Category Archives: running a study

Surviving the PhD

I’ve thought about posting again several times over the last few months, but haven’t really known where to begin. This year has been hard, really hard. I’ve had a rough year in my personal life and with my PhD, not a great combination! I’ve finally settled on posting about how to survive the PhD, with the full disclaimer that this sort of thing is often a case of “different strokes for different folks,” and at times this year, surviving the process has been pretty touch and go!



 Participate in something outside of academia that you enjoy learning to master (bonus points if it has a social component)

  • It doesn’t matter how much you love research or what your skill level is because in academia you will constantly hear what you are doing wrong and rarely about what you are doing right. It’s also true that some aspects of your progress will be outside of your control e.g. your supervisor might be ill while your other supervisor is overseas, perhaps a computer glitch will corrupt your data; including the back-up copies (this happened to me), or recruitment might be painfully slow despite your best efforts.


  • Over time, skewed feedback and having continual hurdles to jump, tends to result in second guessing your abilities and even your personal worth, since we invest so much of ourselves into the PhD. This is why I believe it is really important to have something outside of academia that you enjoy learning, and which is less vulnerable to circumstances beyond your control. Personally, I dance and play musical instruments. I can honestly say that without these things, I probably would have given up my PhD a long time ago. When the going gets tough with my PhD these other activities help to remind me that there is life outside my PhD, more to myself than my PhD, and that I am capable of learning and improvement. You might be thinking, I don’t have the time though. This is what I thought for the first 18 months of my PhD, but when I made the time, I also found that I felt so much better and was actually more productive. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Create a support network

  • They say it takes a village to raise a child, I think it’s the same for completing a PhD. Have you ever met someone who is a brilliant agony aunt, full-time thesis draft reviewer, scientist, statistician, career and crisis counsellor, red-tape navigator, fount of institutional knowledge, advocate AND friend that you can let your hair down with, all at the same time? As PhD students, and human beings, we all need a support network and I feel that a big part of doing a PhD is about working out who is in your network and remembering that is okay to seek them out when you need them.  My “village” is another reason I credit to having made it this far! You know you’re very lucky when you have friends that spot you’re going through a rough patch and respond by sending you a care-package, complete with a mix-CD of your favourite songs and inspirational books.


  • The only people who truly get what you are going through are other post-grad students. I find it really helpful chatting to masters, PhD and Clinical PhD students as each group gets different aspects that we’re going through. It’s oddly heartening to find that other people have also reached that point in the year where you just want to run away and join the circus! At the same time though, I find it helps to keep in mind that what is working for someone else may not work for you, and it is never a good idea to compare your progress to other students given everyone’s studies, placements, skill sets and other commitments are so diverse.

Subscribe to the bush telegraph

  • I’m not sure how well “bush telegraph” translates across cultures, but what I mean is sharing information so you have a sense of where the land lies and what might be happening next. It’s been great getting to know the other students who I share my supervisor with, both earlier and further on in their PhD than I am, and in the process, to form our own bush telegraph. The little scraps of information we share amongst ourselves about everything from whether our supervisor is in their office, is particularly snowed under that week or, mentioned an upcoming conference in passing, are invaluable.

Expect the worst

  • If you expect the worst, you’ll be as prepared as you can be. This goes for every aspect of your PhD – thesis drafts, ethics approval, recruitment, analyses, writing up and paperwork; it will all take longer than you expect. There’s nothing like discovering a couple of days before your grant is due that in order for it to be sent off, it needs to go through a week-long bureaucratic process as it bounces between various departments. Or, that the department that usually processes your clearances for working with various vulnerable populations have all gone on holiday, so it will now take months instead of a week for those forms to clear. True story.  Generally, I and my fellow PhDs try to get our paperwork sorted out ridiculously early and resort to asking everyone with a pair of ears whether there is some hidden process we might not know about that needs to be followed and then pass this information along.

