Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Politicians – An Interview with Sir Kevin Barron MP

Think Ahead Blog

This is a guest post from Ellen Buckley, Billy Bryan and Duncan Gillespie, members of the Medicine, Dentistry and Health’s Research in Policy Group

At the recent Medical School Research Meeting, Dr Duncan Gillespie (MDH RSA, Research and Policy group) sat down with Rt Hon Sir Kevin Barron (Labour MP for Rother Valley) to talk about the importance of research on changing legislation. His diverse parliamentary experience includes chairing the Health Select Committee that brought through the 2005/6 ban of smoking in public places and held evidentiary hearings for minimum unit pricing of alcohol in 2010. More recently, Sir Kevin has been Chair of the All-Party Group on Pharmacy, protecting the availability of community pharmacies and protesting against pharmacy cuts by presenting a petition to Number 10, Downing Street, which had 2.2 million signatures.

Now more than ever, it is vital that health researchers attempt to bridge the gap between…

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Moving beyond ‘because I said so’ – motivation for thesis writing

DoctoralWriting SIG

Dr Kay Guccione (@kayguccione) works at the University of Sheffield. Kay designs mentoring programmes for researchers and her work is centred on linking people together to talk about the things that matter to them.

By Kay Guccione

Writing a thesis of 80,000 to 100,000 words is something we expect of everyone in almost all forms of doctorate. In a PhD it’s impossible to avoid doing some writing — our writing is what we are assessed on and how we communicate our research in conventional forms. With ‘publish or perish’ resonating down every corridor, our attitude to writing is our gateway to the currency of research careers. We are emotionally preoccupied with the fear, excitement, dread, satisfaction, guilt and elation of writing (Wellington, 2010) — see #AcWri #AcWriMo #shouldbewriting #shutupandwrite…

But for some, writing in thesis form seems a futile endeavour at first glance.

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is your PhD of value to you post graduation?

Think Ahead Blog

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In May 2016 I posted about the launch of a research project I am collaborating on with Billy Bryan (@BillyB100) looking into perceptions of value in the PhD.

The study has progressed really well over the last 9 months, we have now completed two phases: our survey for current PhD students got 200+ responses, and we also did 22 in depth interviews with PhD graduates across a range of career types.

Analysing all this, we are beginning to characterise and understand some concepts of value that apply to doctoral study, and the factors which affect how value is judged. We wrote about it here in an article for Research Fortnight, which in summary says:

Post-Phd, graduates looking back on their time studying tend to value the professional competencies they gained (e.g. critical decision-making, resilience and negotiation), the friendship and professional networks they built, and their personal capacity to understand the world, far more…

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is your doctorate worth it?

Take a look at our new study on doctoral value. Take part if you’re a doctoral student!

Think Ahead Blog

value.pngThis is a call for all University of Sheffield Doctoral students who would like to give an opinion on whether their doctorate was worth it – what is the value of a PhD, to you personally, and in the job market? Billy Bryan (PhD student in Medical Education) and I are running a research survey where you can give you thoughts.

Research survey is hereStudy information sheet is here.

The topic of degree-value is an ever-present factor surrounding higher education, and doctoral programmes are no exception. The number of students studying for a research degree in the UK has steadily increased to over 112000 in 2015. And five years’ worth of data from Science and The Royal Society shows that around 40-50% of STEM PhD graduates then opted to immediately work in roles outside of academia, a proportion which increases after subsequent post-doctoral contracts. All sectors, all discipline data can…

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Being ‘fit for purpose’ in the modern knowledge economy

Furaha and I have written a commentary on how PhD graduates fit into the ‘modern knowledge economy’. It’s harsh out there, but there’s so much students, supervisors, and institutions can do to carve out that niche! Thanks to Kay for inspiring us; a true ally to us wayward PhD’s.

PhD Life

“This is not your supervisor’s market”, asserted Donna Yeats in one of our recent posts. But what kind of market is it then, and how can PhD graduates find their place in it?  Furaha and Billy reflect on the changing landscape of modern knowledge economy.

Getting onto a PhD programme isn’t like it used to be. Once upon a time, you had to be a member of the affluent social elite, or incredibly clever, to have a chance of wearing that floppy hat and gown on graduation day. That’s not all it got you:a PhD was your guaranteed entry ticket into an academic job, that’s why people undertook them in the first place. The career pathway was linear and simple.

