Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science Day: A view from the Girly Side

I’ve been asked to write a number of blog posts this year for International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I wanted to write an extra one that wasn’t so much a career guidance document, but more to celebrate some of the great approaches I have seen as a woman working in science. This post is based around some of the points that came out of a twitter conversation last week.

This topic means a lot to me. It wasn’t by accident that when, in 2012, I chose my twitter handle: I chose Girlymicro/Girlymicrobiologist. It has felt to me, since I started as a working scientist in 2004, that it was considered unprofessional to bring my whole self to work: to like pink and purple, to bake, to talk about science fiction and gaming. It was the start of the journey that I am still on, to show that we are better scientists when we bring our whole selves to work. Anything that acts as a barrier to that not only harms us as individuals, but also harms what we can achieve as a collective.

The Road Is Long
With Many a Winding Turn
That Leads Us to Who Knows Where…

You may not know this, but I started out as a zoologist. I adored it, I loved it, but there were no jobs in it. My undergraduate dissertation was on the ‘Demographics of Witchcraft Accusations from 1625 to 1715’. You may think that has nothing to do with what I do now but you’d be wrong. Studying human and animal behaviour helps me all the time in understanding some of the group decision-making that occurs in healthcare. The hours of my life spent learning how to undertake statistical modelling was not wasted. What I didn’t study a lot of was microbiology: I did a single module of microbiology during my whole degree.

I then went on to study not microbiology but the physics of biological interactions at surfaces as an MRes. This was where I learnt some microbiology and developed a love of applied science. When I started as a trainee Clinical Scientist, I had so much less experience of microbiology than any of the other more traditional trainees. I once asked why they hired me and the wonderful Dr Margaret Sillis, who acted as my mentor, responded ‘We can teach you microbiology, it’s much harder to teach you how to think’. I still think about that and the transferable skills I picked up by studying other disciplines still come in use all the time.

This trend of not following the standard path has continued. It’s why I ended up in Infection Prevention and Control rather than microbiology. Although the traditional paths are in some ways easier, as you will be able to walk the path that others have walked before you, don’t be afraid to wander the path untrodden if you think that it will be a more satisfying journey for you as an individual. You will learn so much along the way and open up new roads for others to follow.

Making the Invisible Visible

During the last 10 years, one of the things I’ve consciously decided to do is to be visible. In 2015 I was asked if I would be filmed for a project that the Royal Society of Biology were organising called ‘Biology: Changing the World’. For some years I had been told, by my lovely (male) boss, that I shouldn’t do media and shouldn’t be seen as ‘courting attention’ as it a) detracted from the work, and b) people were looking to make a story out of you. Don’t get me wrong, there is some truth to this. It also results in a fair amount of negative feedback, often from female colleagues, about grandstanding and attention seeking. You know what it also does, however: it hopefully means that when a girl in 20 years time is asked the question I’m asked in this video about what female scientist inspired her, there is a chance she will have a name. Not that I think I’m going to be that person. I’m not going to win a Noble Prize or have a Wkipedia page. I do, even today, remember very clearly the male science undergraduate who came and spoke to my primary school class about his job, I can be THAT girl. The one that someone meets up close and personal and shows that normal everyday women can work in science. That the door is open to them. I can shine a light and make the career path visible to those who might follow. So, next time you are invited to do that piece of outreach, that radio interview, that blog and your mind questions your worth, ask: if not me, then who? I promise you that the next person will not be more qualified than you, more worthy than you, more appropriate than you. So please say yes.

The Importance of Valuing Difference

The above point brings me onto something a bit trickier. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a number of awards for myself and with my wonderful team and partners for undertaking STEM engagement. Doing this work requires energy and time, both of which are frequently given on weekends and evenings. Or, in the case of today’s blog, annual leave. I feel a moral obligation to do this work as well as it being an important part of maintaining my registration to practice. The interesting thing is that it is frequently not viewed this way in either my clinical or academic environments. It is not seen as ‘work’ and I have on more than one occasion been told that if I was serious about my career progression I needed to ‘do less of that nonsense’. Sadly this isn’t a unique situation for me, but is something that many women in science face, especially in academia. In these areas women spend a greater proportion of their time undertaking public engagement and utilising ‘soft skills’, which are not valued when it comes to promotion panels.

Over time I believe I have started to change perspectives, but it takes even more work and investment in time. I’ve taken on additional positions, such as Joint Trust Lead Healthcare Scientist. This position has enabled me to speak to senior leaders about the benefits of the work in order to raise awareness and to capture impact. By actively working with wonderful colleagues to nominate work for awards, such as the Advancing Healthcare Award for Reach Out for Healthcare Science, with Dr Philippa May, and with Nicola Baldwin for the Antibiotic Guardian Awards and CSO Awards for Nosocomial, I have started to make inroads into changing the conversation. Awards aren’t everything, but they do support you in re-positioning what you are doing in a way that fits into the ‘traditional way’ success is captured.

Whilst I’m on this particular topic, I would also like to make one of the points I often respond with when talking to colleagues who aren’t so engaged in public engagement and outreach. The days of healthcare workers being considered to be ‘the authority’ are quite rightly coming to an end. Those of us working in healthcare need to be engaging and working collaboratively with patients and the public to co-create what the future of healthcare might be and should look like. We can’t begin this work until we get out there and start having conversations. Rather than being ‘nonsense’, this work is key to future of the NHS and, especially, Healthcare Science.

“Amplification” is Where It’s At

During the Obama administration, despite it’s progressive nature, women found it hard to get their voices heard.

We’ve all been there. The meetings in which you make a comment or a response and you’re ignored, only for a man in the room to repeat the comment and have everyone react as if it is the first time they’ve heard it. As women in science, we are often the only women in the room and so making ourselves heard can be difficult.

The women in the Obama administration came up with an “amplification” strategy, where women in meetings repeated each other’s ideas as well as deliberately crediting the women who came up with them.

I work with some amazing women in Healthcare Science (Jane Freeman, Anna Barnes, Ruth Thomsen, Kerrie Davies and so many more) who do an excellent job of this amplification. I’d like to think that we all have a definite and deliberate attitude of amplifying each others voices and not falling into the trap (that happens way too often) of competing with each other. Be deliberate when you are in spaces with other women who may not be heard, actively listen and repeat. Focus on those moments that could make a difference and ensure that everyone in the room is heard. It requires active effort, but it definitely changes the course of conversations.

Some of the comments on my twitter feed were about how our male colleagues can help. This is definitely one of those areas. There are often not the women in the room to do this and so having allies who are happy to support in the same way is a definite help.

Change the View for One That is More Pleasing

One day the super-inspirational Dr Lena Ciric and I sat down over a cup of coffee and engaged in one of our regular consolation sessions. This was because, yet again, I had written a grant that had been successfully funded but it didn’t have my name on it. It had the name of one of my male professors. Lena had experienced similar things over the years and also the reviewers’ response of ‘not enough experience’ as a result of grant after grant that didn’t credit us. This cup of coffee was different: it was during this session we decided that, if we couldn’t change the playing field, we could change the view.

What do I mean by this? Academically, we were applying for funding within the clinical microbiology environment. A landscape that was already filled with vastly experienced and (mostly) older male medics. We were not going to succeed in breaking through the glass ceiling by applying within this space. Life lesson: we needed to find another space. So we very deliberately looked across the different funders to see where there was a landscape that wasn’t crowded with people like us and where we could constructively add something. We found it. We ended up putting in our first million pound grant to the EPSRC, an engineering research council who were looking to fund healthcare research and were not getting applications from researchers with enough clinical experience. We got the grant first time! Now we had a million pound grant AND we had the track record that means we can not only continue to apply in the new landscape but that also enables us to apply in the old arena.

Sometimes, if you continue to bang your fist against a closed door all you will get is a bloody fist. In these circumstances you need to take a step back and review whether there is another way to get to where you want to be. If there is, do it, you may not only succeed in your original goal but learn some other valuable skills along the way.

