I was going to do a ‘day in the life’ type post, but then I thought, why do a day when you can do a week? All manner of exciting things might happen! If you’re considering doing a PhD, just interested, or my supervisor undercover wondering what on earth I’ve been doing, read on.
Monday – participant testing, poster obsessing and a bit of data sharing
I get in at 9am. I know a lot of PhD students prefer to come in later and leave later, but I find I’m much more productive if I’m in at 9. A few colleagues are at the 11th International Conference on Frontotemporal Dementia in Sydney (lucky things) so I check Twitter to see what they have been up to, read a few interesting studies that have been announced, and generally catch up on dementia related news to ease me in to the week. I also have some admin to do – updating the Journal Club schedule (see: 4pm), checking room bookings, sending emails to people to bug them about their presentation titles, etcetera.
10am – I go to Neurology outpatients in St George’s Hospital, attached to the University. Today there is a nurse-led clinic for people who are taking a medication for dementia, to check how they’re doing. One of my projects involves recruiting people with mild Alzheimer’s disease or Mild Cognitive Impairment to a research study, so it’s great that I can be closely involved with the dementia team in the hospital. Usually I sit in with the nurse running the clinic and if a patient is suitable for my study, I ask if they would like to hear about it. If they say yes, I explain what’s involved and answer any immediate questions they might have, then give them some written information to take home and read in their own time. I give them a call in a few days and if they want to take part, arrange a time that suits them to come in.
Today is a bit different because I already know I’m seeing my 50th and final participant this morning – recruitment complete klaxon! It’s a chap I have previously spoken to, who wanted to combine his research visit with his follow-up appointment. He’s not coming until 11:30, so I sit in with the nurse until then. One lady that comes in I know well, as she’s taken part in my research and attends the Young Onset Dementia support group at St George’s, so it’s nice to see her and see how she’s doing.
The patient I’ve arranged to see has his visit with the nurse, and then we complete his research visit which takes around an hour and a half, including collecting consent, which means I know he’s definitely happy to take part and understands what’s involved. I do a general cognitive exam (the Addenbrookes) and some spoken language tasks. He’s brought his daughter with him, and we spend some time chatting. I love this part of my work – getting to know people from all different walks of life, hearing about their careers, lives and families. It also feels like a big milestone to have recruited all 50 participants to my study. There were days when this seemed a distant possibility.
2:00 – lunch. Reliably one of the best parts of the day.
2:30 – It’s the St George’s Research Day soon, and I’ll be presenting a poster of some pilot work I’ve done, so I start designing my poster. For those not in the field, this is very much like the Spice Girls poster you had on your wall, but instead of Sporty, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Posh, it’s Background, Methods, Results, Conclusions. Don’t ask me which one’s which, the analogies gone too far. On the day everyone walks around and can look at your poster, and it means you get to have lots of interesting individual conversations about your work (hopefully). I’m a big believer in posters being eye-catching, easy to follow and full of pictures, so I chuck as many in as possible and have some fun with different colours. While it’s no Jackson Pollock, it’s good to do something a bit creative.
4pm – Every Monday we have a Journal Club, which is my job to organise. I love organising stuff – birthday party? Yes! Weekend away? Sure! Weekly meeting where academics discuss a paper or something they’ve been working on? Sign me up. This week we’re trialling something new – a Data Meeting, where we go around the table and talk about what data sets we’re working on or trying to acquire. We’re a pretty small department but it’s so easy to just work away without really knowing what other people are up to. This turns out to be a really useful hour, with some good ideas thrown around, plus I finally learn what a few acronyms I’ve been hearing mean. We’ll have another one in six weeks and I’m looking forward to hearing people’s updates.
And that’s Monday done! I meet a friend for a cup of tea (hello work life balance), and head home to turn my brain off by watching Made In Chelsea.
Tuesday – BSc student guiding, speech transcribing and review paper writing
9:30 – not quite 9am but who’s counting. I have a bit of ‘admin’ to do again, this time for my study. Every month I send participants a task in the post. They are given instructions like ‘Describe your ideal holiday’, along with some prompts, then they write their response (anything from a few paragraphs to two pages) and send it back to me. So I print out tasks for those still taking part and put them in the post. There can be a lot of admin involved in clinical research, especially getting things like ethical approval. Not that fun, but totally necessary!
