Tuesday 25 October 2022

Ethics committees shouldn't provide methodological reviews (IMHO)

I hesitate to write this blog in case I unleash a further torrent of strong opinions either way on Twitter, but I couldn’t resist. I won’t link to anyone’s tweets, as I don’t want to draw people into a conversation they don’t want to be further drawn into. Many of you will have seen a recent debate on Twitter about whether ethics committees (or IRBs) should include methodological reviews. In my opinion, they shouldn’t. Yes to improving methods and experiments, no to doing this through the pre-existing ethical review system.

Good methods aren’t an ethical issue (or aren't an ethical issue that is relevant to an ethics committee)

Why do ethics committees exist for research that is conducted on human participants (which I will focus on, as I am in a psychology department and the debate has largely centred on human research and psychology)? The answer is because psychology has a history of conducting experiments that have done actual harm to participants. The classic examples are the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s experiments on obedience. We have a clear moral and legal obligation to ensure the safety of our human participants. We need to ensure that they suffer no harm during the experiment, that they are able to consent in an informed manner, and that we have clear plans in place in relation to holding their data. We also have an obligation to ensure our research doesn’t inadvertently affect non-participants, for example when conducting research into specific groups that could lead to discrimination. Getting these things wrong could cause genuine harm to our participants and wider community and having a formal committee that reviews this is critical.

The argument put forward is that running experiments with “bad methods” is unethical, therefore should be considered by the ethics committee. The question then becomes what is unethical about running a “bad” experiment? One possibility is that it is a waste of the participant’s time. I don’t think this is an ethical issue. If there is a clear statement in the information provided to the participant that they will not benefit in any way from participating (apart from remuneration for their time) then this would seem to cover this possibility. If the participant provides informed consent knowing this to be the case, this doesn’t seem like an issue to me.

Even if it was, we then have to ask what “wasting someone’s time” means. I’m sure I could find a few psychologists who think an experiment I design is theoretically important, but if I sampled 100 people on the high street and asked them if I was wasting someone’s time doing this experiment, they may well have a very different answer. Equally, I might design a very good experiment methodologically, but the question itself might be completely pointless (e.g., does the presence of a teddy bear increase the likelihood of someone choosing a Twix compared to a Mars bar?). There are no societal norms that provide a clear benchmark here.

The last point is that there are clear ethical and legal guidelines in place that allow ethics committees to set a clear bar for the acceptance or rejection of applications. Although plausible that this could be the case for methods reviews, the same structure does not currently exist. The likely scenario is then that the bar must be set so low that it becomes essentially meaningless.

Ethics committees would struggle to assess methods

Let’s say good methods are an ethical issue that warrants consideration by the ethics committee. How then would methods get reviewed? Presumably the committee would consist of a wide range of researchers and the individual with the most expertise in a given area would be assigned to assess the methods of that application. I think this could work in a department that isn’t too methodologically diverse. For example, in my department most researchers are in some sense “cognitive psychologists”, despite the fact that some of us study memory, some language, some social interactions, and some development. There is therefore a common underlying theoretical framework and range of methods that we all might be able to assess. Indeed, we do include (e.g.,) power analyses in our ethics applications and it isn’t too onerous (although I would argue it isn’t necessary).

In more methodologically diverse departments this won’t be the case. If you are the only quantitative researcher in a department of qualitative researchers (or vice versa) then there is not enough expertise to provide an informed review. This is an issue in some departments (regardless of whether methods are reviewed by ethics committees) – for example in relation to a lack of peer support and feedback from colleagues. The problem would be exacerbated if a formal (inadequate) review process was introduced and likely alienate colleagues further.

My other worry is that by claiming methods are an ethical issue, it has the potential to draw attention away from the real ethical issues that led to the formation of ethics committees in the first place. In an ideal world where everyone has lots of time, this might not be an issue, but if one committee member happens to pay a bit more attention to the methods review and less to the information provided to the participant prior to consent, this could cause problems.

