Whilst working in the NHS I was bogged down by admin. It often felt that for every therapy session with a patient that there was at least a bucket load of admin to do. And by a bucket load I mean around 45 minutes minimum depending on the day and the task. A set of notes, a report, a phone call, scoring tests, registering someone on a computer system or ticking them off on the system, activity statistics and reports, signage to put up, reporting to kitchen staff…… phew even writing it down feels like a chore. Once you start multiplying this by 4 or 6 it becomes unmanageable.
I had a dream (or a delusional vision perhaps) that once I started my PhD admin would become a thing of the past. Now I realise how unrealistic that was. I wish I could go back in time and ask my past self:
“Past Anna, seriously when in life do we not have admin?”
I have admin: for my kids (two sets as I have two kids), my house, my bills, my parents, my husband, myself. Doctors appointments, dentist appointments, electricians to chase, birthday presents to buy, school trips to pay for (online as it’s all fancy like that now). So obviously PhD and research would include admin.
Whilst working in the NHS I often felt purposeless. I was entering the same patient data into multiple systems for data collections and comparisons I never saw. It often didn’t feel that it made a difference. Yet I might get a black mark against my name from some higher power if I didn’t do this particular data entry. In comparison PhD related admin feels under my control- purposeful and useful. I collect information and make phone calls, I write letters and complete forms all for the purpose of furthering the research. I am the master of my own admin. I am thus much more motivated to complete the required tasks.
These are my tops tips for keeping on top of my admin:
- Keep a to do list
- Put EVERYTHING on your to do list from sending specific emails, submitting expenses, making phone calls to writing journal articles
- Tick things off on your to do list daily (or twice daily)
- Add things to your to do list daily (write a brand new one every week)
- Keep your to do list with your diary- to see how these things will fit around your daily activities
- Deal with your emails systematically at the start of every day. Don’t leave them till later. Do it first thing (set the time aside to do it).
- Make phone calls before lunch- don’t think about the call, just make it.
- Prioritise people who gate keep your study- NHS ethics, R&D, SLT collaborators.
- Prioritise work that affects the start of your study- the sooner you do it, the sooner the study opens.
- Check your Gannt chart and your PhD minutes actions regularly (make sure you have minutes and actions and store them safely)
- Be happy and polite and occasionally apologise.
I have the absolute pleasure of officially introducing my committed and courageous NHS SLT collaborators to the BCPPA project. There are 8 SLTs working in the NHS to deliver the intervention I have developed to (hopefully) around 42 couples. The SLTs will be recruiting participants, consenting (and assessing capacity), completing pre-intervention measures AND potentially conducting 4 sessions of therapy with these participants.
Many of the collaborators have been on this journey with me from the very start. When I first considered applying for my NIHR fellowship I approached a couple of extremely experienced SLTs at the Dementia and Mental Health Clinical Excellence Network. I told them about the project and the fellowship and they enthusiastically agreed to participate. At this stage they simply signed up to my fellowship application – agreeing in principle to participate by put their names on the form. Since then I have met with these SLTs on a number of occasions to discuss the progress of the project and plan the timelines for involvement. They have stuck with the project through the trials of grant application, Ethics and R&D approval. They have reminded me of importance of why I am developing research for people with PPA. They have made me feel that I was able to promote the profession as a clinical researcher. They have stood behind me.
This week marks the end of the training sessions that I have been delivering across the 3 NHS trusts with these SLTs. It is a significant point on the project timeline. I have shared and advised the teams of SLT collaborators on how to identify potential participants (inclusion & exclusion criteria), consent these participants to participate in the project (using information sheets and consent forms I have designed), complete pre-intervention measures (quite a few including making videos argh) and conduct the therapy protocol. I spent rather a lot of time preparing for the training and if I am being honest I was worried about it. I realise now that this was not necessary. The SLT collaborators were excited to be involved. They immersed themselves in the practical tasks I assigned develop and really reminded me of how enthusiastic I feel about the project overall. It was a great tonic. I have had a chance to think about what really worked and here are a few tips and hints from the experience:
- Send out just a little bit of pre-training work in an email. It encourages people to think things through and come prepared with questions (but don’t send too much as this is also overwhelming with busy caseloads)
- Provide people with paper manuals/folders. People love to hold something in their hands!!! And have something to take away. Include flow charts and checklists that are practical and ready to go where possible. Make it simple and straight forward and accessible.
