Using Lego Serious Play to explore my PhD research journey

Today I was lucky enough to get a place on a Lego Serious Play workshop run by David Gauntlett, who uses lego to conduct all kinds of interesting research in Media, Art and Design at the University of Westminster.

The aim of the session was to explore the use of Lego as a tool for gathering qualitative data during the research process, as well as reflecting upon my own PhD experiences so far and learning from other people’s experiences.

Using Lego for metaphorical modelling

David explained that the idea behind Lego Serious Play is that by using a visual aid the participants are encouraged to think about their experiences and opinions and represent them in model form. The idea is that it gives people a new way to express and explore complex subjects and ideas through a creative method.

As my PhD research is focused on exploring experiences and understandings of research impact (undoubtedly a very complex and often contentious issue), I thought this could be a useful tool for me to use during my data gathering stage.

Getting used to building with Lego

stompocopter

We started out by building a free form creature, which could be any life form, as realistic or fantastical as you like. This stage allowed us to become familiar with the Lego pieces and to explore how everything could be used and fitted together. I really enjoyed this, and made the Stompocopter (obviously trademarked, don’t go nicking my ideas all you toy companies out there), with a working helicopter tail and huge stompy feet.

Moving from literal to metaphorical modelling

 

supervising

After this stage we talked a bit about metaphors and how they can be used to explore ideas which are hard to describe by borrowing meaning from other items and concepts. We then applied this knowledge to building some models representing positive and negative supervisory experiences of a PhD. In mine, the model at the top uses parts from my earlier Stompocopter to represent a supervisor pushing a student to plough on through their journey without any real consideration for the student’s opinions. This has led to the student having to develop a very thick skin (represented by the crash helmet). The collection of objects below represents a more positive experience, with the skills and guidance from the supervisor represented by the wheels, ladders and spade which can all be used by the student to navigate issues and barriers during their journey.

Exploring our own PhD journeys

Now that we were all getting used to how to use and discuss the modelling we were doing, we moved onto the main task of the afternoon – representing our own personal journey through modelling.

journey

I decided to use the concept of a river in my model, as I am interested in using the Kawa river model as a possible data gathering method during my case studies. The river here represents my PhD journey, with the tributaries indicating different paths of thought and possible directions I could go down with my work. The green bushes represent obstacles along the way, but by using the tools and skills I am developing (shown by ladders and bridges), I will hopefully be able to navigate my way through. I used the animals to represent different feelings throughout my journey; elephant – plodding away slowly at my research during difficult times, tiger – determination and passion for my subject, horse – a sense of urgency that comes in spits and spats, kitten – occasionally feeling overwhelmed and timid in my abilities. I found thinking about the theoretical side of my work very interesting, and represented the struggles I sometimes have with navigating complex theoretical work by using the web, as theory often seems to be something which needs untangling before I can move on.

Lego Serious Play as a research tool

Overall, I found the exercises really helpful in terms of looking at my PhD experience from different angles, and found that the modelling helped me to articulate my thoughts and feelings quite clearly. Doing this as a group was also beneficial in that people had the chance to learn from each others experiences too.

Having had an introduction to using Lego serious Play as a tool for exploring research ideas and potentially gathering data, I am going to consider using it as a visual method during my case study section next year.

As always, I’m very interested to hear from anyone who has comments about this subject or has carried out similar research themselves.

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EndNote: five reasons to use it to organise your academic research references

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

EndNote: furthering my obsession with post-it-notes

Starting my PhD

As many PhD students have done before me, I got all excited after my official PhD acceptance and signed up for a string of development courses to get me off to a good start. Luckily, I work and study at an institution that takes great pride in its staff development initiatives, so all the courses so far have been useful for at least one aspect of my work or research, or both.

