Parliament’s best kept secret

I love tips, life hacks and shortcuts, and today I’ve got a corker to share with you:

ctrl + POST.

Except you can drop the ‘ctrl’.

Today I’m going to tell you about POST: Parliament’s best kept secret and one of the best shortcuts I’ve ever come across. So, if you can identify with any of the people below, then read on.


POST is where I worked this summer and where this blog began.

‘POST’ stands for the ‘Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’ and is an office that produces briefings for MPs and Peers on topics in science and technology. But not just any old briefings…

POST takes huge topics like Trends in Crime and Criminal Justice or The 100,000 Genomes Project and analyses, synthesises, digests and distills them. The key areas, main issues and policy implications are condensed into four sides of printed text. (POST is the office incarnation of what you get if you cross a ruminant with a blast furnace.)

This is the best bit, though: POST’s briefings are publicly available! Do I need to say anymore?! Here’s the link that will take you to an index of four-page synopses of loads of topics in science and technology of importance today.

Not convinced that you’ll get much insight in just four pages?

Well, let me tell you, a hell of a lot goes into the briefings that POST produces. In fact, having researched one myself this summer, which has been published today, I can tell you precisely what goes into them, or at least what went into mine…

What went into Sarah’s POSTnote:

  • 111 academic articles
  • 83  government and legal documents
  • 53 other documents
  • Contributions from more than 50 academics, industry specialists, civil servants and others
  • Correspondence from more than 400 emails
  • Information from enough telephone calls to cure a phobia of telephoning people

I’ve done some calculations and I reckon that, had I printed out all the documents I could have, it would have taken 2364 sheets of paper (ball park figure, obvs). According to Conservatree, that’s the equivalent of 1/3 of a tree or 4 metres of tree.

The ruminant blast furnace is always in action, and a new POSTnote comes out every couple of weeks. Whilst you, dear readers, are going about your day-to-day lives, POST staff and fellows are investigating, delving, probing, digesting and distilling the world of science and technology.

If POST were a cleaning product it would be Flash. Remember the tagline? That’s right:  does the hard work, so you don’t have to!

And that, dear friends, is why POST is Parliament’s best kept secret.

Oh, and here’s a big P.S. if ever there was one: here‘s the link to my POSTnote on Forensic Language Analysis, which is as exciting as it sounds! No need to tune into CSI: Crime Scene Investigation this week, you can learn about the real deal in POSTnote 509.


Seven ideas for getting your research heard in policy environments

Academic researchers, listen in:

Here are seven things you can do that will increase the likelihood of getting your research heard in policy environments. I worked them out during my fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology this summer.

For you visual folk l’ve distilled everything into an infographic (pdf here). If you want weblinks, you can get them below.


Get active

  1. Get on Twitter, follow the Commons and Lords Select Committees, look out for their calls for input, respond.
  2. Bookmark the webpage for open calls for evidence for Parliamentary Committee inquiries, check it regularly, contribute.
  3. Find out which government bodies are relevant to your research, find the contact details of someone in each of those bodies, ask if theirs (like some bodies) get input from working groups composed of academics and practitioners, ask what you have to do to get onto the working group, do it. Also tell them about you and your work.

And to facilitate getting noticed and heard

Get into shape

  1. Build your profile and increase your online presence (Twitter/ LinkedIn/ a blog)
  2. Look for opportunities to practise communicating your research in different ways and to non-academic audiences, take these opportunities e.g. in university: Three Minute Thesis; outside of university: public festivals; online: The Conversation.
  3. Build your network. Get relevant organisations, blogs and Twitter members on your radar. Keep up to date with what’s going on in your network. Look for opportunities to engage, therein strengthening the links in your network  and no doubt expanding it.

And finally

Get a grip

  1. Believe in yourself, your research and its worth. If you don’t then why would anyone else?

IMHO, one way to be more productive…

In My Humble Opinion productivity proceeds from positivity.

