Ethics: The bit they don’t tell you about!

So for those who haven’t ever submitted an NHS ethics application well phew… is a long old slog. Others of you who have – particularly if it was recently then you hear my pain. You may have read the summary of tips and hints I wrote. All I can think of is sharing as much of the experience as possible – I think I may need a virtual ethics emotional support group – for me!

My ethics application has felt like the bit of research people don’t talk about in advance perhaps similar to the parenting stuff people don’t like to talk about in advance either (eg the bit of pregnancy where I got super angry, the whole AWFUL embarrassing things children say in public and the stress of juggling school homework eurgh… I didn’t realise it would feel like MY homework).

Anyhow I am sharing my pain! Sure people said start the ethics application early- my supervisor, my funder and colleagues who had started their PhD ahead of me. So I did start earlier than I had intended- but now I realise I really should have started even earlier. It took forever! Tip no. 1: believe people when they say start early and then start as soon as humanly possible.

Then- don’t give up. It may feel like a test, or a torturous painstaking process to put you off research. However keep in the forefront of your mind that this is for the safety of you and your participants it really is. It is worth reading the horror stories of what previous (horribly unethical) researchers have done. This is why the process is there and it is for the good of the people. Tip no. 2: Remember it is for the good of the people.

Anyhow here I am 9 months later- see I told you it was like having a baby! Today I attended my research ethics committee meeting. The last hurdle- this group of 14 expert and lay committee members are the last hurdle to getting my ethics. So I went at my allotted time- 2.50pm and waited in an empty room until they were ready. And was then invited in for “questioning”. Tip no. 3: They are not mean, they are lovely and will give you helpful guidance and advice (Take in a notepad and pen to make notes- you will look attentive and interested in their feedback then, you also feel better clutching something!)

And the questions begin:
“This is a very interesting and worthwhile area of research”
(So lovely)
“Tell us a bit about it”
“Expand on this (consent)”
“Describe that process again (videoing)”
“Hmmm you may like to change this (images on a questionnaire and use of language on another questionnaire measure)”
“Great use of PPI”

Some frowning, mostly smiles I think!? Am I remembering this correctly? I may be delirious but I seem to have survived (just like giving birth). Tip no. 4: Remember your research is interesting and will be better for having as many eyes on it as possible.

Now I must wait a few more weeks (which seems an awfully long time!) for the final word….I will let you know what they say!

Endurance running and PhD upgrades.

I have to make a small confession, which I often do on my blog. I didn’t know I would have to do an ‘upgrade’ during my PhD until I was about 3 or 4 months into my PhD. So for those who don’t know- when you register for a PhD you are registered as doing a Masters of Philosophy. Around the end of the first year (or if your part time like me a little later) you must submit an upgrade report on your work to date and then attend a viva where you present your project and are asked questions about it. If the academics doing your upgrade feel you have done enough and you are online to achieve a standard of work adequate for a PhD you are ‘upgraded’. Consequently you are registered as a proper PhD student! Fantastic!

In the lead up to my upgrade I did my research- picking the brains of students in the years above, looking over their ridiculously clever reports and asking them about the types of questions they were asked. I wrote my report with lots of advice from my primary supervisor- who is an amazingly supportive person providing lots of really useful advice and helping me to refine my writing style. I think it is with her advice I am slowly starting to learn to write like an academic…maybe.

Yet this entire process reminds me of my marathon preparation process. I sought advice from magazines and other people who I knew who had run marathons – I collected a few training schedules and swotted up on appropriate diets. I even felt a few weeks prior to my event that I might be doing ok- I CAN run a marathon, I know what I am doing. No blisters or bonking for me. (FYI bonking is a technical term when you ‘hit the wall’  or you feel like you can’t go on).

Now, I sit in a lovely office full of lovely PhD students and of the 5 students doing their upgrades in my year I was the last. Ordinarily I am quite calm and collected in advance of a marathon or big interview. However being ‘the last’ meant I experienced and observed all the panic and paranoia that they all went through, in fact I found it was infectious. My worry started ramping up far too early. My husband always dreads my (normally brief) pre-marathon panic. It tends to go something like:

Me: “oh no why did we enter this marathon?”

Husband: “you wanted to”

Me: “But it is not a good idea- we are never going to make it, we are doomed, its going to fail…”

Husband: “sigh”


My pre-upgrade panic was similar BUT started much earlier and went something like:

Me: “why did I ever choose to do this PhD?”

Husband: “but just the other day you were saying you loved it”

Me: “but I am going to fail my upgrade, then everyone will know I don’t know anything and I am NOT cut out to be a PhD student”

Husband: “sigh”


My post marathon/upgrade conversations often seem just as silly (NB: I PASSED MY UPGRADE THIS MORNING YAY):

Me: “I passed”

Husband: “I told you so, well done”

Me: “no, you never said that! I didn’t know you thought I could do it”

Husband: “sigh”

And we all smile and breathe a happy sigh of relief….