10:30 – I meet with a BSc Biomedical Sciences student that I’m supervising for a 3rd year clinical neuroscience project. For his project he’s actually analysing the responses I get back from the tasks mentioned above – he’s finished transcribing the handwriting (a big task), and last week we used some Natural Language Processing tools to extract different features of the language people used – for example, what’s the average number of words per sentence? He shows me some graphs he’s made which is exciting, and we talk about what he could do next. I spend some time brushing up my statistics knowledge because analysing data collected over time (i.e. longitudinal), with lots of missing data (e.g. through people forgetting) is difficult difficult lemon difficult.
1:00 – lunch. I probably won’t carry on including this every day.
1:30 – I transcribe the session from the participant I saw yesterday, which involves typing up everything he said in response to each language task (for example, I asked him to tell me the story of Cinderella). I have conventions to follow, such as adding in things like [=laughs] and ‘..’ for a pause, and I have to be really careful to transcribe every ‘um’ and ‘ah’. Depending on the participant this takes me around an hour, but I find I can only do it in short bursts or I start to make mistakes. Today I started typing a pretend conversation I was having in my head instead of what the participant was saying, which I think is actually quite a skill.
2:30 – I’ve been working on a review paper to hopefully publish in a journal for longer than I care to admit. It’s gone back and forth between my supervisor and I a few times, and now it’s back with me. His comments are super helpful, but I have a lot to re-write and feel a bit disheartened. I think I will have to give myself a deadline for the next draft otherwise it will hang over me like a dark cloud, and decide that Christmas should be achievable. I’ve gone and written it here on the internet where anyone could see now, so I must do it. Spend a few hours writing and feel marginally better about how much I have to do.
4:00 – more transcribing! If I was the PhD student I wished I was, I would have done each session as soon as I collected it. But I am not, and now I have a backlog. I do find that doing them in bulk helps with consistency though, so let’s pretend that was the reason for saving them up.
Over and out, until tomorrow.
Wednesday – some teaching advice, Twitter as a vice, & code to make graphs look nice
Not much to say about today really! I did a lot of bits and pieces – transcribing and more work on the poster. I did learn that if you’re creating graphs in Python using matplotlib, the following line of code will give you print quality files:
plt.savefig('destination_path.eps', format='eps', dpi=1000)
Awesome! Thanks Stack Overflow, I really should give you half my tuition fees.
Tomorrow is my teaching day (or really facilitating day). I facilitate a Year 1 medical student Clinical Based Learning group every week, and a Year 2 Pharmacy group. Each week has a different theme according to what they’re covering in lectures, and we go through a clinical scenario and discuss it. The pharmacy students have to do a quiz and I mark it afterwards. The med students come up with learning objectives for things they don’t know about, and then use the week to research them, before feeding back at the next week. It’s all about self-directed learning and group discussion, and we cover things like communication skills, consent and confidentiality, not just the bare bones (lolz) of medicine. I’ve only just started teaching in my final year, because I always felt like as a Psychology grad I wouldn’t be that useful. But you’re given extensive notes on each case, and I make sure I do a lot of prep. I wish I’d started earlier on in my PhD as it’s a) fun, b) good experience, and c) a bit of extra cash, which helps on a PhD stipend. I would tell my baby PhD student self to start ASAP. So, I spend some time prepping for tomorrow when I have three sessions: two on heart disease and one on depression.
I also mess about on twitter for a bit, because you never know what you might learn on there! People post interesting papers, things they’ve been doing, conference updates, cool science events, and general motivation/ moaning about PhD life, which I find helpful. I’ve met people at conferences that I feel like I already know because we follow each other and comment on each others tweets. There are some great hashtags to follow – #PhDchat and #PhDlife for example. Get to know your field, there will probably be a virtual place on Twitter where people huddle. It’s easy to get sucked in though and before you know it you’ve lost three hours of your life you’ll never get back, so I generally set myself a limit, like 15 mins in the morning and 15 in the afternoon.
That’s me over the hump, and in to the end of the week!
Thursday – stern words and Brexit distraction
Side bar – ‘A distraction’ would be a really cool name for a group of things, like a murder of crows. A distraction of PhD students maybe? Seems fitting!
