why I wanted to do the PhD in the first place, why my subject was important and why I was the best person (though I say so myself!) to research it. After that I did another full read-through, this time with various lists of potential viva questions garnered from friends and the internet, although of course I realised that the questions I would get would be much more specific. This was a useful exercise as although in the end not a single one of those questions was asked, it had got me into the vibe of thinking about justifying and defending the thesis and generally blowing my own trumpet.

On the day itself, the viva was scheduled for 1.30pm. I went to the university in the morning, via the Cathedral down the road (I found Morning Prayer really really calming!), getting to the library about 10am. I settled down in my chosen spot (on the floor where my department’s collection was; I think I was hoping that would help me gain academic gravitas by osmosis, but in any case the quiet calm atmosphere certainly helped! Being a reasonably small department, and on a floor without an amazing view unlike higher up floors, it wasn’t full of whispering students so I could fully concentrate). I read through my introduction, methodology chapter and conclusion in full, and also skimmed through my background theory and literature review chapters. I didn’t have time to also read through my three empirical chapters, but felt that I knew them well and that I was most likely to be asked knotty questions around methodology and theoretical background, as well as where my research fitted in the wider literature. By the time I had done that it was coming up to lunchtime, and that’s when I started feeling sick! I knew it was only nerves, but those two hours before the viva started were really horrible! I don’t think there’s any way around that, you just have to get through it.

When I went in, I had already decided to take off my watch. This meant that I didn’t keep looking at my wrist every 5 minutes, and so I found I could relax pretty quickly. It also meant that I was really taken by surprise when they said “this is the final question” – like the student whose account I linked to above, it really did feel like I’d only been there about half an hour, although mine in the end took about an hour and a quarter all told. My examiners were great, they tried hard from the beginning to make me feel at ease and this meant that it was much easier to relax and start to enjoy the experience. I really appreciated having the chance to discuss my work with people who had actually read it all as a whole, and because I was relaxed I didn’t feel too fazed when I was asked the odd unexpected question. I did find that aspects that I expected to be asked about passed by with barely a comment, whereas other things which I had thought were peripheral were asked about in some detail. Luckily I knew enough to be able to answer most things confidently, and I didn’t feel worried when for one question I had to say “I don’t know” – it was on a peripheral issue (which I now can’t even remember) so we just left it at that.

Once the questions were finished I had about 30-40 minutes I think where I had to wait for the decision. One of my supervisors had an office above the office where the viva had taken place, so I took refuge there and my supervisors gave me chocolate (this was possibly the best bit of the day, particularly since it was the middle of Lent so I hadn’t actually eaten any choc for a few weeks!). I definitely recommend getting someone on hand with goodies for that waiting period! It was interesting comparing my reactions (I think I sat there gormlessly) with a fellow student who’d had her viva the week before, who had apparently been pacing up and down like a caged lion!

Me at my graduation, June 2011

Eventually I was called back in, congratulated and given my list of minor corrections. Because I’d gone through the thesis with a fine toothcomb and identified all the typos already, it meant that the corrections list included a sentence along the lines of “the candidate should correct the typographical errors she has identified”, rather than 6 pages of individual typos! Most of the corrections were around providing a bit more detail in some areas (mainly the contextual background and aspects of the methodology), and in blowing my own trumpet a bit more around the thesis’ contribution. I was given a month to do the corrections, which was great as it meant that I could graduate in the summer ceremony rather than having to wait till November, and also meant that I could get it done and dusted and enjoy the rest of the year. We also had a brief discussion about where I might want to go from here, in terms of publishing (one examiner felt the thesis could, with some work, be reworked into a monograph; not something I particularly wanted to do but it was encouraging to have the discussion! We also discussed potential topics for journal articles). Then it was champagne time 😀

So there we are, that’s my experience. I’m grateful to my examiners for making it such an enjoyable experience, and for the opportunities that having the PhD has given me since. I hope this account gives encouragement to others getting close to their own viva – good luck!

On gaining that first post-PhD academic post

I am delighted to be able to say that this week I was successful in getting my first post-PhD academic position (I will say more about that some other time; I haven’t yet had the paperwork so will wait for that before saying too much about the actual job). Now that I’ve had a couple of days space from the interview, I’ve found myself reflecting on the process of applying for academic positions, particularly in these difficult times with increasing expectations and demands on even early career researchers and numbers of applications far outweighing the number of jobs available.

I have been applying for jobs for about the past year and a half, the first interview coming a couple of months before submitting my PhD. What I realised quite early on was that I needed a strategy for applying for jobs – conversations on twitter have convinced me that I am by far not the only one who invests a lot of myself, emotionally as well as in terms of time and effort, in each individual application. Therefore, whilst I have known other people apply for pretty much every job that ever came up, on the assumption that the more they apply for the greater the likelihood of eventual success, I felt that for me, given that I was working almost full-time in clinical practice whilst writing up and then subsequent to the PhD, as well as my Open University tutoring, I simply could not invest that kind of time and emotional effort for jobs which were likely to be more of a long shot. I therefore decided to concentrate my applications a) geographically, and b) on jobs where I could honestly say on paper that I pretty much met every one of the ‘Essential’ items on the person spec. Because of my academic and professional background, and the fact that my PhD was based in an area studies department but drew on a number of disciplines, I was able to be a bit more expansive about the fields I could look at than about the geographical location, and didn’t need to just restrict myself to one subject area.