- Bring biscuits or cake for your attendees
- Encourage people to consider the project their own- use we (not I). They are in it with you and they own it too (this was a great tip from someone else)
- Invite them to tell you about their research experience and what they want to get out of this training early in the session – then you can try to ensure you do this (or explain why not). Do the same- make sure you tell them what the aim of the training is (learning objectives make things transparent)
- Invite them to ask you questions- and try to invite them to reflect and answer these questions with you. They are part of the research team, plus they will often answer their own questions meaning it feels very collaborative and they feel confident that they do know what they are doing.
- Be practical- don’t assume that doing an assessment is simple for an experienced therapist. It may be a new assessment and when else but here will they have a chance to practice and doing an assessment for the purposes of research is always different to doing something clinically.
- Be even more practical with technology – don’s assume therapist know how to use technology. And don’t assume they do. Go through the motions of using it in real time (e.g. I asked the SLTs to make a whole 10 minute video of themselves having a conversation) to iron out concerns and problems.
- Create opportunities to discuss tricky issues such as consent and capacity. It is always something that worries people. Go through case studies- invite case discussions. Provide flow charts and contact details.
- Create opportunities to discuss the differences between research and clinical work- the more they think about this the more they may see the difference. they may feel frustrated by some of the limitations of research but you need to find a way of reassuring and supporting people in this case.
I am in the first week of my third year of my PhD. This means I have completed half of my PhD and have half left to go. There are 3 other PhD students in my office in exactly the same boat. We have jointly agreed that our current anthem to support this period in our lives is:
Woah, we’re half way there
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer…
Yes, Bon Jovi. I dare you to not hum this song all day, or at least for part of the day.
On a serious note. I really am half way through my PhD. I had to check recently, my supervisor asked me to double check too, I feel like I have only just started my second year how can I possibly be in the third year. I feel slightly scared- only two years left to collect ALL my actual data (the last 2 years have been leading up to the start of my pilot study which I have only just started really ahhhhhh).
So in a panic I tried to find my Gantt chart. That good old Gantt chart that I created when I submitted my funding application to the NIHR, that I updated recently at my upgrade viva. Those 3 pages of Gantt chart seemed like a huge volume of things to do. The huge amount of training- tick. The overseas observations- tick. The PPI- tick. The first conference- tick. The first (tick), second (tick) stages (full of lots and lots of individual jobs) of developing my complex intervention to lead into the third stage (the pilot – which is where I am at now). The ‘starting on my thesis’- maybe not so ticky as the rest. The starting to work on publications – again ‘ticky’. But yes, it is on track, it’s coming along. Woah.
Now there have been so many people holding my hand, helping me learn what to do. My awesome supervisors- well I must say I am rather clutching onto my primary supervisors hand (still). I am clutching on so she can’t let go. I sound desperate as i write that. But really she is amazing. I can’t count the huge amount I have learnt from her, and the energy she has given me. And I feel just terrible that I can’t seem to absorb any proper grammatical rules or spelling (I was born in the 80s- well that is my excuse) but I know she’ll be there for the big and the small. My mentors and their unwavering enthusiasm keeps my head above water at all times. They are the ones who think of thinks outside of the box I have got myself into, they are much more objective and it is amazingly useful. My supergroup of PhD pals are another amazing source of support. They tolerate my blank looks when discussing statistics and try to help me when I forget how to print a page or format a document (they sigh and pat me on the head- poor woman to have been born back in the 80s).
But perhaps I am also feeling rather pleased. I have survived the first half of my PhD. I feel quite at home in my role. I went to a seminar in our department yesterday and I looked around the room and I thought two things: 1) I know lost of people in this room and they are all pretty cool, 2) I could stay here for a bit longer. Perhaps I would like to have a research career beyond my PhD. Perhaps I should start thinking about that and planning that. Perhaps I should look at the NIHR fellowship pathways again and just have a peek at what I might have to do next. Perhaps I should speak to my supervisor about how i continue along this path. Perhaps I could work a little bit clinically (because I actually do love doing speech and language therapy with people with PPA) and perhaps I could work a little bit academically (more research I must be losing it). Clinical researcher. It has rather a nice ring to it though.