Your research story

Life plan from phdcomics.com

What’s your research story? Did you always want to be a researcher? Is it something you got into by accident? Do you actually wish you weren’t doing any research at all right now? Or do you feel while you might be doing research in your job you wouldn’t call yourself a researcher (or perhaps don’t feel you’ve earned the job title – yet).

While we’re all busy rushing ahead with our projects, studies, interventions, report writing, teaching etc we may never consider why we got into this area of work – or what the stories of those working alongside us might be.

This means we can miss out on considering what core skills we might be bringing to our research from things we have done or learned before, or do not share with others what the process of research feels like to us.

Research in the social and health sciences and development has the reputation of being dry, dusty and boring. But the stories of our research journeys often paint a different picture.

If asked to describe your “research story” or “research journey”, which doesn’t happen often enough, people are often encouraged to talk about the work they have done. To describe their topic, research question, methods, participants, findings and so on. Which is interesting, but what is not talked about as much and is well worth hearing is the backplot to all this work.

I’d like to hear from anyone doing research in the social/sciences, humanities, health and development. Wherever you are in your life/career, what have been your experiences on your research journey? You may be studying research methods at pre-university/college/A level, or be an undergraduate or postgraduate, perhaps someone doing research as an activist or advocate outside of academia, maybe you’re employed as a researcher on a project, or perhaps you’re retired but can look back over your experiences of doing research.

Here are some questions that might shape your reflections, or you can simply share the story of your research life in the comments below. You can talk about the research you’ve done, but I’d like it if you could talk more about how it felt to do this work, what you learned from it, and what you think others might find interesting from your experience that they won’t find out in any standard research methods text book or course. (Remember confidentiality and anonymity so don’t reveal things about participants, data or colleagues that aren’t already in the public domain). This exercise is to share our stories and experiences to give a broader flavour of what the life of a researcher is like. That way, other people who’re doing research or perhaps considering it as a job or teaching/telling others about it might be able to get a fuller picture of people’s lived experiences of the research process. [I have been asked if I am using these stories in my own research or subjecting them to any kind of analysis. The answer is no, I am not analysing them. I am collating them as an archive others might use in their own teaching, learning and personal reflections].

Things to think about….
– How did you know you wanted to be a researcher – or is this something you’re still unsure about?
– Did you even plan on this being a job/area of study for you?
– When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? Researcher? Probably not, so what did you want to be and how did you end up here?
– Would you call yourself a researcher?
– What are the skills, qualifications and experiences that have helped you on your research journey?
– If you could be something different/do a different job what would it be?
– What are the best and worst things about doing research?
– What are the things you’re most proud of about your research/studies/work?
– Would you encourage someone else to be a researcher/do research?

You might want to write a brief description or perhaps represent your story in a cartoon or drawing you’ve created. Maybe your story is better summed up in a single photograph you would like to share? Or perhaps you have a film of yourself talking about your research journey you’d like to link to.

Over to you……What’s your research story?

[Image is a black and white diagram of different stages that might occur along a person’s life, marked out in a linear fashion by significant events]

4 responses to Your research story

  1. Karen Price

    How did you know you wanted to be a researcher – or is this something you’re still unsure about?

    NO IN FACT IN MEDICINE THOSE DOING RESEARCH ARE CONSIDERED TO BE A BIT STRANGE OR ELSE CAN BE REGARDED AS FAILED CLINICIANS. AS A CLINICIAN FOR MUCH OF MY WORKING LIFE I WOULD OCCASIONALLY SUBSCRIBE TO THIS PREJUDICIAL VIEW. I BELIEVE NOW THAT I AM MORE INVOLVED WITH THE OTHER SIDE THAT THIS STEMS FROM A PREDILECTION OF STUDIES ON GENERAL PRACTICE BEING FEW AND FAR BETWEEN. TOO OFTEN SPECIALIST OR HOSPITAL PRACTICE IS RESEARCHED AND TEMPLATED ONTO GENERAL PRACTICE WHICH IS AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SPECIALTY AND CONTEXT. THE TRANSLATION OF BEST PRACTICE FROM ONE SETTING TO ANOTHER DOES NOT WORK WELL. THE OTHER THING THAT WILL IRRITATE A GENERAL PRACTITIONER NO END IS THE USE OF THE PHRASE ‘GPS SHOULD…….” I BELIEVE THIS ARISES DUE TO WELL INTENTIONED RESEARCHERS WHO MAY NOT HAVE EVER WORKED IN THE PRESSURE COOKER OF GENERAL PRACTICE AND MAY HAVE THE INTERPRETATION OF SOME NUANCE OR OTHER OF THE WORK A LITTLE OFF-SKEW.

