Qualitative: research or practice?

Over the summer I was fortunate enough to receive a travel grant to attend the 11th International Conference on Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) in Toulouse, France. Alongside my PhD, I have been running qualitative interviews with adults with DCD and I wanted to present some findings at the conference. I initially started the study as part of my MSc dissertation and carried it over out of personal interest because I really enjoyed running the interviews. Also, it has provided an opportunity to work in a great team with the Goldsmiths Action Lab (GOAL): http://research.gold.ac.uk/11559/1/Goldsmiths%20Action%20Lab%20Newsletter%202.pdf

Since the conference, I have continued to work on my data by coding and sorting the interview transcripts into themes. However, when explaining the study to others, I have occasionally noticed receiving a flickering sidelong look and then: ‘So you’re a qualitative researcher?’

I’m not sure what this really means. I am aware qualitative and quantitative approaches are often polarised in psychology with some researchers sitting firmly in one camp and others in the opposite. I have also felt the need to justify the methodology in my qualitative study far more than I would ever have expected to with a quantitative approach. Some researchers have appeared genuinely puzzled when listening to my findings and asked ‘Yes but how do you really know?’ – which is a really good question. But I think the more interesting questions are not in separating qualitative from quantitative research but in separating qualitative research from clinical practice.

Running semi-structured qualitative interviews is different from collecting participant responses on questionnaires or other quantitative measures. I’m far more aware of the need to create a safe environment (a quiet room without outside noise; with complete privacy for disclosure reasons; with tissues or cups of tea in case participants cry) for each individual in my study. I have an information sheet, a consent form, a loose set of questions covering feelings and thoughts about DCD in adulthood and a tape recorder. Other than that, I have no idea what will happen and I’m not sure participants will either.

During the interview, my role (as a researcher) is to listen without offering advice and probe or guide where appropriate. This seems to not only create a clinical setting but sometimes facilitate it. Participants have, on occasion, wanted to talk freely perhaps in the knowledge it won’t be written up as patient records or the understanding that their narrative won’t be fitted into any type of therapeutic framework. But somehow the setting offers some kind of period for reflection. I have often wondered whether this is an ethical issue or whether it needs to be defined as such. Also, it has made writing up the findings so much harder because of researcher reflexivity – something I’ve never needed to consider using a quantitative approach. Moreover, the data is rich and exhausting. There is so much information (and hundreds of pages of interview transcript) that it feels difficult, and sometimes patronising, to reduce transcripts to themes even when these themes emerge time and time again.

In this sense, trying to understand how far research and clinical practice can be separated has been a humbling experience. It’s still unclear why or whether there’s a need to define individuals as qualitative or quantitative researchers. But if you know of any colleagues working on qualitative data – make sure they have a quiet room without outside noise and they can work in complete privacy…and they might just appreciate a break and a chat over a cup of tea.

I am a woman in…science

Last year I turned 30. What perhaps was notable about this birthday was not only the number of questions I was asked (on my feelings about turning 30) but how much I anticipated being asked these questions. Being 30 feels a lot like being 29 apart from a gradual increasing desire to potter at the weekends (but I’ve always liked pottering!) and a different box to tick on application forms. However, it’s only just starting to dawn on me that I’ll turn 31 this year, 32 next year and so on. My boyfriend often argues 30 is only noteworthy because we operate in a decimal number system. But the reason this is on my mind is because I will finish my PhD in my early-mid thirties and will need to apply for jobs – and I’m a woman. I’m starting to anticipate a difference in how I will be perceived by employers.

