On Being an Academic Nurse

When I began my PhD I felt the need to be cautious about telling people that I was doing it. Luckily I worked with super supportive colleagues and they never made me feel like I was weird or not a “real” nurse because of my interest in research. In fact, many of them were more than willing to share their experience, wisdom, and insights with me when we worked together. I may not have 20 years of nursing experience but I am a hard worker and a caring nurse who is willing to help others and pull my share. I absolutely loved my time working in geriatric rehab as a staff nurse. There were times when I considered quitting the PhD and staying on there instead. I didn’t leave direct care nursing because I didn’t like it. I didn’t leave because I’m afraid of hard work. Or shift work. Or working holidays.

I’m not quite sure what people think academic nurses do but I honestly cannot remember the last time I took an entire 24 hours off from work. I think it was in May? In addition to teaching, research, and service requirements of most faculty, nursing faculty at many schools (mine included) also teach clinical nursing courses. This term I’m teaching second year students in the hospital which means not only 2-3 full shifts in the hospital every week but tons and tons of prep, organizing, evaluation, and follow-up with students. This is not like a lab where they are practicing on mannequins; they are working with real-life patients who are sick. They are interacting with nurses and physicians. Expectations and anxiety are high. I feel like a mother hen trying to protect them while at the same time give them learning opportunities and reasonable autonomy. Teaching clinical is rewarding in many ways but it is one of the most stressful things I have ever done.

I am also a course assistant for the nursing research course and need to prepare to teach a new-to-me course next semester. On top of this I have also been trying to establish my program of research, attend the meetings I need to go to, and get to a stack of article revisions and new submissions. I took a day trip to Ottawa for a conference between clinical days and it was awesome but also exhausting. Somehow I have managed to still spend quality time with my son, work out at least 3 times/week (although Thursday’s “workout” mostly involved staring blankly at the barbell trying to convince myself that it was workout time), and always have some (mostly) healthy food and clean laundry. It’s the small wins, right?

This is not the life I envisioned 11 months ago when I accepted this job. After working and going to school for a million years I thought it would finally be different. I thought I’d have time to have a life but the reality is that I am working constantly. I thought I’d love being closer to home but it’s not really close enough that I can see my family and friends very often. It’s not super helpful when I want to go do something either (“Hey, dad, can you drive 5 hours and babysit while I go to a movie?”).

It’s not all bad of course; I really love a lot of things about my job. I’m just not sure that I want my life to be my job. I realize that the transition to new job in a new province and a new city is a huge adjustment and that it will get easier as time goes on. My first term has been full of many wonderful things and a couple of not-so-awesome things. Highlights include the joy of seeing nursing students grow and learn, interacting with patients and their families and the staff on the unit, and being part of some inspiring research projects. The best thing of all has been looking at the stars with my son on those early mornings before clinical. In the quiet darkness before sunrise we get to share the awe and peace of the night sky together before the busyness of the day begins. These are the moments I cherish most.

 

 

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Working Out is Non-negotiable

We hear it all the time now that work-life balance is a struggle for pretty much everyone.  My new job is awesome but I am also starting to realize that there is absolutely just not enough time to do everything that I want to do…at least not all at once.

I am excited for everything ahead but also trying to pace myself!  This fall I am teaching a clinical course in chronic care for the second year nursing students which involves 2-3 8-hour shifts every week plus individual student meetings, feedback, prep, and evaluation. I’m also helping with the third-year nursing research course (no sweat).  I am also submitting a couple of grant applications, working on ongoing studies, and getting acquainted with fellow researchers at UNB who have shared interests.  Of course, this is all awesome and I don’t think I could have asked for a better person-job fit!

I am also mindful of taking care of myself and making sure that I get enough sleep and prioritize my workouts. For me that means getting up at 5am to workout in the basement and going to bed by 9 or 10pm at the latest.  Although I’ve decided not to compete in powerlifting until next Spring or Summer when my workload calms down, working out is non-negotiable for my physical and mental health.

I may not be breaking any records lately or “show-ready” for a fitness competition but lifting is an awesome stress-reliever and it’s one of the few things that I do just for me.  I aim to get in 4 days/week (shoulders; bench; squat; and deadlift focused days) and have also been working more on my mobility because sitting at a desk most of the time isn’t exactly good for that. I also bought a treadmill which has made a world of difference since I can’t exactly leave my 3-year old at home to go for a run (one-arm stroller running is hateful and I refuse to do it).