Finally, I wanted to finish with the above image of Shonda Rhimes. I am as guilty as the next person of talking about how lucky and fortunate I am, and it is true. That said, own your success: you’ve earned it, you’ve put in the hours, you’ve sacrificed, you’ve made it happen whilst balancing families, health issues and all kinds of other demands.

Be the badass I know you are!

All views in this blog are my own

Guest Blog from Sam Watkin: Starting a PhD in a Pandemic

The wonderful Sam Watkin has volunteered to do a blog post for me this week. He has the dubious fortune of being one of my PhD students and has only known working for me during a global pandemic. He volunteered to share his experience of what this has meant for him and his learning.

I remember on the 4th of January 2021, sitting down at my desk in my bedroom, excited for the first day starting my PhD. I had got a new pad of paper and a fresh set of pens and highlighters. I turned on my laptop, opened my emails and pulled up a paper from the reading list I had been sent a few weeks prior. After about 6 hours of reading and making notes, I turned off my laptop and watched ‘A New Life in the Sun’ on Channel 4.

I had known for a while before being accepted to do a PhD that this was the path I wanted to go down. What I didn’t know was that I would start it remotely in my childhood bedroom. Overall, it felt rather anticlimactic. By this point though, I was pretty used to anticlimactic events. I had written and submitted my master’s thesis, done my masters viva and attended a virtual graduation all from this same desk, mostly wearing pajamas. So, starting my PhD had a similar feeling to it, a sense of “well, that was that I guess”.

From what I had heard from people already deep in their PhD journeys, the beginning few months were mostly spent reading and getting to grips with the subject area. I suppose, looking back on it, the lockdown that was in place at the beginning of 2021 helped with that a fair bit. All there really was to do was read around the subject area… and watch daytime TV. Not that it was a chore to do this (the reading, not watching telly) – it is a subject area I am really interested in and passionate about.

As time went on though, there was a growing feeling of missing out on the “PhD experience”. It wasn’t until around May 2021 that I actually met my supervisors face-to-face, and didn’t meet everyone in the research group till a few weeks after that. It felt as though the social aspect of it had been in slow-motion, never mind the feeling I can only really sum up as “Oh my god I’m almost 6 months in and haven’t picked up a pipette yet!”. Once I was able to start in the lab, the rules in place to make sure it was safe for us all to work in meant that work was, at times, painfully slow. All in all, while I was able to make progress, everything felt slower, more drawn out and more frustrating than I would have thought it would be.

If it isn’t obvious, I sometimes feel pressure to be overly-productive. This is something that I’m fairly sure is common among PhD students – especially as there was a whole lecture series put on about how to manage PhD pressure and workload. I’m horribly paraphrasing it, but the gist of it all was “you’re all good enough, stop stressing!”. I’ve got to give credit to my supervisors though – throughout all of this they have reassured me that this is all fairly normal to feel at the beginning of a PhD and, even with the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, I am making good progress.

While I think it is fair to say the pandemic has made starting a PhD very… different, to how it would have been otherwise, it hasn’t all been stress and doom. A few other people started PhD’s in our research group a few months before me, meaning we all have been going through this “Pandemic PhD” rollercoaster at more-or-less the same pace. Having this shared experience, with all its very unique challenges, has for certain made us closer as a group. At the very least, it has shown us all that we aren’t alone in going through this process, with all the additional stresses and strains a pandemic brings to the first year of a doctorate.

Aside from the work itself, starting this PhD has had some amazingly positive aspects to it. It has afforded me the chance to learn so much more than I thought I could about a subject I am fascinated by, pick up new skills, speak in a theatre production and present my own work at conferences. I was also able to move to London, then move straight back out of London (not enough countryside for me) and meet some of the most interesting and clever people I have ever met. While starting a PhD in a pandemic has presented many challenges, most of which I never expected to come across, the experience has been overall a really rewarding and enjoyable one, and I am looking forward to the next few years of it. Famous last words…

All opinions on this blog are my own

Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was a Trainee: My top ten tips for making the most of your journey

It’s an exciting time for a lot of people right now, a lot of people are planning new phases of study starting in September/October. In the world of Healthcare Science we have people starting PhDs as part of HSST (people training towards becoming Consultants) and new STPs (people training to be become Healthcare Scientists) all beginning their new journeys. It feels like a really good time to talk about all the things I wish I’d known when I started out in order to make people feel less alone, as well as encouraging them to make the most of every part of this next stage.

It’s never about being the smartest person in the room

When I first started in my role as a trainee Clinical Scientist, and then as a PhD student, I just remember being over awed by everyone is the room. Everyone had amazing titles, years of experience and just an aura that suggested competence and knowledge. Even all these years later I sometimes feel that way, especially in rooms I haven’t been in before. It took me a long time to understand that my contribution wasn’t about being smarter than anyone else, I’ve never been the smartest person in any room. Your contribution will be about offering a new perspective that is unique to you. Sometimes that’s from a technical scientific point of view. Sometimes that will be by who you can connect the people in the room with. Sometimes that will be by offering a different lens through which the situation can be seen, being new to an environment means you will be able to review things without historical bias.

Manage your training officer/supervisor

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve been the PhD student who couldn’t get time with their supervisor and the Clinical Scientist trainee who just wanted to be included. I am now the PhD supervisor/training officer whose diary looks like a train wreck and who feels constantly guilty about not having enough time to devote to those who she’s training. One of the key skills that I had to develop as a trainee, and now encourage in those I supervise, is to develop skills in supervisor management. This includes things like understanding what your own needs are: do you like micromanagement/close support, or are you more interested in a light touch. Ask how your supervisor works: are they someone who likes drop ins, or are they like me i.e. if it isn’t in the diary it won’t happen. Learn how to support the process by keeping notes of the meetings and emailing them for record keeping/prompts. Finally, spend the time to think about what you want from each face to face to make sure you maximise your time. Also, don’t repeatedly stand them up – it sends out ALL the wrong signals and if you don’t value my time I will value our meetings less.

We all fail, frequently

No one really talks about it but we all fail, I fail all the time. Now sometimes those failures are big and sometimes they are small and minor, like not having a conversation well. I wasted a lot of time at the start of my training by trying to be perfect and as a consequence I feel I didn’t maximise the learning in those first few years. If I discovered an error I quickly (and safely) corrected it, but I had such anxiety over it I didn’t really reflect on it, I wanted to fix it and move on. I also (apart from safety reporting) didn’t really talk about it with my supervisor. This meant that the team as a whole missed out on learning from system based failures. If mistakes happen, especially serious errors, they tend to be compound events linked to multiple failures along a pathway. The best way to avoid these errors to identify the weak points in the system when minor issues occur singly, so it reduces the chance of a compound failure later on. Long and short, don’t be afraid of failure, focus on learning from it and know we are all in this together.

There are no stupid questions

I love people that ask questions, it makes me think, it makes me remember why I’ve made decisions and assess if they are still relevant. When I started out I was worried that asking questions would just demonstrate my ignorance, and at the start of my training I was concerned about what people thought about me coming in as a non microbiologist and being behind everyone else. It takes courage to ask questions and be part of the discussion. As a trainer it is very difficult to evaluate whether you are covering knowledge gaps or pitching what you are doing correctly if the dialogue is one way. As your confidence grows it is also good to question and challenge, there are many different ways of doing things and only by having dialogue can you really understand why certain decisions get made under some circumstances and not in others. If you are an introvert and not comfortable asking questions openly, make notes, email and discuss your findings, find a way that works for you and work for your mentor.

Make copious notes

You will be given a LOT of information when you start, well to be honest all the way through your training, but the start can present information overload. When I look back at my notes from the first week of my training I obviously didn’t know what some of the words meant, let alone the context. By taking copious notes throughout however it meant that once I had found my feet I could review those notes and gain new information I was unable to take in the first time. By reviewing notes when you come back to something, after a break or rotation else where, you will be able to make connections which may not have been obvious to you the first time around. It will also enable you to ask questions better (see above) and have more enriched meetings with you mentor/trainer/supervisor as you will have access to specifics. Not only that but it will mean that you demonstrate attention and will enable you to ask questions that add to your experience. Plus when you look back at your notes from 10 years ago it will make your realise how far you’ve come and how much you have achieved!

