The Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group blog

More about TARG

Recent Posts

Categories

Tags

Archives

Action for Brain Injury Week

By Eleanor Kennedy

It’s Action for Brain Injury Week this week (8th – 14th May), a campaign run by the non-profit brain injury association Headway.  This year the campaign is all about “A New Me”, giving a platform to survivors and their families to discuss how life-changing a brain injury can be. In honour of the campaign, I’m writing a summary about my PhD research on mild traumatic brain injury.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury to the head that results in an alteration in consciousness. My work focuses on mild TBI, which injury involves symptoms such as confusion/disorientation, loss of consciousness of less than 30 minutes and/or memory loss around the event that led to the injury.

I’m interested in how mild TBI in youth may be associated with later behaviour. Initially I conducted a systematic review of the literature and found that there was evidence for an association between childhood mild TBI and behaviours such as substance use, committing crimes and behavioural issues. However, this was based on a small number of studies and there were some limitations to be addressed.

A key issue was the use of appropriate control participants. In this kind of research, the behaviour of participants with mild TBI has been compared to that of participants with no injuries. These control participants are usually similar to the mild TBI group in terms of demographic factors such as age, gender and socioeconomic background. However, these similarities do not consider injury factors that could also have an impact on behaviour, for example pain, absence from school, and the trauma of having an injury. A second control group that includes participants with a non-head-related injury addresses this issue.

In my own research, I use data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Children and Adolescents (ALSPAC). This is a birth cohort that began in the early nineties when over 14, 000 pregnant women were recruited; biological, genetic, environmental and psychological information has been gathered on participating families ever since. Participants and their parents have answered questions relating to head injury and fractures at many time points across the children’s life time. It is possible to have a group with mild TBI, a group with broken bone history and a group with neither injury.

So far, we have explored the association between mild TBI from birth to age 16 years and risk behaviour at age 17 years. We found that participants with a mild TBI were more likely to use alcohol to a hazardous level than participants with a broken bone and participants with no injury. This is in line with previous research, and has important implications for recurrent TBI and recovery from TBI. Another finding was that participants with either a mild TBI or a broken bone were more likely to commit offences – suggesting that there may be common risk factors for acquiring an injury and criminal behaviour. For example, an individual who has the personality trait of sensation seeking could potentially be more likely to get into risky situations leading to injuries and to commit offences.

I recently presented these findings at the International Brain Injury Association’s 12th World Congress in New Orleans. At the conference, there was an exhibition of masks created as part of a project called ‘Unmasking Brain Injury’. Each mask was designed and decorated by a survivor of brain injury to share their experience; each mask was as unique as the individuals’ story. Projects that give a voice to people living with a brain injury, such as ‘A New Me’ campaign, are a reminder of the challenges that are faced when dealing with a brain injury. It’s a privilege to contribute research to this field and to listen to the voices of those experiencing it to promote awareness and compassion.

Teaming up to improve the Psychology PhD

by David Troy @DavidTroy79 and Jim Lumsden @jl9937

Human beings are social creatures; we evolved to work together. Our education system is built around this fact; and throughout school and university we encourage students to team up to solve problems, discuss concepts and answer questions. At the same time, as science advances into the 21st century, we find ourselves trying to answer increasingly difficult questions. These new problems cannot be effectively addressed by one person working alone, and academia and industry are increasingly embracing ‘Team Science’, with many articles ssbeing authored by large groups of individuals with a range of specialisms. As experts in disparate fields, these scientists combine their strengths to triangulate evidence and build robust theories. However, in our experience, the field of experimental psychology has yet to adapt to this model of working, and we suspect this has its root at the very beginning of a psychologist’s career: the solo nature of the psychology PhD. This final stage of training to be a scientist consists of a 3-4 year long solo project which, by its very nature, does not foster close collaboration between researchers. A PhD is a course in independent working – it might teach determination, motivation and self-confidence, but it does not teach teamwork. We believe this needs to change.

A new model:

We would like to see a new model of PhD, based on the kind of team environment found in the software development world. Under this model, a research group would be subdivided into several small teams of scientists, with perhaps 3 or 4 PhD students and a postdoc working very closely together. The group would be located in the same office and tackle research questions collaboratively. Overall supervision would come from multiple senior academics, but the post-doc would act as team-leader on a day-to-day basis. Other stakeholders such as clinicians, policy makers and industry-partners may be invited to work within the group to improve the translatability and relevance of the research.

