Year three: Beyond the comps

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For many graduate level courses the comprehensive examination (“comps”) is a pass/fail checkpoint in the program (often after mandatory coursework) that assesses knowledge and work done to date. Once passed, the student can progress to their research. Comps seem to be more common in US and Canadian higher education – and Wikipedia, that rigorous source of academic information, says that “preparing for comprehensive exams is normally both stressful and time consuming!”

Our EdD comps were last weekend and preparing for them was indeed stressful and time consuming.  We wrote a 7,500 word paper on our research ideas (and questions) to date, that included a literature review and (in some cases) details of our theoretical framework.  We had to present for 20 minutes on our paper and our work so far. A panel of six UBC professors (familiar to us from our classes) then asked us questions for 40 minutes – it was pretty much open season! I am happy to report that I did get a question on Foucault. In fact, I think I managed to dodge/deflect enough to insinuate that, yes, I was intimately familiar with his groundbreaking contribution to the history of western morality – the three-volume L’Histoire de la sexualité (in the original French of course) and it was, in fact, my regular bedtime reading.

We have been together as a cohort for 2 very long years, and we are pretty familiar with each other’s areas of interest. Some of us haven’t varied much from our original idea, and many others have taken a long and winding journey to settle on something that may not have even been a consideration back in 2015. Members of the group have changed jobs, had personal and professional crises and questioned why they are doing this in the first place! There has been crying, anger, hugging and lots and lots of reflection.  Some of us have supervisors, some have a committee, a few others are still exploring. Regardless of where we are it was a significant weekend for all of us and marked the last time we will be “officially” together as a cohort.

We’re currently waiting for our results; we may have to do some extra work on our submitted papers before we move on. Next hurdle is the proposal, after which we can finally be referred to as doctoral candidates.  After a few bad academic first dates I finally have a committee – consisting of a philosopher, a poet and a physician. I am particularly thrilled with this and I am in the process of writing a “….walks into a bar” joke so please forward any suggestions you have. They haven’t got together yet, that comes after the proposal is approved by my supervisor, but I hope that happens before the end of the summer.

So – year three begins tomorrow! It’s not an overstatement to say the last two years have been life-altering, but I think that was the point. I have gone from being acutely uncomfortable speaking up about LGBTQ issues to never shutting up about them and I can’t wait to get into the rich conversations with my participants and find out what it’s like for LGB radiation therapists working today. Stay tuned!

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Coming out: Reflections on UKRCO 2017

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So, last week I did a talk at UKRCO 2017 on “Coming Out in Healthcare”. The focus was on patients and healthcare professionals who are LGBTQ, and how we can normalise the coming out process. I had an amazing time at the conference, and met a lot of wonderful people I have so far only known on Twitter. While I was there my friend Rachel Harris gave me some wise doctoral advice – “don’t forget to write this up for your reflective portfolio”.  Not having one of those, I decided to blog it. I’ve been reading and writing (and presenting) on LGBTQ issues in healthcare for what seems forever (although realistically it can only be a year or so) – and overall had a good response. Often LGBTQ people will come up afterwards and tell me about their experiences in healthcare (some funny, some just WTAF). Many straight people will comment that it has “made them think” or the talk “opened their eyes” – which is also gratifying.  The UKRCO post-talk activity was definitely the most positive/funnest/most affirming so far.