Good intention, bad policy

At this point you might be thinking “but shouldn’t we be providing peer review and support to colleagues in relation to their experiments?”. The answer to this is a very big yes. However, (1) I don’t think this should be subsumed within an ethics application and (2) I don’t think it should be formalised to the extent that your experiment can be rejected. A good department should have multiple support structures in place to provide feedback on new experiments. This can be within-lab with lab meetings, across labs with departmental research groups/interest groups, within PhD tuition with thesis advisory panels, and ad hoc with peer-to-peer conversations. Many of us also get feedback on grant applications that includes detailed feedback on our proposed experiments. The best way to encourage a given researcher to improve their experiment is to ensure your research environment has multiple mechanisms in place to provide supportive, collaborative feedback. 

Perhaps this could be achieved through a formal ethics process (and it appears some institutions manage this relatively successfully), however it seems more difficult to achieve than through face-to-face, collaborative meetings that allow a rapid back and forth of feedback and response (instead of a binary pass/fail of an ethics committee) and where no researcher is given the power to reject your proposal if they don’t find it up to standard. Granting power to a specific individual needs to be carefully considered, with further structure in place to ensure that power isn’t abused (e.g., a senior colleague blocking a more junior colleague from conducting research because they don’t agree with their methodological approach). 

The general point here, which applies to several other issues in academia, is that the best way to improve research in your institution is to focus your efforts on creating a positive, diverse, collaborative research environment where people want to do their best research (and have the time and resources to achieve this). We can’t use small procedural tweaks to fix larger institutional problems.  

Acknowledgements: Thanks to three reviewers (who will remain anonymous) for providing feedback on an early draft of this blog. You know who you are.

Wednesday 19 October 2022

How to get PhD funding in the UK

It is that time of year again. The leaves are turning golden, red, and orange (or just brown), the nights are drawing in, and there is a chill in the air. Also, potential PhD students are emailing faculty members about applying for PhD positions.

The application and funding system in the UK is varied and complex. After going through the centralised UCAS system when applying for undergraduate courses, many students are left bewildered at exactly how to apply for a PhD and how to secure funding. Here is a brief guide for those applying in the UK.

Funding landscape

Broadly, there are three (well, four if you include self-funding, but I would try to avoid that if you can) ways to get funded in the UK: (1) an advertised funded PhD supported by a grant to the supervisor, (2) a centralised departmental/university studentship, and (3) a doctoral training programme (DTP) funded by one of the major UK funding bodies. Sometimes overseas tuition fees are covered, but often they are not. The lack of studentships available to international students, coupled with EU students now paying international fees, is depressing but a topic for another day.

The way you apply for each of these options will vary, and even if you are applying solely to DTPs, the application process will vary across DTPs. Faced with all this variety it is easy to get overwhelmed, trying to read different websites across different universities, some seemingly contradicting each other. What is a potential PhD student to do?

The first approach

The best way to avoid all this confusion is to take a step back from the funding mechanisms and think about what you want to study, where you want to study, and who you want to study with. You don’t need a clear proposal, but you should have a good idea of the general area, which departments are strong in this area, and who specifically does research in this area. Try to get to the point where you can identify an area and several potential researchers who could potentially supervise you. Once you have this information, you are ready to approach individual people.

I would start with emailing a select few people you really want to work with, preferably in October (now!) so there is plenty of time to apply. 2-4 potential supervisors should be sufficient at first, and if you don’t hear back from some you can always email others. You should try to research the people you approach – know exactly what research they do and preferably read a couple of recent papers. Make sure your research interests overlap with theirs. They don’t have to exactly, but they should overlap enough, and you should be able to clearly state where this overlap lies.