The main purpose of a team-PhD would be to work towards publishable projects much like a conventional company works towards product release deassssdlines or software updates. However, this increased emphasis on publications should not come at the cost of rigour and integrity with the primary focus remaining the adequate training of the candidate in scientific best practice during their PhD. By pooling resources and effort, such a team would be able to tackle the questions addressed by a traditional PhD thesis in less time. Joint 1st authorships would be common, with each team member’s contribution made explicit, rather than recognised implicitly via authorship order. A common theme of research chosen by team members (with direction from the post-doc team leader and supervisors) would be apparent from the team’s output over several years, but the studies and directions chosen should not need to be as cohesive as a traditional PhD. Given that a PhD is supposed to be training there is currently far too much focus on producing a coherent output (the “narrative arc”), rather than developing essential skills (not intending to diminish the important skill of clear, concise scientific writing). We are scientists, not novelists, and should be free to move around various fields to where our skills are needed most.

Let’s imagine a typical working day: You’re busy handling the response letter to the reviewers of your team’s latest paper. Every now and again you turn around to ask your teammates “How should we handle this question? Should we run some extra analysis?”. Your colleague beside you is writing the protocol for your group’s next project. She’s writing in Google Docs, so any member of the team can chip in whenever they want to. The experiment is designed collaboratively, and you will collect the data together. When the data are in, two team members handle the analysis, while the others write the introduction and methods. The team leader allocates different roles on each project, so you’re always learning new skills, but never far from help. Each day starts with a 10-minute meeting, discussing the plan for the day and flagging up any new papers that people have read and any good ideas that have arisen in the last 24 hours.

We believe that working together in a small group would bring many benefits: individuals can read papers and report back summarised findings, they can discuss theories, bounce ideas off each other, cross-check analysis and spot mistakes. Together they can run larger samples, read more widely, attempt more complex analyses, discuss more deeply, and so on. This sort of introspection and group effort leads to rigour, improved quality control, and ultimately higher throughput. Working in a team in this way would be motivating, with more camaraderie and positive peer-pressure, compared to the current PhD experience. Expertise would be shared between team members with the end result being a team of researchers competent in essential scientific skills (e.g., programming, statistics, study design, etc.). A team-PhD would also help to combat the isolation so many postgraduate students feel.

In order to accommodate this change to the nature of the PhD, the existing application process, whereby the candidate prepares a research proposal describing their own project, would need to be replaced with a more general application in which the applicant describes their research skills, areas of interest and motivations for long-term study. Successful applicants would be added to the research team most in need of their skillset: if a team is already strong in statistical methods then perhaps a psychologist could add a new perspective, for example.

A change in the PhD structure would also require a change to the assessment process. It is often said that PhD theses ends up in university libraries, never to be read again. Given that PhDs are often publically funded, the time spent altering a publication to fit the narrative arc of a thesis would be better spent dedicated to science that can have tangible impact. University of Bristol, alongside other universities, offers an alternative, if rarely used, PhD by published work. In this format candidates do not submit a thesis, but rather must publish a series of “coherent” works, alongside a commentary on the general direction of their research, its scope and aims. Currently, it takes ~10 years to amass enough publications to qualify for this route; however, it is plausible to alter this to the timeframe of a normal PhD. This format of PhD is more likely to produce high quality scientific output, published in academic journals, rather than rotting on a library shelf. Additionally, a PhD-by-publication still requires an oral examination. This exam would be used to ensure that team-PhD candidates are still capable, independent scientists with a sound understanding of their field, even though the bulk of their research was conducted as part of a team.

The teaming up of researchers with different competencies working on publications may have unintended consequences. It may be difficult to find one person to adequately review such work as is currently the case in neurogenetics for example. A possible remedy would be to restructure the review process to include teams of reviewers, where each member of the team specialises in addressing one of the specialisms described in the paper.ssssssssss

So, how can we move from solo training to team-based training? We suggest it is possible to trial the addition of team science to the PhD process by mandating that new PhD candidates work in a team, as part of their 1st year of study. In recent years, the 1+3 year PhD has become more common, whereby candidates carry out solo mini-projects in their 1st year to acquire experience and training in disparate fields. This could be altered to incorporate close teamwork in the execution of these mini-projects. This would provide an opportunity to examine the everyday benefits and challenges of this new mode of working. This way, students would not be overly disadvantaged when emerging from their PhD into a world of academia still concentrated around the principal investigator model, as the majority of their training would still be focused on generating and implementing their own ideas and developing their own “brand” or intellectual identity as a scientist.