Overall I think that point b) above is the most important. Whilst I didn’t quite get a 100% success rate of being shortlisted from applications, I did get shortlisted in 7 out of 11 applications, which I think is a pretty reasonable showing. That might not sound like lots of applications (I have a friend who I think applied for over 40 in a similar time period before getting her lectureship), but it meant that I wasn’t constantly going through the applications mill, and also (more importantly) it helped me to concentrate on applying my mind to thinking about how to sell myself for a job which I could realistically do, rather than on how to squeeze my particular skill set into a job which actually wasn’t suited for me at all. Concentrating on the person spec also helps me to work out if I have a realistic chance of being shortlisted. I saw a post recently which sounded amazing, would have been fantastic experience and where I met nearly all of the essential criteria. However, the one aspect I didn’t meet (experience of using SPSS) was big enough that I reluctantly had to decide to not proceed with the application, as that was too important and complicated for me to be able to inflate my (non-existent) skills in that area.

My experience with interviews has been much more mixed, and harder to pin down to a successful formula. Some have gone well, and I have felt that if I didn’t get the job it wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough, but because someone else was better. Others I have realised pretty early on that I am not what they are looking for, or that despite my meticulous preparation they ask me about something really obvious I’ve missed which rocks my confidence. In some I have also felt that, even if I felt it was going OK as an interview, now that I was there I had doubts about whether the job was a good ‘fit’ for me. What I have found, in general, is that I have been able to trace my progress from that first interview in October 2010 to now, and can definitely see on reflection how I have improved in my ability to present myself. Of course there are exceptions to that; I had an interview a few weeks ago after having been ill and unable to prepare well, and I am well aware how poorly I came across on that occasion – however it was good practice for the next interview, which turned out to be the successful one. I think my main tips would be to be familiar with your own research (I read my thesis introduction on the train to the interview this week and having that refresher really helped), and also have a sense of where you would fit into the wider department; ie what you have to offer that complements what they are already doing. In this week’s case, my ‘fit’ came through methodology (the research I will be part of in this job is not in an area I have researched previously, but it is qualitative research so I have good experience of the methods they are using) and to an extent also my professional background. I also found that reading research that has already been done by the people I would be likely to be working with was particularly helpful – it meant that I had a sense of where they were coming from, and could think in advance what I had to contribute to that.

I don’t start until May, so I now have a couple of months where I intend to spend quite a bit of time trying to write some articles from my PhD research, something I’ve had minimal time to do up till now. I think having not published very much up till now is another thing which has, realistically, impacted on the amount of time it has taken me to get a job, and is something which I would urge people still doing their PhD and wanting to move into an academic post to take seriously and build into their work plans. I am lucky that I have the chance to catch up on lost time in that respect!

For all those still going through the mill on the applications merry-go-round, I hope that this post can provide a few pointers and I wish you every success.

In limbo

One of the things I have appreciated about being on twitter (username @JackieKirkham) is that I have enjoyed and appreciated coming across people in a similar position with whom I can share experiences and (hopefully) pass on a bit of wisdom gained along the way, via the #phdchat hashtag in particular. I am especially appreciating that I am not the only person post-PhD and pre-first postdoc/lectureship/other academic post who is experiencing this ‘in-between’, limbo period as a rather odd one. It is really easy, from the beginning of the PhD, to feel quite isolated – you are the only one looking at your precise topic, so even if you are fortunate enough to have colleagues in a similar position or be part of a larger research group, your particular bit of the research jigsaw is entirely down to you. Having said that, one of the things I particularly appreciated when doing my PhD was the wisdom and tall tales of colleagues in my department who were a year or two before me – their tales of rescuing triumph from the jaws of fieldwork disaster gave me a lot of hope as I prepared for fieldwork myself, and I have enjoyed sharing my own shaggy dog stories from fieldwork with colleagues a year or so after me.

Ailsa Craig, in the Firth of Forth. A rock *and* a hard place.

The post-PhD period seems to be an extension of this isolation, which is why I am delighted to have discovered a number of useful resources and people which are currently acting in a similar way to my more experienced PhD colleagues a few years ago. Dr Anna Tarrant wrote about this very topic of the post-PhD identity a couple of weeks ago, as has the very helpful Early Career Researcher blog at Warwick University in this post by Hannah Andrews (I particularly appreciated the Venn Diagram, which summed up the between-rock-and-hard-place experience perfectly!). As a result of conversations on twitter with Anna (@dratarrant) and Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell (@sarahthesheepu) of Kings College London, we* have developed a wiki precisely to serve those of us in a similar position. It can be found here and will hopefully become a useful forum for sharing advice, support, and encouragement. We are also using the hashtag #phdpostdoc on twitter, and hope that it will become as supportive and wellused as #phdchat has done.

On the wiki I have listed my goals for 2012. These are quite ambitious (although as I note there, they are still more realistic than my perennial losing weight goals), but I hope still achievable. As noted in my ‘About me’ page, I am hopeful that soon I will be able to substantially reduce my clinical practice hours so that I can concentrate firstly on my Open University teaching but also free up a lot of time to write. So my aims are to have written at least four journal articles in 2012, secure a permanent academic position, present an academic conference paper and look into applying for funding for future research. Some of these are more certain than others – reducing the clinical practice should give me a good 2 days a week to focus on writing, and I have already submitted a paper proposal for a conference in the summer (I will hear in February whether it has been accepted; whether or not it is I have the outline of the paper and for turning it into a more substantial journal article). The other two are of course less certain; however as they say ‘you have to be in it to win it’, so I will continue to apply for jobs and funding and learn and gain from the experience and hopefully reach those goals too ultimately. I had an interview recently and whilst not appointed to the job got very positive feedback and the opportunity for some possible further contact with the department, and am aware that this is significant progress from interviews I had a year ago, so I am hopeful and more confident that I will continue to make positive progress in 2012.

So here is to a successful 2012 for all of us, and the hope that we are all able to find a way along that bridge from PhD to postdoc.

* credit where it is due, Sarah did the techy bits and had the original idea. I just made the appropriately encouraging noises.