The best part was afterwards (on Twitter as well as IRL) talking with a diverse group of people, gay, straight, differently gendered – medical imaging people, radiation therapists, managers and leaders . For example, I met a brilliant undergrad student who was volunteering at the conference and doing research on examining radiographers’ knowledge of care for trans patients. Her impetus was listening (as a first year) to how staff around her had talked about a trans woman who was being treated for prostate cancer. She wanted to change that conversation.  I think what struck me about all the interactions with LGBTQ colleagues were the things we have in common. Coming out stories were shared, some were easy – some painful to talk about even now. There was a lot of discussion about how we manage our identity at work, who knows, who doesn’t – who is cool with it and the inevitable horror stories of the times it didn’t go well (for us as well as for patients).  Most of us remembered patients who were LGBTQ that we clicked with – some of us wore rainbow lanyards, lapel pins or just gave off a strong gay vibe!  We talked about gender – and being gendered – and the difficulty of finding a sweet tailored suit (and not a cocktail dress) to rock up in for the inevitable conference gala dinner.  It was so great to be in the gay-zone and get that sense of support and affirmation – most importantly that my research is on the right track, the stuff I experienced at work hasn’t gone away, and that people are really receptive and keen to learn how to improve care for patients.

In my talk I used a clip from the fabulous Macmillan* “LGBTQ experiences of cancer care” video series where Lesley (a lesbian living with ovarian cancer) talks about her discomfort with knowing some of her nurses were lesbian but closeted. She says “it’s about equality really….” – she is out, why are they hiding that same thing from her? This prompted an interesting side discussion about “should LGBTQ staff HAVE to come out” – where I think (fairly obviously) the answer is “of course not”.  Issues ranged from legislative concerns (where we can’t discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation etc.) to colleagues saying “well, should I wear a badge that says I am a Christian, Muslim?” One person said that “it’s about being professional” (not talking about their sexual orientation at work) – which ties into a lot of the research that shows it’s often homo, not hetero-sexuality seen as “unprofessional”.

Next week is my comprehensive exam that will assess whether I am ready for candidacy and the research part of my EdD. This week has been a gift in terms of giving me insight into what it is like “out there” and validating my topic as one that is important, relevant and likely to make a change in practice.   Now onward!

*Macmillan have some really good resources, including the recent “Supporting LGBT people affected by cancer” article and the “No one overlooked- experiences of LGBT people affected by cancer” report

Serious indecency: Talking about LGB issues in a country where being gay is criminalised

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I took my very first research poster to my profession’s international association conference in 2001 (ISRRT). It happened to be in beautiful Barbados and the combination of rum punch, meeting other therapists interested in research and finding out just how much great work is happening in other countries was intoxicating! My wife and I made the poster together – I can’t remember how we decided who presented it but I do remember being proud to see our two names together on the top. It’s still listed on both of our CVs, along with the journal articles we have co-authored since.

We’ve always worked in the same field, our eyes first met across an electron cut out (a romantic location only radiation therapists would appreciate!). Our relationship at work has always been a bit of a balancing act – a kind of double-managing of the usual professional coming-out dilemma. In the 90s we weren’t eligible for joint medical coverage through our health insurance as a same-sex couple. When I took some time off after my father died (and needed dental work), we filed a human rights complaint that led to a swift exit from the workplace closet. As attitudes and legislation changed, we worried less about being fully who we are there, but there’s considerable evidence that even in progressive Canada many people still actively manage their sexual identity at work.

My research interest is LGB issues, specifically how/if radiation therapists deal with this. Is it an issue? How does it affect relationships with patients? What about LGB patients? I’ve done a few talks already in this area, just preliminary and broad findings from the literature along with some recent research about LGB patients and their experiences with healthcare. There is growing interest in doing a better job – we know there are fairly easy things we can improve, and we need better education across the board. This is true for many Western countries, the UK are well ahead of most of Canada and we all know about some of the issues the US LGB population are facing with Trump attempting to roll back many hard-won rights such as freedom from discrimination legislation.

But what about other countries? Mostly not so great. I logged onto Twitter this morning to see posts about the “Chechnya 100” – gay men imprisoned and possibly killed because of who they love. While gay rights progress in many parts of the world, there are still at least 74 countries that punish same-sex relationships with life imprisonment or even death. Many of these countries are in the Caribbean and one is Trinidad, where the next international association conference is being held. In that country “consensual intercourse between men is punishable by up to 25 years in prison, while “serious indecency” between women is punishable by 15 years in prison. In addition, an unenforced law calls for a prohibition on homosexuals entering Trinidad” (1).  Also not great.