Conclusion

The current model of attaining a PhD in psychology is too focused on solo work. We argue that introducing a more collaborative and cohesive framework to the PhD would aid in the development of research skills and produce more well-rounded PhD graduates equipped to tackle complex research questions. We hope this blog post will spark debate about the suitability of current training for psychological research and generate further ideas on how it can be improved to produce researchers with the skillset necessary for science in the 21st century.

 

Photo credits:

  1. http://dk.hjernekraft.org/turnering/279/lillestrom/lag.aspx?id=5602
  2. https://fbs.admin.utah.edu/research-corner/2015/07/28/enhancing-the-effectiveness-of-team-science/
  3. http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/on-incomprehensibility-of-much.html

The European Tobacco Products Directive and the future of e-cigarettes in the UK

By Jasmine Khouja @Jasmine_Khouja

E-cigarettes have become a popular product among smokers and ex-smokers, and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) estimates that there are 2.6 million current users of e-cigarettes in the UK. As an alternative to tobacco smoking, research commissioned by Public Health England estimates that e-cigarettes are likely to be roughly 95% less harmful. The evidence supporting these popular and effective quitting aids suggests that e-cigarettes could be a powerful tool for harm reduction amongst current smokers but there is still uncertainty over the safety of e-cigarettes. Limited research concerning the effects of long-term use and the current lack of strict regulation of the products has fuelled this uncertainty but new regulations have been introduced into the pre-existing European Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) to rectify this. The updated TPD will come into force on 20th May 2016 with a transitional period allowed by the TPD. UK e-cigarettes and refill containers which are not in compliance with the TPD will be allowed to be released for sale on the UK market until 20th November 2016, but from 20th May 2017 all products sold to consumers will need to be fully compliant with the TPD. The alternative to following the regulations set by the TPD will be for e-cigarettes to gain a medical licence from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and be regulated as licenced medicinal products to be sold in the UK.

jaz blog

As I am about to commence a PhD investigating the reasons for e-cigarette use, I am interested in what the implications of the directive will be in the UK; will it encourage smokers to switch to e-cigarettes, consequently reducing harm to themselves and others, or will it result in a reduction of available products and cause an increase in relapses to smoking?

I have read the directive and listed some of the key changes that will happen and added my own thoughts on what may happen as a result.

  1. CHANGE: New e-cigarette products must be notified to the MHRA six months before their release to the public. E-cigarette companies will be charged £150 to notify MHRA of a new product and £80 for a modification to an existing product, and will then be charged £60 annually thereafter. POSSIBLE OUTCOMES: The MHRA should have more control over the products on the market and be able to prevent unsafe products entering the market but it may take longer for new products to become available to buy. Additionally, some existing products will be unavailable from 20th May 2017 if they do not to comply with the regulations by 20th November 2016.
  1. CHANGE: Under the TPD, e-liquids will only be allowed where the nicotine concentration does not exceed 20 mg of nicotine per ml of liquid. E-liquids containing more than 20 mg of nicotine per ml of liquid will have to gain a medical licence authorised by the MHRA. POSSIBLE OUTCOMES: People may reduce their doses of nicotine and reduce their addiction if their preferred dosage is no longer available. Fewer high dosage products may be available as gaining a medical licence is an expensive process (estimated between £87,000 and £266,000 annually over ten years for a single device). When current products with high dosages such as 36 mg of nicotine per ml of liquid become unavailable, people may use lower dosages such as 20 mg of nicotine per ml of liquid as a substitute and inhale twice as much vapour to get the same nicotine hit. Nicotine is not the only constituent of vapour though; there are low concentrations of other toxicants, so inhaling more vapour means inhaling more toxicants. Alternatively, current higher dosage users may relapse to tobacco smoking if they feel the lower dosages do not effectively deliver the nicotine hit they need.
  1. CHANGE: Products regulated under the TPD must provide information to the MHRA on the safety and contents of e-cigarette products (including ingredients, toxicants and emissions). Health warnings, instructions for use, information on addictiveness and toxicity must also appear on the packaging and accompanying information leaflet. POSSIBLE OUTCOMES: This should allow e-cigarette users to make informed choices. The notification fees mentioned above will include the storage of this information but the companies may have to bear extra costs in testing their products for the amount of toxicants and emissions produced. These tests will have to comply with the standards set in the TPD and by the MHRA which may prove too costly for smaller e-cigarette companies, forcing them to withdraw products from the market. This could leave the market open to the tobacco industry who generally have greater financial resources available to them. The tobacco industry have to also sustain the tobacco market; a consequence of this may be the deliberate placement of ineffective e-cigarette products on the market to encourage current smokers continue to smoke tobacco and ex-smokers using e-cigarettes relapse.
  1. CHANGE: E-cigarette products will be child-safe, will not break or leak during the refill process, and containers will not exceed 10 ml (refill cartridges will not exceed 2 ml). POSSIBLE OUTCOMES: This should prevent accidents involving children consuming dangerous levels of nicotine. Most changes will be made to newer devices, which require e-liquid refills. If these modifications aren’t made by 20th November 2016 the products will be removed from the market by 20th May 2017.
  1. CHANGE: Under the TPD, cross-border advertising will be banned, which includes in newspapers, radio and TV, but not on billboards and posters. Products will not be allowed to make smoking cessation or health claims. Advertising of products with a medicinal license will be allowed under “over the counter” medicine rules. POSSIBLE OUTCOMES: This should minimise the amount of e-cigarette advertising seen by those who should not use e-cigarettes such as children and non-smokers. However, only e-cigarette companies who can afford a medical licence will be able to advertise on TV and this could mislead people into thinking that these products are more effective than other products.