Be the master of your own destiny

Every trainee/student is different. Hopefully you will get a supervisor who will have the time to help you reflect on your learning needs, but you need to also be able to develop the skills to do this yourself as you won’t always have access to someone to do it with you. Most training programmes are quite structured but there are always many different ways to deliver on the same learning outcomes. This is a career and every career journey is personal, so the sooner you can get into the habit of thinking about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what your specialist areas of interest could be, the more you will get out of any opportunities you are offered. Within academia and the NHS you will often not be offered opportunities on a plate, but if you know what you want and find the opportunity out, you will very rarely get blocked from accessing them. Start thinking early about what could enrich your training and find ways to access those experiences.

Sadly this is not a 9-5 but you can do this and have a life

I’ve sat in a lot of lectures from very senior people who talk to trainees about clinical and academic work not being 9 – 5, it’s true but in many ways this saddens me. It gets spoken about as if you can’t have a life, you either choose devotion to this vocation or it isn’t for you. There will definitely be points where you have to commit more than the standard hours, exam revision, dissertation writing etc, but this shouldn’t be all the time. I encourage my guys to take on extra curricula activities such as STEM engagement, which often happen on the weekend, but this is a few times a year. Training shouldn’t be about burn out. To fully learn and develop it is crucial to have mental space to reflect and recovery time. You need to early on find strategies that work for you to manage your time. Do you want to block out every Friday afternoon for paper reading? If you do need to put in some extra hours would you rather do it at your desk to maintain work home separation, or work on the sofa. Be aware early of working to manage stress rather than to manage task and develop strategies to enable yourself to walk away and unwind (my trainees and students will be laughing at the hypocrisy of me writing this line, but do as I say not do as I do, I too am constantly learning).

Have a plan for what’s next

3 years feels like a long time when you start but it’s not really. Before you know, it will be 18 months in and you will need to start thinking about what the next stage of your career may look like. As part of your progress it is therefore important to make sure you regularly check in with yourself about what you’ve enjoyed and you’re aspirations to make sure you’re on track for the career you want. The more you do this, the more you will be able to mould your training around the experiences and networks you will need to help you succeed. A lot of us fall into career choices, but if you can be deliberate it will help you find happiness as well as success.

Reach out and connect

It’s not what you know but who you know. This isn’t entirely correct, but finding opportunities often depends on knowing the people who are making them or have access to them. This is often difficult when you are starting out in a new field or career as you don’t know who people are in order to hear about things. This goes for job posts as well as learning and accessing skills. There are now some ways where you can do this on your own, such as social media, which are less reliant on introductions – join us on Twitter. However this is where extra curricula’s can really help. Join your professional body, find a trainee network, engage in patient and public engagement, go for coffee with your fellow trainees and PhD students. Relationships and connections forged now will pay dividends later and are worth the investment, even if you are busy with other things.

Enjoy the ride

I was so focused on the end goal that I didn’t enjoy the journey as much as I should have. I spent 17 years focussed on making consultant, ticking boxes along the way like PhD and FRCPath, that I didn’t live in the moment. I was always focussed on the next step, the next target and so I didn’t enjoy the freedom that my training presented me with. Being supernumerary only occurs early in your career and gives you a freedom to make decisions and enjoy experiences you just won’t get later on. Learning is your focus right now, free of the demands of the inbox, meetings and other peoples agendas. Make sure you relish every moment as you will have less and less time to just enjoy learning as your career progresses.

All opinions on this blog are my own

What’s Your Get Psyched Mix? How I use Music to Support my Work

Music has always been an important part of my life, from singing with the Birmingham Royal Ballet for eight years before Uni, to the freedom I find dancing (badly) whether it be in my kitchen or the lab. I’m not knowledgeable, but few things hold memories and modulate my emotions is the same way as listening to music, be that classical, alternative or pop. The key moments and people in my life all have music linked to them: from the Blue Danube for my sister to Dean Martins’ Somewhere Beyond the Sea as the first dance at my wedding.

I have written dissertations, produced my PhD thesis and undertaken specific experiments, all linked to specific pieces. In fact I really struggle to do much in silence. I’m not very good at only doing one thing at once. For me,, despite it being counter-intuitive to some, music helps me focus rather than acting as a distraction. The only time I can work comfortably in silence is when I’m verbalising to support memory, i.e. revising or learning lines.

In an episode of ‘How I met your mother’ Barney (one of the main characters) introduced the idea of a ‘Get Psyched’ mix. I found this idea really useful and have since produced my own ‘Get Psyched’ playlist which I use to address particular challenges I face in work. For today’s post I thought I would share how I use them and give some example tracks for each. Warning – I enjoy cheese and angry girl music so my taste will not suit everyone. I make no apologise for the smell of fromage coming from this post.

Music to Boost my Confidence

We all have days when imposter syndrome hits. As Healthcare Scientists, we also have high stress key assessments, such as FRCPath, that need to be faced. One of the key times I have used a playlist was during my 4 days of FRCPath examinations. I listened to a set of 10 songs to train my brain to get into the right headspace. I would listen to them whilst walking to the examination centre. I would listen to them at lunchtime. I would listen to them in breaks if I felt that I was starting to go into an anxiety loop. All of them took me back to a space where I could focus on why I was doing this high-stakes exam. They helped me focus on the finish line rather than being distracted by the steps along the way. They brought me back to be able to see the big picture. In a space where I felt out of control they gave me routine. It was the same 10 songs. I didn’t need to add to my cognitive load of thinking about what I wanted to play. They freed me and, by the time I reached the end, I had my game face on and I was ready to face anything.

One Off High-Stakes Events

Music for me in this context is when I need to hit my ‘movie moment’. You can picture it: It’s that moment in a movie where it is reaching its denouement. They are about to face that crucial encounter/combat/story moment. The music comes on and (as my husband says) it’s all about the slow walk into the camera.

These are usually one or two songs that I will play in the lead up to a difficult/high-stakes moment: sometimes a meeting that I’m worried about, sometimes a presentation that’s making me nervous. It has to hit my soul fast and hard. It has to make me want to sing out loud. It needs to make me want to strut. If you ever see me walking up and down a corridor mouthing to myself, this is usually during one of these moments. So much of how individual events turn out are based on the mood and the mental space you are in when you walk through a door. I like to make sure I do it in slow-mo with presence!

Music to Reflect and/or to Boost Your Mood

Sometimes music for me is a way of allowing me to express negative as well as positive feelings. No one is up beat all the time. Working within Healthcare Science, and especially as a clinical academic, there’s a lot of failure: grant failure, paper rejection, barriers based on professional background. That’s before we even talk about being a woman in science. When I get grant rejections etc. I always say to my students that I allow myself to mourn for 48 hours. I then get myself together and get back on that horse. Music is key to this. I play my angry girl music and process my disappointment in a focussed way that allows it to be to put in a separate box from the rest of my working and home life.

Once I have spent my allotted 48 hours, I put on music that brings me back to myself. Fighting music to get my head back in the fight. It draws a line under the wallowing and brings me back to a place where I can draw on0 learning from the failure I’ve just experienced without it being tied to negative emotions. I challenge the world to ‘bring it on’. I’m ready!

Music to Focus The Mind

We’ve all been there. It’s late and you’re still in the lab. You’re tired and you have just one more thing that you need to do before you go home: You need something with a beat to energise you, something you can sing to in order to help you keep awake as caffeine requires leaving the lab. For this I generally have my girls: Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. I have been caught by my old consultant dancing with tubes across the lab to Single Ladies and I make no apologies for it.