While I was happy to see that the law that would prevent me from entering the country is unenforced (and to be honest I wasn’t planning on having any kind of sex – let alone the seriously indecent sort) this has given me significant pause. What would you do? Go anyway? Go and change your topic from “homosexuality” to something else? Not go as a protest? (To whom?) I talked to the ISRRT’s Public Relations Regional Coordinator for the Americas last week at our national conference and asked her about this. She has gay friends, she doesn’t think it is a big deal – and was unaware of the law. I imagine it wasn’t even on the radar when they picked the venue. But I think it is a big deal and I am aware of it. I just don’t know what to do!

Reference:

  1. Stewart, C. “Legal challenge confronts Trinidad’s anti-gay laws”. 76 Crimes

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A pause that isn’t a pause

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No EdD classes at the moment, a pause that seems like a briefly exhaled breath, a stretch between one state and the next. We finished our classwork last month. Eight courses (two electives), fifty plus assignments, group work, deadlines and learning a whole new world view and vocabulary. Our comprehensive exam is next month – we need to pass that to carry on to the research bit. For the last two years I have been looking at May on the calendar and thinking “ah, that is when things will slow down, that is when I can breathe again”. But May turns out to be like all the other months.

I am used to operating on full steam ahead mode – juggling the usual work plus family things. My job is full, there’s always more to do and quite a bit of travel. The other stuff is often what gets me through a rough patch at home or work – I write, mess about with Twitter and #MedRadJClub and usually have a few papers and collaborations on the go. I mostly love it – which makes me lucky – and a big part of my self-image is being able to do it all, be that person who can publish the paper, do that talk, find the solution at work and then make dinner at the end of the day and also run a nice house, plan vacations, stay hydrated and exercise regularly (OK, that last part was a bit of a stretch…) None of this is unusual, we are all doing it. But sometimes we wobble, and I wobbled hard last week.

Early April was the last class, getting the comps paper done, presenting our work to our peers – passing that final course. A family crisis followed. A week ago I had to do a presentation for a grant – relating to a project that is very dear to my heart and one that we had dedicated hundreds of hours to. We just needed money to try it out. This was the 4th or 5th kick at the can to find funding. My slides were short and to the point, I felt prepared and fairly confident (we were in the final group) and it just seemed like this was going to be the time. Well, it wasn’t, we didn’t get it and I was heartbroken!

The next day (a Saturday) I had a keynote talk at our provincial association on a topic which really interests me. I’d been reading about it in class and wanted to share the ideas with my professional peers. But it was a new concept, and a new talk, which (again) takes hours and hours of prep, rehearsal and adrenaline.  Since February I had taken to waking between 4 and 5 – then just getting up to work. It was the only time that was quiet, and the only time I could write (I am writing this now while the house is asleep – except for my cat who demands to be picked up!). You can do that for a while – and it helped me write my comps paper, prepare for my pitch and write my talk – but not forever.

So, Sunday I try and get out of bed and it won’t happen. My head is aching, I feel like a black cloud has descended. There’s work to do, kid’s baseball games to watch, a gym appointment, the grass needs cutting…. Sunday stuff.  But I can’t do it.  I lie there, until noon.  I imagine quitting my job, quitting the doctorate. I struggle to understand why all this stuff is in any way important.  The life of the family continues without me – doors slam, food is made, cups of tea appear at my bedside. I think “I can’t do this anymore, my brain is fried”. It was frightening, a glimpse into what can happen if the candle burning at both ends up setting the house on fire! I got up, eventually, and went to work again on Monday but with a sense that the line between OK and not OK is very, very thin. This week I am tentative, careful – taking breaks, making sure I stretch, drinking my chia smoothies. But it is not the same.  My feelings are close to the surface, my patience is limited, my cuticles are raw.