A possible outcome for many of these changes is the loss of products from the market because of non-compliance with the regulations. Although increased reassurance that e-cigarettes on the market meet certain quality standards may encourage new users, the removal of any e-cigarette product from the market will provide an opportunity for e-cigarette users to relapse to smoking; without their favourite brand or flavour, it may be easier for them to resume smoking again than to find a replacement that suits their needs and taste. This in turn could lead to increased levels of smoking, and therefore harms to both individuals and society as a whole. Additionally, high nicotine dosage e-cigarette users may be encouraged to inhale more vapour and therefore unnecessary amounts of other constituents. However, recent preliminary research findings from ASH UK suggest there are few high dosage users meaning that this should not affect many.

The withdrawal of products is likely to be determined by the cost of making products compliant. Tobacco companies generally have greater financial resources than e-cigarette companies, with the top companies making billions in profit each year, meaning they can afford to make the necessary changes to meet the new regulations. The few e-cigarette companies that are owned by tobacco companies mainly produce ‘cigalikes’ which are the least effective design of e-cigarettes and there is a higher chance of relapsing to smoking when using them compared to later-generation devices. Given that the tobacco-owned e-cigarette companies will probably have greater resources available to them, they could end up with a monopoly on the e-cigarette industry. In fact, this may already be happening; the first medically licensed e-cigarette is a ‘cigalike’ owned by British American Tobacco. This means British American Tobacco could own the only TV-advertised e-cigarette (until another company gains a licence). Consequently, smokers looking to try e-cigarettes may choose less effective devices because they are more widely advertised.

These changes may reassure the general public that the devices will be safe but may lead to many ex-smokers relapsing because they are forced to use e-cigarettes and e-liquids that do not meet their needs, all the while lining the pockets of the tobacco industry by allowing them a monopoly on higher nicotine dosage products. Of course, the possible outcomes stated here are speculative; research will need to be undertaken to evaluate the ongoing impact of the new guidelines.

Links

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/489981/TPD_Cons_Gov_Response.pdf).
  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/12079130/E-cigarettes-win-first-approval-as-a-medicine-opening-way-for-prescription-by-the-NHS.html
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/regulatory-fees-for-e-cigarettes
  4. http://ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_1011.pdf
  5. https://nicotinepolicy.net/documents/reports/Impacts%20of%20medicines%20regulation%20-%2020-09-2013.pdf

Photo Credits

http://ecigarettereviewed.com/ – Lindsay Fox

How I ended up on the other side of the world

By Sarah Griffiths

My New Year’s resolution this year was to get out of Bristol for a bit. I love living in Bristol and enjoy my PhD research, which is what brought me to the city in the first place. But the weather was pretty miserable in January and, after a year and a half, perhaps I was starting to take the place for granted. I decided that it would be a good time to look into some of the great opportunities there are to travel in academia.