Times have changed

The PhD student population is now more evenly scattered. Now, students from more diverse socio-economic backgrounds are studying for their doctorates. The typical PhD student now closely fits into at least…

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Education cuts protest in London – What really happened and what was it for?

November the 4th was the day of the “Free Education & Living Grants for all” student demonstration in London. The red paint dried quick on my freezing cheek, the air cool even for an early November morning. Everyone who was crammed into the students’ union bar had brought coats, scarves, gloves and fiery enthusiasm – supplemented by steaming cups of tea and coffee.

Up early on little sleep, I was grateful to have no responsibility as I wove between flustered organisers and union officers brandishing megaphones. From where I was sitting I could see the whole bar, uncharacteristically full of students for 7:30 in the morning. The signs and banners, creative in their denouncement of the Tory government’s new plans to cut higher education funds were propped against the walls and held above heads, before being carefully loaded into the bottom of the coach.

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Picture: My demo sign.

The excitement and energy in the air was as thick as the slowly descending fog, and was equally immovable. No one could get to Westminster fast enough, and similar scenes were seen in student unions across the UK. The unions in Sheffield had brought the most students to the demonstration on London’s Malet Street, outside UCL – 162 in total. We were told this as we got onto the coach and it lifted our spirits for the four hour journey ahead.

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Picture: One of three Sheffield coaches to London.

This student protest was set to be the largest since 2010 and 2011 when plans were initially announced to lift the cap on tuition fees to £9000 and to abolish college student’s weekly allowances. With the added recent announcement of Theresa May’s new immigration rules making it much harder for international students to study in the UK, the leap from college to university is becoming more perilous without extra personal funding. But there was hope: demonstrations in Pretoria were successful in causing a halt to increasing fees. Other efforts by new Labour’s shadow vice-chancellor, John McDonnell, halted Tory plans to cut tax credits for working people. Everyone on that coach wanted to emulate and further these successes – maybe these cuts could be stopped.

I stepped off my coach and straight into the fervor of the many thousands in attendance on Malet Street. The March itself was a thing of beauty. People were chanting, singing and cheering to the tune of the event organisers. Posters and signs waved furiously in the tumult of protesters – I held mine up with them as the wind brought the burning smell of lit flares to my nose. Larger than life piggy bank creations were held up by groups, delivering a double entendre to the prime minister in a deliciously apt manner.

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Photo: Getty images.

I also met Natalie Bennett outside Westminster.

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Picture: Natalie Bennett (Green party leader) and I.

As we congregated on the narrow street outside the department of business, skills and innovation McDonnell took his small and humble stage to reinforce the goals of the march. He fanned the passionate flames we all felt inside as a collective while simultaneously calling for a peaceful protest. His Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had supported the demonstration with multiple statements, had revealed months earlier his administration’s first full policy plans to tackle tuition fees and fund maintenance grants; pledging 10bn – 7bn for tuition fees and 3bn for grants. Everyone, including McDonnell, knew this would be an excellent time for his party to pick up some young hearts and minds, to show the current government there is power in fairness. It’s worth mentioning, however, that this wouldn’t automatically become policy if labour was elected.

After a brief period of more chanting, we started to notice people running on either side of the road toward the front of the building. Some protesters who had covered themselves in all black and marched as a solid group had made their way to the front. As the police attempted to ‘kettle’ and contain some of these individuals, tempers snapped, and a few shoves started a few small scuffles. A large group high tailed it away from the incident, equally fearful of protesters and police alike.

Around 12 people were arrested. Some – mostly students – say the police were at fault, and others blame the protesters whole heartedly – see The Guardian, Independent and Evening Standard. This is a chicken and egg scenario: Police typically aren’t violent without provocation, and people typically aren’t anti-police unless they’re overbearing. In this case, people were forced together with high tempers and very different goals, and nothing good comes from that. It’s worth remembering that Police budgets are also being slashed by the Conservatives. What I can confirm without a doubt is that these more violent protesters were a minority, and overall the protest was good-natured and peaceful.

Our group was calmly ushered away from the building, and reconvened there 40 minutes later, making calls to gather together our large Sheffield numbers. The street was immaculate; no-one would be able to tell whether a protest had been there, or a quaint food market. The active and swift removing of our mark on London felt poignant – only time would tell what impact we would have on the government’s plans.