There’s a lot of research that shows doing a doctorate is a tough gig, and can affect your mental health. I expected that to be later, maybe next year – with my transcripts piled around me and feeling like I was getting nowhere. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.

Posting while female

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I love interacting online. My Twitter friends and colleagues have enriched my professional life and offered lots of opportunities for collaboration, research, lecture opportunities and general social banter. I have many “friends I haven’t met yet” that are a source of support for my writing and study, and whose work I follow with interest and admiration. Social media has widened my world and I am all the better for it.

I post as a radiation therapist, researcher, woman, mum and lesbian. I often talk about work, what I am doing, what other people are up to – and my posts and my interests reflect the intersection of all my identities.  Work can be tricky though. Usually when an organization dips its toes into the swirly maelstrom of social media it begins with risk management. Often this results in a policy or statement – and usually that statement is more a list of what not to do. Of course we need to protect patients’ privacy, and be professional about how we conduct ourselves online. Moaning about work on an open platform is probably not a good idea as it’s easy to figure out who is saying what about where (or whom). I find, though, that these kinds of guidelines often scare people – I’ve asked at work a couple of times if I can tweet about an interesting project (for example) and invariably the response is “we should check with the communications office”.  So it’s a balancing act between the personal and the professional – which is the subject of some research I am doing at the moment for my EdD. When we are at work we want to “be professional”. In healthcare this usually means adopting a neutral persona, not bringing our “private life” into the workplace and so on. But our (unstated, often unexamined) norm for “professional” is male – part of the long association of women with hearth and home, and men with work. This spills into all sorts of areas, obviously there’s a long history of gender occupational inequity where women (still) earn less than man in many cases, hold less senior management positions and still shoulder the majority of domestic (unpaid) work. None of this is news.

What is also fairly well known is the amount of hassle some women get online when they start to talk about these things and start pushing into territory traditionally occupied by men. Examples abound, including the horrendous abuse the Gamergate women endured and the ridiculous fuss made about the Ghostbusters remake and subsequent trolling of Leslie Jones. Social media has also been used to fight back – such as the fabulous #DistractinglySexy campaign by female scientists reacting to Tim Hunt’s unfortunate sexist remarks. It’s part of the risk of posting anything while female – and is more risky if the stakes are higher and you’re questioning long held gender norms.

Most of my online interactions are overwhelmingly positive. However a few are not. A few examples include a few nasty tweets after I posted something pretty innocuous with #EverydaySexism. One persistent guy bombarded me with information about “reverse sexism” and why men were oppressed by female-only spaces. He helpfully also sent me a couple of emails to follow up as I obviously didn’t understand how feminism worked. A few times people have demanded to know why I am making a fuss, as no one is directly oppressing me. If you are a feminist, it seems, you are in charge of the party manifesto and responsible for all actions taken since Simone de Beauvoir. It always amazes me how angry some of these men are. You can express all sorts of daft things online but once you start flirting with feminism you’re fair game. I posted a question on a closed professional FB group yesterday – asking about gender mix in a (technical) subspecialty of our profession. After my research I was wondering if this non-patient area attracted more men.  Not because it is a leadership role, but because people working in that area do less “emotion work” (usually associated with women).  The majority of the responses were helpful and neutral, and didn’t seem to confirm what I thought at all (which was useful!). However, a couple of the guys seemed to think I should shut up and sit down. I was surprised and shocked; this site has always been a great source of information and collaboration. Why (I thought as I opened a bottle of wine at home) would anyone express this online to their colleagues all over the world? If I had been looking at race, would they have told me to back off because things were fine just the way they were? There are loads of amazing feminist men that will read this with sympathy and understanding, and thank goodness for them because they are helping us change things one unpleasant interaction at a time. In the meantime I decided to share this (after a lot of thought and with names changed) because this happens and if we don’t talk about it and/or step in it will continue.*

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*And a virtual sisterly fistbump to “Sarah J” !