I had heard that it was possible to get funding to visit a foreign university through the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) during your PhD. The WUN is an association of 16 universities around the world who have decided to cooperate to promote international research collaboration. I looked at the research that was being done at each of these universities to see if any fitted with my PhD topic and found Face Lab at the University of Western Australia. Face Lab, I learned, was doing some fascinating research on the nature of emotional expression coding in typical development and in autism. Perth also looked like a pretty fun place to spend some time so I decided to apply.

I got in touch with Professor Gill Rhodes who leads Face Lab and asked if she would have me for a visit for a few months and she kindly agreed. I then went ahead and filled in the application form. This involved writing a research proposal, including details of how the exchange would benefit the university and myself. Additionally I was to submit a CV and supporting statements from my supervisor and the Head of School in Bristol, and Gill at UWA. There are two calls for applications a year: one in February, which I went for, and one in November. A few months later I heard that my application had been accepted and I was going to be spending 3 months in Perth in the autumn!

Cycle path

I’ve now been in Perth for 2 weeks and I’m so glad that I decided to come. The people I have met both in the University and out have been incredibly friendly and helpful. I’ve found accommodation in a great area in a complex that has a pool (!) Everyday I get to cycle along the river to the university, looking out for dolphins that supposedly live there.

I’ve also found that working in a different lab has renewed my interest in research. A change of environment and the opportunity to discuss new ideas with experts you wouldn’t otherwise meet is a great remedy for any mid-PhD disenchantment. Here I’m working on a project about recognition of emotion in a crowd of faces. This is a topic that is complimentary to my PhD research but different enough to be new and exciting. I hope that when I return to Bristol I will bring back new ideas and fresh enthusiasm to my PhD, as well as a tan! I will let you know in 10 weeks time. In the meantime, if this has inspired you to take part in some “academic tourism” (as one other WUN funded visitor I met this week called it), the next deadline for the WUN researcher mobility funding is in 7th of November so get applying!

Sarah is a PhD student in TARG researching emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorder. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahGriff90 and see her academic profile on the University of Bristol website.

 

Welcome to the Real World

Dave Troy 

Taking laboratory studies into the ‘real world’ is every scientist’s nightmare. We love the lab – it’s where we feel safe, where we can control our world, our variables, our environment, and our interventions. However, lab studies can only tell us so much; eventually we need to know whether the findings from our lab studies apply in the real world. This is what the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group (TARG) has endeavored to do. Findings in our lab suggest that individuals drink beer slower from a straight-sided glass compared to a curved glass. As a first step towards testing this effect in the real world, we carried out a small feasibility study to investigate whether a large-scale study might be possible. We needed to find out what outcome measure we could use to measure alcohol consumption, whether pubs and customers would be willing to take part, and what the logistical challenges of running a study of this nature might be. With this in mind, we contacted the owner of Dawkin’s Ales. He was open to the prospect of stocking three of his pubs (The Portcullis, Clifton Village; The Victoria, Clifton; and the Green Man, Kingsdown) with differently shaped pint glasses over a couple of weekends, using monetary takings as a proxy measure of the amount of alcohol consumed. He was extremely supportive of the endeavor and we would like to thank him for all his help. He seemed to be genuinely interested in the outcome of the study and in science in general. The feasibility study was a success: we showed that this type of drinking rate study can be carried out in a pub environment. However, there were some teething problems. Variables such as the size of a dishwasher caused unforeseen complications. Only when you get into the real world, do you realise how unstandardised it is.

Green Man Pub, Kingsdown

Green Man Pub, Kingsdown

What we learned on our adventures in the real world is that communication is key. Cultivating good relationships with pub landlords and staff was vital to the success of the feasibility study. Naturalistic studies are unpredictable – nothing goes to plan. Good communication and rapport with stakeholders is vital and can assist in acquiring high quality data. Pub staff are also a great source of industry knowledge. We were educated on the extent of research by the drinks industry into the effect of different glass shapes on drinking behavior, which is extensive in their opinion. They were also full of ideas regarding what other experiments could be carried out. One of the landlords mentioned that people “drink with their eyes”, which piqued an interest in me about how our other senses may play a role in our drinking behaviour. Another comment was that people tend to drink more quickly when they are standing up. This hadn’t occurred to me before, but I was told that it has grabbed the attention of policy makers, who want to discourage ‘vertical drinking’ by demanding pub license holders supply more seating. Another topic that came up again and again is the use of “nucleated” beer glasses. These have marking at the bottom of beer glasses to promote the formation of bubbles, maintaining the head for longer. The importance attached to it by pub staff and customers suggests it might be an important factor in people’s drinking. All of these are ideas that we may take forward in our lab studies. Pub staff also made valuable suggestions on how to improve future pub studies. One landlady said that we should do it over a whole week to get a better picture of the cadence of an average drinking week.