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Picture: Where the rally started and finished. Westminster Abbey, Victoria Street.
As our fires and energy withered, we climbed onto our coaches and settled in for the long journey home, with intermittent exclamations of pride and disgust heard over soft snoring: the headlines were now rolling in. The focus of the news bulletins blurted such over-inflations such as “students lay siege to London” and “protests turn nasty”. This gave the false impression that we had brought catapults and battering rams to the doors of Westminster or resurrected Guy Fawkes in time for bonfire night. The calm, polite interviews some of our party had done earlier in the day, along with the photos taken of our well-mannered protest, were forgone by media outlets in favour of the more dramatic shots of protestors pinned to the ground. But are we surprised?

There’s not a student in the UK, at least that I’ve found, who thinks they should be paying more than £9000 a year for their education, and I know of no-one who thinks we should be taking the grants away from those who need them. You are no more or less deserving of your education, of pursuing your dreams for your future, if your parents earned less money than the average Tory. Who are we, as a country, if we ask students to sink into up to 60k of debt to educate themselves? Who are we if we send away those who can’t afford to live while studying on the loan they’re offered – who won’t make it to graduation once their maintenance grants disappear? We must take a long hard look at ourselves and decide who we want to be, then make our voices heard.

Are we Lazy Learners?

As part of my research, I am sometimes required to pay a visit to hospitals in the area to observe learning and teaching in the clinical environment. This sounds more grandiose than it is, so to distil it down: I watch teachers teach. This is always a fun and interesting task – I get to play-act as a medical student for the day while having none of the real world pressure of passing clinical exams, or, inevitably, saving peoples’ lives. With this in mind, I set off that particular autumnal morning with my notebook and coffee flask to clamber onto the rickety shuttle bus and play pretend at a hospital across the city.

I spent most of the day the sole calm member of an otherwise very nervous group of medical students, watching them take patient histories and attempt not to be bowled over by medical staff. This 6 week placement was their second of many more to come, so they were still awkward and tentative, slow in their hesitant shuffling through the corridors – very visibly juxtaposed with the rushing of smiling nurses and frowning junior doctors (wondering why they were frowning? this is why). They scurried through each ward looking for free patients to ‘clerk’ (to take a medical history), which they would then write-up, furiously making sure they recorded every tiny detail.

When I got down to chatting with these students, the main conversation topics were invariably exams – no surprises there – and their lack of teacher instruction each week. I must admit, I found the latter concern strange, interjecting: “Isn’t that the point?” I thought surely after almost two years of medical science lectures and poking needles into plastic arms, they would want a taste of the real thing. I thought they might want to be set free. I couldn’t be more wrong. They unanimously agreed that they wanted more supervised seminars and teacher led ‘ward rounds’, as preparation for their upcoming practical exams.

After talking to one of the resident doctors that day, I was told that this was a common response and that all the learners from that year group wanted more teaching, or, as they called it, “mollycoddling”. At a time where self-direction, discovery and action was required, only reservation and a cry for a shepherd could be heard from these young learners. Despite a disdain for lectures and teacher centric styles of instruction, they still wanted to be told what to do.

I knew from conversations with other medical educators that this stems from the ‘tick-box’ culture infecting modern education. Students are chewed up and spat out, uniform and undistinguished by the curriculum, in an attempt to ensure standardisation across the board. Students cry out for feedback, for a standard to bounce off, and are generally rewarded with such poor, unimaginative feedback practises that they don’t even want it when they get it.

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Photo credit: Conveyor belt 2 by Jon Rogers

It got me thinking: would I have really been any different at their stage? Well, no, probably not. Am I occasionally guilty of relying on a higher positioned instructor to tell me what to do? Most definitely. The hardest skills to learn are those which make the most enviable people successful: self-motivation, self-direction and self-regulation. Notice the recurring ‘self’. Have you ever wondered why there are so many ‘self-help’ books? Titles including, and not limited to, “The Secret”, “Black-Box Thinking” and “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. These kinds of books pretend to be clandestine by letting you in on the “secret to success” which only the author can omnisciently deliver.

These books are interesting and attractive because it really would be nice to sidestep the odious task of personal development through experience and critical reflection. Sign me up! Being a postgraduate researcher, I’d hazard that I’d be one of the first in line for such a solution with a crowd of similarly inclined comrades.

As the shuttle bus jerked and veered in heavy traffic back to the Medical School, I thought back to all the research literature I’d read months before about the behaviours of successful learners. Supposedly, the most successful students:

  • Set goals which were specific and clear.
  • Have clearly defined strategy for achieving their goals.
  • Can accurately monitor how they were progressing on any task and make
  • Reflect honestly on their actions and can make positive
  • Attribute their success/failure to themselves.