Embrace the idea that balance is the ideal, but rarely when completing a double degree

  • Particularly for those of us managing clinical work and research, balance is difficult. In the early years everyone spoke about juggling commitments, but that lends itself to the idea of equity. Sometimes doing a Clinical PhD is not about equity but a good old-fashioned tug of war. You might not see your research or clinical work for weeks at a time because one or the other aspect of your degree is demanding your full attention. This tug of war happens no matter how organised, efficient and hard-working you are, and from personal experience, tugging back by putting in extra hours to compensate for the imbalance can be really counterproductive. While there are times when you may need to work more than a 40 hour week, I don’t feel that this is a long-term solution or a healthy “normal”. In sum, the experience of my fellow Clinical PhD students has been that it is okay to switch your focus to one or the other part of your degree and that the balance between them is best left to sort itself out in the end for the most part.

This list is by no means exhaustive, please feel free to chip in your own survival tips.  All the best for surviving YOUR PhD.


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Filed under academic culture, Clinical Phd, placement, Reflections, Research, running a study

Light at the end of the tunnel

IMG_0496Since my last post, things have come to a head. My stress levels had reached fever pitch and my workload was unmanageable despite various attempts to juggle it differently. So, armed with my to-do lists and a calendar I sat down to figure out how long it would take me to meet the various deadlines I have for research and practice. It soon became clear that working on my research part-time due to placement would prevent me from meeting the deadlines that I needed to this year to submit my thesis on time next year.



Having worked so hard all year only to find it was still not enough was stressful and incredibly frustrating.  I wasn’t happy about it, but the only solution was to ask permission to pause my placement for a couple of months so that I could focus on meeting my research deadlines. Thankfully this wasn’t a problem. Of course, as soon as I had my plan of attack lined out for the next eight weeks and was feeling a bit less stressed, I got the flu and then some sort of infection. It took me about three weeks to start feeling like me again.  However, I’m now making progress with my research and feeling slightly less burnt out though the future post-PhD is still a big scary question mark. Needless to say the last few months have been very hard and if it weren’t for the support of my friends, family (and lots of cups of tea), it would have been much harder still. Right now I’m just focusing on my research, trying to be kinder to myself and looking forward to two weeks off over Christmas.


Filed under A day in the life, academic culture, Clinical Phd, Reflections, Research, running a study

A leap of faith

Simulated gravitational lensing (black hole go...

Simulated gravitational lensing (black hole going past a background galaxy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Generally, I’m upbeat about my thesis. Yes, things go wrong, I have the occasional moan or wonder whether (insert research problem here) will ever work out, but on the whole I love my project and being a PhD student. Right now though…my thesis is annoying me. There, I finally said it.


What’s brought this on? Well, I’ve reached the point in my PhD where I’ve laid the majority of the ground work for the study that is the bread and butter of my thesis.  The study is exciting because it’s novel, has practical use and could potentially help fill a gap (read: black hole) in the literature. Essentially I’m setting out to measure something really complex, so I need to design the measure and test it out.


The novelty and gaping black hole that is the literature gap in this area also makes designing this measure scary and difficult. I don’t have a comprehensive body of knowledge to lean on.  There’s hardly anything out there, and what is out there is often contradictory. I’ve run some of my own studies which have definitely helped, but it will take years of people doing the same kind of research I’ve been doing to really get a clear understanding of the field. As you can imagine then, trying to come up with my own ideas based on what little we do know is challenging; I’ve been thinking outside the box and entertaining even the wildest of ideas. The hard part is grounding these ideas in my rationale, rejecting the ones that don’t fit (no one likes to kill their darlings) and then explaining the why, what and how.


It’s not easy, but at the same time, if it was, someone would have done it already! Knowing that other people think that this is important work and that it will help people  also keeps me going  when it all seems too hard. The odds are that it might not pan out, but if I work out how to capture even some of the things I need to, it will be a big step forward. I just need to take a leap of faith. It’d be really nice if it did mostly pan out though…


I’ve never wanted to have a preview of my future, but part of me is curious about how this will all turn out. Wish me luck and watch this space!




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Filed under Clinical Phd, PhD, Reflections, Research, running a study

Research is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

After a series of phone calls and emails the date is set. Armed with a name, some background information, a general sense of what is planned and a rendezvous point, you set out to meet them. It occurs to you as you near the popular landmark at which you’re meeting, that despite your phone and email exchanges, you don’t actually know what this person looks like. Potentially problematic. Will they be wearing a red rose? Carrying a silver brief case? No. You are not one half of a blind date or playing the starring role in a spy movie, you are a research participant waiting to meet a researcher.