    SO AS A CONVERT TO GP RESEARCH I HAVE NOW CHANGED MY VIEW SUBSTANTIALLY AND BELIEVE IT IS IMPORTANT THAT GP CENTRIC RESEARCH IS PERFORMED AND AT SOME POINT TRANSLATED AND INTERPRETED WITHIN THE CULTURAL SETTING OF THIS VERY UNIQUE WORKPLACE.
    – Did you even plan on this being a job/area of study for you?
    NEVER IN MY WILDEST DREAMS DID I THINK I WOULD END UP DOING RESEARCH OR A PHD.
    – When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
    ALWAYS WANTED TO DO MEDICINE AND HELP PEOPLE…
    Researcher? Probably not, so what did you want to be and how did you end up here?
    I HAVE BEEN A PRACTICING GP FOR MANY YEARS AND PARTICIPATED IN GP-COLLEGE COMMITTEES. VIA THIS INTERFACE I BEGAN TO UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT OF HAVING DATA AND ARGUMENT BASED AROUND RESEARCH TO ADVANCE MEANINGFUL GOOD POLICY AS OPPOSED TO THE IMPOSITION OF BAD POLICY. IN THE COURSE OF MY ADVOCACY FOR WOMEN’S LEADERSHIP IN GENERAL PRACTICE I UNDERTOOK A SMALL SURVEY. I HAD NO REAL IDEA OF WHAT I WAS DOING BUT WAS ASSISTED BY SOME MENTOR ACADEMIC GPS WHO THOUGHT MY RESULTS WERE INTERESTING AND WORTHY OF PUBLICATION. PUBLICATION DID OCCUR AFTER A SERIOUS PROCESS OF BEATING MY POOR METHODS AND POOR ACADEMIC WRITING INTO SHAPE. I WOULD SAY THAT REFINEMENT IS AN ONGOING PROCESS AFTER YEARS OF CONSULTATION NOTES WHICH ARE DEVOID OF ANY PUNCTUATION MEANINGFUL GRAMMAR AND WITH NO TIME FOR EDITING OF SPELLING OR TYPOGRAPHICAL ERRORS! DURING THIS PROCESS I WAS REFINING MY INTEREST IN A RESEARCH QUESTION AROUND PHYSICIAN WELLNESS AND INFORMAL LEARNING COMMUNITIES…WITH GREAT NAIVETY AND EXCITEMENT I ENROLLED IN A PHD.
    – Would you call yourself a researcher?
    THIS IS THE TIME WHEN I WOULD LIKE TO ASK THE QUESTION
    “ARE WE THERE YET?” AFTER HAVING BEEN INVOLVED FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW IT SEEMS TO ME THAT MOST PEOPLE ARE LEARNING AND REFINING IN AN ONGOING PROCESS. I HOPE THAT I AM THE SORT OF PERSON AND RESEARCHER WHO CAN BRIDGE THE DIVIDE BETWEEN CLINICAL PRACTICE AND RESEARCH WHICH MEANS I WILL FEEL SOMEWHAT CONFLICTED WHICHEVER HAT I HAVE ON. BEING ABLE TO BE NIMBLE AND COMFORTABLE WITH THAT HAT SWITCHING IS SOMETHING I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO.
    – What are the skills, qualifications and experiences that have helped you on your research journey?
    AS ABOVE. CURIOSITY. PASSION FOR MY PROFESSION AND ITS ISSUES. SELF DOUBT, WHICH I THINK IS AN OCCASIONAL ASSET AS LONG AS IT DOESNT GET OUT OF CONTROL, AS THIS CREATES SOME EAGERNESS TO LEARN MORE AND ASK QUESTIONS.
    – If you could be something different/do a different job what would it be?
    LUXURY HOTEL TRAVEL WRITER AND OWNER OF A FLEET OF PERSONAL AND PRIVATE LUXURY JETS AND A STAFF WILLING TO DO MY BIDDING… (DREAMING)
    OR
    HAMMOCK TESTER.
    – What are the best and worst things about doing research?
    TIME POVERTY. THE NEED FOR PROTECTED TIME. THE ABSORPTION IN THE TOPIC THAT CAN CROWD OTHER IMPORTANT THINGS OUT. AS I AM STILL PRACTICING AS A DOCTOR I FIND THE CONSTANT SHIFTS TO BE DIFFICULT TO MY THOUGHT PROCESSES. HOWEVER IT ALSO GIVES ME A REST FROM THE INTENSITY OF ACADEMIC THOUGHT. FITTING IN TIME TO EXERCISE MEDITATE AND RELAX HAVE BEEN PARTICULAR CHALLENGES.
    – What are the things you’re most proud of about your research/studies/work?
    RECEIVING A RESEARCH GRANT AND AWARD THIS YEAR. FINDING THAT DESPITE THE EXPLORATORY NATURE OF MY WORK THAT OTHER CLINICIANS ARE REALLY INTERESTED IN MY TOPIC. THAT ENCOURAGEMENT FROM MY PEERS HAS BEEN HUMBLING AND MOTIVATING.
    – Would you encourage someone else to be a researcher/do research?
    FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS AND PASSION. IGNITE YOUR CURIOSITY. PERHAPS TRY SOMETHING SMALL AND SEE WHERE THE ADVENTURE TAKES YOU. ABOVE ALL FIND GOOD MENTORS. I HAVE LOVED THE INTELLECTUAL PROCESS OF DISCIPLINING MY MIND DESPITE THE OCCASIONAL OVERWHELM.
    AT SCHOOL WE WERE TOLD COMMUNICATION SKILLS ARE EVERYTHING AND THIS IS STILL A GREAT TRUTH REGARDLESS OF THE SERIOUSNESS OF YOUR TOPIC OR THE GREATNESS OF YOUR STATISTICS OR METHODS: COMMUNICATION IS THE RESEARCH NIRVANA AS IT IS IN NEARLY ALL FIELDS I CAN THINK OF. DEVELOPING MEANINGFUL RESULTS FOR THE GREATER GOOD AND COMMUNICATING THOSE BACK TO YOUR FIELD IS A PRIVILEGE.
    THANKS PETRA