Your email doesn’t want to be a long essay, but nor should be it a couple of sentences. I would start with a few sentences about your academic record (what you have studied, grades etc.), then a short statement about what your research interests are and what (general) topic you would like to pursue during your PhD. You should then make it clear how they fit with this – make it clear you know what they research and how your potential topics fits with this research. If you are relatively open to topic, I would still try to say what you would like to do (to show you have some ideas) but state you are also open to other projects. Finally, one or two sentences making it clear why you have emailed them (basically why you want to do a PhD at that department and with that supervisor) would be good. Attach your CV to this email.

The first meeting and beyond

Hopefully they will respond to you. It might be a simple “sorry, I’m not looking for new PhD students this year”, but it might be more positive. If it is, I would try to organise a Zoom meeting (or Teams meeting if you are a masochist) so you can meet them and vice versa. At this point you should be thinking about how well you connect with them – were you able to have an interesting conversation about potential projects, do they seem supportive, are they providing you with appropriate information and advice? The more you get a sense of whether you will be able to work with them for the next three years the better.

If all goes well, and you are both excited to apply for funding, this is the point when you need to think about the logistics of applying and potential funding mechanisms. Your potential supervisor should have a good idea of the funding landscape at their institution. There may be a single application, or you might have to apply for different funding programmes. If the latter, you should hopefully be able to write a single project proposal and then make small edits dependent on the specific application. Some DTPs don’t require a clear project proposal, and you don’t apply with the potential supervisor. This doesn’t negate approaching your potential supervisor first though. They should be able to offer support and advice on how to apply, increasing your chances of getting funded. In my opinion it is better to put more effort into fewer applications than applying for as many things as possible. This is particularly the case if you are writing different project proposals with different potential supervisors. If you have a strong CV, then it is the proposal and the input and feedback you get from your potential supervisor that will likely make the difference between getting funded and missing out.

General advice

Deciding what to study and who to pick as a supervisor is difficult. At some point it is a risk and you have to take a chance. However, two things are critical: (1) you have to like and be interested in the research topic and (2) you have to connect with your potential supervisor. In relation to the latter, this doesn’t mean you can joke around with them (if you can that is fine). It means you can talk openly with them about research and about your career. It means that you feel they would support you during your PhD and help you do the best science you can do. This might mean they challenge you and ask difficult questions at times. However, they should create an atmosphere where you feel you want to rise to those challenges and also feel comfortable simply saying "I don't know (yet...)". Having seen different models of supervision, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, I have learned to value a professional but supportive atmosphere over a purely “friendly” one. The latter can sometimes, though not always, cover over more toxic behaviour that isn’t immediately obvious. Think carefully about whether you think you as an individual will be provided with the support you need to become the best researcher you have the potential to be by the time you finish your PhD.

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Working part time

This is, by definition, a self-indulgent blogpost as it is about me. As of 1st October 2022, I will be working part time, changing from a five-day to four-day working week. Many people do this already, including many academics, so why bother writing about it? First, I want to discuss reasons for and against doing it, and why I eventually chose to switch. Second, I want to offer some potential advice based on lessons I have learnt in the process of switching.

Why go part time?

The obvious answer is to work less. Many people need to go part time because of non-work responsibilities – looking after children or supporting relatives. Some have second jobs or side-projects that they want or need to dedicate more time to. Some simply want time off. For me there was no single reason for the change. I have parenting commitments, so often need to leave work early to pick the children up from school, but both my children are at school now until 3.15pm (apart from in school holidays, which is a whole different problem and discussion about balancing parenting and work commitments during these times). I have some academically inclined ideas that are not part of my job but I would like to pursue. I would also like a bit of time away from work that doesn’t involve having to constantly think about whether the children are hungry, or bored, or over-excited, or late for some extra-curricular activity, even if it is one morning each week. The primary reason then is simply to have a bit of time that is not fully booked – whether that be work or parenting.

The pandemic led a lot of us to reconsider our work-life balance. Over a year ago I thought about going part time but decided that the best thing to do then was to put more effort into managing my time – saying no to things, realising when a specific job did not need 100% of my attention and effort etc. This helped make the decision this time around easier. I had gone through the process of cutting back as much as I could, and it had been largely successful, but I still wanted to change to four days a week. It made sense for me, at this point in my life and career, to try something different.

