Thursday, April 10, 2014

All you can tweet

I have just spent a week at a highly regarded international research conference. A conference which like many these days actively encourages delegates to use twitter  by providing a conference specific hashtag (#)to share their thoughts and opinions with other conference delegates and the wider  community. An overseas colleague of mine opened the conference with an excellent keynote presentation on nursing resilience which was research based, international in perspective and initiated a lot of discussion...or it would have had her time not been cut short to allow someone else to have the floor to present on a topic which the speaker themselves acknowledged would only be relevant to UK delegates (although I would debate that had the speaker made more of an effort to internationalise their remarks)

So, in the Twitter spirit of open debate I tweeted a mild criticism along the lines of

 'Excellent keynote from @***. Shame it was curtailed to accommodate another speaker'

Fairly innocuous I think you will agree, so imagine my surprise when this tweet was removed from the twitter wall that was providing an overview of the all tweets that were using the conference hashtag - I had been censored!

I have to say that this is not the first time this has happened to me at this conference a similar thing occurred last year, when I pointed out that it was quite rude to refer to three out of four nominees for a prestigious PhD award as 'Dr' and the fourth merely by her first name. I remain puzzled by the fact  that a conference which exists to promote discussion and debate is so insecure that it feels the need to remove the mildest dissent from the twitter stream available to delegates. I am against twitter trolling as much as the next girl but is hard to see the offence in this gentle criticism and I would have welcomed any debate it may have inspired.

I guess the message is dissent and risk being censored or be undefatigably sweet and positive, toe the conference party line and be retweeted to your hearts content.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Adventures in academia: My first few months as a research student

I have been searching for the right words to describe my first few months of being a research student, dear Research Zebra reader. It certainly has been an ADVENTURE IN ACADEMIA, full of puzzles, twists and turns, and unexpected insightful joyous ‘eureka’ moments, usually following extended periods being buried in literature.

Recently I went to ‘Go Ape’, which is an outdoor pursuit where you get to monkey around (even the grown-ups!) doing a rope-orientated obstacle course. It is set high off the ground from the forest floor. Needless to say fear or heights or not, it is at first a little scary.

Doing this grown up obstacle course, or dallying around in any such adrenaline activity for that matter, is a great analogy for what’s it is like in those first few months of a research degree. At the beginning there is the pure joy and excitement of, firstly, being accepted onto the research degree (hurray!) and, secondly, those first few weeks of being a research student. Discovering your way around the literature continues to be an exciting aspect of doing research for me, though it is qualitatively different to the experience of those first few intense weeks where you sit in somewhat unknown territory contemplating life, death and linguistic jargon!

It is not only the unknown nature of the rope course that draws comparison to those early days, it is also the leap of faith that surrounded the task of doing a PhD. I feel being a researcher hinges a little on fearlessness, in that you have to the confidence that you CAN find ways to overcome the various challenges that present themselves to you. The bit of the ‘Go Ape’ experience that was more than a little similar to this was the zip-wire moments, which required I step off the high-up treetop platforms and depend upon the harness taking me safely to the distant wood-chipped landing area below.

I would argue the safety harness represents my supervisors, who support and guide me through the research degree, ensuring I do not go off track. (Naturally, a research student is far more autonomous than merely depending on their supervisors, though their role is most certainly invaluable through the process).

I can certainly say, dear Research Zebra reader, that my research degree has so far been an academic adventure filled with the thrills of embracing the unknown, both metaphorically and literally (for example, when discovering inspiring literature or wandering lost through mountains of past research!) I wish you the very best in your own adventures, and will ensure to send a postcard in the future when I get to my next landing point!  

Devina is exploring the everyday experiences of illness and intimate relationships in heterosexual women with irritable bowel syndrome. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Never too soon...

Most PhD students would argues that filling in university forms, obtaining ethical approval, negotiating access to their research area and collecting data leaves then little time to be thinking about their viva - an event that may be up to 5 years in the future.