You may observe that these skills are contained within the individual. Ironically for a student looking to their teacher, it turns out it’s all down to you. We can only be led for so long: at some point after A-levels, or even university if you’re lucky, we must learn to operate independently as well as with others and under instruction.

There are no negatives to this kind of self-improvement. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy – don’t be fooled into thinking I am of those all-knowing authors. I have had my own troubles with self-directed learning (just ask my supervisor). Time, effort and opportunity are all ingredients required in differing doses to regularly improve ourselves, and we can’t always consistently find equal amounts of each.

So, are we lazy learners? I can only speak for myself, and a small sample population of medical students, but I would say no, we aren’t. It is more apparent that we are strategic ‘surface learners’, meaning that we learn only what we need to learn to pass a standard, such as an exam. Whose fault is this? Is it the draconian method of assessment that doesn’t inspire, or it those pesky, alcohol saturated students? I think a bit of both. It’s one thing to stare down the road less travelled, and understand the benefits of such a challenge, and another thing entirely to make you take the first step.
I will give the advice echoed in most of the books I mentioned, and yes, it’s nothing new. Take the initiative: Take control over your own learning to achieve your goals. Get out of your comfort zone: It’s rare that opportunities come delivered to you wrapped up in a sweet little bow, so get out there and say “yes” to a few more things. Don’t be a lazy learner: never be content acting as a passive vessel of information. Question more, seek new approaches and think outside the box, and above all, concentrate on growing as a person, not as a manufactured product of an educational machine. Vive la revolution!

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Photo credit: Wikipedia commons

The incredible power of you.

Meta-cognition or ‘thinking about thinking’ means something different to everybody, beyond its literal definition. What is profound is that it operates in real time, it is impossible for us not to be consciously aware of what we are doing and like us, it is active. It is how we learn and it gives us an insight into how we view ourselves, which is an interesting and yet unnerving notion. The privacy that comes with meta-cognition is like nothing else, that constant dialogue and self-talk going on in your mind is almost separate from your physical self never mind other people. Writings on meta-cognition go as far back as Aristotle and is still discussed widely today; there are evolutionary psychologists that imagine meta-cognition as a survival tool. As you can imagine there are a number of different avenues I could explore in this post, instead I will talk about what it means to me as an individual who spends a lot of time sitting and thinking rather than…you know…doing.

To me, meta-cognition encroaches upon everything I know. It has given me constant opportunities to adapt every step and stumble in my life, large or small. Being actively aware of the things I enjoy or dislike has, as a sum total, made me into the person I am today. I have gained control of my life in a way that I never thought possible and learnt how and why I love the things I love. As a result, I have moulded myself into what I want to be (at least right now) through constant ‘touch ups’ directed by my own meta-cognitive thoughts and adjustments to my life.

I felt the power of meta-cognition most significantly when I started university. The ability to manage yourself can be incredibly freeing and transcendental as a young person since you’ve spent nearly 80% of your life under someone else’s ‘rule’ to an extent. Some of us do not manage well under these circumstances and are back home from university every weekend or inevitably drop out, I was lucky enough to thrive on my own and with friends and continue to do so today. There is the other end to this continuum; In fact, I prefer to be on my own most of the time so I suppose you could say I self-manage a little too well!

Self-awareness has also taught me a lot of unsettling things, things which you don’t understand are wrong until you are much older but can have a rudimentary awareness of at the time. My awareness of sexism wasn’t something I was particularly engaged in until a few years ago. I wasn’t an outright, outspoken misogynist but I made a lot of sexist jokes which I never believed to be problematic. As I learnt more about it I felt suddenly shocked at what I was saying or thinking, suddenly my light hearted jokey comments made me feel sick to the stomach. I found myself having a small conversation in my head about what I was doing and why I wasn’t okay with it, like two different people. Meta-cognition helped me challenge my beliefs and perceptions to many other issues, but that one resounded within me. It is painfully honest, you can’t escape your own thoughts and feelings, all you can do is learn and be better.

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I think everybody can be more meta-cognitive and aware of themselves, it allows us to carve out our own niche and concentrate on our own thoughts rather than the thoughts and whims of others. They have their place but you have to come first in most cases. We invariably get caught up in how we can be special to the world, we forget the first step to achieving all round happiness is to appreciate our own nuances and love ourselves first. I think if you concentrate on how YOU work, you’ll be more equipped to love and be loved in return.

The whip? Or the carrot and stick?

