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What it's really like to do a PhD at the Faculty of Health Studies

The experiences of some of our PhD research students.

Reflecting on the first 6 months as a PhD Student

by Laura Middleton-Green

Yesterday, I had to do a double-take of the date in my diary; there was a lurching sensation as I realised that it has been 6-months since I began this PhD journey.  It felt like a good opportunity to take stock of what the journey has been like, and hope that my musings might also be helpful to new PhD students.

The first thing to say is that I made a clear choice very early on not to listen to anyone who sighed heavily and told me about their nervous breakdowns, failing marriages and sleepless caffeine-fuelled nights that characterised their PhDs.  I remember as an undergraduate that there is a particular way in which stress can become highly infectious, feeling lost and frustrated, unless managed constructively, can significantly impact on motivation, inspiration and focus.  So I decided to spend a lot of my study time, at least for the beginning part of the research, on an island of my own making, finding my own way.

Everyone has a different learning style - some people rely on direction and instruction, others are happy to be given autonomy and to forge their own way.  I have always been a student who plays the game - when I have done modules in the past, the first thing I would do was to identify the learning outcomes and make sure I stuck to them like glue throughout the assessment process.  When I was doing my MSc the learning outcomes for every module were clear, detailed bullet-point guidance clarified precisely how each learning outcome was to be met by each aspect of the summative assessments.  A few weeks after submitting assignments, feedback was received which detailed if, where and how I had strayed from the learning outcomes, so that over the course of the Masters degree my writing became more and more focused on playing the game.

Not so for the PhD.  Meeting my supervisors for the first time, I found myself gazing expectantly at them for a few minutes waiting for instructions, a timeline, goals, targets, suggestions... before I realised that this is all about individual development, in a way that the MSc could only hint at.  Swallowing my fear, I began to talk to them about my plans, my thinking and my reading.  Over the next few meetings I understood the role of the supervisor is to strike a balance between direction and permission.  At times my topic expanded into an unmanageable mess (sharp intakes of breath from supervisors as I unrolled the A1 sheet of paper I'd mind-mapped it on), and their role was to help me to focus and clarify.  At other times when I felt myself grinding to a halt, or feeling daunted by something, encouragement and suggestions of related reading were all I needed to regain momentum and enthusiasm.  They pointed out that there is a seemingly infinite amount of literature out there on many topics and that it is important to develop boundaries, to have insight into when my reading has been sufficient to feel as though I have a grasp of a particular topic, or I could easily spend the next three years reading and expanding.

The thinking that takes place is messy and confusing - I did think that was a problem but I have gradually seen that this is part of the process.  Out of one week's reading and scrappy notes ideas emerge, they crystallise and send me off down other avenues - some are dead ends, whilst others have informed the changing shape of my study.  I do think there is an element of surrendering to the chaos and allowing the creativity to emerge - this is often easier said than done, depending on the degree of control-freakery of the individual.

Other than sensitive supervision, the thing that has sustained me and reassured me that this was probably the best decision of my career has been the network of people I have connected with over the last few months.  I opened a Twitter account on my first day, having been advised it was a useful way to link in with other researchers, clinicians and academics, but it took a while to sift through the mountains of useless chatter on this particular social medium, and hone in on the community of practice that have since then become a lifeline.  As well as linking in with over a thousand Twitter users doing work in my field, I also found some Twitter users who were doing, or had done, PhD studies in other areas - @thesismum, @PhDforum, @Phd2published and @thesiswhisperer, to name a few.  There were also forums for discussing a range of issues, from literature searching to epistemology to study skills to writing tips.  I joined a couple of live chats which were great - feeling as though there are others out there makes it feel a much less lonesome affair.

Being in control of your own study can be challenging; I have a busy family life as well as a demanding job, so the study days feel precious and slip by quickly.  Being disciplined is essential, but not every research day is a creative day.  I've learnt to use the time in different ways; my most productive time of day is the morning, so I will do the complicated stuff then, and use the afternoon for organising, literature searching and planning.  I can't study for more than an hour at a stretch, so I make sure I have a few minutes break each hour.  Too much coffee is not good, I have discovered - it seems to make me feel as though I am being productive when really I just find my thoughts are too jittery and fast to capture or be productive.  So: working out my own best work schedule felt like an important thing to do early on.

Joining the Action Learning Set was a good decision - sharing an hour a month with students within the Faculty of Health Studies who are all at different points in their research is great.  We have met four times so far and although we have so far been more of a chat group, the idea is that we will adopt the Action Learning approach to focus upon specific issues in our future meetings.