The other times I use this kind of music with a really defined beat is when I’m writing. It helps me keep the tempo up and my production level high. When I have a deadline the music definitely goes on. As time goes on, if needed, I tune out the words and I just type or pipette to the beat and get into a zone that means I can work for hours. Without music getting into this particular head space can take hours. By using the right music I can get there in a couple of tracks.

I’m writing this as I’ve found music such a helpful tool in terms of getting me into the head space I need to occupy in order to succeed. I also thought it might be helpful to explain to those people who don’t use music in this way and think that it’s just a distraction tool from getting things done, that the opposite may be true. We all work and focus differently. I’m at my least productive in silence. If I put my headphones in, understand that it’s not that I’m ignoring you. It’s because I’m getting into the headspace where I do my best work. Also, if you hear Freak on a Leash by Korn or Head Like a Hole by Nine Inch Nails through my office door, approach with chocolate or caffeine in hand as some significant rejection is likely to have occurred.

One final thing. This post is in honour of the fantastic She’miah. She’miah is our team PA. She’s truly amazing and she’s leaving in 2 weeks. I will miss our bathroom office disco pick me ups more than I can say This last one is for you girl!

All opinions on this blog are my own

Talking About the Taboos: My Journey to being an ‘Obstinate Headstrong Girl’ Whilst Working in Science

I’ve had a few encounters recently that have led me to write this blog. I’m not writing it as an expert; This isn’t anywhere near my field. I’m writing to share my experiences and learning in case it helps others. Apologies, as it’s not a short read.

I’m challenged by some people I that I’m too worried about raising the profile of women in science, of talking too much about ‘female’ issues, and of challenging my colleagues too frequently. A really respected mentor once said to me that he didn’t think actions against women in the workplace still happened. I shared some stories and pointed out that they still did, they just didn’t happen to him, where he could see them or when he was paying attention to them. I count myself lucky that nothing really serious has ever happened to me at work, but I shouldn’t have to count myself as lucky: they just shouldn’t happen.

I have another post brewing about everyday sexism in the workplace, but this one is different. This one is about why I set out becoming the ‘obstinate head strong girl’ that I aspire to be!

I finished my undergraduate degree in 2002 and spent a year working before returning to undertake an MRes. This was my first experience of full-time ‘proper’ work. I took a six month temp contract for a council, working in their business development office. It was a mostly male floor, supported by myself, two other part time admin staff (both female students) and a lovely older lady who managed the team. My job was to support the officers in tasks such as typing up letters. Yes, they wrote by hand as some of them still didn’t know how to use a computer; I also ran reception, took minutes, that kind of thing.

The Problem is that You are Too Friendly

I’d been there about a month when I was in the post/stationary room stamping that day’s mail. One of my older male colleagues came up behind me and stuck his erection in my back and grabbed my breasts. I stood there, stock still, in complete shock. I didn’t know what to do. These things didn’t happen to me: I was the nerdy girl not the pretty girl, I had no experience of how to handle this kind of breach (I am not implying that pretty girls should know, or have to put up with this either). After what felt like hours (but was more likely a few minutes) where he spoke to me about what we should do next, I shoved him away and ran out of the room.

I went to my boss, the person responsible for me, and told her what had happened. She said she would speak to her boss, who also happened to be the boss of everyone on the floor. I recovered from my shock and got angry whilst I waited, but I was sure there would be censure and we could all put this behind us. She came back and we talked. She explained to me that I was overtly-smiley and chatty with my colleagues. This could be misconstrued and, in future, I should probably just take steps to not be alone with the man that had done it. That was it. The married man with multiple children could do what he wished as it was my friendly demeanour that was the issue.

I spent the next four months being hyper-aware of when I could go into rooms on my own, to be friendly, but not too friendly. As my contract end-date rolled up, I experienced a similar repeat performance from the same individual. It wasn’t as bad this time as I had learned from the first event, but I just couldn’t let it go. What if he went further with someone else, what if he did it to someone else who wasn’t in the privileged position I was in to ‘let it go’. On my last week with the council I emailed HR directly to express my sadness over the way the situation had been handled. They told me to get a cab down and speak to them. I did. I recounted the event, the way it had been handled, the way I felt. The guy got suspended on full pay whilst an investigation was undertaken. I was called back in to repeatedly account for the event and my actions. It was determined that as it was my word against his nothing could be done. I learnt early that even when people listen, accountability is not always the result. No policy was changed. At least the guy had a note on his record in case he did it again so that it was no longer the ‘future girls’ word against his.

I’m ‘lucky’: that was the worse thing in a workplace that has ever happened to me. We all the know of the labs where you wouldn’t apply to work at because of the way the PI behaves, or the ‘expectations’ placed on the post docs if they want to advance. It didn’t interfere with my progression. It did, however, teach me an important lesson about the importance of bystanders. However annoying the bad behaviour of the individual was, the worse thing for me was that the people I trusted and who held responsibility for my safety at work chose to make it about me being too smiley, rather than address the action of the person who had breached barriers and made me feel unsafe. I swore that I would never be that bystander and I would support others so they would not feel as alone as I did in that workplace.

The Problem is that You Are Not Friendly Enough

Roll on some years and I’m now working as a scientist with a part-time academic contract. I’ve learnt the lesson taught to me about not being too friendly, about boundaries at work, about always keeping it professional so my actions couldn’t be used against me. I’m working as the only microbiologist on a research project. The PI on the grant begins to spend a lot of time with the other female researcher. Late night drinks, wine in the office, that kind of thing. I stick to my guns about being valued for what I can add to a project: that doesn’t require me to be available to have drinks with the boss at 9pm. Suddenly, protocols are written that are not technically appropriate, papers are written without a standard authorship order, and presentations and conference trips are handed on the basis of time spent with the PI. When queries and issues are raised, I’m now told that I’m not committed enough, not friendly enough, I’ve not invested enough in building relationships outside of work structures. Unlike before, my future is impacted because I have not walked the tightrope of being approachable well enough. The difference this time is that, although I cried, I simultaneously empowered myself to leave by looking for funding to support an exit. Again, I was fortunate enough to have a way out, to be a clinical academic rather than academia being my only option. I had also started to learn the power of finding my tribe, and making sure that I always had support from other embedded around me. This enabled constructive challenge of my perceptions, but also assurance when things went awry.

Why are you Reacting to Such Little Things? It’s only people being friendly/joking

I’ve now been working as a scientist for 17 years. Issues crop up less frequently the higher you climb up the ladder. However, when they do they always feel like high stakes. I’m no longer in a position where I could easily find another post, co-applicants on grants are harder to switch around as the world we inhabit is small, and relationship building is a key part of my role. So do things still happen?

Sadly, the answer is yes. The thing that makes the incidents happening now worse, in many ways, is that they get laughed off as being linked to me being overly sensitive. I still try to embody the friendly girl I was at 22 without opening myself up to unwelcome physical acts at work. I have, however, on 3 occasions being kissed full on on the mouth in unsolicited encounters with male members of staff. None of it threatening, like when I was in my first job, but still unwelcome. Blocked doorways that, as you’ve tried to go through, have resulted in a facial assault because ‘its Christmas’ or because it’s someone’s ‘last day and they just want to say thank you’. I’m by no means prudish but the only person who gets to kiss me on the mouth is my husband! Uninvited physical intimacy is just not OK. It always comes as a shock and it always takes me back to being a 20 year old with no coping mechanisms standing in a post room.

What happens most frequently however are the comments. Just before the pandemic I was in Paris at an academic meeting. The organiser forgot to book my second night in the hotel. I’m sitting there in a room full of senior male academics at the dinner when the organiser came through and said I had no room. The most senior man in the room responded by saying ‘don’t worry about booking her in the extra night, we’re in Paris, there are more than enough brothels where she could go and work in’. Every man in that room laughed. No one called him out, no one indicated that the comment was humiliating and inappropriate. I didn’t know what to say and so sat there in silence as they laughed away. This isn’t a one-off event. The ‘little ladies’, ‘sweethearts’ etc. may feel innocuous enough but are too frequently used in conversations to undermine women in the room. That’s not to say I’m anti-endearment. I have plenty of colleagues where we have built up relationships over the time where I welcome this reinforcement of our relationship. It is different to do it when your relationship capital doesn’t justify it, or when you are doing it in order to enforce power or hierarchy.