EndNote: addressing my ignorance of referencing software

However, they were all blown out of the water this morning after attending a session on EndNote – which has honestly changed how I work forever. I like to think of myself as fast at picking up new software and processes quickly and am generally up to date with developments in offline and online tools related to academia. That said, I completely admit to having a big gap where my referencing tools should be. As an undergrad I had little interest in referencing, and simply laboured away in my Word documents like most of my class mates, and as an MA student, working full time, I simply didn’t feel like I had the time to invest in it.

EndNote: A whistle stop tour

What a mistake that was! It could have saved me sooooo much time. This morning two of our brilliant subject librarians showed us lots of clever ways to use EndNote to help organise our reading and make referencing/citing/bibliographies much easier and quicker. I thought, there must be plenty of people out there like me who love clever bits of software and tools but have just simply missed the boat on this for one reason or the other, so I thought I would give you a quick whistle stop tour of my Five Favourite Awesome Facts about EndNote:

It can import all my saved PDFs

I have a folder on my work computer marked Reading, into which I chuck all manner of articles, book chapters and comment pieces that I come across in PDF form, with all the intention of reading them later, saved as some string of keywords which meant a lot to me on the day but which will remain meaningless gobbledygook for ever more. In EndNote, I have selected the folder and imported it, and hey presto, the clever sod has indexed it all and populated the referencing information, as well as storing my PDFs in the library for me to view at anytime. Amazing!

It has an EndNote version of post-it-notes

I’m a sucker for a post it note – look at the new lovely owl ones I got recently as a present from my mum – beautiful! I like to use them to note down thoughts I have when reading books etc on the bus. So, I was super chuffed to see that EndNote has this function built in so I can make comments on the pdfs that are stored in my EndNote library, therefore enabling me to save all my pointless scribbles in a very orderly fashion. Yippee.

Access

I am forever realising that an article I need is either saved on my work pc when I am at home, or that I have left a useful book in my other bag, so the fact that I can save my whole pdf library in EndNote and access it from work or from home whenever I like, is a godsend.

Manual input

As my research focuses a lot on social media and online dissemination of research, a good proportion of my reading is made up of blog posts and websites, as well as traditional academic journals and books. Luckily, EndNote has the option to let me enter an item manually and populate whichever of the many reference fields I feel is appropriate, meaning I can save all these non-traditional references alongside my traditional ones, lovely.

It’s free!

As my University support EndNote, I get access to the full offline version for free, and lovely training sessions to help me use it too. From chatting to other researchers I think most UK universities tend to offer a similar perk to their students, but if yours doesn’t, then you can always have a bash at using the free web based version, although I’m not sure if it has all the same features.

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

Linking social impact research to practice

Naturally, as my work and my research are very closely linked, I look to my research as a way of informing my work and improving the support and advice that I can offer. For me, researching in the area of social impact is all about looking for new ways to create meaningful social impact and helping researchers to do so: I want my research to be practically useful to other researchers, thus creating some social impact of it’s own.

A support network for academic researchers

I think embedding this kind of impact support into university culture is really important; as  Ian M Carter points out in his DESCRIBE essay:

Making non-academic impact a part of research applies as much to the support structures as to the researchers and what they do’.

Basically, in order for researchers to be able to create meaningful impact, they need the required knowledge, guidance and tools. I believe it is important that the knowledge, guidance and tools are a product of rigorous academic research to ensure they are fit for the job, and it is this research that I intend to carry out.

Creating impact as part of your research journey

Ian also talks about the importance of making impact activities part of the research journey, something which I discussed in an earlier blog post. This really can’t be emphasised enough, as the earlier you embed research dissemination activities into your work, the more of an impact you will see over time and the more opportunities you will find for impact along the way, rather than just attempting them as an afterthought.

A flexible research impact toolkit

When designing my social impact toolkit I want to do it alongside the research journey, so that researchers can pick and choose their activities along the way and really work towards building cumulative impact as their work progresses. As Ian points out:

‘Institutions should be looking to embed expertise into their routine processes and activities, so that they are fit for purpose, for delivering high quality research and enabling its appropriate translation into practical benefit, not just responding to a particular (albeit very important) assessment process.’