However I would argue that the best time to start thinking about your viva is the first time you lay finger to keyboard to write something (anything) about your thesis, and my reasoning goes like this -

You can be challenged on anything that you put into your thesis - A lot of students, especially in the early drafts of their methodology chapter spend an awful lot of time exploring various philosophical approaches to their work, discarding them one by one until they begin the defence and justification of the approach they finally used. This is fine, it's part of the learning process and a discussion about Heidegger versus Husserl may help you clarify your thinking about which philosophical mast you want to nail your colours to. The problems occur if you leave that in the thesis because then your interpretations are cast in stone and ripe for challenge. The one thing you do not want to do is to send your examiners off down a blind alley, focussing on how they disagree with your interpretation of Gadamer rather than concentrating on what you actually DID.

The thesis is a report about what you did, not what you didn't do. If something happens that means your research has gone horribly wrong, think very carefully about whether you want to include your angst into your final work. Will it add anything to the thesis? Will it clarify why you did something? Or will it mean that you spend a long time at your viva talking about something that did not actually contribute in any way to your final findings? For example, it may be frustrating if it takes 6 months to get governance approval from your participating trust but will a six page rant about that enhance the quality of your final work or merely make the person reading the thesis lose interest?

Issues like these are better kept in a 'jottings' folder or even a reflective diary. They are important parts of the PhD process, especially the first one BUT if it is in your final thesis the examiners have a right to ask you about it in great depth if they wish - so it is never too soon to start to take control of your viva by being intelligent about what you write.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Can you be friends with your supervisor?

Whether it goes well or goes badly, it will be one of the most intense relationships of your life - the one you have with your doctoral supervisor. Love them or loathe them they can't help but be a big part of your doctoral experiences, whether that's from being too hands on and demanding or too distant and disinterested. So, the question has to be asked - can you be friends with your supervisor?

I would say that I have been friends with about 50% of the doctoral students I have supervised or am supervising. Some were my friends before they became students, some were students who sort of morphed into friends over the process and just kind of stayed on in my life once the PhD journey was complete. This doesn't mean I hate the other 50% who were/are perfectly charming people, it just means my relationship with them is not as deep as with my friends. The really important thing though is to have a conversation emphasising the difference between between Caz-who-is-my-friend and Prof-Haigh-who-is-my-supervisor because it needs to be clear that there is a difference; without that demarkation it can be difficult to maintain a supervisory objectivity when assessing the quality of a students work or assimilating a supervisor's comments.

And therein lies the problem, the PhD experience can be so complex and so intimate that what is professional academic interest and esteem towards each other can easily be misconstrued into something that it isn't. Recently Lee Yarwood-Ross and I did some research on students opinions of their supervisors. One student in an online forum asked "Is it normal for a supervisor to insist upon candlelit supervision sessions?" Er...NO!! That's NOT friendship, it's not even marginally appropriate academic behaviour and to any student in that situation my advice would be 'RUN. RUN AWAY AS FAST AS YOU CAN!' I would offer much the same advice to the supervisor whose student was perplexed because she had told him she was in love with him and was upset to find that now he was reluctant to see her alone any more.

That, of course, is why having more than one supervisor, friendly or otherwise,  is a condition to be devoutly wished !

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Don't give up

One of the  [possibly] unforeseen outcomes of the rigorous ethical approval processes and some may say the even more draconian research governance processes that we have in the UK is the fact that, increasingly, health and social care researchers are resorting to increasingly innovative ways to recruit participants for their research. This is partly, I fear because NHS governance systems are cumbersome , and in some cases expensive,and slow down research studies to pre-global warming glacial speed. A number of tech-savvy people are beginning to look to recruiting via cyber-communities through project specific websites often hosted by an appropriate support group or charity. This can be seen as a good thing since often participants are prevented from even hearing about their potential research involvement opportunities by over protective health care staff and this approach, at least gives them the chance to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be included

 However, a couple of my PhD colleagues had similar experiences the other day which made me ponder how much people outside of universities understand about what is meant by Doctoral level research. The assumption made when they approached  the website owners was that either they were undergraduates or that they were undergraduates doing some kind of media course. They were told in no uncertain terms that they were unlikely to get any form of support from the website owners, even though all they had asked for was that a link to their study be added to the site.

