Extracurricular Skills for your Future Career

My article for the Doctoral Times newsletter, link to the full publication here: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/ris/pgr/doctoraltimes 

Something I realised as I planned out this article was that I suffer from an aversion to the word “no”. Whenever I’m faced with an opportunity for a new committee position or a student representative role, I’m the first with my hand in the air. The same was true prior to my post-graduate degree: in my working life, I’ve had 15 different jobs, and even now I still work a few hours a week with the Careers service.

It may mean you don’t get chance to watch this season of “I’m A Celebrity”, but filling your time with extra-curricular activities, particularly committee groups – such as the PGR committee I chair – is the best way to learn transferable skills. Transferable skills are skills that are widely applicable to many different situations or contexts. This is vital to a doctoral researcher because our areas of study are usually limited, given the specificity of the projects we undertake. I believe my “extra-curricular” work has added value to both my studies and my future career prospects, and I want to convince you to explore these opportunities too.

I hadn’t been engaged in any societies during my undergraduate degree, so I wanted to get more involved in the University community this time around. I joined the Medical Postgraduate Society (MPGS) as a departmental representative in my first month, and subsequently took on the role of co-chair four months later. I learnt the skills needed to lead a committee – chairing meetings, organising projects etc. – on the job: there’s no better way to learn in my opinion! I also attended staff-student committee meetings, where I had to communicate effectively with tutors to bring about meaningful changes in teaching.

Eight months on, still in the same role, I have gained a plethora of skills: democratic leadership, organisation, delegation and event planning to name a few. That was how it started. Since then, I have co-founded the new Postgraduate representative committee (PGComm) and become PGR councillor at the students union. These things tend to snowball!

Whatever you’re studying, getting involved in your University is important. PGR students usually don’t get the chance to network; we always have lots of work to do, and very specific places we have to do that work, which can be isolating. The great thing about engaging with these kinds of society/committee activities is that you meet and work with people from across the whole university. Effective teamwork and communication are incredibly vital skills for anyone’s future career; these are what active participation in departmental or university wide committees gives you. Not to mention the million other skills and talents you’ll develop in those roles, with interesting stories to back them up.

This issue of the Doctoral Times is especially poignant as the careers landscape is changing for PhD graduates: many are looking less towards traditional academic roles and focusing on interdisciplinary careers. In my case, I don’t have a concretely set vision of my career path, but I’m confident that I’ll be ready for what comes my way in two years’ time.

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.

Compartmentalising and dreaming, a winning combination

A comment this Monday morning from my supervisor that took about 2 minutes to process fully:

“Think about the big picture, but try not to get off topic!”

It’s no secret that PhD supervisors can often be purposefully cryptic. I’m not sure it’s all that helpful before my 10am coffee, but it did strike a chord with me. At the moment, I am writing my literature review for my project, “Hearing the Feedback Message”. For anyone who isn’t sure what a lit review is, it’s a large background piece which carves holes in previous research and identifies gaps in which to birth novel approaches to a common problem. Ideally. My task at the moment is to delve into my specific subject (medical education), extract as much key research on my topic (feedback psychology) and present as much of this data as possible in a coherent report. Narrow thinking is required to stay relevant, but as my supervisor says, that’s not all I have to think about. There is more to life I suppose!

As Christmas creeps ever closer the pressure of hand-ins and unfinished personal goals from the last New Year still linger on. Despite feeling as though you are working furiously, almost forcing these tasks to fruition, it’s apparent there’s something about the run up to the New Year that increases your productivity tenfold. I feel a pressure to get things right before 2014 turns to 2015 but getting my work precisely right isn’t the reason why I’m doing a PhD in the first place. I yearn for an assessment guideline to tell me how to write step-by-step, but the element of freedom you get from being free of these strict principles is liberating!

Coming up for air after immersing yourself in a subject – no matter what you’re doing – is a healthy thing to do. Now my focus is narrowing in this PhD I can’t help but look to the future to feed my motivation. I liken choosing a path for the next three years to being a savvy Christmas shopper; instead of just picking up the first garish jumper or knock-off Ray Bans you see, take your time, try some things on for size. Frantically reaching for any old career path might get the ‘Christmas shopping’ done in the short term, but will you be happy with it on New Year’s day? Or 10 years down the line? It would be very naïve of me to suggest I have any idea about where I’ll be in a decade, but I know I’ll have tried everything there is to try when I get there.

08/12/14

5 weeks in…

Going straight from undergraduate study to a PhD studentship was a lot like going from GCSE’s to A-levels; Distressing, jarring, and a hell of a lot harder, but exciting. Admittedly, I had accrued a decent amount of research experience (hence why I got the post in the first place) but the pressure valve was cranked up considerably, or at least I thought it would be. I spent a lot of time reading books such as “developing critical thinkers” (Brookfield) and  “Developing effective research proposals” (Punch) which gave me nightmares about a demon supervisor throwing hundreds of papers at me over their mahogany desk and kicking me out of their office. These were probably naïve choices for a fresh undergrad who hadn’t even graduated yet (I still haven’t). Admittedly, I worried myself too much before enrolment and half talked myself out of it!

A month in, these nightmares didn’t come to realisation; my supervisor(s) were nothing but supportive and understanding. I seem to have many ‘supervisors’, there are no shortage of experts (in many fields) in the medical education office, along with a few lively admin staff and an exuberant PGCert teacher to my immediate right who I can joke with intellectually and pretend I’m on ‘Frasier’.

I did have a chronic feeling that I was an imposter of sorts, feeling that I was going to be displaced any moment due to an admin error and that I was picked by mistake. A fellow PhD student, Rachel Handforth, at Hallam University (who inspired me to write this blog, check her blog out too!) expressed the same feeling of being somewhere she shouldn’t be. It has worn off somewhat but on the other hand I realised I ought to knuckle down.

However, the notion of knuckling down is perhaps an inappropriate phrase in this situation. Even though I come in to the office 9-5 Monday to Friday I don’t have a set amount of tasks to complete, I have a few meetings and administrative activities to please the Postgrad programme but otherwise I sit and muse upon reality 80 percent of the time. It’s a strange situation, the first few months are about adjustment and understanding the topic (so they tell me). I try not to worry about that too much; despite the guilt it can sometimes make you feel when you take 2 hours to read a 6 page research paper!

The social life hasn’t suffered (for now) and I haven’t fallen deep into depression yet so I’m taking that as a concerted victory for myself and my Xbox. I feel like I have a direction, albeit a vague one regarding my thesis but a meaningful one nonetheless.

Conducting qualitative research into the psychological implications of students receiving feedback isn’t an exact science in any sense so naturally it is rife with contrasting opinions and theories.  Of course this has its positives and negatives when it comes to my workload! It could however be much worse; I’m not in a lab which the other 73 PhD 1st years are. I have a desk with draws and a computer, what else could I dream of? The glamourous life of a PhD student.