So as I mentioned yesterday I had three student groups to facilitate today. The first year medical students had a case about heart disease last week, so this week they fed back what they’d researched in-between. Did you know heart disease is the leading cause of death in women? No, me neither! This week they had a case about pneumonia in a 24 year old due to smoking, which we worked through. They’re given the patient’s symptoms and history and have to guess what might be wrong, discuss what they would do next e.g. which tests, and then they hear the next bit of the case. They’re a few months in now so have settled in and seem to really enjoy the group, which gives me a warm glow inside. I keep meaning to bring them sweets.
Then in the afternoon I had 2nd year pharmacy students, who also had a case about heart disease, followed by a test on neuroanatomy, and then a session about depression. BIG day for them. I was able to bring a bit more to the table for the depression case, so we talked about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), use of different medications, and stigma around mental health. There’s 11 of them so sometimes it feels a bit like herding kittens, but it’s also really fun. Sometimes things don’t get taken seriously enough however, and I had to say a few stern words about respecting people’s experiences of depression. Then I worried I’d been a bit too stern, but better they hear it from me than someone who is actually offended later on I think? It feels like a big responsibility helping the doctors and pharmacists of the future! After a session I often find myself thinking “why on earth did I say that”, but I tell myself we’re all still learning…
I have to admit I didn’t get much else done – I find it hard sometimes when you’re up and down the University stairs like a yoyo, it’s hard to really get in to anything. Plus I was distracted by the omnishambles that is Brexit, as it was raining resignations and seemed like something exciting might happen. Alas, May ploughs on.
With the smell of the weekend in the air, that’s Thursday!
Friday – working from home capers, reading papers
I find it hard to dip in and out of reading so I tend to try and do it in blocks, and I’d earmarked today as my reading day. I try and read three papers a week minimum, but I don’t know if that’s ‘enough’. I often feel like I’m struggling to keep up with the literature in my field (one thing that massively helped was writing a literature review, and I’d highly recommend doing this in your first year – I did not). This seems to be the pervading sense on Twitter as well – there’s a lot of people chatting about never doing enough reading. But then I think, what if these people are reading ten papers a week, and a book? Or they’re reading one paper? WHO SHOULD BE WORRIED. Anyway, you can only do so much and I guess while there’s other things that need to be done (seeing participants, meeting BSc students), you won’t do as much reading, and at other times you’ll do a lot more. I’d be interested to hear other students thoughts on this.
Personally I find I read better literally anywhere other than in the office, so I might work from home. I did that this morning, and also because I knew I was getting a train up north in the afternoon, so could do more on the train. PhD’s are great for that kind of flexibility, but obviously you can’t take the Michael.
So not much to report for today, but I had a few thoughts through writing this whole post which I wanted to share:
My Final Thoughts
1) This was not a normal week, in that I left on time every day. I mentioned work life balance on Monday, and while this week was good, others it goes totally out the window and I start to forget what my family look like. This is another thing that I hear a lot about, and I think people can get quite competitive/ humble braggy – “Can’t believe I’ve been working on my thesis ten days straight! #god #hero”. I jest, but really, don’t do that to yourself. If you’re on a roll, feel like you’re being really productive or have lots of deadlines coming up, you will find yourself putting in a lot of hours, and that can be really rewarding. But if you’re too stressed, knackered or just really need a pint, stop! ‘It’s a marathon not a sprint’ is my favourite PhD one liner, coming just before ‘if you don’t write it down, you won’t remember it’. Although I am aware anyone reading this who’s actually completed their PhD will be thinking “PAH! Let’s see how much yoga she does when it’s write up time”…
2) If you make yourself think about (or even write down) everything you do in a week, it makes you VERY productive! I also found it useful for thinking about what parts of my week I really enjoy, and what parts I don’t enjoy so much. Useful, as every other person I meet seems to ask me “what are you going to do when you finish?” at the moment.
3) There are so many things that didn’t come up this week. Writing code, doing data analysis, giving talks, writing up results for (hopefully) publication, attending training, to name a few. I can’t speak for all PhD students but my time so far has been incredibly varied and I love that.
That’s a wrap! Hope you found something useful or interesting in all that.