Both were understandably disappointed but I suggested that they go back to the people concerned and explain exactly what level of study they were at and how their research could conceivably affect the client groups the charities had been set up to serve; that this was not a small six week research project designed with no other reason but to to complete a research methods module, but something requiring commitment and deep thought and eye watering amounts of hard work. Pleasingly, on  having made clear to them that the doctoral candidates were engaged in high quality, long term studies that were rigorously conducted and reviewed they were happy to collaborate.

The point that I am making here is that it pays to go back and seek an explanation if someone turns down your request for help when doing doctoral data collection using online media. Sometimes, and I guess this is part of the it-isn't-good-enough paranoia that affects most people doing a PhD at some time, students can be a bit too deprecating about their work. If someone says 'no' have the courage of your conviction and don't give up!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Using Twitter in my PhD research

I felt I needed to come on here and write about my experiences of using the online social media platform "Twitter" where some definite learning has occurred, but for most of it, it has been a joyous experience. I set up a Twitter account to connect with injured veteran/ex-service personnel and from the outset I was not positive at all as I feared that keeping the account up to date would be time consuming and laborious. However some benefits I have seen in persevering with it are:

1) The ability to freely follow relevant people, groups, associations and charities which could be of interest to your research. Given time they may follow you back and this can lead to recruitment
2) If suitable users follow you back you can "direct message" them which cuts out the concern over confidentiality issues and ethically inappropriate recruitment.
3) On your Twitter page you have the opportunity to put a small description about yourself so that other users can immediately find out what you are about i.e. in my case I have put my PhD research title in this area and put a link to my website.
4) Another benefit I have recently seen is the ability to receive recommendations of people to follow through my registered email address. Initially this annoyed me as it felt like a form of junk mail, but as I scrolled through the emails there have been some really good recommendations. You will also find some good recommendations on your direct Twitter page which can also be helpful
5) Getting to know some useful hashtags can make you part of some good conversations i.e in my case #veterans and #beyondinjury

Please bear in mind though that the dreaded 140 character allowance per Tweet/message can be infuriating but research is all about being succinct so it's good for research development #addedbonus  sorry could not help it! As you can see, using hashtags becomes a natural part of your life when you begin to use Twitter! 

So having described all these benefits, how have they impacted on my research?

1) I have been fortunate to recruit participants for interviews
2) I am beginning to increase my followers
3) I have been able to keep in contact with people I have met from conferences and seminars. The benefit of this is that I stand a good chance of being visual to other relevant users which could result in more followers

Therefore, having a Twitter account has the potential to make you more visual to others. However, it will require self-motivation on the researcher's part to make Twitter part of their normal routine, keep send regular tweets and building followers.

Remember to plan your recruitment strategy with sensitivity and thought!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Don't cry for me...

I had a strange and inspirational experience a while back when attending as an applicant at a Local  Research Ethics Committee (LREC) meeting - and that's a sentence you don't hear that often! 

My colleague and I were asked by the Chair of the committee, to specify, in view of the fact our research was centered upon a vulnerable group (the committee's definition, not ours, or indeed the research participants themselves), which "distress policy" we were planning to use. Now,I am not a novice when it comes to LRECs but I have to say that I have NEVER been asked that question before. Swift as you like, I came back with "which distress protocol do you recommend?' and it became painfully clear that the committee did not really know of any. The Chair dismissed my question with a wave of the hand and an airy "Oh, there are lots out there", however on return to the office a Google search quickly indicated that by 'lots' the committee obviously meant 'none'.

So, in the interests of harmony, and getting our ethics approval, my colleague and I were inspired to set about writing our own, evidence based distress protocol. The result has a tripartite focus and covers;

  • Participant distress
  • Researcher distress
  • Transcriber distress

We felt the last one was particularly important since, as researchers, we do not often think about the people who are transcribing our interviews and how they may be affected by the things they hear. So, if you are involved in health & social care research or indeed any kind of research where the management of distress might be an issue please feel free to use our distress protocol. You can find it here