It is difficult to make fitness a priority when you have other things going on, when you’re tired all the time, and your budget is tight (groceries in NB are crazy expensive!), I of all people totally get it. However, if you don’t take care of yourself first, you can be limited in your ability to be there for those you love and be effective at work. These are the things I think about at 5am when I don’t want to get out of bed…and then I get up and get ‘er done (most of the time).

Acknowledgments

I have held off publication of my dissertation for a couple of years in order to submit my work to peer-reviewed journals but in the meantime, here are my acknowledgments. #sharingiscaring #feelinggrateful

 

This dissertation could not have happened without the help and support of many wonderful people.

Dr. Heather Laschinger, thank you for welcoming me into your research team and pushing me to keep moving the bar higher. Your mentorship and guidance has been instrumental to my success. Drs. Carol Wong, Joan Finegan, and Roberta Fida – thank you for sharing your expertise, thoughtful insights, and encouragement throughout my doctoral journey.  I have learned much from each of you and appreciate your time and energy over the last few years. Thank you!

My past supervisors and mentors Drs. Robert Petrella, Kevin Shoemaker, Jonathon Fowles, and Susan Markham-Starr– thank you for introducing me to research (and APA) and providing me with an excellent foundation for my PhD. Sincerest thanks to Dr. Gary Ness for sparking my interest in healthcare policy and encouraging me to dream big and choose a career I am passionate about. Professor Ann Dodge, thank you for teaching me some valuable life lessons – sometimes they take longer than expected. Scott Rausch, thank you for teaching me the importance of leading by example and learning to pick my battles. Bob Howell, thank you for introducing me to leadership theory in high school – at the time I didn’t realize how valuable and central this would be in my life.

I have also been fortunate to take courses with wonderful faculty members throughout my doctoral journey. A special thank you to Drs. Chris Higgins and Fernando Olivera at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Dr. Don Saklofske in the Psychology Department, and Drs. Carole Orchard, Carol Wong, Heather Laschinger, Sue Anthony, Mary-Anne Andrusyszyn, and Helene Berman from the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing. I am also grateful to my many professors at Acadia and Western in English, kinesiology, and nursing who have helped me better understand the human condition through literature, art, science, and movement.

A huge thank you to my friends and colleagues in SGS at Parkwood Hospital. You welcomed me with open arms and showed me the importance of positive relationships in the workplace. I loved working with you and you make me proud to be a nurse!

My fellow students and research lab friends, Ashley Grau, Lesley Smith, Christine Cullion-Hicks, Amanda Nosko, Michelle Pajot, Kevin Wood, Glen Gorman, Sheila Boamah, Karen Cziraki, Fatmah Fallatah, and Kathleen Leduc – thank you for sharing your intellectual energy, kindness, sweat, tears, and laughter.

My wonderful friends and housemates – Melissa Anderson, Ewa Choinska, Lyndsey Desjardins, Stephanie Fillmore, Laura Graham, Sarah MacEachern, Erin Marcotte, Kelly Moores, Kate Pearce, Katie Prowse, Michelle & Aric Rankin, Adrian Spencer, Dave Trask, Anita & Eva Wall, James Young, and the fine folks of 3A, Cutten House, and Tower – thank you for helping me remember to have fun and be a little more awesome. I am so lucky to have had you all join me on my epic university adventure. Thank you Morgan Hoffarth, Heidi Elliot, Kristy Clark, Mary MacKenzie & Mark Watling, Kathleen & Bob Leduc, Angela Arnold, and the wonderful staff at the YMCA for taking such good care of Liam. I really couldn’t have done it without you!

I am ever grateful for the ongoing unconditional love and support of my family. Thank you to my beautiful, joyful son, Liam, for keeping me balanced and bringing delight to each day. Thank you to my amazing parents, David and Shannon Read, for teaching me the value of hard work, what it means to have the heart of a champion, and cultivating my love of learning. My sisters, Meghan Todd and Ally Read, thank you for sharing your valuable insights on work and life, your positive energy, and your generous supply of coffee when I visit. A very special thank you to Nancy Read, and Chris, Ian, and Fiona Watling for helping make London my second home. Finally, thank you to my grandmother, Kay Read, for your endless love and support and many fine afternoons of laughter and canassda. I miss you.