I’ll unpack this statement more in just a sec, but first, if you’re not as productive as you’d like to be, let me ask you this:

When was the last time you congratulated yourself for completing a task; be it cleaning the cooker, going for a run, or reading a journal article?

Can’t remember?

How about this:

When was the last time you beat yourself up for still not having done X or for not having done a good enough job of Y?

Maybe you can’t remember the answers to either of these questions. That doesn’t matter. But do pay attention to your self-talk in the hours and days ahead and see how you talk to yourself.

I’m willing to bet that you will find that, like me, you’re much quicker to beat yourself up than you are to praise yourself.

Am I right?

Well, I’ve been thinking about this, and I reckon that negative self-talk is a barrier to productivity. Because whilst we’re talking ourselves down and scolding ourselves, we’re focusing on all the things we’ve not done, we’re not actually getting anything done and we are putting ourselves in a negative mindspace.

Imagine the flipside of this though.

In my experience, when I’m more positive in my self-talk, acknowledging my achievements and praising myself for them, it focuses my attention on what I have achieved. And when I’m in this mindset I feel more positive, and that spurs me on to get more done and be more productive.

It’s a merry circle of productivity.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 15.05.59

So IMHO here’s one suggestion for being more productive:

Be more positive in your self-talk: be kind to yourself and praise yourself for every achievement no matter how big or small they are.

A lesson in conquering fear


A trip to the pool yesterday inspired me to share this story today.

Rewind five months…

“Forgive me for asking, but are you scared to put your head under the water, or something?” I looked over at the tattoo-covered bloke at the end of the lane next to mine in the pool.


“Only you’ve been going up and down with your head out of the water and it’s going to destroy your neck,” said Mr Tattoo.

I thought about it. No real way to argue myself out of it.

“Yes, I suppose I am. Or rather, I was as a kid, and I guess I’ve never addressed it.”

“You ought to,” said Mr Tattoo, repeating, “it’s going to destroy your neck. Why don’t you try with my goggles?”

Why didn’t I try with his goggles? Because the problem wasn’t just the underwater vision, it was the more significant issue of breathing without drowning in unintentionally-ingested water. Trying swimming with Mr Tattoo’s goggles would be unpleasant and humiliating, that was why not.

“No thank you” I said, mitigating it with “I should get some, though. Maybe I will next time I’m in town.”

“No, go on, try” said Mr Tattoo. And it became apparent at that moment that I didn’t have a choice.

So on went the goggles and off I set on a spluttery voyage of flailing arms and gasping breaths. The worst of it was I then had to make the return journey.

“Thanks,” I said, handing back the goggles after my two lengths were over.

“Do you want to keep swimming with them?” asked Tattoos. Had he not witnessed what had just happened?

“No thanks, but I will get some goggles. Thank you so much for the advice, and for lending me your goggles,” I said. I set off for a couple more lengths of backstroke, but fairly swiftly made my exit, feeling like a bit of a loser.

My interaction with Tattoos did get me thinking, though. I was doing a lot of swimming and was going to damage my neck. Perhaps things ought to change. You see, as a kid I’d absolutely hated wearing goggles; they never seemed to fit and they always seemed to leak. (Basically, I didn’t understand the principle of a vacuum). I carried my aversion to goggles into adulthood and, taking up swimming in my early twenties, contented myself with doing lengths and lengths of what I’ll call ‘heads-up frontcrawl.’

But Tattoos had a point. I decided it was time to woman up. So I went to the sports shop and got a pair. Next day, into the pool I got, on went the goggles, and off I set. It was a disaster. The breathing was just not happening. Where was my head supposed to go? When was I supposed to use my lungs? Not good. Then, horror of horror, Tattoos turned up in the neighbouring lane. What could I do? I pointed at my goggles, smiled and, so as to avoid having to engage in humiliating conversation, set off again.

As I set off, though, I realised that the goggles weren’t leaking and it was actually pretty nice being able to keep my eyes open!