Waiting (Photo credit: Iguanasan)

With experience as both a research participant and a researcher, I can attest that half the fun of participating in research is the ‘surprise’ factor. As a volunteer you’re given background information about the study and what will be required so you have an understanding of what you will be doing. But as best we try, an information letter can’t capture everything about the research experience. We can’t predict that you’ll get a kick out of one of the experiments or learn something about yourself. In some studies the surprises are of a different variety as what appears to be the main aim of the study might not actually be the main aim! I feel honour bound at this point to stress that researchers are not out to trick people and that if we do conceal something it will be because it is absolutely no other way of  studying it, and we’re expected to let you know afterwards and give you the chance to retract your data too if you’re uncomfortable. Let’s just say that Milgram’s experiment would never make it past ethics these days!! 

But what about the surprise factor for the researcher? Surely we couldn’t be surprised by our own research? Of course we can! The day you’re not surprised by your research is the day you stop being a researcher.  We run studies to test out hypotheses but never know for certain what the answer to our questions will be, and if we do, then we’re not doing it right!

At an individual level, research volunteers surprise and teach us too. They might mention something in passing about their experiences that helps us to make sense of that finding that defies explanation and perhaps may inspire future research.  Which is why, as involved and challenging as running a study can be at times, you really can’t beat that on-the-ground understanding of what is and isn’t working and why, and all the little qualitative observations about the participants that bring the numbers to life.

I’ve just passed a bit of a milestone for my research, having finished collecting the data for the first study of my PhD. I’ve spent at least 100 hours collecting data for this project, not to mention the hours entering these data and recruiting over 100 volunteers in between classes, assignments and lately, placement too. Honestly, I still can’t quite believe I’ve finished. Though I’m going to miss interacting with the volunteers, the end of phase one of data collection gives me the reprieve I need to interpret what I’ve found, get my second study up and running and of course to write!

What have I learned from running my first PhD study?

  1. I cannot run three 90-minute study participation time slots back to back and then go straight into a three-hour class expecting my brain to function… I did this once and decided never to do this again!  Well at least not voluntarily! 
  2. It is quite possible that all the things you thought had a very remote chance of occurring in the day to day running of your study will indeed happen and all in the first week. Well, results may vary, but that’s what happened for me! Luckily, I planned how I would handle this in the very unlikely event that it did occur.  
  3. As soon as you finish recruiting, people will ask to participate in your study. Murphy’s Law.
  4. And perhaps most importantly, I learned a new dance. Not the victory dance, the oh-my-goodness-someone-volunteered-for-my-study’ dance. I’m working in an area where a sample of 25 is considered big for one of the two populations I’m studying.  In the end, I managed to recruit almost double this amount of volunteers so it was often all I could do to restrain myself long enough to put the phone down before breaking out into this dance each time I found a volunteer! Picture lots of jumping around and fist pumping. . .

Dancing (Photo credit: merlinprincesse)

So the take home message from my first PhD study in the words of Forrest Gump is that research “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are gonna get.”

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, participants, recruitment, Research, running a study

I did it!

Over the last few weeks I’ve been waiting to start running my study, anticipating what it would be like to step into the role of a tutor and preparing to give a presentation about my research. Happily, I can now say that within the space of one week, all that waiting, anticipating and preparing is over.

On the other side of the classroom…

I am now officially a tutor. I was nervous as I waited for my first class to file in but once I started it was a lot of fun, the time flew by and, I grew in confidence. Surprisingly, the most difficult aspect of tutoring proved to be remembering which tutorial I had told what, because I ran them all back to back. Next time I have a content heavy rather than discussion focussed tutorial I plan to keep a check list of what I have covered to avoid repeating myself. No doubt each tutorial will keep me on my toes in one way or another, but I’m enjoying it.

Data collection begins

I’ve also started running my study. To my pleasant surprise it’s quite popular; the sessions I advertised were snapped up almost immediately. I was even able to administer the psychological tests with reasonable fluency.  Running my study is going to be great practice for psychological testing. However, as with any study, I’m now identifying all the tiny aspects that you never anticipate causing problems but that inevitably do. This has caused me a few headaches in the last week but having checked in with my supervisor for some advice I think things are now under control.