So why have I written this post? I want to let people know that these behaviours happen. It’s unwelcome and it’s not up to the women involved to modify who they are in order to not tempt others to behave badly.

Here, therefore, are a few of my thoughts about how we can all act differently:

  • Don’t be a bystander! Know that if you are in the room you have a duty to act as the impacted individual may not be in a position to do so.
  • Find your tribe so you have support for when (and hopefully if) these events occur.
  • Talk about your experiences so that we can raise awareness, share learning, lead improvements and, most importantly, so others don’t feel alone.
  • Know that you have more power than you feel like you do. There are people out there who are ready, willing, and able to support you.
  • If someone comes to you with their story remember that you have a duty of care. Don’t brush things under the carpet because it is easier to do nothing than deal with a situation.

Finally, to all my obstinate headstrong women out there who are standing up and challenging, I applaud you. I appreciate all you are doing now, I appreciate the fact that you are leading the way and that you are members of my tribe. To all those who consider me difficult for calling out these situations when I see them, I understand why I make you uncomfortable, but I have no plans to change. In fact I plan to grow into this role more. In my opinion we could all do with a channelling a little Elizabeth Bennett from time to time.

All opinions in this blog are my own

It’s Recruitment Season in Healthcare Science and Academia: What have I learnt which might help

It’s recruitment season in both Healthcare Science and academia right now. Many promising young scientists have applied for the Scientific Training Programme, whilst others are applying for PhD positions and taking their first steps to becoming independent researchers. I’ve been having lots of conversations and I’ve been getting lots of emails/tweets about what I would be looking for as part of this process. I’m also going through a recruitment process myself and so this has been on my mind. I’m going to share what I look for, but I want to be very clear this is just that, what I look for. Others may have different opinions and so it’s always worth canvassing more than just one person as there are people out there who are experts in this.

There are obviously two big sections to this, the application process and the interview. If you get to the interview then you will have got there because I believe that you can do the job. At that point it’s about team dynamics and shared vision and it’s as much about you interviewing me as it is about me interviewing you. So for this post I’m mostly going to focus on the application process and getting that foot in the door.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Know Your Audience

When you are applying for a post you will have access to a whole bunch of information, some of which will be more apparent to you than others. There will be names listed, names of specialisms, names of the recruiting staff, all of which will give you a clue as to how to get information on the type of people who will be interviewing you.

Getting to know more about the people involved in the recruitment process will help you prioritise the information in your proposal. Is the Trust and department you’re applying to research active? If not then you might want to use that word count about your undergraduate dissertation for something of greater interest to them. For STP applications you should include reference to the fact that you’ve spoken to people who work in the field to demonstrate an understanding of the job. For PhD applications make sure you include specific references to the papers the hiring academics have recently written in your cover letter so you have shown you know who they are. This enables your to start out building a relationship with the people who are shortlisting, they know you’ve taken the trouble to know more about them and it’s a sign of respect that will stand you in good stead.

DON’T do what once happened to me when I was interviewing a male candidate. The panel was entirely female and the interview was going well, the candidate obviously had done his homework on us. The last two questions blew it however. We asked him about research experience and he proceeded to tell us that he had looked up our work and how he could guide us in doing it better. He then followed up when asked if he had any questions with ‘When will you let me know I have the job’. Needless to say that call never came.

Do Your Research

Following on from knowing your audience is doing your research. I’m going to be super honest here. When I applied to be a clinical scientist I kind of knew what it was but I wasn’t super confident. That was because there weren’t the resources out there to give me more information. That is no longer the case and there are a lot of internet resources available. This means that if you’re applying for this kind of post now it is expected that you will know not only about the job, but also to have defined answers about why you want to do it and why you are suitable for the post.

For PhD positions doing your research is even more important. I want it to be clear on your application why you want to do this particular PhD. What is it that attracted you to the topic, what work have you already done in this area, what reading have you done to demonstrate your interest. The one thing that many candidates don’t come with to the interview that makes them stand out is what questions their research on the PhD so far has raised in their mind, what questions are they are interested in asking. Even during the interview I want to see the scientific curiosity that will make you a great scientist and separate you from your competition.

DON’T send me an application that is generic and hasn’t been personalised for the position. If you can’t put in the effort to research the post and personalise your application then I won’t put in the effort to interview you as it will feel like you’re not really that interested.

Obey the Rules

In every job advert there will be information and guidance about how to apply. You would be super surprised at how often applicants don’t pay attention to the guidelines. Now most of your scientific career will require you to apply for things, business cases, grant funding, conference attendance etc. If you can’t demonstrate the care and attention to detail when applying for the post it indicates that you may also not adhere to the guidance when applying for these other things, directly impacting your chances of success and career progression. I’m all for individualism and for thinking outside the box, but an application process is about enabling me to do a side by side comparison, which I cannot do if you side step what’s requested.

For NHS posts you need to be demonstrating in the personal statement section what is asked of you in the job description (JD), as this is what you will be scored against. If you don’t cover the points then you cannot get the marks required for short listing. Also pay attention to where you are expected to demonstrate the skills, knowledge etc. It will usually say whether it is on the application, or during the interview. If it stated during the interview and you are limited on words use them to tick the ‘demonstrate in the application’ boxes. Also use the ‘demonstrate in interview’ descriptions as a hint to what questions you are likely to be asked during the interview process.

For PhD posts make sure you send what you are requested, make sure that your cover letter contains the information requested in the advert and that your CV reinforces your key points.

DON’T send a CV to an NHS job application and miss stuff off your personal statement as I won’t look at it. If you’re applying for an academic post don’t just send a CV without providing the information specified in the advert as I won’t look at the CV if I consider your application incomplete.

Know Your Unique Selling Point (USP)

When I applied for my trainee clinical scientist post there were 240 applications for 4 positions. The scheme has only got more competitive since then and PhD positions can be equally if not more competitive. Although interview questions will vary across post types you will almost always get asked why you? Why do you want this post? Why are you suitable for this post? How will this post get you where you want to be? What is your 5 year plan?

It is therefore worth taking the time to think about what it is that will enable you to stand out from the competition and make sure that you have clearly stated it in your application. Are you applying for a PhD post and already have published papers, got a travel grant or partaken in science communication activity? Make sure that it is there and easy to see, as this will enable you to stand out from the field.

Are you applying for an STP post and have already done work experience in a clinical lab, worked with patients or have a lived experience that could help you? Make sure that this is clear as it will help during the short listing process.

Remember that for both PhD and STP positions they are effectively graduate training schemes. These are first steps in a career that will last a lifetime and so knowing where you want to go on that journey is important to both know and to communicate to your recruiters.

DON’T hide the things that could make you stand out. Think about what your USP is and make sure it is clear and easy to find. The person trawling through these applications is unlikely to have the time to read every line you write and so make sure you grip them in the first couple of paragraphs so that they will keep on reading.

Make It Easy

This year for the STP programme there are over 6000 applications to shortlist. I have had to go through over 150 applications for PhD programmes before now. I would like to say that I always have the time to give each application the time it is due, but the honest truth is that I am trying to make this work on top of a very busy clinical job. You’re application therefore needs to stand out and be really easy to process.

For NHS applications that means using the terminology used in the JD I am scoring you against, ideally using sub heading and bunching information together so I’m not searching for whether it is present in your personal statement. It also means that if it is key information I would include it in more than one section so I’m less likely to miss it.

For PhD applications it means being very explicit in your cover letter showing that you have: an interest in the topic, that you have researched linked to the work and why you want to undertake this specific PhD. It also means making the information in your CV related to the PhD proposal really easy to find. Don’t put down every technique in the world if only 25% of them are applicable to the topic you’re applying. List in detail the relevant ones and the group the rest and bring them up at interview if appropriate.