Last but not least, thank you to my former teammates, coaches, and colleagues/friends from Amherst Regional High School, Camp Glenburn, the Cumberland YMCA, the Nova Scotia Lifeguard Service, the City of London, the Athletic Club, RNAO, Acadia Residence Life, and Acadia Athletics who have taught me invaluable lessons about leadership, teamwork, and positive relationships at work.
“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”  ― J.R.R. Tolkien

 

The Defense

On Monday morning I had my PhD Defense and it was completely wonderful!

For weeks beforehand I prepared diligently, trying to anticipate difficult questions my examiners might ask. I made an exam binder with my whole dissertation in it, Mplus output, copies of my survey booklet, key references, detailed notes that I made as I re-read my work, etc. What can I say, I like to be prepared.

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My super organized exam binder 🙂 

I finally chopped my presentation down to 30 minutes on Friday. I rehearsed it twice on Saturday, one last time on Sunday night (after an epic game of water gun capture the flag with my son). I went to bed on time and slept like a rock.

On Monday morning I was just the right amount of nervous and excited. My game plan was to enjoy the day; the day of my once-in-a-lifetime PhD defense. The hard work had already been done – the hours of endless reading and thinking, writing and rewriting…rewriting again…the data collection and many hours of data analysis….it was all done!  I was as ready as I could be.

The public presentation went well. I felt comfortable and confident and enjoyed sharing my work with everyone who came. About five minutes in, the computer shut down for updates but it broke the ice a bit and helped me relax. It also helped that the audience was full of friendly faces 🙂  After the presentation was over there were a few questions and some discussion.

Then I went to the exam room with the examiners for the “grilling session”. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when the first examiner opened with praise and compliments about my study, writing, and attention to conceptualizing social capital at different levels of analysis, etc. The whole exam is rather a blur but at that point, I knew I was going to be fine. Of course they asked me some challenging questions but overall it was an enjoyable discussion. I am also very hard on myself so it was really nice to hear such positive feedback about my work.

The defense made me realize that everything my committee had done to guide me and challenge me over the past few years had resulted in a solid dissertation study. More importantly, I have developed the knowledge and skills required to be an independent researcher and hold my own as I move on to my new role as an Assistant Professor.

I passed and had minor revisions to complete but the most difficult part was finalizing my acknowledgements section. How do you adequately say thank you to every single amazing person who’s been part of your journey?  The whole reason I became interested in workplace social capital (the topic of my dissertation) in the first place was because I found myself surrounded by caring, supportive colleagues, friends, and family as a single parent working on my PhD. Initially I wanted to look at something completely different – the link between leadership and the work environment and nurses’ physiological health outcomes (something I may do in the future).

My biggest lesson over the last few years, both first-hand, and through my research, is that social capital is tremendously valuable.  Not confined to the workplace, I know I could not have accomplished all that I have without the awesome people in my life. More importantly, social relationships make life meaningful and way more fun!  I am ever thankful for the special people who have been part of my life adventure thus far. Now that my PhD is complete, it feels like 10 million billion elephants are off my back and I am super excited for the new adventures ahead!

 

 

 

 

 

Sitting is the New Smoking…

sitting-is-killing-you

So apparently, sitting is the new smoking…and therefore, I am probably going to die.  Not really (I hope), but there has been a whole lot of attention to the “sitting epidemic” recently, highlighting how much time most of us spend sitting during a regular work day.  (Clearly, they have not spent any time with a staff nurse lately!).  The solution? A standing desk, of course.  Or a treadmill desk. Or taking frequent breaks. Making sure that you have an ergonomically designed work station….

On perhaps, we need to start asking different questions about how our work is designed. For example, in academe, we do spend a lot of time sitting at our computer working on all kinds of things from research grants to articles, powerpoints, data analysis, etc.  Some of this work is unavoidable I think but I also wonder if some of this time could be used more effectively. For example, do we really need to write 20 research articles using one dataset?  Do we really need another book chapter on such and such that a handful of people will read?  What if we publish one really strong paper and then talk to people about our ideas instead?  How much more fun (and time effective) is it to interview people, record a podcast, or share a conference presentation on YouTube?  Obviously, none of these things completely eliminates computer time but I am guessing that the impact of one really great Ted Talk is much broader and valuable than a research article buried in an academic journal that mostly only other researchers are going to read.  Unless of course, more research articles = more tenure points.

Sometimes collecting tenure points feels a bit like being Mario trying to get all the gold coins within reach (and apparently research activities that require copious sitting are as likely to kill you as sitting on your butt playing too many video games).

mario coins.jpg

So let’s assume that you just have to accept that your job requires some sitting.  What can you do to make it less bad?