The positives are clear to me: less work, less stress, more time to think and reflect on both work and life. What about the negatives? The obvious one is money. This is a particular concern given the cost of living crisis that is only going to get worse in the short-to-medium term. I do not have an obvious answer to this. Finances will be stretched more than they were before, but my family is in a relatively fortunate position financially so we should be able to afford it. I appreciate I am lucky to be in this position, and many simply cannot afford to work part time. The second possible negative is perhaps the main reason many academics do not work part time: they are worried about still working a full time job but receiving less pay. This is partly why spending a year managing my time better persuaded me this was the correct decision. Ultimately though there is no reason why I should be guarding my time better on a part time vs a full time contract – we should all be guarding our time better regardless of our contracted hours. The third negative I have only just encountered is guilt. As the new academic year begins, I have less teaching than most of my colleagues and I cannot help feel some guilt about this. I feel less “in the trenches” than before. However, the stretched resources of most academic departments isn’t really my fault and I’m being paid less money, so I’ll learn to get over this. There are plenty of other positive and negative aspects to working part time, but each will differ dependent on the individual. My only conclusion here is that working part time is worth considering. Even if you decide not to, the process of thinking through the positives and negatives has the effect that working full time becomes more of an active choice than a default option.

Lessons learnt

Given I have just started working part time, I have no words of advice on how to ensure you keep your non-contracted hours work-free. I am sure this will be a challenge for me. It has taken a while to get to this point though, and it is worth considering what I did and whether that was sensible. As I have already said, I have been thinking about this for well over a year and took active steps to manage my time better before eventually committing. This is definitely worth doing, as if you can’t manage your time effectively then decreasing your contracted hours isn’t necessarily going to help. Think about what jobs you need to do, what jobs you want to do, and what jobs are not necessary and do not bring you joy. Every time you are offered a new “opportunity”, do not say yes straight away. I am now in the habit of immediately replying saying something like “this sounds interesting but I will need time to consider it. I will try to get back to you next week”. That gives me the breathing room to consider the costs and benefits and whether I really want to do it. If I am in any doubt, my default option is now to say no.

Once you have decided you want to work part time the next step is to make sure you know what jobs will be taken away from you. The good thing about academia is some of our responsibilities are very clear and concrete – a specific module, a set number of project students, a citizenship duty. Ideally, your department will have a clear workload model that shows which aspects of your job equate to the amount of time you are cutting. If not, things can be trickier, but it should still be reasonably clear what might equate to (eg.) 20% of your workload. There might be others in the department or wider university that you know who can offer advice on this. My advice is to think through 2-3 possible ways to cut your workload and decide which you would prefer.

When you feel you have a clear idea, approach your Head of Department and talk to them. You will likely need to explain (1) why you want to do this and (2) what you would like to cut from your current workload. Hopefully your Head of Department will be supportive of any choice you have made concerning reducing your contracted hours, however they do have a responsibility to balance workloads across the department with the limited resources they have available. This will almost inevitably lead to some degree of negotiation. The more prep you can do in advance of this, and the more options you have to suggest, the better. Personally, it took 2-3 meetings over a few weeks to arrive at a solution that we were both happy with. Do not immediately accept the first proposal that is presented to you, particularly if you are in a face-to-face meeting. Take your time and think clearly about whether it is a fair offer, preferably after the meeting. Think about possible changes to any proposal that would make it fairer and set these out in an email with your rationale, then set up another meeting for further discussion.

My final piece of advice is to be brave (that is a bit hyperbolic, it is only working part time after all). It took me a while to get to the point that I was willing to commit. I was not 100% sure it was the correct decision, and I am still not sure it is the correct decision. However, I did get to the point where I felt it was correct to try. I am sure there will be a time when I go back to full time work (sooner or later). I hope I can at least look back on this period of my life and appreciate the extra time I had. I also hope I use the time effectively, whatever that means.