Put your USP up front and clear, put it a box, underline it, give it it’s own paragraph or sub-heading. Do something to make it easy to see when your application is being skim read.

DON’T send a 150 page CV containing every certificate you’ve ever achieved. I will just toss it on the no pile without reading it.

I want to wish everyone the best of luck in the posts you’re applying for now and in the future. Remember every job is different and you will obviously want to tailor some of these tips to whatever you are going for but my top tips are:

  • Personalise the application
  • Say who you are and why this is the post for you
  • Read the application notes carefully so you give the short listers what they are after
  • Make it easy for whoever is looking at what you submit by using techniques such as sub-heading so the information is easy to find
  • Become familiar with the people and organisations you are applying to so you can tailor what you are writing

All opinions on this blog are my own

My Best Science Comes from a Cup of Tea: My top tip for Healthcare Science Week

Welcome to Healthcare Science Week 2021! Depending on how I feel and how busy this week is I’m hoping to post a few times and to make up for not posting much recently as I’ve been unwell. Also, as I’ve been not well I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the importance tea has in my life. My husband is a sweet heart who makes me many a cup and it is my place of comfort and salvation when the world gets too much. It is also a place of reflection and helps me do my best thinking. So this post is devoted to one of my favourite things in the world and something that helps me be the best scientist I can be…………..a lovely cup of tea. (NB for me this is ideally a cup of Darjeeling or Lady Grey served black. You can I am sure substitute it with your favourite, or blasphemy, even exchange it for coffee).

Tea and Planning

Most of science is not actually in the doing, most of the best of science is actually in the planning. If you get that right then everything else will follow. If not you can spend a lot of money getting a lot of data that is in fact not much good to anyone and definitely doesn’t answer the questions you were asking. When I was starting out, and sometimes even now when a deadline overwhelms me, I thought it was better to be doing. To be in lab getting ‘somewhere’. Needless to say I spent a lot of time getting ‘somewhere’ but that wasn’t where I needed to end up. Tea cannot be drunk in the lab. Sometimes making a cup of tea therefore is a really good way to break the cycle of doing and force yourself to have time to step back and plan. It is one of the reasons I have exceptionally large cups as they give me the time to get into the right headspace and adjust my thinking before I reach the end. It also helps that I drink my tea black so that it also has cooling time. By the time I’ve cooled and finished my mind is usually in the place it needs to be and I’m in planning mode not panicked doing mode.

Tea and Networking

I believe it is no secret to anyone that reads this blog that I appreciate a piece of tea and cake. This is partly because I like to host as it gives me a structured way to talk to other people. It is also because I believe that when we are sitting and eating/drinking with other people it removes hierarchy, especially if that can be done outside of the usually work environment.

This next but may shock you, but I HATE networking. I’m pretty good in 1:1 situations where I know the other person, but I’m rubbish at faces and I’m even worse at remembering prior conversations. It’s definitely not the fault of the person I’m speaking too, it’s just my memory doesn’t work that way. My memory is super context specific. I therefore find the horror of speaking to people who know who I am, who I have spoken to before and me not remembering, one that I regularly encounter. I also hate networking as I actually have no small talk. I spend a LOT of my time working and my geeky hobbies are not ones that many people will engage with on first meeting and so I struggle. It’s one of the reasons I started on Twitter almost 20 years ago. Twitter meet ups at conference meant I had already done the small talk and we already had shared context and so I didn’t have that panic inducing moment where I tried to find something sensible to stay (NB this is still a top tip of mine if you’re starting out going to meetings).

Tea makes me relax. At conferences I can always talk about the food and the tea. It also means that I worry less if I’m talking to a Noble prize winner or someone of international renown. They need to eat and drink just like I do. Also, if you find someone hanging around the tea area with no one to talk to they are probably in the same boat as you and will be super relieved that you are the one that made the conversation opener so that they didn’t have to.

Tea and Sympathy

For all you amazing young scientists starting out please don’t take this one too much to heart, but use it a short cut to help your mental well being. Science is 80% failure. You will fail at grants, you will fail when you submit papers, you will have bad supervisor meetings and elevator pitches and most of all you will have failed experiments. Sometimes in the case of lab work these failures can go on for months or years and be super costly, both in terms of money but also in terms of your mental health. What you need to know now is that this is normal. The most amazing scientists you meet will have sat there in a puddle of tears with mountains of self doubts and fear that nothing would ever succeed again. No one ever sat me down and told me this. For a long time I felt I was alone in the failure. Then over time my colleagues became friends and we finely got to the point where we could voice our fears and disappointments. Only then did I realise that I wasn’t alone. That these failures were crucial points where I learnt and developed and that instead of fearing them I should embrace them.

So my advice now, for all those I supervise and support, is to spend time early developing a few key relationships. Then when you are experiencing the failures you too can have someone who will listen and tell you that it’s normal and support your mental wellbeing as well as helping you get back on track. You will also learn from being the person who supports others when it’s your time to pull out the tea, biscuits and box of tissues.

Tea and Reflection

Moving on from tea with others I wanted to reinforce the importance of tea with yourself. This touches on the Tea and Planning section above but is wider than that. As scientists with are often process driven and tend to be rather task orientated. That means we are great at getting things done but poor at working out why we are doing them. Working as a scientist these days is super complex. Not only are you dealing with regular failure, but you are dealing with complex political environments and career pathways that are anything but clear. When we fail to give ourselves time to reflect and check in with ourselves we can end up going down rabbit holes that don’t get us where we want to go. It also means that our relationships suffer. As you gain students, direct reports and more leadership responsibility it it really important to think about why certain conversations went the way they did. To reflect on things like your leadership style and which situations it’s working in and which it isn’t. As trainees it’s worth taking time to think about why you didn’t get the supervision support you were looking for, did you pick a bad time, did you not manage to articulate what was needed etc. Only by working on ourselves can we really move forward, and this is the one thing we often don’t take the time to consciously do.

Tea and a Pep Talk

So you might say to me ‘what is the different between tea and a pep talk and tea and sympathy’. I would respond that they are actually very different things and both have their place. Tea and sympathy isn’t about trying to ‘fix’ things, it’s about centering yourself when things are going wrong and not feeling along. Tea and a pep talk is more like a coaching experience, It’s about someone giving you constructive support to help you navigate a challenge. It requires a bit of work from both parties in order to try and progress the issue and although it should also enable you to come out feeling better, it should also enable you to come out with a plan of action. You may not be needing a pep talk because you’re upset but because you have a barrier to traverse, a conversation to have, or a direct to pick. You may also want your pep talk to be from someone different to your tea and sympathy as it may be that you want to access knowledge or experience. It is often a conversation that is not so reliant on trust as your tea and sympathy chat may be and you will want to bear that in mind when picking who to have these conversations with. Having tea in these conversations often means you can change their location to outside the working environment (if needed) but also set them up to not be rushed and have the time needed to reach the destination required.

Tea and The Late Night Session

I’d like to say that I have this work life balance thing cracked, but I suspect that my family, friends and colleagues would say that probably isn’t the case. Even if I has I think there is no way of getting around the fact that if you work in science there are going to be some late nights. Sometimes that’s because you are doing a growth curve that is going going to take you 20 hours, sometimes it’s because you have a full working day and then need to do some work for a dissertation and sometimes it’s because of some form of urgent need that means you need to start something for a patient at 6 when you were due to leave at 5.