The final thing which has helped a lot was setting up a blog, in which I wrote every couple of weeks a brief piece about what I'd been reading about - they were not supposed to be academic, I just felt like I needed to practice writing.  The fact that the blog is instantly "out there" in cyberspace, and can therefore be commented on by anyone, meant that I really had to sharpen up my writing skills.  In doing this it felt like my topic gained some focus rather than just being a huge mess of notes and scribbles and pictures.  There were some discussions from people I've never met who commented on the blog, and this was really helpful for shining a light at different aspects of the topic, and taking me in new directions.

So whilst I still have a huge confusing tangle of ideas (there is a horribly messy corner in my house - the children are learning to take the long route through the living room to avoid it) and a ridiculous number of "must read" memos, and I am working on the skills needed to use my study time effectively, and I remain completely terrified of the next step of the process (NHS ethics), the last 6 months has been an amazing time of learning, connecting and discovery.  I am looking forward to the rest of the PhD and of turning the work into a real live research project that might even make a tiny difference in the world one day.

Follow Laura on her blog here: http://lmiddletongreen.wordpress.com/

Reflections on the end of the PhD journey – submission, viva and beyond

by Jane Wray

PhD students 2 The moment that you find out that you have completed your studies and will be graduating with your doctorate is a very important part of your life as a PhD student.  It means that you have reached the end of this particular journey and are ready for the next stage in your life whatever that might be. Recently a group of us who all undertook our PhD studies at the same time and had successfully completed our studies met up and we spent the evening discussing the final few months of being a PhD student and in particular our experiences of submitting the thesis and the viva. Dr Jae Hargan, Dr Shehla Khalid, Dr Fiona Meddings and myself had all undertaken PhDs on different subjects, with different methodologies, examiners and supervisors. There were however some essential common features of our experience in the last few months.

First, the delight and relief of having reached the end stage of our studies. We had all learnt so much about our topic, about research and about ourselves. And yes being called ‘Dr’ felt rather novel and exciting (even though you have to explain to people you are not a medical doctor!). We all felt immensely proud of our achievement, recognising how hard we had worked to reach this final point and of the research we had conducted.

Submitting the final thesis for examination we all agreed was one of the hardest most difficult periods in the PhD journey. The final few months before submission demanded something herculean of us all. Constantly writing and rewriting with complete immersion in your thesis whilst trying to juggle the demands of life, work and families.  Discipline, focus and sheer determination to reach the deadline drove us all forward but this could not have been achieved without the support of our families, our peers and our supervisors at the University of Bradford. 

In relation to the viva, we had all prepared for the big day to defend our thesis and the research we had conducted. It was important that you know your work thoroughly, understand its strengths and limitations and be able to explain and justify your decision making. Although we all were anxious and a little stressed on viva day our overriding recollection was how much we had enjoyed it. This was a great opportunity to talk about our research and discuss and explain it to others. Importantly it was the moment that we all recognised that we knew our work better than anyone one else did, that we had become experts in our particular topics, methodologies and analytic approaches. We entered the viva as students about to take an oral exam and exited as slightly dazed and elated holders of a PhD.

Dr Shehla Khalid graduated in November 2016, Dr Jae Hargan graduated in July of this year and Dr Fiona Meddings and I will graduate in December 2017. Was it all worth it was asked each other? Yes. Yes it is. 

Reflecting on the first 6 months as a Full Time International PhD Student

by Waleed Al Nadabi

I am Waleed Al Nadabi from Oman studying in the University of Bradford in the Faculty of Health Studies. This is my first year in my PhD. I am writing the blog to reflect back on the last 6 months I spent in the University. I hope you find it useful and answers some questions that you may have. As an international student I felt welcomed, well respected and supported. The cultural and religious beliefs are well respected and taken into consideration. I found all the support that I needed during my studies. Many facilities and activities are being conducted for students and families. I have very knowledgeable and encouraging supervisors.

As a family we feel very secured and we could easily practice our daily social and religious activities. As it is the case with all UK cities, the winter weather is not as good as we were hoping considering that I am from a relatively hot country. Otherwise my kids and wife are enjoying our life in Bradford even though we miss our home at times. We could easily find food items that meet our requirements (Arabic halal food). We could easily do our prayers with the presence of many mosques in the city. We could easily get engaged with others and we did not find our self-isolated from other societies. Compared with other cities, we find Bradford relatively cheaper when it comes to accommodation and restaurants.  

If you are thinking about doing a PhD as an international student, come to Bradford, you will like it.