Nucleation vs Non-nucleation

Nucleation vs Non-nucleation

On a personal level, I learned more as an experimenter helping with this study than in all my previous lab studies. Perhaps surprisingly, the attention to detail and organisation required is above the requirements of a lab study. The logistics involved are greater and an ability to think on your feet is essential. The real world is a challenging place to do research but the advantages are clear. The data collected reflects more natural behavior of participants and therefore your findings have greater relevance. Activity that would have otherwise have gone unnoticed can be observed. Qualitative data collected can inform future research. Another advantage is that you can interact with professionals who have their ear to the ground, which can lead to ideas for new studies. There are also some challenges. There is a greater probability that an external variable, not controlled for in your study, has influenced your findings. Natural environments lack the control of lab studies. It may be difficult to replicate a study when there are so many variables at play. Nevertheless, lab and naturalistic studies complement each other and there is a need for both in science. Advances in technology, such as tablet computers and smartphones, have made acquiring vast amounts of data in the ‘real world’ much easier. Researchers in TARG will continue to engage with the public in natural settings in the future and hopefully capture data that will inform people’s lifestyles and public health policy.

Across the Pond – Life as an International Postgraduate Student

Deciding to pursue your studies in a foreign country is both an exciting and scary prospect. During the spring of 2012 I made the decision to leave my family and friends behind in Canada and make my way across the ocean to the great unknown that was Bristol to pursue a PhD in Experimental Psychology. Despite never having visited the city, and not having anyone I knew waiting for me on the other side, I took the leap and boarded a plane to the next few years of my life. I haven’t looked back since.

park street

My first picture on Park Street

International students have become commonplace at universities worldwide among undergraduates and postgraduates alike . If you are one of many students considering studying abroad, you will be in good company no matter which university you choose to attend. International students tend to be active members of the student population and are especially eager to immerse themselves in all aspects of student life. Having left their old lives behind, international students coming to a new city and university are looking to make new friends and have new experiences. By attending events and visiting the Bristol International Student Centre (BISC) I quickly met many other postgraduates from around the world who I had the chance to discover the city with, and formed lasting friendships. Whether they are in your programme of study or not, or even doing a Masters or PhD, there are often many more similarities than differences between you, and you will be able to quickly establish your new circle of friends in your home away from home.

One thing that may take some time is adjusting to a new academic system, which may differ from what you are used to in your home country. While this is may be more relevant to taught postgraduates rather than research students, you may have to come to terms with it anyway for your own degree requirements or if you decide to teach or mark essays (more on that later). For instance, while a PhD in experimental psychology back home entails demanding modules and coursework while conducting research, the same degree is focused almost exclusively on research output in the UK. Also, many of my postgraduate friends who were studying for a taught Masters degree felt that there was a lot crammed into one year, as the same degree in many of their countries often last two years with the same amount of content. I certainly did not envy their exams and coursework! At Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology, PhD students who have not previously completed a Masters, like myself, are asked to attend the taught Masters lectures and have to complete a certain amount of coursework. I quite enjoyed attending these lectures and it was a nice refresher during the early months, as my PhD work was slowly starting to pick up. Like most postgraduate departments, you can expect to have colleagues from all walks of life, each with different backgrounds and usually studying quite different topics even within the same school. This only adds to your experience, as you learn from each other almost as often as you might your supervisors or your lecturers; having the luxury of all of the school’s PhD students working in the same building is invaluable. You are usually only a door away from the answer to most of your questions, and more often than not someone in your own office can answer it for you! I know that the university where I did my undergraduate degree did not have quite the same set-up, so I didn’t take the convenience of the PhD students’ office building (only across the street from our main department) for granted. While these types of things may not be at the top of your priority list when looking at foreign universities, they can have a serious impact on your quality of life as a student. Take every opportunity you can to gain insight from current students, as no one is in a better position to give you an idea of what you’ll be getting yourself into for the next few years of your life. I was lucky enough to contact a colleague with whom I share a supervisor who was not only kind enough to answer my questions but also showed me around and helped me get set up once I arrived in Bristol. While I can only speak to my experience in my own school, PhD students tend to be very kind and helpful; you only need to ask for it!

