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To Zoom, or not to Zoom…

Our June blog post comes from Professor Peter Jones of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge. Peter is a Trustee of Mental Health Research UK and sits on our Scientific Committee that awards our PhD Scholarships each year. Following on from our annual Scholars Day, Peter reflects on the day itself and also the way that zoom has changed the way that we live and work.

My Thursday April 27th was all about graduate students, with the highlight being the MHRUK Scholars’ Day. Late in the afternoon I met a prospective PhD candidate who wanted some advice on supervisors and where best they should best apply to achieve their ambitious. I don’t know how useful I was but said, as I always do, that it’s the combination of the educational relationship with the supervisor and the innate interest of the topic that really makes or breaks the experience – gut feeling comes into it. Rarely, some students need rescuing from either or both which is when the place has to step in – or step up.

But the day opened at the opposite end of the PhD process. At 08.30 am I was the external examiner in a final, oral examination, the ‘viva’ that looms large for all students once they have passed the milestone of submission. The candidate was a clinical psychiatrist-in-training who had spent the entire Covid-19 pandemic studying the physical health and premature mortality of people with bipolar disorder using detailed information available from routine electronic health records.

It’s a privilege but quite a lot of work being an external PhD examiner. Reading and getting under the skin of a thesis takes many hours, trying to embrace the thousands of hours work that have gone into it. You have the important but usually straightforward task of guarding the high standards of the university where the student has studied. The external examiner works with an internal examiner from that institution, sometimes with a third examiner and even a chair. This one had all those people together with the candidate, but it was an enjoyable conversation. The candidate defended their work with aplomb, accepted some critique and pushed back constructively on other questions. Findings about the relative safety of lithium treatment compared with antipsychotic drugs, despite lithium’s known cautions, have implications for practice – a golden nugget.

Next, on to the main event – the Scholars’ Day. This is all about the middle of the doctoral journey: reports from the engine room of scientific discovery and the opportunity to practice presentation and communication. The key to presentation: practice, practice, practice is well supported by MHRUK with ‘dry run’ sessions coordinated by Clair Chilvers and Vanessa Pinfold. The scholars appreciate it, and the beneficial effects were clear to see.

I was a little late arriving due to the exam (quite why I had this clash is another story…) but caught most of the first parallel session going on in Room 2. The presentations were excellent with great questions. The brilliant interview by scholar Alexandra Schmidt with Dr Juliana Onwumere from KCL, one of our Scientific Committee members, was a highlight. I won’t listen to Juliana in the same light again since she confided her original career intentions were to be a children’s TV presenter, something that’s surely behind her wonderful communication skills.

After the break I chaired one of the parallel sessions on schizophrenia research that I particularly enjoyed as this area has been so close to my own interests. The job of chair is quite simple – to begin the session on time, keep the speakers to time, and to end the session on time. What goes on beyond that is others’ business, but it can sometimes be tricky, occasionally but not always related to the eminence of the speaker! As in the morning session, the scholars and their supervisors who introduced them were superb. The supervisors piqued our interest, the scholars presented articulately with excellent slides, and all elicited some insightful questions sparking discussion that could have gone on beyond the allocated slot. All good signs of productive supervision and capable scholars with much to say and terrific enthusiasm for their work much of which has had to be achieved during the challenges of Covid. Even a pre-recorded talk went smoothly once some unexpected IT gremlins were dispatched. I was left proud of what MHRUK does, grateful to those who founded it and keep it fresh, and optimistic for the future of mental health research insofar as it rests in our Scholars’ hands. Most of all I realised how large is the charity’s debt to all those who support it in so many ways.

On that note, many supporters on the call contributed to the final, plenary discussion chaired by Mike Owen that soon drifted towards the thorny issue of whether next year’s Scholars’ Day should, once again, be a remote event or whether we should stick to zoom. Of course, we would all prefer to meet face-to-face and, for students I fear greatly that a life on Zoom has prevented many students from experiencing peer support and the important though informal learning that goes on between the formal aspects of meetings such as Scholars’ Day.

However, several supporters shared that they would have been unlikely to have been able to attend had travel been involved. The financial costs of a face-to-face meeting in terms of travel, venue and catering are considerable. We greatly benefited from having so many supervisors present – it is, after all, they who apply to the charity for the scholarships – and being involved in the discussion as well as supporting their students and seeing how they presented. Would a hybrid approach be possible? My view is that we really haven’t yet cracked hybrid meetings that often greatly disadvantage one group or another. Once people have good IT access (but that is never going to be everyone) remote meetings are a great leveller and, overall, help inclusivity at least within our community around MHRUK while saving money and, as important, carbon. For those who can’t make either format, remote meetings are easily recorded; indeed, I shall be watching the parallel presentations I was unable to catch. Perhaps we can find a way to give the Scholars the best of both worlds with at least one face-to-face meeting of some kind during their tenure as well as the Scholars’ Day – something for the Trustees to consider.

On a personal note, I’m not sure where the pendulum will settle on the Zoom (or MS Teams or other platform) debate. Having a diary that is neither one thing nor the other is confusing as I haven’t yet got back into the habit of factoring travel time between face-to-face meetings, but I have, at last, realised that not all Zoom meetings have to last 30 minutes or more – a couple of minutes is often enough to get business done so the awful days in the first lockdown where we spent eight or nine hours straight with back-to-back Zoom meetings are behind us. As I reflect on my particular 29th April, the PhD viva took place at teatime in Hong Kong, the Scholars’ Day was spread over the UK and the tyro student I saw shortly before I left the office was pre-breakfast in New York. It certainly wouldn’t have been as easy in the old days. Anyway, I’m looking forward to Scholars’ Day 2024, however it happens.

Peter Jones

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