Before starting my PhD, I worked as a research assistant in a central London university. There was also the opportunity to undertake a PhD there but I was so keen to come to Goldsmiths that I decided not to pursue it. However, at the end of one supervision meeting, the principal investigator handed me some leaflets about ‘Women in Science’ and encouraged me to go and look up some of the groups associated with this. I left the meeting feeling a little surprised and confused. It felt a bit like when you go to your GP and they hand you some patient information leaflets to buffer the true horror you feel when you get home and realise this applies to you. It occurred to me then that by pursuing a PhD, I will be perceived as a woman in science. I have previously wondered about women scholars studying from both oppressed and privileged positions and Maria Mies has written some fascinating books/articles about ‘double consciousness’: https://glosbe.com/en/en/Maria%20Mies. It’s a similar feeling when I consider my position as both student and associate lecturer in the department.

Yesterday, I met a friend to attend a talk by Uta Frith at King’s College London, as part of a series of talks for International Women’s Day. Uta was asked how she has overcome ‘imposter syndrome’ and whether she has any advice for those experiencing this feeling. Uta pointed out this affects men as well as women and she has learnt to deal it with humorously. Perhaps my favourite part of the talk was her smiling assurance that ‘It’s alright to be nice’ when succeeding in academia. At the end of the talk she was presented with a lovely, huge bouquet of flowers when my friend whispered to me ‘Would they have done that for a man?’

Part of the difficulty in considering women in science is the implicit suggestion that there is a conflict between the idea of women and the idea of science. Uta spoke about how women seem to be more inclined to always take the ‘get-out card’, perhaps suggesting it’s easier to pretend this conflict doesn’t exist. However, it’s important to acknowledge events like International Women’s Day so women are treated as scholars in science and feel supported in their contributions to academia. After considering my employment opportunities post-PhD, I’ve discovered a number of organisations which support women scholars and encourage further career development and I’ve made a start in applying for one scholarship, as I only feel entitled to represent a woman in science if these academic and employment opportunities are pursued.

Maybe it’s time to dig out those leaflets again.

Gatecrashing at Goldsmiths

One of the first pieces of careers advice I can remember receiving was from my father. I was aged around six when he sat opposite me and said:

‘Lisa, you know, you’ll never get rich by working. You’ve got to have an idea.’

I’m hesitant to disagree but after four years of working in research and a year into a PhD, I’m beginning to wonder. I’m a second-year PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London and I love spending every day working on my idea (this does not make me rich). However, one of the more striking things I have noticed amongst us aspiring academics/writers/’ologists’ is the difficulty in writing something which will be read by someone else. I am hugely guilty in this respect as I’m only starting this blog 15 months after registering for my PhD. Many PhD students I talk to mention feeling like an ‘imposter’ in academia and then reluctantly confess they fear other people ‘finding out’ how little they know.

Four years ago I made the decision to pursue funding for a PhD but in the midst of contacting lecturers, speaking to other doctoral students and applying for studentships I realised I was researching research. So I had little understanding of ‘imposter’ syndrome until I started doctoral studies myself. ‘Imposter’ is insufficient – I had gate-crashed and everyone knew it (or so I thought). I had never sat in a room full of professors or tried to write a paper for publication and I had never heard of Foucault.

It makes me wonder what kind of doctoral student I am. At my selection interview, I remember the first question being ‘Why do you want to do something as awful as a PhD?’ and I think it’s because I want to find stuff out. Curiosity is motivating and this never seems to fade away and, finally, I’m in an environment which aids that. I’m also conscientious, organised and I rarely leave things unfinished because I want to see things through to the end.

I also wonder if the ‘imposter’ feeling ever goes away or whether everyone is a gate-crasher but some are doing it more skilfully (or subtlety/confidently) than others. Recently, I read an article by a post-doctorate worker who decided to publish a ‘negative’ CV of all his failed job interviews, rejected publications and awards never won (tinyurl.com/ahornercv). It raises an interesting point about whether research environments attract those who are most academically able or the most resilient and willing to face rejection.

The first year of doctoral studies has been exciting, confusing, stimulating, tiring but I’m never bored and I have enjoyed every single day so far. So, if you’re also starting out on something as daunting as a PhD or you’re at the beginning of a research career and you feel like an ‘imposter’ – then you’re in the right place.