Interpreting the first 3 years of my research journey. Part 1.

This entry is an attempt to ‘story out’ the first 3 years of my research journey (slightly more actually) which began when I began seriously thinking that it would be a good time to apply back in 2007. I am tackling this chronologically to create a prose map of what I’ve been through so far and the language you’ll find here should be relatively accessible, as I’m not standing on the formality that would normally go with a piece of reflective, academic work. I apologise in advance if there are typing errors, but I want to focus on my journey’s events and their effects on me rather than on accuracy.

I have always wanted to do a PhD but after my PGCE I was fed up of studying and my final teaching placement offered me a job so I took it. The desire to do further study did not go away, however, and I found myself doing various nightclasses and further qualifications (in counselling, for example). By the time I had decided to take a full time post in higher education my eating disorder had been exceedingly messy. I had led to my becoming unreliable, unpredictable and unpleasant and I really wanted to change. I had so much anger boiling away inside of me and that leaked out in unexpected and unhelpful ways.

The more I thought about it, the more the two ideas merged – I still wanted to engage in further study, I wanted to research and write (I was an avid reader anyway and there’s no point engaging in research if you can’t stand reading) but I also wanted to know more about other men who had experienced damaging relationships with food, body image, weight and exercise. It came to me instantly that I should combine the two. I talked to people at the university about doing a PhD, what that was like, what they’d found doing things part-time whilst working, what the funding opportunities were like if I decided to chuck work in and go full-time and so on.

By the summer of 2007 I found some information about proposal writing and had cobbled together my initial ideas. I saw a member of staff I had already gotten to know who worked in the academic school most closely aligned with how I wanted to study and they gave me great feedback and even suggested a supervisor they felt would be approachable. This was the first time that I discovered that I had trouble ‘letting go’ of my writing. I reworked and reworked that proposal and read more books and guides on effective proposal writing and it was the autumn before I finally summoned the courage to meet with my supervisor-to-be to talk over what I was suggesting as research.

He was very encouraging but it was January 2008 before I actually enrolled and began my work. The first 18 months were very difficult, not because of the research, though having a background in languages, teaching and counselling did not give me a sociological or psychological grounding so I felt I was running to catch up with some things. I wasn’t proud; I read basic level texts on sociological concepts and major thinkers in psychology.  I asked questions – lots of questions – sometimes really simple things that someone with an A level in those subjects would probably already have some knowledge of.

The thing that really hampered me most was the exceedingly poor provision of the research methods training I had to undertake. It was atrocious. Poorly conceived of, narrowly designed (for ESRC students, which of course is entirely necessary) and yet broadly applied to those who had no obligation to the ESRC. I was in an institution of higher learning, for goodness’s sake and no-one was questioning the systemic issues which led to such an appalling piece of preparation for new researchers, these were glossed over and swept under the mat. I was incandescent. Those modules alone, not my research, brought me so close to giving it up as a bad job. Yet, overall, it became part of the longer, deeper journey I had to make. I negotiated and confronted, I reasoned and toiled at something that the powers-out-of-my-control had contrived to make so utterly inapplicable to my research, skills set and working practice as a part-time student.

Put it this way, the Open University would have been appalled at the stultifying, archaic, slapdash, bureaucratic, incompetent way the provision was run. What is worse is that I am a huge fan of the uni – I know excellent teaching and learning goes on all the time but somehow the preparation to be a researcher was simply not part of that. Things have already begun to change since then but I can honestly say it is through my own resilience and my excellent supervision that I got through the first 18 months – as a full-time worker studying part-time without any study leave (my work does not allow it but they fund my PhD so that bit is very positive) I spent most of that time fulfilling the requirements of that diploma, so it felt as if things were slow to move at first. Even the research proposal that they made me write to fulfil the qualification was near useless – re-writing it for ethical approval was far more focused and purposeful.

Not giving up and snatching precious time to work on things that actually mattered to my continuing the research were crucial elements of moving forward. I discovered a note-taking package early on that was fully searchable, could incorporate all sorts of documents and was easy to maintain. I read and read to backfill my lack of research philosophy knowledge as I had a PG Diploma, not a Masters so far. What 2008 did for me was to build up my resilience and resourcefulness. I had to reinforce to myself that there would be time to truly focus on the research once I’d jumped hoops. I came up with a strategy to complete the research training in 18 months instead of two years.

I also found that belief in what you are trying to do is paramount. One of the modules required a literature review but I held fast and didn’t do it – my methodology relied on working with the hermeneutic circle of knowledge and understanding, my literature needed to be part and parcel of this transformation, not something that was neatly explored, packaged up and then set aside to get on with the business of primary research. I beavered away during evenings and weekends. I got the training I most needed: in content management systems, ethics and various useful skills (such as making documents and webpages accessible) in order to make my project work. I got a blog for the first time in my life – all these things were magnificently supported by the university – just not the pre-designed research training package!

By the end of 2008 I had completed or finished the substantive groundwork for 4 of the six modules I had to fulfil and had set myself up to be able to manage Internet Mediated Research (IMR).