I used to try and just push through these sessions. I used to think that finishing as early as possible was the best way to balance it with everything else. What I learnt is that when I pushed through I made mistakes. I learnt that for me even when pushing to get things done I need to schedule short ‘walk away’ periods where I could have a cup if tea and move in order to think, especially if I was at work beyond 8 o’clock. Otherwise I made silly mistakes, For the sake of transparency sometimes these wake up ‘walk away’ sessions involved me dancing across the lab with tubes in hand to Lady Gaga, but mostly they involved a cup of tea and ideally a biscuit as I wouldn’t have eaten. My practice is to give myself a 5 minute break to make the tea, go back and do another 20 minutes whilst it cools and then to have a 15 minute zen moment whilst I drink it. I’m sure you will have your own method, but developing one with save you errors and stop you having to repeat these late night efforts.

Now, with this written I’m off to have a cup of tea. Remember my top tea related tips:

  • Find your tea and sympathy peer
  • Take time to reflect
  • Planning will save you time
  • Know how to push yourself and strategies to avoid mistakes
  • Don’t be afraid of networking but think how to make it work for you

All opinions on this blog are my own

I Passed my PhD 6 Years Ago This Week: What Tips do I Have for Those Who Are in the Process?

On my Facebook page, it popped up that I had passed my PhD viva 6 years ago this week. I undertook my PhD in a slightly unusual way, as I did it as part of the National Institute for Health Research Doctoral Fellowship scheme. This meant that I undertook a PhD 50% of the time as part of my day job in Infection Prevention and Control. It also meant that I didn’t start my PhD until I was 30 and, although I was linked to an academic department, I was not really embedded within one. I was pretty much in a team of one. This has its advantages but it also meant that I didn’t really have the peer support of being in a department with lots of PhD students. It also meant that it was hard to benchmark whether I was doing OK. For people who are also undertaking a PhD without lots of peer support, or are thinking of doing one, I thought I would use this blog post to talk about some of the things I wish I had known.

Project Manage Yourself

A PhD is the biggest single project that most people will ever manage on their own as a continuous piece of work. It feels like a huge undertaking and it can often feel overwhelming. Like any project, therefore, it benefits from being split into more manageably-sized chunks. This can feel difficult when you don’t yet have a feel for where you need to end up. It’s often helpful to think of it in three main themes and to set targets for each of them:

  • Project milestones i.e. literature review, initial data collection, key project themes.
  • Personal objectives i.e. developing communication skills, developing teaching skills, adapting to academic and scientific culture.
  • Professional objectives i.e. building networks, learning techniques.

Use these objectives and milestones to create a working document. Know that it is a working document and that everything will shift and change. This shouldn’t be a millstone: it should be something where you tick off the components you’ve achieved so that in the dark days, when you forget what progress you have made, you have something that reminds you of how far you have come. It can also be a really useful tool to help you re-focus when you have a lot of options or things available to you. Use it to prioritise and to decide whether your choices are moving you towards your goals.

Actively Manage Your Relationship with Your Supervisor

Not everyone has a great relationship with their supervisor: some people have supervisors who will take them for cake and a pick-me-up, others have a supervisor who they don’t see for months at a time or who may appear overly critical. Whatever your relationship with your supervisor, there are some things worth considering early on in your PhD:

  • Understand the context – Unfortunately for you, most PhD supervisors do not have supervision as their main job. In healthcare, this is mostly their clinical work; even in academia it’s often the need to apply for funding for their group and publications for their progression. If you can understand the drivers on your supervisor’s time then you will be better able to work with them.
  • Be clear about your needs – I would always advise developing a learning agreement with your supervisor very early on in your relationship/project. Everyone learns in different ways and your supervisor is not a mind reader. By developing a learning agreement, you and your supervisor can work out what works best for you both. Do you want regular contact, or does micromanagement drive you mad? What’s the best way to communicate? Email? Face to face? Phone? How often will you sit down and have a project review meeting? What information will they expect you to have? Do their aims for you align with your goals?
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Understand that a PhD is an apprenticeship in research: you don’t need all the answers. It may turn our that your supervisor may not be the best person to answer all of your questions, some of them may be too technical, or they may not be available enough to assist. Despite that, they should still be your first port of call and should be able to signpost you to assistance if they can’t provide it themselves.

Find Your Tribe and Learn to Speak their Language

The last bullet point brings me onto this point. For many many reasons you will need more than your supervisor to get you through a PhD. You may be like I was and pretty much alone, or you may be surrounded by other PhDs. Whatever your circumstances you will need to find support. You won’t be able to ask your supervisor every time you need to order lab books or where the pipette tips are stored – sadly, they are unlikely to know.

Getting out and attending lab meetings, or other teaching, can be a great way to not only meet people but also to develop the subject specific language you’ll need to succeed. If, like I was, you’re alone, then your funders will hopefully be able to signpost you to other people on similar schemes, and don’t forget about your postgraduate tutor (you should have one) who may be able to make connections for you across departments/buildings. If you are doing a PhD and are part of a professional group (or even if not), social media is often your friend. There are lots of good twitter accounts that can be a valuable source of information.

Do Your Homework

Every University has different processes and management expectations. It is worth understanding early on what these are and what you need to do about them. Is there an electronic log? How many lectures etc. outside of your PhD do you need to attend? What evidence do you need to collate? Do you need supervisors to sign off for specific things? My supervisors didn’t know any of these things and it proved crucial for me to not only be aware of them but to understand how to traverse them. This is especially true if you also have an external funder to satisfy and returns that are expected.

Take the time to learn your cultural norms and consider what authorship order is normal for the subject area. How often are you expected to present? How can you involve public engagement in your work? Are you expected to apply for further funding and to whom?

Learn Your Process

Not everyone works the same way. My amazing colleague, Melisa, will tell you that we often do our best work when just talking through ideas over lunch. This means that my lab book often has many serviettes stuck into it, waiting to be written up. Many people carry notebooks (Mel does) but, for me, this has just ended up the way it works: I can then write it up neatly and in a structured way – that additional process helps me.

Talking of lab books, make sure you have them and that you keep them. Have a structured way of recording information so that you make sure you have everything down and don’t miss crucial details which were blatantly obvious at the time. I can promise you that when you come to look at them three years down the line you will have no idea what that obvious information was. I also colour code mine for different types of work (viruses = purple headers, bacteria = green etc.) because it helps when you’re flicking through years of books towards the end.

It’s also worth knowing what your writing process involves. For a long time I beat myself up for not being able to get on and write straight away. I would berate myself for prevarication as I would tend to cook, run or even, god forbid, clean rather than start to type. Then, after about three days, I would sit down and I would write something like a paper in full. It took me forever to realise this was my process. I would spend time percolating things over, deciding my story, thinking about structure, even if I wasn’t specifically thinking I was processing in the back of my mind. It was all still work and made my writing more efficient and so I have learned to accept that writing is not JUST sitting in front of a computer screen. It’s everything that leads up to those words.

I also want to quickly note here that my process is not going to be the same as yours. You will find your own, but be aware of it and learn to be comfortable with it.

Finally, Give Yourself a Break

All projects are different, and not all subjects are the same. Although I talked earlier about benchmarking you really do need to bear this in mind. Use benchmarking to help you, not break you. You are on your own journey and it will be different from everyone else’s. Also be aware that there are some things that seem to happen to everyone, like the second year slump. No one told me about this and I struggled for ages thinking it was really abnormal. I finally confessed and was told that it happens to just about everyone. The second year slump is where you are far enough into your PhD to have a good feeling for where you need to end up and of the work involved, but you are too far from the end to have really started ticking off the achievement boxes and it all stills feels far away and overwhelming. The second year slump can happen at different times to different people, especially if you’re part-time, but this is just one example of knowing that this is a learning process and sometimes you just have to go with it.

All opinions in this blog are my own

Quality Control in Scientific Publishing: what is it actually like to review papers?

It’s Friday evening and because I’m so rock and roll, or, actually, because I’m so very far behind with jobs, I’m supposed to be spending this evening reviewing papers for four different journals. Confession: I’m actually watching The Craft and writing this instead. I’m hoping it will inspire me to get on with the task at hand.

PhD Comics = So true it’s painful

What is paper reviewing?

