Meet a researcher – Helen Kara
Today is special for two reasons. Firstly, it sees the launch of the Second Edition of Helen Kara’s excellent book ‘Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time Saving Guide’. And secondly it marks the beginning of a new series of blog posts where researchers tell you about themselves.
When I think about what an ideal researcher would be like it’s someone who is approachable, generous with their time and knowledge, well connected, compassionate, critical, thoughtful – and fun. Finding all of those things together in one person is a lot to expect, but Helen Kara is a role model in that regard and I can’t think of a better person to kick off this series of researcher profiles.
Helen’s trademark is making practical aspects of research accessible to all – not just in conveying complex information in easy to follow formats – but also in publishing via open access or low cost outlets which dramatically increases who is able to learn about getting research done.
Anyway, enough from me, I’ll pass you over to Helen with more about her research career to date – and of course details about her much anticipated second edition.
I did a research degree in the early 1980s, a BSc in Social Psychology at LSE, but I didn’t go on to pursue a career in research. I’m not even sure I knew there was such a thing other than lab work. In January 1999 I was asked to do a piece of research as a one-off. I agreed, did a reasonably good job, people got to hear about it and I was asked to do more. I realised I enjoyed the work, but that I needed to brush up on my skills, so I signed up for an MSc in Social Research Methods at Staffordshire University in September 1999. I graduated in 2001 but wasn’t finished with studying, so I went on to do a PhD at the Open University which I was awarded in 2006.
In 2008 I had the opportunity to help out an academic friend by doing some teaching at the Centre for Health Studies in Damascus, Syria. That was before the conflict and it was a fascinating, friendly city, proud of its history of religious tolerance. I was teaching qualitative research methods to Syrian doctors and it was an amazing experience.
On the whole, though, my clients were local authorities, charities at local, regional and national levels, and central Government departments. By the time I finished my PhD I had good networks all around the Midlands, where I’m based, and beyond. However, that changed dramatically following the change of Government in 2010. Within a year, almost everyone in my networks had taken early retirement, or redundancy, or been demoted to an operational post.
I didn’t want another career change so I needed to reinvent myself. In the last year of my PhD I’d decided I wanted to write a research methods book, and now I had the time. I also needed access to academic literature, and friends advised me to seek an honorary fellowship with a university. I looked online and found that the Third Sector Research Centre, at the University of Birmingham, was looking for visiting fellows. I applied and was accepted, and worked with a mentor with whom I published several short academic pieces.
I also published my first book in 2012 with Policy Press. Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide was launched at the British Library, a stroke of luck resulting from some voluntary work I had been doing for the Library. It received good reviews and, more importantly, got me some paid work. I’d had to take a part-time job in September 2011, to make ends meet, and I was anxious to give it up; by September 2013 I was able to do so.
As a result of a conversation at my book launch, I was invited onto the Board of the Social Research Association (SRA – I’d been a member for many years). There were a couple of roles available and I chose to lead on ethics. I was also increasingly active on social media, particularly Twitter, which led to some paid work from people who only knew me online.
My second book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, came out in 2015. I was lucky again with another book launch at the British Library, this time with a one-day conference attached. I say ‘lucky’ but actually it was a lot of work to organise, though I had help from the SRA and my publisher. Almost 200 people came from three continents and it was a terrific day. I still wasn’t earning much, but I was earning enough to live on and doing the work I love. Later that year I was invited to work in Calgary, Alberta. I gave a keynote speech at a conference in the Public Library and taught at the Universities of Calgary and Mount Royal – another wonderful international experience. Also in 2015 I became a Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for Research Methods. And in the autumn of that year, I received the most amazing honour, being the first fully independent researcher to be conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.
In 2015-16 I expanded into academic self-publishing with a series of short affordable e-books for doctoral students. The autumn of 2016 was an exciting time: I was invited to give a keynote speech at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, and taught creative research methods there and at La Trobe University too. Also, I prepared the second edition of my first research methods book, adding a whole new chapter and revising everything else including the title. It’s now called Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide – and is published today!
Now I’m working on my next full-length book which will be on research ethics. I’d really love for someone to pay me to write, but that will never happen. Fortunately I seem to be able to support myself, these days, through research and teaching. I hope to do so for the rest of my working life.