I stammer too

On International Stammer Awareness Day 2021, I would like to take the opportunity to say that I have a stammer.

It’s not something I usually talk about; I only really had a conversation about it with my parents this year. Many of my friends and family don’t know, and very few of my colleagues. My stammer has affected my life in many ways: I have had superiors – unwittingly I suspect – mock my stammer, I have been interrupted and talked over regularly, and I have made conscious effort to make myself seem forgetful/silly in order to get by.

It can be very difficult to be robbed of the flexibility of expression. The finer points of what I try to say are lost by slight delays in word production and substitution. Passing up on opportunities to understand more or offer advice/attempts at humour can be tiring.

I think the best way to frame this post is to answer a series of questions.

When did you realise you had a stammer?

The most noticeable time when I realised my stammer was a problem was during a conversation with a friend about ten years ago, who had asked what my girlfriend at the time was called. Her name began with an ‘L’, which I knew had been a ‘problem letter’ for me. I ended up trying to pronounce the name, failing, laughing it off, and pretending that I only called my girlfriend by a nickname, which I then swiftly made up. My friend left the interaction extremely confused, and I left embarrassed. I also remember practising for a French speaking exam and finding it very difficult not to stammer, to the extent that when I was examined, there was a note next to my name to let the examiner know that my stammer might affect my performance.

How does it affect you?

From what I can gather, my stammering is quite similar to the experiences of others. The basic feeling is either the inability to (or the worrying that I won’t) get words or first letters out in time, that is a reasonable time after the previous word or when I’ve been spoken to. Some letters are worse than others and always have been, whereas at other times any word can be difficult. I don’t tend to stammer throughout a conversation, although it can happen. I suppose I’m also affected by the embarrassment and frustration I feel as a result. The main point of realisation that my stammer was something to think about was not only that my emotions  exacerbated my stammer, but also that my stammer exacerbated my negative emotions.

I haven’t noticed that you have a stammer…

I don’t do it all the time, so you may not have seen it. I have also gotten quite good at hiding it (see below). I don’t want people to feel bad that they haven’t noticed. I also want to point out that just because you haven’t noticed, it doesn’t mean I have a more/less severe stammer. It seems to fluctuate, on some days I hardly stammer, on others I find it difficult to say anything the way I want to.

How do you hide it?

As I write this, I’m not actually sure whether hide is the right word. I try and minimize the number of situations in which my stammer will be apparent. And I do this as much as possible. I do this in three ways

  1. Pretending that I’ve forgotten a word, but being able to describe its exact definition to the point where the other person can say it, then I can use the ‘repetition trick’ – normally, if someone else says the word, I can quickly repeat it. I don’t like to do this, but sometimes if the word can’t be avoided, I need to extract the word out of someone.
    • For example, I design my online experiments using an experiment builder called Gorilla. I always struggle with the ‘g’, so I’ll say something like: ‘What’s the name of the online platform that we use to make experiments? The one with the red background? The big monkey one’. Another example would be, if I don’t think I’ll be able to pronounce someone’s name, I’ll describe what they do, where they work, etc.
  2. Using a different – likely more awkward and clunky – phrasing. Recalibrating and rephrasing content and syntax is something I find myself doing quite frequently.
    • For example: a lot of my PhD project concerns a particular type of uncertainty, referred to as volatility. The ‘v’ has been increasingly problematic. This has led to me having to substitute it for ‘unexpected uncertainty’ or ‘changeability’. Now in a conversation about volatility, in which the other options haven’t been used, this can throw people off the thread. Another more frequent example would be, if I’m struggling with the ‘w’ of when, I’ll say something like ‘at what point’ etc. After I finish the clunkier phrasing, most people normally ask me if I meant the more concise phrase/word.
  3. Choosing not to speak, or only saying part of the word. I think this point is fairly clear; I find it very difficult to ask questions/give comments in talks, particularly on Zoom or on the phone. I have also taken to pronouncing the word with the first letter omitted if I’ve tried to do the repetition trick unsuccessfully. To append to the above example, I would say ‘orilla’ and hope someone says ‘Gorilla’

Do you know that most people won’t judge you?

I know that most people will be patient when I stammer. I think the pressure I feel is more internal pressure to produce a word in an acceptable time window. For example, I know that if it took me even a minute to say a problem word or letter, listeners would clearly realise that I had a stammer and be generous with their time. But knowing that someone (Joe Bloggs) without a stammer could manage to say the word in an instant is what drives me to feel embarrassed, which then exacerbates the stammer.

Does anything make your stammer worse?