I kept at it and, after a few visits to the pool, I had mastered breathing on my left side. A couple of months later, I’d mastered breathing on the right too. Now, five months on, I bomb up and down, eyes open, looking through my goggles, and breathe without even thinking. All thanks to Mr Tattoos.

The point I want to make is this: I’d held the fear of putting my head under water for so long that it was just the way things were for me; it was habit and, in fact, it had long ceased to be an actual fear.

What about you? Is there’s something you do a certain way simply because that’s just the way you’ve done it for a long time? What about things you think you can’t do because as a child you couldn’t and you were fearful? Like for example drawing, learning a foreign language, rollerblading, playing a musical instrument or running? Your childhood was a longtime ago. Why don’t you try probing at that thing? Maybe the fear has actually gone, and it’s now time to have another go!

Thanks to Brian Cantoni for his flickr picture!

Taming your inner procrastinator: how to start a task you’ve been dreading

I’ve been a procrastinator for as long as I can remember. Literally: I have a clear memory of my parents informing an eight year old me that the bedtime delay tactics I was employing were known as ‘procrastination’.

When it comes to procrastinating, I’m an expert.

But procrastination is a pain and it stops things from getting done and moving forward. And since I’m a great fan of both of these, I’ve had to find ways to tame my inner procrastinator, particularly when it comes to doing things I’m not looking forward to.

So, in this blog post I’m going to share three techniques I’ve found which help me with starting tasks I’m dreading. Hopefully they’ll help you too!

1) Zooming out

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to build up tasks that I am dreading: somehow I package them up as huge, scary, untacklable beasts. What’s more, the more I think about things I’m not looking forward to doing, the bigger I allow the ‘beast’ to get.

So, what I try to do is zoom out.

When you’re looking at the ground from an aeroplane, things seem considerably smaller. And for me the same applies with intimidating tasks. When I zoom out and get some perspective – get some context around ‘the task’ – it suddenly seems much smaller. Thinking about what’s come before, the hurdles and tasks that I’ve overcome which once seemed insurmountable (GCSE maths is a prime example), it makes the beast less intimidating.

If that’s not enough, zooming out and looking at where the task sits in the context of my whole life, usually helps me to shrink the beast. And when the beast is smaller, I feel way more positive about attempting to tackle it.

2) Psyching up

I’m guessing that most of you have at some point swum in cold water, so you’ll know what I mean when I describe the pre-plunge moment. That moment when you’re at the water’s edge, maybe you’ve even dipped your toes in: boy, it’s freezing, and if you want to go for a swim, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

If you’re anything like me, the only way to go from toe- to whole-body-submersion is by psyching yourself up for it. (“Come on Sarah, it is going to be painfully freezing for a few moments, but the agony will be fleeting; it will be over soon because it always is. Then you’ll be fine”.)

I’ve found that often the same applies with intimidating tasks: the hardest and worst part is starting the task. I’ve also found that the cold-water-plunge tactic helps me commence something I’m dreading.

So, what I do is psych myself up for the plunge.

I don’t try to pretend it won’t be painful; on the contrary, I allow myself to acknowledge that beginning the task is going to be painful and is going to be unpleasant but that this is the worst part, the pain will be short-lived, and afterwards I’ll feel so much better.

3) Looking around

I wonder if this final tactic is less obvious. I’ve had to ponder a bit harder to realise what’s going on, but I’m convinced I’m not the only one who procrastinates for this reason.

You know, sometimes the reason I procrastinate with a task I’m dreading is because I’m not confident about it: it’s going to be a shaky start and, most importantly, I don’t want everyone to see me working out how to do it. It’s a subtle and powerful psychological block, but it’s actually often unfounded and silly.

Why unfounded and silly? Well, how many people are looking at your computer screen when you open a new MSWord document to start something? It’s usually just you, right? And how many people are sat behind you watching you hit the backspace and delete buttons over and over until you get something you’re happier with? Still just you, yeah?