A problem shared…

This week also saw me share my research problem with the faculty in the form of a presentation. I like public speaking but the hour beforehand I was definitely nervous. Once I got up there though I felt  fine and managed to field a few responses to the questions that followed with my supervisor’s help. These questions will be helpful in terms of shaping the lens through which I present my argument.

All in all, what a week!

My tired kitty.

My tired kitty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Filed under A day in the life, Clinical Phd, communication, running a study, tutoring

Bootylicious…pun intended.

After my experiences last year, I expected the occasional delay during my PhD journey and perhaps this was the catalyst behind having a research proposal, a thesis committee meeting and receiving ethics approval just four months into my PhD.  However, even I didn’t anticipate my current road block to PhD progress, being in a moon boot for a stress fracture for the next six weeks!!

My current, ‘bootylicious’ state, puts me in a bit of a predicament because my campus is hilly. To borrow a phrase from my family, it’s “nanny-goat country,” not the most ideal place to be nursing a stress fracture or wearing a moon boot.  Consequently, I’ve put data collection on hold for a few weeks, at least until I get my sea legs. If you’ve ever worn a moon boot you’ll know what I mean. You have to use a sort of rolling motion to walk and getting from A to B takes more effort than usual. In the meantime I have a week’s holiday and I’m hatching a plan to make data collection as easy as possible.

It’s weird to be on holidays but it hasn’t taken too long to get used to the idea. Yesterday I went shopping for a friend’s birthday present and today I went to the movies to see Snow White and the Huntsman. These were my first real forays out and about since I was ‘booted’ and they definitely taught me a few things, aside from the fact that Snow White and the Huntsman is actually a really good movie. First, you cannot go anywhere fast or far in a moon boot; second, stairs are a nightmare and third, people tend to stare or commiserate with you. Yes, it’s all a bit of a nuisance but it’s worth it because it’s helping my foot. As to the people who stare, I didn’t even notice until someone pointed this out to me, I was too engrossed in navigating my way around!

It might sound a bit cliché but I think research is like a butterfly in flight, you’re not always sure where it’s headed and it takes some interesting detours along the way but it usually arrives where it was supposed to in the end. So, I’m not too stressed about this delay with data collection. Hopefully with the progress I’ve made so far this will be just one of those interesting detours.


Filed under A day in the life, Reflections, running a study

Data collection 101

Today at 4 o’clock I thanked my final volunteer for participating in my study. I have officially finished data collection! I still can’t quite believe it but it certainly feels good to have reached this milestone. I wanted to celebrate with a hot chocolate, but by that time everything was closed so I had a celebratory Turkish delight at home instead.

Now is as good a time as any to reflect on what the experience has taught me. Firstly, data collection was a lesson in adapting to the unexpected. One particularly memorable experience was opening the door to a room I had booked for my study, to be greeted by fifteen people balefully staring back at me. After a hasty retreat I was able to find another room. Secondly, I learned that you can never be too organised. I carried a folder with me filled with spare study materials, which, entitled with the name of my study, doubled as a sign. This certainly paid off. I had arranged to meet my participants at a landmark on campus. The only problem was, I had no idea what each of my participants looked like and the place I had chosen was quite a popular meeting point. I resorted to conspicuously displaying my improvised sign and asking anyone in the vicinity if they were participating in my study. It worked quite well, though on one occasion I was approached by someone who, after some initial confusion on both our parts, turned out to be a curious stranger. Lastly I learned a lesson or three about data entry. If you need to reverse code something, TRIPLE CHECK you have recoded everything you need to. Double checking is not enough, believe me. I also found keeping multiple copies of my data, and a codebook to make sure the 1s and 0s I’d entered in SPSS meant more to me than binary code, quite useful.

Tomorrow I am taking the day to ‘regroup.’ I want to have a clear plan of where I am headed with my analyses and discussion. It is after all a very significant day today, one month until my thesis is due.

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Filed under A day in the life, analyses, data, Honours year, Research, running a study