I certainly notice that when I’m tired or ill, I find it difficult to say anything how I would want to. Sometimes, stressful situations can make it harder. It tends to be dictated by my daily state than something acute, like a presentation. However, presentations where I know I have to say problem words are quite daunting. The times when my stammer is the least manageable is when I have to speak on cue. I have always avoided phone calls, because even ‘hello’ can be very difficult. This has extended into Zoom meetings during the pandemic.

Does anything make you not stammer?

One thing I should point out is that I even stammer in front of the people I’m closest with, even when I’m happy as can be, and indeed they have said ‘take your time’ etc. I think this point reflects what I mean by the internal frustration that I feel when I think I should’ve been able to pronounce the word. If the stammer was purely externally generated, then in the absence of these factors I shouldn’t stammer.

Why have you bothered writing this piece?

I felt that as I’m becoming more comfortable discussing my stammer with those around me, it would be a good time to put the knowledge out into the wild, just so that more people are aware. I think this is part of me coming to terms with my stammer and its impact on my life. I would also like to encourage anyone who may have a stammer to be open about it. I think my discussions about my stammer have been positive so far, and hopefully this piece will help you to understand more about it. Finally, I should make clear that I absolutely did not intend to write this piece in order to get a particular response/special treatment/a gold medal.

What can I do to help/support you with your stammer?

When discussing this piece with my housemate, she suggested I try and address this particular question too. I had initially purposefully chosen not to answer it, because in all honesty, the answer can vary. There are times when I get interrupted or have my sentence finished for me and I wish I’d had the chance to finish. There are times when I’m desperate for someone to say the target word so that I can do the repetition trick. In particular, I don’t want to offer any one size fits all solutions for stammering. I’m slowly learning/thinking more about my stammer, so maybe I can update this page with time.

I don’t know whether this is the right way to think/talk about my stammer, but throughout this post I’ve used ‘my stammer’ like an object/appendage. Really, it is something that is a core part of who I am and defines my interactions with everyone I meet.

I want to finish by inviting you to ask me any other questions that you would like answered. I can’t and won’t speak for everyone with a stammer, but I would be glad to share my own experience. I also thank Rachel Knight and Francis Banhidy for help writing this piece.

If you want to know more about stammering, see below:
https://stamma.org/sites/default/files/uploads/Info%20leaflets/Stammering%20in%20adults%20leaflet.pdf
https://stamma.org/resources/leaflets

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How to apply for PhDs

I have applied (mostly unsuccessfully) for lots of PhD places and funding. I’m writing this post for anyone thinking about dipping their toe in academia, and I would encourage anyone with even the slightest interest to do so. I’m a (sort of) neuroscientist who has applied for projects in computational psychiatry/neurology. I hope this post will be useful to anyone applying for any PhD, although what is required for your prospective courses may differ. Take ‘a career in academia’ and ‘applying for a PhD’ to be equivalent.

First RoundSecond RoundThird Round
Post interview rejectionAccepted without fundingAccepted with funding
Post interview rejectionAccepted without fundingAccepted with funding
Withdrew post interviewFailed funding applicationWithdrew post interview
Rejected pre interviewFailing funding applicationAccepted without funding
Rejected pre interviewPost interview rejectionPost interview rejection
Rejected pre interviewRejected pre interviewRejected pre interview
Rejected pre interviewRejected pre interviewRejected pre interview
Rejected pre interviewFunding rejected pre interview 
 Failed funding application 
I’ve left the university names out for privacy. Several of the applications were for the same scheme and or university, or with the same supervisor. Full disclosure: all of these applications went to UK universities/funding bodies except one funded place application in Ireland.

Having deliberated for a while on whether to write this at all; the first draft came across like my memoirs (available on request). So I’ve split this post up to some extent chronologically, trying to focus on the different stages of applying for a PhD, but also into key sections. There’s several short pages of hopefully digestible info, along with links to relevant footnotes. A rough table of contents (add one for page number):

  1. Thinking about academia?
  2. The importance of research experience
  3. What’s in a PhD application?
  4. Doctoral training partnership applications
  5. Proposing a project with a supervisor
  6. What’s next?
  7. Presentations for interviews
  8. Interviews
  9. Specific interview questions
  10. Harsh realities
  11. Concluding remarks
  12. Footnotes (linked within other pages)

Big thanks to (in alphabetical surname order) to Sammi Chekroud, Saskia Frisky, Debesh Mandal, Gavin Shields and Natalia Zdorovtsova for their comments on earlier versions of this blog. Thanks also to my fellow PhD cohort, and the Prediction and Learning Lab.