Publish date: Nov 2017

The 2017 PhD Symposium was held in Newcastle Upon Tyne with 40 PhD delegates attending the one day event sponsored by the SSA. Delegates attended from the Netherlands, Ireland and throughout the UK. The day was a huge success, encouraging lively, active debate and the opportunity for students to network with their peers from a range of methodological disciplines and addiction specialties.

The day was structured around two plenary sessions (image above;  plenary 1 presenters)  and two break-out sessions, with 22 presentations given from students at all stages of their PhDs. For some, this was the first time they had the chance to present or even attend an external conference, giving them vital presentation experience and the space to develop their skills. The SSA PhD Symposium provided a friendly and supportive environment for students to disseminate their research and get constructive feedback on their work.

Most poignant was the breadth of addiction disciplines that delegates came from. For example Sarah Barrett (University of Bristol) presented on her PhD utilising laboratory work with rats to characterise the development of tolerance to rewarding (euphoric) effects of opioids. Utilising a completely different mixed methods approach,  Aisling O’ Connor (Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland) presented her work analysing the National Methadone Register in Ireland and conducting qualitative interviews to explore retention in opiate substitution treatment.                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Sarah Fox (Manchester Metropolitan University), an SSA PhD award holder, is using a purely qualitative approach,  and presented on the methodology she is using in her PhD “Listen” – Women’s experiences of substance use, domestic abuse and support’. She described her PhD journey of how she chose the most suitable research paradigm and associated methodology to examine her research aims. Sarah presented on the different types of qualitative approaches available to her, and why she finally chose Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as her analytical method. 

Something that really stood out from Sarah’s presentation (image left) was her description of some of the challenges that PhD students face as new, independent researchers, and how best to manage this process. Indeed, challenges faced by PhD students was a main theme of the conference overall. In particular, how students need a space to discuss the unique challenges faced when undertaking a PhD, especially because it can often be an isolating and lonely experience. Sophie Bekta (Brighton and Sussex Medical School), another SSA award holder,  dedicated part of her presentation on ‘Oxytocin improves interoceptive accuracy in heavy drinking’ to discussing some of the challenges she experienced such as feeling overwhelmed with work, feeling ‘stuck’  and critiquing her work along the way. Sophie highlights below some tips for dealing with these challenges.

Another theme that came up in both the PhD Symposium (and the main Conference itself) was how we use language to frame addiction, for example by the terminology we use to describe those with substance-use and addiction issues. There was lively discussion around which terms are the most helpful for service users, and those which are not. For example James Morris, Editor of Alcohol Policy UK presented on how the framing of problem drinking may have implications for recovery, particularly for harmful drinkers who don’t identify as being a ‘problematic drinkers’. As a BBC news article pointed out, should there be a word for ‘almost alcoholic’? James’s work is in its early stages and he is experimentally examining many of these important questions in his PhD.

For the first time, the PhD Symposium included an optional Qualitative Journal Club, facilitated by Dr Charlotte Tompkins from King’s College London. The Qualitative Journal Club is an SSA-supported initiative. Twelve PhD students attended the session and discussed a published qualitative research paper on why people frequently attend at Emergency Departments for alcohol-related reasons. A summary of their discussion can be found here.

On her experience of the Qualitative Journal Club, Sophia Chambers (Southampton University, image right) commented:

“Yeah [it was]  brilliant… it’s a shame I don’t have something like that where I am, so it was a really refreshing experience as I am in a medical department, where there is not much qualitative research. It was really nice to be somewhere where people understood what I was talking about. It was [also] really helpful having people from different professions or from different angles, for example we had two GPs and we all  had a very different stance on the findings...To be able to share the implications of the paper with  people from different disciplines is really helpful. Also just raising the profile of qualitative research, its quite re-assuring doing qualitative research myself that this is valuable and if it's done well it can have a real impact.”

Indeed the response from the Symposium was overwhelmingly positive, with the strongest feedback focusing on how it gave many students the opportunity to network with students from different disciplines and learn about new methodologies and addiction research. Also, as an early career researcher, it can be nerve wracking to speak or present to senior academics, and the conference provides a safe and friendly space in which to do this. As Daniel  Ransom (University of East London, image left) said:

"[Because] there was going to be so many PhD students here and you wouldn’t almost have to put on a brave face in front of high ranked academics, you could be yourself, other people can associate their research with yours, and everyone is comfortable and in the same boat"

And as Aisling O’ Connor (Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland) remarked (image right):

"I’m really glad I pushed myself to present….I’m really glad I challenged myself now because I think it’s really important to get used to presenting quickly and to get other people questioning your topic without being defensive about it."

The Symposium was followed by a delicious dinner at the hotel where delegates had the opportunity to network further and discuss the wealth of interesting topics raised during the day. The PhD Symposium is a free event sponsored by the SSA and will be (provisionally)  returning next year to The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Newcastle on the 7th November 2018. Don’t forget to sign up for an unmissable day! 

With thanks to all the delegates and the Symposium organisers, Jenny Scott, Paul Toner and Tom Freeman and our amazing Symposium volunteers (bottom from left: Sarah Barrett (University of Bristol), Rebecca MacDonald (King's College London), Sarah Fox (Manchester Metropolitan University),  Sophie Bekta (Brighton and Sussex Medical School), Sophia Chambers (Southampton University) and Laura Medina-Perucha (University of Bath).

 

The opinions expressed in this commentary reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the Society for the Study of Addiction.