Preparing for my first supervisory meeting – narrowing the focus of my PhD research

mapping my PhD thesis

mapping my PhD thesis

Finding a research focus

With my first supervisory meeting looming, this week I decided to try and start thinking of the focus my research is going to take. I had nightmares of turning up and my supervisor saying ‘well that all sounds very broad – which bit do you think you will look at?’ and me just having an inner panic and tripping over my words like a disorganised fool.

Having a flexible research plan to allow for change

Whilst this will no doubt happen anyway, I am trying to minimise the chances by having a somewhat clear plan in my head of what my research could look like. Importantly, I say could, because, as I was discussing with my mentor today, whatever I plan to focus on now, it will change and shift over the next 5 years A LOT, so having too rigid a structure will only make it more stressful and impractical.

Statistics and case studies – mixed methods research

Something I imagine my supervisor will certainly ask is how I actually plan to carry out my research. How will I collect the information that all my waffling will be based upon? When I explained my ideas around gathering some statistics about downloads and testing the results on real life case studies, (which sounded like common sense to me), my mentor helpfully explained that this would be called a mixed methods approach, and that there is a lot of research out there done in this way for me to look at and learn from. So far so good.

To get this all into context i drew the map above, which I will be taking along to me supervisory meeting to run past my PhD supervisor. Hopefully she won’t think it is complete nonsense, and will have some suggestions around how to approach it and what changes need to be made along the way.

Get in touch

I would love to hear about other people’s experiences of their first supervisory meetings or using mixed methods approaches – feel free to comment below, or tweet me @megan_beech or email at meganbeech10@gmail.com

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The research impact journey and conference badge mishaps

Research and conference journeys

Monday this week saw me trekking down to Uxbridge for the Pragmatic Impact Tools Seminar that was being held at Brunel University. The delegate list was a mix of researchers from all areas with an interest in impact, plus some consultation service practitioners.

Challenging your research design and thesis structure

The day itself was extremely inspiring, and I was very happy to have the chance to meet some of the people whose work has inspired me to take the plunge into my own PhD. In particular, a big shout out to Simon Bastow who has helped to pen the pioneering The Impact of the Social Sciences which will be in print January 2014. We had a great discussion around structure and methodology, which really helped me to feel more confident in my unorthodox approach to a thesis structure. Thanks Simon!

Conference travel and badge mishaps

I knew the journey to and from the seminar was going to be long, so I planned ahead and felt it was well organised and structured. That said, you can’t plan for everything, and not being a football fan myself, I hadn’t realised there was a big match on at the Arsenal stadium. Being bodily picked up by a very large Arsenal fan and forcibly squished onto a tube in the midst of a VERY loud football chant was quite an experience. There’s a first time for everything I guess. It wasn’t the last surprise of the trip though – after collecting my badge and wearing it for a considerable amount of time, a fellow delegate responded to my ‘Hi, I’m Megan’, with ‘Are you Megan or mean?’. It took me a good minute to realise they weren’t being mean themselves, but had spotted a rather unfortunate spelling mistake on my badge!

The impact journey

The importance of structure and organisation as part of a journey ran as somewhat of a theme throughout the seminar, as we had discussions around how researchers view the journey of a piece of work and how frameworks can be used to make the most out of this journey. I found this an easy way to visualise impact, and started to think about what a researcher might need along this journey to ensure it is successful.

Customising the research impact journey

In my day job working with researchers across all subjects/disciplines, I have learnt quickly that the subject of a piece of research dictates the audience it is meant for, and therefore the channels/tools/methods that can be used to share it and encourage engagement. With this in mind, I have started to visualise an impact journey that can be applied to any subject, but with tailored suggestions around channels/tools/methods that can be slotted in as and when appropriate. Hopefully, this combination of a transferable framework and tailored elements would result in a toolkit that would enable successful impact outcomes.

What does a successful impact look like?

But what is a successful impact outcome? Again, this is something which is going to be different for not only every subject discipline, but also every research group/researcher, and possibly every individual project. I recognise that it is important that I don’t simply assume I know what successful impact looks like – I need to ask the researchers involved before looking at how to tailor the journey for them. I feel this could be a good starting point for my case study research – finding out what researchers fell a successful impact looks like.

Data collection

To collect this information I need a carefully chosen method, which is most likely to be either a set of interviews, a questionnaire, or a combination of both. Oh the joys of data collection….I think I’ll leave that for my next post!

Method in the madness?

So today I had a very useful (as always) meeting with my mentor, and we used most of the time to discuss issues surrounding the fact that my PhD topic sits within the social sciences, and I don’t have a social sciences background. Whilst this isn’t a problem in itself, it does present some extra challenges around getting to grips with methodologies and research design.

Due to the focus of my research being on an approach tailored to different subject areas, I have naturally inclined towards a case study approach to ensure my work is both tailored and tried and tested. My mentor explained that there are several different routes to take with a case study approach, and that I will need to understand and back up my choice to make sure I can justify it in the long run.

Up to now, because I felt my method was fairly straight forward, my focus has been solely on subject area research, rather than any research around methodology and design. I think in order to feel fully prepared for January, when this begins in earnest, I need to split my time into two streams and make sure I am covering both how I am going to carry out my work, and what my work will be. Hopefully, doing some reading around the theory behind different methodologies will allow me to back up my decision on a case study methodology.

Christine Meyer talks about how case study methodology can be seen as inherently flawed:

“… there are virtually no specific requirements guiding case research. This is both the strength & the weakness of this approach. It is a strength because it allows tailoring the design & data collection procedures to the research questions. On the other hand, this approach has resulted in many poor case studies, leaving it open to criticism, especially from the quantitative field of research. ”

My immediate feelings around this are that it is most likely still the right choice for me, I just need to be rock solid on why it is the right choice.

If anyone reading this has experience of using a case study approach and would like to share their opinions, that would be great.

Premature speculation

It is without a doubt, far, far too early for me to be thinking about how to structure my thesis. I don’t even start my PhD proper until January 2014. I should definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, not be thinking about how to compartmentalize things. And yet…

Because my thesis is going to be focused on looking at how to increase and monitor social impact of academic work, it makes sens e that it will feature case studies to demonstrate how this is possible. And, as I want to do different case studies for different subject areas, it also makes sense that I follow a 1 case study per chapter format, to keep things nice and tidy.

In my head, this will make for a thesis that it is made up as follows:

Introduction

Literature Review

Methodology

Case studies 1-15

Conclusion

Implications/recommendations

I’m very aware that this is a rough idea, and doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional format. That said, as my subject is so focused on creating impact, I really feel that tying it in with case studies and making practical recommendations is central to the work.

I would love to know if anyone else has used a similar structure, or if anyone has any comments about this is a proposed way of formatting my thesis?

Obviously, this will probably all change umpteen million times between now and the dreaded Viva, but hey ho!