As I recently realised, the fact is, no one saw the first or second or even third draft of the section of thesis I had been procrastinating about doing. No one saw me hit delete or backspace, and no one saw me stumble, look things up, re-do things, play around with things until I’d got something I was at least part happy with.

There’s a reason why they are called P(ersonal) C(omputer)s.

If this resonates with you (perhaps you hadn’t realised that this was what was going on), then give yourself a logical talking to and, next time you’re procrastinating for this reason, try this:

Look around: no one is watching your shaky start! You’re free to find your way: proceed!

So, to reduce this advice to some Dizzee Rascal-style lyrics:



The secret (superhuman) skills of a PhD student


Eleanor Roosevelt famously compared women to tea bags, claiming you can’t tell how strong they are until you put them in hot water. I think perhaps something similar can be said for PhD students: you can’t tell the skills they’ve got until you stick them in a non-PhD related situation. My recent fellowship at POST was a prime example of one of these situations and, whilst there, I drew on skills I hadn’t realised I had. On reflection, I think they are skills that many of you have, though you might not have realised it. So in this post I’m going to list five of these desirable, transferable skills, which you could proudly put on your CV! I’m drawing comparisons with superhero powers because, well, because why wouldn’t you?

SUPERMAN’s x-ray vision

Like Superman, you don’t just look at the surface of things but beyond; you question and scrutinise and examine from every angle, trying to get right to the core of it.

In other words, you have excellent skills of analysis.

Prove it to yourself: try explaining some of your doctoral analysis to someone who’s not in your field. DON’T hold back on the jargon, the theory, the analysis, etc. Watch them get lost. Yes, you can scrutinise and pick things apart to the nth degree.

ROGUE’s powers of absorption

Like the Marvel hero, Rogue, you have an amazing ability to absorb (information) and, actually, like a supercomputer, you process vast amounts of data.

In other words, you can efficiently process and synthesise large amounts of information.

Prove it to yourself: this is an easy one: look at your working bibliography, your footnotes, your PhD notebooks, your folders and files. Now reflect on the fact that you have processed and are synthesising all of that. And that’s not to mention all of the sources you processed and filtered out.

BEAST’s flexibility

Like Beast, one of the founding members of the X-men, you are super flexible.

In other words, you are brilliant at adapting to different environments and situations.

Prove it to yourself: imagine a job where someone does the same thing in the same place day in, day out, day in, day out. Now think about your timetable. Chances are you work in more than one place (office, research centre, library, lab, home, coffee shop…); you can be working on a chapter, a paper, and something for your supervisor all at the same time; and you have to fit around your supervisors/ the interlibrary loans team/ teaching. That’s adaptation.

CATWOMAN’s toolkit

Like catwoman, you’ve got lots of tools in your toolkit when it comes to tackling something; you can approach things in more than one way.

In other words, you are a lateral thinker.

Prove it to yourself: think about all those times your supervisor asked you to try thinking about your research in a different way, then you went away and did it. Alternatively, think about those moments where you’ve come across something a bit left field, or from another discipline, and thought to yourself “oh! This could apply to my research in this way…” See?

FORGE’s ingenuity

Like the Marvel mutant, you have super intelligence.

In other words, you are an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable person, with a unique perspective on the world.

Prove it to yourself: obviously you’re intelligent, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing a PhD. But more than that, think about what you’ve been doing of late. You’ve been filling your mind for the past X number of years with information – some of which is in your thesis, lots of which is not. You are therefore richly and uniquely knowledgeable. Though you might not be using it right now, it’s all there in your brain. If you’re bored some time, try thinking about all the things you’ve processed and learnt since commencing your PhD. I’m betting it’s a long list or a big spider diagram that you don’t manage to finish.


Thinking about superheroes, I was reminded of something Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker (Spiderman). I’ve not fully thought through what it means to me yet, but I reckon it’s worth mulling over. In a society that often equates knowledge with power, this is what Uncle Ben says:

“With great power comes great responsibility”


(Yes, I did make a potato stamp for the occasion, and yes it was fun. Have a go!)