Own Institution Doctoral Research: Evaluating total Immersion

This week’s post is from Sharon Inglis (@sharoninglis) a Senior Lecturer in Education, and course leader for FT and PT MA Education.  Her thesis investigated the expectations and experiences of part-time students in transition into taught postgraduate students, and the staff who taught them.  Her viva was in January 2020.  The student participants were her PT MA students, and the staff who taught them were her colleagues.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

It can be really challenging to be a doctoral student in the institution where you work – particularly if you are completing a Professional Doctorate researching your own practice, and working full time in your setting.  Total immersion in your studies is a given, but it can be something of a double-edged sword.

Advantages

  • Staying focussed really isn’t a problem, because your topic is all you ever think about and (almost) all you ever do.  Critical engagement with the literature becomes second nature, because your subconscious brain is two steps ahead of your conscious one
  • There is no such thing as wasted effort in either the day job, or the research (unless it’s admin that isn’t best use of an academic’s time).  Everything relevant counts towards one or the other – and on a good day both.
  • You are most certainly immersed in your data because you have lived and breathed it, both as researcher, but also reflected on it (and possibly acted on it) as a practitioner, too.
  • Your recommendations write themselves.  Your data screams at you!  You know what needs to be done, and by the time that you have submitted, you’re already half-way to evaluating your first attempt at implementation.

Disadvantages

  • Total immersion means that here is no escape from either your doctorate or the day job.  Any boundaries that you might start out with can soon crumble; and, when the going gets tough it can be hard not to resent both the day job and the research for the reciprocal time burglar that each becomes from the other.
  • Because your research and your day job are closely intertwined, it can be difficult for colleagues and management to be as sympathetic to your research than if you are doing something completely different.
  • If you are researching your own institution’s students, you need to be particularly careful about perceptions of power.  Will your participants respond differently to you if they perceive you as a member of staff first and a researcher second.  This is participant bias.  You can go a long way to dismantling this by making sure that all your information and consent documentation make the anonymity and confidentiality of their participation very clear, and re-iterate this at every possible opportunity.
  • If your participants are your own students, then there is an added layer of complexity about your dual role.  Sometimes students can find it difficult to distinguish between you as lecturer/tutor/ course leader, and you as researcher.  If this happens, there’s a significant possibility of participants telling you what they think that you want to hear, so it’s really important that your own students understand that their participation (or lack of it) have nothing to do with their progression on their course.  Again, you can use your documentation and each interaction with your students as participants to reinforce this.  Interestingly, my own students told me things as a researcher that they had never told me as their lecturer; and never mentioned to me as their lecturer again, outside of their participation in my research.

Take-aways

  1. Consideration in your thesis of your positionality in own institution makes a great start to a section of reflexivity.  The things that you have to think about, and how you overcame them are great thesis material.  Just remember to capture what you did, before you forget!
  2. Ring-fence your time, and set clear boundaries for colleagues and students.
  3. Manage expectations.  For students, book your leave and communicate it well-ahead.  For colleagues, and anyone else who might be emailing you, have a polite, but firm OOO response in time that you have committed to writing.  Provide alternative contact details for your non-contact time.
  4. If, like me, you have spent years trying not to sweat the small stuff in life, it’s time for a re-think.   Learn to sweat the small stuff, and remember that as a part-time student, you eat the elephant that is your doctorate one bite at a time.  So, if you’re someone who thinks that they can’t do anything if you have less than half a day available, think again.  Turn this on its head, and think about what you can usefully do in a small chunk of time.
  5. Keep your eyes on the prize.  You are investigating your own practice, because you are passionate.  If you didn’t care about it so much that it hurts, you wouldn’t be doing this.  Breathe deeply, stick with it, and remember that the double-edged sword can be instrumental in bringing about both a doctorate for you, and a better experience and/ or outcomes for your students

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