Whilst a lot of ongoing impact discussions have been born out of the need to respond to REF2014 requirements, it is now time for us to make the activities that are useful and bring good returns, routine in our research. The most effective way to do this is to have a strong system of internal support that enables researchers and adapts to their needs.

The case-study: misunderstandings and practical research

Case-study skepticism

When talking about my research and ideas for my PhD I have, a few times, seen people react with skepticism to one particular aspect: my planned use of case studies as a methodology. Probably due to my lack of a social science background, I have found this inbuilt mistrust of a research method hard to understand. I decided to do some reading around this issue, hoping that I would find that other people’s misgivings might well be ill placed, and that I would be bolstered by some case study kindred spirits.

In Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research Bent Flyvbjerg recognises a common opinion about case-study research: that a single case study cannot be used to generalise to a wider context. Whilst this is true, I am of the same opinion as Bent, in that I think this indicates a misunderstanding of the case-study, rather than a shortcoming. For me, the case-study is essential to my research, as it can provide the most practical, and as Bent describes, context-dependent knowledge. Without testing and analysing my ideas in context, I do not believe I could have confidence in their results. I wouldn’t use this knowledge to generalise, but to provide the necessary tried and tested results.

Essential practical research

When thinking about the research design that I might employ, I have always seen the case-study part as the bedrock of my work which I can build a theoretical framework from. My aim is to apply a set of impact methods and tools to different contexts, ie subject areas, in order to build a framework which can then be used by researchers from any discipline to increase and measure their social impact.

Customise, don’t generalise

I think the key thing to focus on here is that my framework will be designed with the intention that researchers can customise it: I am not using case studies to generalise across the board, but am using them to produce tried and tested methods that can then be applied where appropriate for the researcher. Hopefully, this combination of context-dependent case-studies and the customisable design of the framework, will make for a very practical and transferable toolkit.

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!

A journey of justification

 

Qualitative Research Journey Map

Qualitative Research Journey Map

Reaching a crossroads

I haven’t posted for a couple of weeks, and it was whilst trying to get to sleep last night that I realised why – I have hit my first crossroad in my research journey. Now, anyone who is further down their PhD path than me (which is most people, considering my start date isn’t until January 2014!), will nod sagely at this point and say ‘oh yes, crossroads, decisions, very tricky…’ and so on, as you will have no doubt experienced a veritable avalanche of sticking points during your work that you have had to navigate around.

For me, this first one has been some what of an education. After some great advice during my last mentor meeting around starting to think about methodology, I schlepped off to the library and borrowed a RIDICULOUSLY heavy stack of tomes covering everything from methodology to research design and statistical analysis. Having allowed this stack to sit next to my bed untouched for the appropriate 4 days, I started leafing through and trying to pick out appropriate parts that I could relate to my work.

And that was it. That was where I went wrong and fell head first into a week long fug within which I couldn’t see any relation between these theories and my subject area, or how I could link the two. It felt like I had to choose between researching my subject area, or conducting my research in a way that fit into an appropriate frame or method. I couldn’t see a way to reconcile the two. I’m sure this is very common (and please do share your experiences of this with me if you can), but it was nonetheless very off-putting and had me doubting my choice of subject area late into the night.

Shifting my thought process

That said, it seems sometimes it is necessary to just ride these doubts out as, whilst on the bus this morning indulging in some Tom Waits, I realised that perhaps I needed to stop looking for an existing link between my subject and this methodolodgy theory, and instead consider the theory as a support for my work. The two views might sound similar, but that little shift in thinking has really helped to clear my head. This way, I can concentrate on my research and call upon the support of the theory as and when I feel it is needed, rather than struggling to align the two at all times.

As soon as I realised this it reminded me of something I had heard my supervisor say about how defending your research isn’t necessarily about defending what you choose to say, but defending why you chose to say it in that way. In other words, I can use methodological theory to justify my decisions along my research journey, and show that they have been carefully constructed turns along the path, rather than knee jerk reactions to an unsuspected corner.