X Close

Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care Blog

Home

Menu

Archive for September, 2021

Developing educational leadership skills as an early career academic

guest blogger28 September 2021

By Megan Armstrong, on 24 September 2021

Dr Danielle Nimmons, GP and NIHR In-Practice Fellow

I am a GP, researcher and educationalist at UCL and I thought I would document some of the milestones in my early academic development. As part of my training I was fortunate to be awarded an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship (ACF), which has been an amazing opportunity to develop my research and teaching skills.

My research has included studies on frailty, dementia and Parkinson’s, for example conducting reviews. However, I knew at the start of my ACF that as well as research, I wanted to gain teaching experience and achieve outputs, such as accreditation as Fellow of the Higher Education Academy / HE Advance (FHEA). At UCL we are very fortunate to be encouraged to develop both research and educational skills. Below I outline the main teaching I was involved in, what I got out of it and suggestions/tips for others who may be interested in developing educational leadership skills as an early career academic.

Teaching experience at UCL

As a GP registrar in my 3rd year (ST3) I became a module lead for Preparation for Practice (PfP), part of the Year 4 MBBS programme. My roles included designing simulated patient cases for the students, direct teaching, supporting other GP tutors and administration staff, course evaluation and quality assurance. I also led the transition from face-to-face delivery to online as Covid hit, developing recorded (asynchronous) and live webinar (synchronous) material.

In my 4th year of training  (ST4) I decided to get experience of small group teaching in my GP practice as a Medicine in the Community (MIC) tutor, for two UCL medical students over the academic year. Students spent 10 days in my GP practice in total, and I got to see them improve clinically while I gained personal tutoring skills. Sessions included an interactive workshop on a disease /condition, formative assessment in the shape of MCQs, role play and patient interactions between students and my NHS patients who gave up their time to help.

What I got out of it

I love teaching and find it incredibly rewarding! The variety of teaching experiences helped break up my academic time and focus when working on different project. These experiences included:

  • Face to face teaching,
  • Online teaching,
  • Developing teaching material,
  • Evaluation teaching activities and
  • Quality assurance

These experiences also contributed to my successful fellowship applications and being awarded a UCL Excellence in Medical Education award (EMEA) (see here).

I was also fortunate to get some outputs, including presentations, awards and publications: Medical student mentoring programs: current insights and The UCL ‘Preparation for Practice’ teaching programme. 

Reflections

Balancing GP training (exams and completing my compulsory training portfolio), research and teaching can be challenging, at times I definitely felt like I was juggling many balls and just about managing not to drop any! The extra academic day in my 4th year helped but only because I taught less on the PfP programme, which gave me more time do practice based (MIC) teaching. Having boundaries and recognising when my plate was full also helped. For example, during my final GP (MRCGP) exams I tried not to do too much else.

Teaching was most enjoyable when I linked it to my research. This included selecting patients from under-represented groups for students to interact with in their GP teaching sessions, which complemented my clinical research project exploring how people from under-represented groups self-manage Parkinson’s disease. As my teaching was informed by the research I was doing, it also saved time when it came to lesson planning.

Finally, most of my academic time was during the pandemic and teaching not only helped me network with other academics within the department but also with hospital registrars doing acute medicine and acting as teaching fellows, academic pharmacists and academic clinicians from a range of specialties based at the medical school main campus.

Tips

Tips for other early career academics:

  1. Say ‘Yes’ to opportunities
  2. Recognise limitations; i.e., Time! It is impossible to do everything but you can make a real impact to programmes if you focus on a select few.
  3. Look for a variety of educational experiences. For example, online vs in person teaching, design teaching vs evaluation
  4. Try and get some outputs, e.g., presentations, higher education fellowships like the FHEA
  5. Link it to your research!
  6. Discuss with current ACFs and module leads to get an idea of what is best for you.

I would encourage all early career academics to gain teaching experience and hope this has inspired some to do so!

References

  1. Nimmons D, Hatter L, Davies N, Sampson EL, Walters K, Schrag A. Experiences of advance care planning in Parkinson’s disease and atypical parkinsonian disorders: a mixed methods systematic review. Eur J Neurol. 2020 Oct;27(10):1971-1987. doi: 10.1111/ene.14424. Epub 2020 Jul 30. PMID: 32603525.
  2. Nimmons D, Giny S, Rosenthal J. Medical student mentoring programs: current insights. Adv Med Educ Pract. 2019 Mar 4;10:113-123. doi: 10.2147/AMEP.S154974. PMID: 30881173; PMCID: PMC6404673.
  3. Nimmons D, Jones MM. The UCL ‘Preparation for Practice’ teaching programme. Med Educ. 2020 Nov;54(11):1077-1078. doi: 10.1111/medu.14326. Epub 2020 Sep 3. PMID: 32885435.

Starting a PhD in the wake of COVID-19: a survival guide for new students

guest blogger13 September 2021

Claire Grant, first year PhD student at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, provides tips for starting doctoral studies in unusual times.  

I found out that I’d been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) studentship to complete a PhD in Epidemiology and Public Health in March 2020. In the following months, the situation in the UK and around the world unfolded into what we now describe as “unprecedented” times, and the world has since changed. Completing a PhD in any time is known to be an overwhelming, challenging and sometimes stressful experience – but there are some unique challenges in the wake of COVID-19.

This blog post offers an insight into my personal experience of starting a PhD at UCL in 2020, with the aim of sharing some tips for navigating the specific challenges of home working and remote learning. It goes without saying that this list is by no means exhaustive, and that each student will face unique challenges and opportunities as they embark on their studies. This is simply a reflection of my past year and a message of hope to new starters.