  2. Emma Sheppard

    I did not set out to be a researcher. Being a researcher was not The Plan, not even close to The Plan. The only bit of The Plan I’ve managed to fulfil is the adoption of dogs and a tortoise.

    Through a series of events – including failing out of university once, becoming disabled, and deciding to do a masters because I couldn’t get a job – I ended up doing my masters dissertation into the impact of acquired disability on queer identities, and I chose to interview people. I really loved doing interviews, and I really loved the writing. It wasn’t until I was partway through my dissertation that I conceded maybe, just maybe, I should try to do a PhD, even though I was pretty certain nobody would be interested in talking about kinky sex and disability except kinky disabled people, and I had no idea how I was going to pay the bills either because I still didn’t have a regular job (I taught EAL on a series of short-term and insecure contracts, it was rubbish).

    It turned out doing a PhD – which I am still doing – was a plan. I call myself a researcher now, although it feels a bit weird, but “student” doesn’t fit, and nor does “teacher.” I am still teaching, except now I teach international foundation-level students within a university, and Sociology, rather than EAL, and it turns out I love teaching, almost – but not quite – as much as I love research. I even have a Post-PhD Plan!

    The best thing about doing research is actually doing the research – or at least the fieldwork. I meet so many brilliant, insightful, genuinely fantastic people, and I get to ask them weird, nosey questions. I’m professionally nosey. The worst though, that has to be writing, even though I love it, because writing can be difficult and painful (emotionally, and in my case, physically). There are other things that are pretty rubbish about doing research, but they’re more about the administrative side of things, the form-filling, the financial cost, that I am not financially stable even though I’m thirty, and that I’ve had to include a timeframe for when I am going to quit trying to be an academic into my Post-PhD Plan, because I know there’s a good chance that I won’t get the sort of job I want, but I don’t think I can survive the instability for more than a few years more.