  1. Take care of your body. Exercise. Eat nutrition food. Go easy-ish on the coffee (mostly). Get enough sleep.
  2. Plan ahead for the ebbs and flows of the school year. Midterms? Exam period? Research grant deadlines?  These are busy times, but they are not unexpected!  Get a calendar and plan ahead. I like to make extra healthy meals and stick them in the freezer to reduce cooking time. Having some exercise equipment in the basement is also really awesome for saving time when I am busy.  There have also been times when I have had to hire my babysitter to give me an extra morning or afternoon to do work on the weekend. (Fingers crossed that being a professor is more awesome than being a grad student working full time!).  Do I always get to do a full workout? No. But sometimes 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing 😉
  3. Be super organized. You can waste a lot of time trying to simply locate documents, references, and sort through different versions of things.  Having a logical way to organize files and name documents will save you a ton of time. I even get my students to name their documents in specific ways so that I don’t end up with 25 versions of “Assignment 1”.  Using a reference management software program is also a really great way to save time with citing and reference lists, especially when you need to use different referencing styles for different journals. No more wasted time seeking and downloading the same reference articles over and over!  Lastly, using tags and folders in your email inbox is another strategy that saves oodles of time. If you can use the same main categories as your main files on your computer, that is even better!  I like to use gmail and get all of my other emails forwarded to that one account.
  4. Be reasonable. Sometimes I struggle with this. (e.g. “Of course I can have a baby and do my PhD and publish and compete in powerlifting and work at the hospital and teach, etc. at the same time…).  I like to set big goals and have a tendency to say yes to everything but I have learned that this usually leads to burnout. A better strategy is to take on a few things that you can really focus on. Reading (and re-reading) the Power of Less  is a helpful place to start.  Academia seems to reward people who work hard and do a lot but I think another point to consider is that learning and teaching is exciting!  Research and teaching are (should be) both about learning new things and understanding more about the world around us, as well as sharing that knowledge and excitement about learning.  It is hard to say no when you are excited about learning and sharing ideas!   Is it reasonable to spend 20 hours a week preparing for a class you are teaching for the first time?  Maybe not if you are teaching 3 courses and have other things on your plate.
  5. Aim for excellence, rather than perfection. I don’t think there is such a thing as “perfect”. The pareto principle, or 80:20 rule comes in handy here too. It states that 80% of your outcomes/effects will come from 20% of your work. Do you really need to make 50 slides for a 10 minute presentation?  Or, would 10-12 slides, well-designed, be more captivating and effective in getting your point across?  How much time are you spending sitting, working on things that have little to no impact?  After all, sitting is the new smoking….

Grant Writing Success

In late November I was offered my dream job as an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick in the Faculty of Nursing (I enthusiastically accepted!).  I am getting ready to board the train on the tenure track and plunged right into writing my first CIHR grant as a PI. Not for the reasons you might think either. While I do understand that obtaining funding is valued as a performance outcome for faculty members, having money to do your research allows you to – wait for it – do your research 🙂  That being said, being awarded the money which allows you to accomplish valuable work is not the only reason to write a grant proposal and it is not the only measure of success (although, again, it is super helpful and makes it easier to do what you are trying to do).

So what else defines a successful grant application?  For me, success includes learning more about the research problems that I am interested in examining, learning more about what other researchers have done, and thinking about what we need to know and/or do to solve these problems (ultimately contributing to a healthier health care system and society I hope!). Building connections with other researchers, health care providers, and policy makers can also be a lot of fun!  Over the last few months I have been able to connect with others who share common interests and also have unique expertise and experience to bring to the project that I initiated. Regardless of whether or not we get funded for the project, we now have developed a plan, a budget, and have a good handle on what we want to accomplish through our research.

As a new kid on the block in New Brunswick it has also been really helpful for me to start meeting people and getting a better understanding of my new province. I grew up in Nova Scotia but each province has a different approach to health care delivery and my training and experience in nursing has been in Ontario in an urban centre which is quite different than Fredericton.  Making connections now will make it easier to fit in when I get there and I feel like it is a very welcoming place.