1) Ask questions

Starting anything new can be daunting. Understanding how things work, making sense of departmental norms and university culture is difficult, especially when you are working from home. My advice is to ask questions from the start.

The reality is, there are many questions you will not know the answer to and a lot of these can be easily answered by friendly and knowledgeable staff/students at the university. Knowing who to ask for what will become clearer the more communication you have. Asking peers, supervisors and departmental staff for ‘best contacts’ to deal with concerns will help orientate you and your position in the university.

2) Create a good home working environment

If you are working from home, you will need the appropriate equipment and environment to do so. Funding bodies and even departmental funds might be able to support you to buy the software, equipment, and resources you need to work. I assumed that being a student meant that I wouldn’t be entitled to support – but this was not the case (see point 1 – ask questions).

From the beginning, try to create a working environment that is separate from your home life. This can be challenging, especially if you’re living in a place with limited space. If possible, try to work in a separate room to where you sleep, and if this is not possible, set-up a separate working station within the ro om. As tempting as it is to sit in bed all day, the environment you create to work in will impact on your motivation more than you might think.

That said, I will admit that in an effort to create my ‘ideal working from home environment’ earlier this year, I purchased a cheap computer desk from Facebook marketplace. The questionable instructions (see pictures) and my lack of craftsmanship mean that the unassembled planks of wood are still lying in my kitchen.

3) Network

A PhD is a solo venture, but nobody can complete it alone. In the absence of happen-chance meetings on campus, it is important to remember to opt-in to networking opportunities. Sign up to mailing lists on topics and methods that interest you. Email peers in your cohort and arrange Zoom coffee breaks. Download Twitter and follow accounts that relate to your work. Attend departmental seminars, and if you’re feeling brave, even ask questions! The more virtual rooms you enter – the more people and opportunities you will be exposed to.

Networking doesn’t just have to be PhD related. The Department of Epidemiology and Public Health did a great job at organising informal catch-up sessions for students over the past year, and the conversations were mainly structured around Netflix recommendations and lockdown recipes. The Students’ Union at UCL also have a wide range of clubs and societies for postgraduate students to get involved with. Building a social network of likeminded people with similar interests will help you find your place.

4) Set boundaries

               Your working day

Structure a day that suits your project and working style. Nobody is productive all day, yet we can feel guilty for taking breaks, particularly when working from home. I’ve learnt that a long lunchtime walk listening to a podcast (usually the Guardian’s Today in Focus) makes me feel brighter and more ready for the afternoon than if I eat lunch slumped over my laptop. If you’re required to do a lot of reading on your computer – make an active effort to schedule time away from your screen throughout the day. Your eyes and mind will thank you for the rest.

Being online makes us more accessible than ever. This is exciting as we can attend more events, seminars, and trainings than ever before. However, be realistic and thoughtful about how much you can do. For example, don’t try to complete other work tasks while attending online seminars or training. You wouldn’t do that in person. Allow yourself the same time and energy you would offline. This is much easier said than done.

Your personal life

Set boundaries with ‘PhD life’ and ‘regular life’ as you would any other job. Your research will be more important to you than it is to most people, and it might feel all consuming. It’s also likely that you’ve chosen a topic of particular interest to you, making it difficult to switch off. There’s always more work to do, more papers to read and more ideas to talk through. It can feel as though you should be doing something all the time. At the beginning, I found this difficult to manage.

I also found it strange not having the same sense of completing a task as I did when I submitted course work in previous taught courses. At undergraduate level, I remember the feeling of relief after sitting exams, knowing I’d be enjoying some well-deserved time off before being informed of a definitive result – ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. From my experience, this is not the case in a PhD. Feedback from supervisors usually leads to more work. Good project management will account for the much-needed breaks in this academic marathon. When you do take time off, try to detach completely. Let your supervisors know you won’t be available, turn off email notifications on your phone and wait until you return to reply to messages.

Importantly, life continues as you study. Make sure to carve out room for friends and family. Make time for hobbies and interests. A PhD is only one part of your identity.

5) Trust your abilities

You are probably already doing better than you’re giving yourself credit for. It takes time to get used to this new way of working and the beginning of such a mammoth task can feel daunting. Remember that every project is different, so try not to spend time comparing your progress to your peers. Your supervisors will help guide you and there are various UCL check-ins along the way to make sure you’re on track (such as Thesis Committee reviews).

One of the most common anxieties among new doctoral students is ‘imposter syndrome’ – the overwhelming feeling that you’re a fraud. Take note: you have started on a training programme and that is merited on the basis that you have the abilities required to succeed. Trust the process and know that everyone else is probably thinking the same about themselves.

6) Be flexible with your project

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, your project might have to be adapted or changed completely. You are not alone if this is the case. Over the past year many students have faced dilemmas with methodologies and research topics that are not easily modifiable to the world of online learning. Be open to potential alternatives and listen to the experiences of others in your field. There are many learnings from the past year which will be useful to consider when thinking of alternative approaches to your research.

7) Be kind

To yourself, to your peers, and to staff.

Students and staff at UCL have worked tirelessly to adapt to new ways of learning over the past 18-months. It has been a tough time for everyone, and we have all been impacted in some way. Try to acknowledge this and be compassionate to yourself and others. Remember that staff are also facing some of the same challenges as students and will appreciate your understanding.


Enjoy the journey & best of luck with your studies!