    I don’t know if I’d recommend becoming a researcher for that reason, actually. I went to a seminar a little while back, about alternatives to academic research, and one of the things I took away with me is that the sort of jobs available are not ok if, like me, you find instability really difficult to deal with, or don’t like changing jobs frequently – or you’re disabled and find that kind of “fast paced environment” really difficult, which is what I also struggle with, I have to work at a slower pace than lots of people. I wouldn’t want to stop someone doing research, particularly not if they love what they’re doing, because it is great and I love it too, and I really like working with people who also love what they’re doing and get excited about their research and other people’s research (this is why I love academic twitter, and sometimes conferences). I just think we need to talk about the downsides as well as the brilliant bits.

    There’s so much that I’ve done that I’m proud of, in my research (doing a week as @wethehums on twitter was great), but also in my work. I’m always really proud when my students’ get into a topic, or make progress – for example, last year, I had a quiet student, who blossomed and did this amazing presentation on LGBT rights in her home country, and it was clearly something she cared about, and she put so much work into it, and seeing her self-confidence grow was amazing. When it comes to my research, I got ridiculously over-excited the first time I saw my name in print in a journal – under a book review – and I’m always proud when I get good feedback at conferences. I also mentored a young person with Arts Emergency, and I cried when she got her A-level results earlier this year and went off to her first choice of university last week – it’s not directly related to my research, more my being a researcher and teacher, although I’m a mentor because of what I do and my political beliefs, ant it is something I’m incredibly proud of doing.

  3. Helen Kara

    I didn’t plan to be one either. In fact my story is very similar to Emma’s above, except that I have never aspired to being an academic. I’ve been happy as an independent researcher for the last 17 years, and hope to be one for the rest of my working life.

  4. Sarah Howcutt

    According to my mother, when I was seven I announced at a family gathering that when I grew up I was going to be a pregnancy test advisor…

    Like many of the replies above, I did not set out to be a researcher at all. I did an odd degree (Latin and Medieval French) at Oxford University which made it very difficult to persuade people that I could be any earthly use to an employer. After a short career as an academic librarian (for which I was too loud), I trained as a primary school teacher. My first teaching job was in a school which was full of youngsters that other schools did not want. I loved it because every day was an intellectual challenge and these children inspired me by their thirst to learn, despite the abuse and neglect that many of them faced. However, when I had my children, I could not return to that setting, as the children I loved to teach needed more stability than someone working part-time could provide. So I did an Open University degree in psychology and went back to teaching in a Further Education College. This time as a psychology lecturer.

    One year my current employer could not offer me enough hours, so I started to look around for a part-time job. To my great surprise, I applied successfully to become a research assistant on a project about validating the Alcohol Use Identification Test with young adults. It was not a topic that had grabbed my interest before; with my background in teaching I thought that I would work within educational research. I am still unsure why I even applied! I found that I loved the problem-solving of getting a research study to work to address a research question, within time and budget. I was very fortunate that the academics in charge of the work gave me opportunities to shape the work and to try out my writing. In fact, they saw something in me and have continued, to this day, to encourage my research career, while still recognising my need to teach too. Through them I learned that to succeed in research, you need to persevere and must also recognise when you need others. I have always been impressed that these talented academics would be happy to ask for help from people much more junior than themselves, if the work needed a different skill set. I feel very sad when I see other researchers who are so worried about their work being stolen that they are not willing to collaborate.

    As a working mum, I have mixed feelings about a research career. I love the challenge and I know that my children are very proud of what I do. They talk about my work a lot and I am frequently invited in to schools to take classes and assemblies about my projects. The job allows me the flexibility to attend events with my children but at times it takes me away from their lives when I am buried in writing or deadlines loom. I love the mix of research and teaching (I am also an associate lecturer for the Open University) because I believe that I am a better tutor because I live and breathe what I teach. Moreover, my students energise me and provide new perspectives on my research, as well as much-needed distance.

    Following the challenge of recruitment in my projects as a research assistant, I am now doing a PhD to try to work out how to identify, reach and engage young, underrepresented women in research about their health. I have called this the ‘B’Counted!’ study because I am asking women to share their ideas with me so that their views count in how we design research to increase the amount of data that we have to inform what we do within public health. I know that I am privileged because I am doing a project that feels worthwhile, with supervisors whom I respect and who treat me with respect. Those factors make the job exciting and stimulating.

    In short, to anyone considering a career in research, my advice would be to find a project that you love (because it will take over your life) in a work setting that you also love (because you will need to draw on others).

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