A friend of mine recently blogged about the importance of getting away from their PhD to get a much needed dose of perspective, at least for a little while. It really got me thinking about how I organise my time and more importantly, my brain capacity. Something which jumped out at me as I read was their feeling of guilt, particularly how we inflict this sense of guilt on ourselves. It’s a strange form of self-harm when we actively make ourselves feel bad that we aren’t doing enough; we’ve all done it, when we’re trying to lose weight or study for an exam. We essentially become our own slave driver.

I would say that a disproportionate amount of my thoughts when I’m not at the office is worrying whether I did enough work today, or whether I should be doing reading instead of watching Netflix or playing Assassins Creed. I do 9 hours of work a day on average and I still have these thoughts. The best thing you can do is immerse yourself in something that doesn’t directly involve your PhD. For my friend it was to drive into the countryside and have a well-deserved cuppa and cake, for me it can be a number of things; the gym, reading, gaming. Something I have gotten really into in the past month or two is my Post-Graduate society.

I recently became Co-Chair with a friend of mine and we ran our first event last week for Red Nose Day. Our bake sale raked in over £200 for comic relief and we all had our fair share of baked treats!

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Along with running the committee, I’ve had a teaching group and plenty of meetings to keep my mind from focusing fully on the endless abyss of work that a PhD entails. However, I do think we make too much work for ourselves, there is only a finite amount we can do in first year. What a lot of post-docs and professors will tell you is that your first year should be about “getting a feel for the area” and general contemplation for your project considering its ever evolving nature. This is harder than it sounds, you want to DO something and it can be incredibly hard to allow yourself time to  relax and reflect.

I personally think that the problem is, when I think about my PhD I visualise a 3-year timeline and fret about what I need to have done by when or whether my research is ‘ground breaking’ enough for it all to be worth it. I know full well this isn’t the best way to think about it and I never did this at undergrad until the last 6 months! Extra activities and volunteering in anything that isn’t my project helps me take things one step at a time. We tend to put too much worth on the end of the course and approach it with an all-or-nothing attitude, that all your time must be spent on attaining this goal. Becoming a well-rounded doctor with transferable skills takes a back seat and it shouldn’t. We need these extra little challenges to build ourselves up and keep us going as we complete each one.

Overall, I think it can sometimes be a good idea to give ourselves a metaphorical kick up the backside to get us motivated and working hard, but we should at least dangle a carrot and give it a nibble – something to motivate and reward us. You could use a carrot; I prefer a large dominoes order and a jar of Nutella.

“What will you do after your PhD?”

2015 has been… trying. There are certain decisions and commitments you make during the early part of a doctoral degree which are resoundingly crucial yet exciting. The ever changing formulation of a ‘question’ is an example of this – a direction in which the further you go; the harder it is to see any other method of getting to the end of the three years. January and February was the two months of toil I went through to carve out that all important research question. I really couldn’t face blogging at that particular time!

‘Does feedback informed by self-regulatory learning microanalysis improve performance in undergraduate medical students when learning clinical skills?’

There are of course sub-questions galore which help you hold on to the far-flung hope that you won’t just become the ‘expert of nothing’, as some post-PhDs regularly quip. But, they’re right. Imagine all the knowledge there is currently in the world in a balloon, the sole purpose of a PhD project is to push past that outer boundary and add a unique spike of intelligence, bursting through to give a whole new perspective in that area. This is of course, less dramatic in reality. However, it is an incredibly quintessential factor in motivation to know that someday you will be the world expert in your topic (however large or small).

I’m not sure how my fellow students perceive the timeline of their projects, although most faculties will gladly give you a timeline riddled with deadlines and those all-important portfolio submissions. Constantly picturing the whole timeline is heavily detrimental in my opinion – by all means imagine the final result but don’t dwell upon it. There are steps and processes to go through, not all of which can be measured using a Gantt chart.

I have learnt to look at my time on my project in a segmented way; visualising a tower I build brick-by-brick (hopefully with a cap and gown at the top).

When I try to imagine my life after this degree I don’t see anything that resembles a particular job role or position; instead, I see an older (slightly haggard) version of myself perhaps wearing more jumpers with shirts underneath and sporting a big smile. I know I’ll end up somewhere, all I can really say when someone asks me the question I typed first on this post is: “I’m working on it”.

The decision of what direction to take may become marred with doubt and uncertainty. As with most things in life, it is the process which maketh the graduate not the 80,000 word thesis.