Manuscripts (scientific papers/articles) go through a process called ‘peer review’ as part of the publication process. It’s a key part of ensuring the quality of published work, which is then going to reach a much wider and, sometimes, ‘non expert’ audience.

My job as a reviewer is to do a few key things (from my position as a life scientist):

  • Help the editor ensure that the paper is ethical. For instance, I didn’t use animal models when other methods would be more suitable, or that clinical data was misused without permission.
  • Ensure that the paper is reproducible. Is there enough information in the methods that I could take them and try to reproduce the experiment to ensure that it works and can apply to other samples/data?
  • Confirm whether the work is novel and that it adds to the body of scientific work out there. This also means we attempt to identify plagiarism, but I would never claim to be able to know all of the literature out there to ensure this.
  • Respond to whether the work is of a suitable standard for publication. This is very open, but mainly means: is the question they’ve asked of the data the right one? is the experimental design able to answer the research question posed? is the literature and justification presented for interpretation appropriate? Have they correctly reported on the flaws and biases that are inevitably present in any piece of work?

What is the peer review process?

Once you submit a paper (see my post on Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers), your submission will be allocated to an editor. That editor will then select reviewers from (usually) a combination of the reviewers you’ve suggested when you submitted and the list of reviewers they have on file. One of the reasons it’s so important to choose a journal that matches what you’re submitting is that you want to make sure the reviewers they have on file are going to have the knowledge and expertise in your topic area.

Once the editor has picked their reviewers they will then email out an invitation to review to those scientists. Usually, at this point, the invitee can see the abstract and make a decision whether they have the knowledge and skills to be useful in undertaking the review. I get some truly random invites that I turn down linked to topics I know nothing about and so it is really important that as individuals we’re aware of the scope of our practice and don’t overstretch. Once the reviewer has accepted they then get access to the whole paper and a deadline for submitting their response, usually ~ 2 weeks.

When you submit your review you have to justify your responses and give specific feedback for the authors to address. There are four main categories of response:

  • Accept without revision
  • Accept with minor revisions
  • Accept with major revision (maybe able to request that the paper is re-reviewed as part of this)
  • Reject

Now this is where I have to fess up! I am great at the accepting the invite part. I am not as good at getting the job done because of my other work load. I am probably one of the reasons that your paper reviews take AGES to come back. Sorry about that.

What is it like to review papers and how do I start?

To be honest, I usually have a feel for how it’s going to play out from the abstract. This is why a well-written abstract is so crucial: it gives a really good idea about how the author is going to be able to present their chain of thought and to be succinct in what is a relatively short format of ~4000 words for most papers.

If the paper has good concepts but it needs extra data or re-writing to get there, I will usually take a fair amount of time to give a lot of comments. I know this sounds perverse. However, the more comments I give you, if I give major corrections, the more worthy I think your paper is. It takes time to give feedback and I don’t put in the energy if it doesn’t have merit.

I’m not a rejecter. I don’t often completely reject papers unless they are clinically unsafe. This sometimes happens when non-clinical researchers make clinical suggestions in terms of antibiotic use when they are not qualified to do so.

Two final things.

One – If I spend a lot of time giving a heap of comments to try and make the submission better and it comes back to me without any attempt being made at most of them, I will a) remember as not that much time will have passed and b) not be very happy that my time spent trying to make the work better has been ignored.

Two – Lots of people believe we are paid or get some benefit from reviewing papers. We don’t. We don’t even get a discount for submitting to the journals we review for. The benefit you get is learning and reflecting about what makes a good article and therefore how to make your own work better.

Right! I’d better get on with reviewing those papers now………………….

Top Tips:

  • Think carefully about who you suggest as reviewers.
  • Some submission pages have options to list people who you don’t want to review as they are competitors within your field. This isn’t such a big deal in my world but, if you’re doing pure research, it’s worth considering.
  • Take the opportunity to start reviewing papers early in your career. It will help you think about your own writing and will improve your submissions.
  • Don’t take reviewers’ comments personally – use the gin and tonic method described under Don’t Get Disheartened in my previous post. They are there to help you, so take the constructive and let the rest wash over you.
  • If you are a reviewer remember our job is to be constructive, try not to be ‘Reviewer Three’.

All blog opinions are my own

Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers – Is it as hard as it seems?

Before I start. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a published academic but I have fewer than 30 papers, not the 200+ some of my colleagues have. See my publications page if you’re interested. There are reasons for this. One, I’ve only had my PhD since 2015. But the main reason is that I’m not your traditional academic. I have a clinical post which is >50% of my time and so my work is about moving research from the research (academic) setting into clinical practice to improve patient care.

Why I Research

I still really clearly remember the stress that writing and submitting my first 1st author scientific paper caused me. It’s difficult to describe the transition from being a good student to being an academic. As students, we fear failure. I, like most academics, have never failed an exam and have what can only be called a visceral dread of what it would mean. You then move into a world where 80% of grants will be rejected and failure becomes part of everyday life. When I submitted my first paper, I hadn’t come to terms with that yet. I was still worried about what rejection would mean for me and how people see me. Now it’s just a fact of life.

Some misconceptions about publishing.

A lot of my friends mistakenly believe that scientists get paid for publishing their work. The opposite is true. If I want my work to reach the maximum number of people, I have to pay (usually several thousand pounds) for my article to be open access (i.e. free to access). Therefore, dissemination of your work can be really expensive and not necessarily reach the right people, as most clinicians and patients won’t be able to read articles requiring payment. It’s one of the reasons why science communication is key.

One of the other common beliefs is that the collection of data is most of the work in getting a scientific publication. This may be personal to me, but I have never found this to be the case. I always have way more data than I have time to publish; I currently have over 18 papers in draft, as I struggle to find solid blocks of writing time. This could be because I find the planning of experiments and data collection an adventure. The writing is stressful as I’m always trying to fit something that requires focus and blocks of time around a dozen other tasks. I often don’t have the mental space to enjoy it.

What about the publishing process?

There are some main stages to paper drafting and submission which are worth bearing in mind:

  • Journal and editor selection
  • Drafting
  • Co-author edits
  • Submission
  • Revision
  • Hopefully publication (if not, back to the beginning)

Many authors jump straight into drafting without really spending enough (or any) time on journal selection. Many PhD students don’t do this as they see their supervisors just jumping straight in. That’s normally because supervisors know a lot more about the publishing landscape and so already know the background.

Why is journal selection important?

Manuscript publishing is like any other form of publishing. You need to choose the right journal for your content. Every journal will have specific topic areas they are interested in. They will also have specific formats they will want you to follow in terms of length, numbers of figures and tables, as well as referencing style. If you start drafting without having an idea of where you are going to submit you will often not put the correct emphasis on your writing to get it into your journal of choice. You will also waste time you could spend on other things restructuring what you have already written.

Hint 1: Even title choice is linked to your journal of choice. Do they like long titles? Do they appreciate a witty title to draw readers in?

Hint 2: Go through similar articles to the one you are planning to write and look at the length of different sections in order to understand where the emphasis lies. Do they have a long methods section? Do they focus on discussion?

If you get the research right you will save yourself a tonne of time later on with re-writes and rejections.

What about co-authors?

It is obviously crucial to include your co-authors but I have also learnt that it can be helpful to pick the point at which you circulate to them. If you include everyone during drafting, you can end up with too many different points of view that mean you end up with a manuscript that is unclear or meandering. I’ve learnt to include a few key people, get it to a publishable stage and then circulate. Pick your key people carefully if you are working in a multidisciplinary team so that you get the benefit of their perspective, but don’t get too distracted from the agreed paper themes.

Finally. Don’t get disheartened.

Rejection is just part of the process. Papers will become stronger for revisions and contribute more, thus having more impact. Remember that the criticisms are of the manuscript. They are not criticisms of you. My method for dealing with reviews is to open the email and read the comments. I then close the email down, go and make a double gin and tonic and wait 48 hours before responding. The memory of the comments is never as bad as I thought and once you take the emotion out of it you can just crack on.

All opinions in this blog are my own