Our PhD student office building

Our PhD student office building

Of course, an important thing to consider when looking to study abroad is cost. Let’s face it, being an international student isn’t cheap. That being said, if you are coming from somewhere like the United States, you may be surprised to know that tuition isn’t much more than what you might pay at home. However, coming from Canada (where tuition fees are quite low) meant I would be taking on a significant increase in the cost of my schooling. While tallying the cost of tuition, rent and living expenses may be daunting, there are some important things to bear in mind. The first is funding. Even if you are deciding to study abroad, your country may very likely still have funding opportunities available to you. What you need to do is find them and apply as soon as possible. Something to bear in mind is that funding, if awarded, only begins several months after your application has been submitted, reviewed, and finally approved. And most likely they will not pay you retroactively for all the time that application was under review and this process can take up to almost one year in some cases. This means in an ideal situation you should try to apply for funding almost a full year before you expect to begin your studies. If this is not feasible, keep this in mind and start working on it almost as soon as you arrive. Acquiring funding will really help you breathe easier and not have to worry as much about keeping finances airtight. Of course, if you can’t get funding you will need to be a bit more proactive and find ways to earn money while you are studying. While being a postgraduate is already quite demanding in itself, with enough organisation and time-management you can balance it all and be successful. It just might take a bit more work. An excellent way to make some money while you are studying is to take on a research demonstrator or teaching assistant position. As a demonstrator in psychology, I attend the lab sessions for year 1 or year 2 statistics lectures and assist the students with completing the data collection, analysis and write up for their lab reports. I am also responsible for marking a group of lab reports and providing the students with feedback for future reports. This makes for a very attractive addition to your CV and is a great way to get some first-hand experience of what you might expect from a future faculty position. If you are even contemplating a career in academia in the future this is a great way to get a head start, and I would definitely recommend it. If demonstrating isn’t your thing, consider essay marking. This still gives you a small taste of the academic world and is often less time-demanding. Both these jobs are usually available in your department and also tend to pay pretty well. Another great place to look for jobs is in your university’s student union. There tend to be a lot of jobs with hours and pay rates that are really attractive to students, and as a postgraduate you are an attractive candidate who can hopefully market yourself well in an interview. I was lucky enough to nab a job involving sports with flexible hours and I really enjoy it. Finally, another great job opportunity is working as a senior resident or warden at a university hall. Rent or accommodation costs will represent one of your most significant expenses, and working as a senior resident can see your rent cut by as much as half. Depending on the hall, you may have different commitments or working hours but they tend to be quite reasonable and the savings are really worth it. These are only a couple of ways to make money or cut costs while you are studying and there are many more out there if you look for them. Although this should be a no-brainer, I will mention it here: take advantage of cheap or FREE activities, services and especially FOOD whenever the opportunity arises. These can be quite numerous, especially at the beginning of the academic year, so be sure not to miss out! While being an international student is far from cheap, remember that you are getting an invaluable experience at a new university in a new country. This is especially true if you are attending a prestigious university or working on a topic that you are very passionate about, because then you will never doubt your investment. And that is what your education is: an investment. Even if you decide to return home after your degree, you now have experiences that are likely to be radically different from the other people who may be applying for the same job as you. You have acquired more than just a degree while away from home and it’s important to remember that when you go to that job interview or write that next letter of intent.

hand_placing_coin_in_piggyban_450

International degree – A worthwhile investment

It is quite hard to summarise my experience as an international postgraduate student but so far the experience has been nothing less than positive. I do not take my situation for granted: I am studying a topic I am very interested and passionate about at a world-class university with excellent supervisors and the best colleagues I could ask for. If you decide to study abroad for the right reasons, namely to pursue a degree that interests you in a place that inspires you and not your dream shopping destination, you will not be disappointed. If you have questions about anything I covered in this blog post or anything that I didn’t, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have. In closing, if you are thinking about studying abroad, do not be afraid to make the leap. Your friends and family will still be there when you visit and will support you on this journey that will change your life forever. Open up to new experiences, new people, and learning new things about yourself and you will not regret your decision.

Michael Dalili is a 2nd year PhD student in TARG.