I do think our project is important and worth funding but I also recognize that there are limited funds and lots of great ideas worth funding.  It also depends on who ends up reviewing our application and the other projects that are being submitted.  At this point I’m not sure if you get “tenure points” for submitting applications that don’t get funded but it’s not like a straight-forward sport like track and field where there is a clear winner. Train hard, eat right, be the best, win, right?  Research grant competitions are more like artistic sports like figure skating and gymnastics where judges (reviewers) assess the relative value of competitors/applications and assess whether or not you will be able to successfully do the proposed research. Comparing research projects and teams that are qualitatively diverse makes it harder to decide which projects should be funded.approved

For these reasons, I think it is important to define success not just in terms of getting funded or not. As a novice PI, I am uncertain whether that will go in my favour or not.  After 4 degrees, 3 theses, and being able to balance all the demands of school, work, residence life, teaching, research, and being a single parent while also staying fit, I am 110% confident that I will be a good team leader and that we will be able to carry out the project as a team.  Of course, when you submit a research grant application you can’t put “single mom/time management ninja” or “worked 10 part-time jobs including running a residence hall while completing my undergrad” as part of your accomplishments/skills (and if you did, it would probably count against you).  Again, another reason why I think it is important to always do your best and see the process and the development of the proposal as an accomplishment and an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer and researcher.

Of course, if we do get the grant, it will be icing on the cake and I will be literally jumping for joy because we can start putting our research plan into action.  There is absolutely no denying that actually getting the grant is a successful outcome too!  And a very sweet one at that! However, if it is the only outcome that you focus on, I think that you miss out on a lot of other great things about writing research grants.

 

 

 

 

Lessons from my First Year of University Teaching

Last term I taught the 3rd year data analysis course for nursing students at Western.  Boy, was it a ton of work!  Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about how teaching and learning has changed since I first began university back in 2001.  Currently I am teaching a graduate-level course in post-positivist (quantitative) research methodology and that is a super fun!  I really enjoy in-depth intellectual discussions about research with a small group (18 students) rather than talking at 120 undergrads who don’t care about statistics at all and want the “right answer” (which isn’t always possible).

Here are the top lessons I learned about teaching so far (I am sure there are many more to come!)

1. I am a dinosaur.  I grew up going to the library, reading hard copy books, writing out essays on paper with a pencil, etc. Students these days have always had the internet at their fingertips and they will sit there and Google everything that you say like fact-checkers at a political debate. Take home message: I need to learn how to use technology to my advantage and not waste valuable time in class lecturing off of PowerPoint slides when I could be using more engaging activities during face-to-face time.

2. Students need structure more than I realized.  One of the assignments last term was to do a content analysis of transcripts from interviews or online forum discussions by patients with different conditions.  Rather than embrace the freedom of interpreting the data for themselves, many students were frustrated because there was no certain correct answer (like so many things in real life).  We gave them a reference for an article that told them step-by-step how to conduct a content analysis and about 1/3 of the class did not read it, resulting in them doing the assignment in a way that did not make sense. Somehow the fact that they did not read the article that they were explicitly told to read was my fault. Interesting.  Take home message: Repeat key instructions in class, post them on slides, etc. Give them explicit instructions.

3. TAs are like a box of chocolates. Seriously though, you never know what your TA will be like and they may not know the course material or mark assignments the way that you would like them to be marked.  They are also graduate students with their own coursework, lives, etc. so be realistic about expectations. Despite having good rubrics, the assignments that we had in the course were lengthy and complex which also made it challenging for the TAs. Also, students will blame you for delays in marking and mistakes on their rubrics, even if you make sure they know their TA does the marking.  Take home message: Design assignments that are staged so that they are easier to evaluate by someone with little content knowledge of your course.

4. PhDs do not prepare people to be awesome teachers.  I really thought that my experience teaching lifeguarding and first aid, personal training, and coaching basketball would make teaching easier but university teaching is very different.  It is kind of sad that students pay so much money for school and the quality of teaching is so varied.  I really like that tenure-track teaching positions are becoming more prevalent and that most schools are providing support for teaching.  I feel lucky to be able to gain some teaching experience and attend workshops and courses at Western’s Teaching Support Centre during my doctoral program. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to pop into a tenure-track job and try teaching for the first time while trying to apply for grants, publish articles, and commit to service.  This job is crazy.  Don’t get me wrong, it is what I want to do (and as an RN I know that I have lots of other options), but I am also not naive to the demands of the career path I am pursuing. Take home message: I need to devote more time to learning to be an effective teacher so I can have a successful transition into a tenure-track position.

Now to get back to working on that dissertation proposal!  (It is almost done and I am planning to defend in the Spring so that I can get started on data collection!).