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

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Guest Blog : Reflections on an application for NHS ethical approval

Guest Blog post by Jennifer Watson
PhD Student Manchester Metropolitan University

The IRAS system:  The Integrated Research Application System (IRAS) is an ingenious device whereby a potential researcher can complete several application forms, all required in order to carry out research within the NHS, at one time.  “That’s wonderful, why did no one tell me this before” you may cry.  The reason nobody speaks about it is that the pathway through it is strewn with the hopes and aspirations of hapless researchers rather like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.
Of course, the concept is a good one and, having never been unfortunate enough to apply for ethical approval in the pre-IRAS days, I can only assume that this is an improvement.  The problem is, that the more you delve into the process, the more complicated it becomes. The first challenge is to register with IRAS and to complete the on-line training.  Looking back, this could be where I went wrong in that I didn’t (complete the online training course, that is) but I took the “I’ll look back at it when I encounter a problem” attitude before throwing myself headlong into my application.
Completion of the forms: Firstly, there is the screening process, whereby you fill in 
some answers and IRAS tells you which forms you need to complete.  In my case I needed to satisfy the NHS Research Ethics Committee (REC) and the Research and Development  (R&D)group covering the area in which I wanted to carry out the research.  So far so good.  IRAS then supplies you with the questions you need to cover both forms to avoid duplication and henceforth all should be plain sailing: answer the questions, click the submit button and everyone will receive the necessary information.  This is where I realised I should have completed the online tutorial.  “Submission” in IRAS-speak does not pass your well-considered replies to anyone, it merely saves them in a form which can then be sent to…… who?  We will return to this conundrum later.
Just in case you were planning to complete the IRAS forms on a quiet afternoon as a break from the literature review, I feel I should prepare you – there are a lot of questions.  Not only are there a lot, there are a lot of “But surely I have just answered that” type of questions.  This need not be viewed entirely negatively though as it does give plenty of opportunity to practice your cutting and pasting technique.  Another word of warning here, it may well be that your DOS/supervisor(s) wish to “look over” your answers before submission to the relevant bodies.  Prepare for several weeks of reminder emails followed by resulting amendments and more weeks of “looking over” the amendments.  Obviously, the more over-lookers you have, the greater the delay, but this must be regarded as part of the process and, if it can’t be enjoyed, at least you may learn something from it.  Which, can’t be all bad.

Submission:  I feel at this stage that I must confess to receiving insider information from a former colleague who worked on an ethics committee. I was therefore aware at least of the existence of Local RECs, i.e. the bodies who will review our applications and grant ethical approval to carry out research within the NHS.  That’s fine, the REC form is submitted to the local REC and I can sit back and wait for their approval.  However, pondering over the submission instructions on the IRAS form, I discover that I need to book an appointment to attend the REC in person for the review.  In addition the earliest appointment is six weeks ahead and 30 miles away. There is also the matter of the REC checklist of accompanying documents to be forwarded, which must be submitted within four days of the booking.  This begins with a straightforward request for relevant documents such as consent form, protocol, patient information sheet and so forth but gradually becomes more challenging:  CV (got that saved somewhere), CV of supervisor (ah, fire off an email), letter from sponsor (who?), evidence of sponsor’s insurance (whose what?).  None of these documents are unobtainable however and eventually can be tracked down with a little investigation.  Even the process of obtaining electronic authorisation instead of signatures can be strangely satisfying.

In the early stages of this process, I naively believed that REC approval would give me the green light to happily stroll into GP practices and recruit patients for my study.  That was before I discovered local R&D approval.  In other words, I need separate approval to work in a specific NHS area – hence the R&D form completed through IRAS.  We now return to the “submit to whom/where” dilemma.  Easy, a bit of Googling provides me of the name of the lead for R&D in the area in which I want to work.  This is fine, except the helpful reply to my email tells me that I need to get in touch with the Greater Manchester Comprehensive Local Research Network (GMCLRN) who will be able to approve my application for the area in which I plan to do my study.  Oh, and, by the way, I will need an NHS Research Passport form to enable me to work on NHS premises (in that case, what is everything else about?), copies of which, when completed and approved, need to be sent to the R&D person in every NHS area I may wish to use.  That brings me to another point, the very helpful person at the GMCLRN reminds me that I will need a Site –specific form (SSI) for any area I may wish to enter and that I will probably need to cover three areas just in case I cannot recruit sufficient participants from my first choice.  At least the SSIs can be completed as an add-on to the IRAS and can be submitted to the GMCLRN, with more additional documents, all in a nicely zipped folder attached to an email.

Nearly there now (six months on!).  There is, of course, the matter of the MMU ethics application form but, having weaved through the IRAS maze, the MMU ethics form is almost disappointingly challenge free.
Just the Research Passport application to deal with now and we’re off! Once I have my Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check and Occupational Health Clearance my passport will be granted and recruitment can commence!
Just the small matter of an ethics review and amendments to consider, but I will leave those for another day………….