Getting the story right – the final phase of my PhD!

wordcloudJulyI’m now entering the final phase of my PhD! Now that sounds vaguely ridiculous as it only seems like yesterday that I started. But I am now at the point of finishing off my fieldwork and beginning that rather daunting bit that means I have to try and make sense of it all. For me it still feels like I don’t know much, like there is so much reading still to do and so much data to make sense of, that it’ll take years to get to that end point of the completed thesis.

This middle stage, the second year, has been fun, manic, challenging, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It’s involved talking to and interviewing people I have never met before, as well as many I know well. It’s involved taking up other people’s time, often at times that are most busy for them. It’s also involved a significant degree of personal learning, confidence, engagement, listening and energy. There were times when I have felt stretched beyond what I could cope with, completely out of my comfort zone, bombarded with information and exhausted from long days and late evenings full of meetings, interviews and debates. There have also been times when I’ve felt extremely grateful for how cooperative people have been, energised by what I have heard, motivated by discussion and a fair amount of empathy for the people who have shared their challenges with me.

There have also been times when I’ve wondered whether or not the questions I am asking are the right ones, whether the information I am gathering is actually what I need. In fact there have been many times when I have wondered about that and indeed still do – only time will tell.

I guess I’ve reached that stage now where all of those questions and self doubt begin to take centre stage, where a year to analyse data and write up just doesn’t seem long enough. For me I know what I need at this stage, I need to be able to see the story that I’m trying to tell, the story that takes the reader through my research. At the moment I’m not quite sure what that is, but gradually as I write up notes, transcribe interviews, go back to the theory and keep reading and thinking, little parts of that story begin to emerge. It’s almost like it’s there, but just out of reach! There’s also possibly too much, too many different routes I could take through the data, that would confuse the main messages and reduce the main characters to a minor role. So picking out the right story and the right main characters is all part of the trick going forward.

At the moment, there’s a story about influential people and how they operate overtly and covertly to influence policy agendas. There’s obviously a story about the importance of elections in providing opportunities for policy change, where policy priorities are debated and framed before, during and after the election. But more likely there’s a story about personalities, about key influencers and decision-makers, their style and approach, as well as who they talk to and take notice of. There’s also something there about solutions, looking at the same solutions that keep cropping up, year after year, to the same problems, but never quite seem to gain traction, but just maybe they will this time? Add to this the role of party politics and the media in influencing the policy prioritisation process and you can see that there’s a lot to consider.

Whilst it’s a daunting prospect, I’m actually looking forward to the writing process. I love making sense of information, bringing it together in a story that others can read and hopefully enjoy. The process is inevitably frustrating, long and painful at times, but that moment when it comes together, when clarity appears and the story is just right, well that’s totally worth waiting for!

I feel privileged to have been able to take the time out to do this research, to have the support and help of so many people, it’s a far cry from where I thought I would be right now and I’m loving it (mostly). The School for Policy Studies at Bristol University have been outstanding in their support throughout. My two supervisors (Alex Marsh and David Sweeting) are just great, providing the questions, support, encouragement and nudges I need at all the right times. Others in the school have put up with me talking about my research, provided feedback, suggested reading and most importantly of all, provided me with the encouragement that says ‘yes’ I can do this.

So now it’s time to get on with it, to make sure I reach the end of my PhD journey.

Halfway point in an amazing journey

Word Cloud1Well that’s me, I have just reached halfway in my PhD journey. I’ve been doing this for 18 months now, which sometimes seems like forever and at other times seems like I only just got started. But that is it, I am halfway through my 3 year learning adventure, and what an adventure it is turning out to be. I’m sure most people will look at this and think really, at 50 you’re doing a PhD and seeing it as an adventure? But that is how I’ve seen it from the start, a learning adventure where I can develop my own thinking, find out more about an area of interest and just maybe by the end of it all, provide something that might be of use to others. It’s also something I’ve always wanted to do, but if you’d asked me 3 or 4 years ago what I would be doing now, it wouldn’t even have featured. That’s life for you, it has a strange way of providing us with the opportunities to do the things we want, we just have to recognise those opportunities and take those first steps to achieving what we want when we can. For me it’s also been about finding a positive out of a very negative situation, where that positive has now successfully eclipsed any negativity that existed.

I’m now at that stage in my PhD where I’m immersed in fieldwork. Where life has been taken over by a constant round of interviewing, observation, and meetings followed by transcribing, writing up field notes and setting up the next round of interviews. It’s relentless and I seem to have fallen a little behind with the transcribing – it is undoubtedly my least favourite activity at the moment, therefore gets put off all too often when other more interesting things spring to mind (even cleaning the house is preferable).

So far I’ve been pretty lucky with the willingness of people to participate in my research, to give up their time to answer my questions, to invite me into meetings and discussions and to provide me with information. Hopefully this will continue as it all helps to provide a true picture of what is happening and why.

Alongside all this actual data collection, there are of course other activities that need to be maintained. Like keeping up to date with what is being published on relevant areas of theory, that is certainly keeping me busy as various useful articles and books keep appearing. There’s also quite a lot happening in terms of government policy on housing, so I need to keep abreast of those changes too, and the commentary that goes with it. Add to that learning how to use Nvivo (software package for qualitative data analysis), setting up thematic codes and a coding framework, loading information into Nvivo and beginning the long process of coding each and every interview and set of notes, and you’ll see that I’ve been a bit busy lately.

The advantage of getting some training on Nvivo was that not only did it teach me to use the software, but it also meant I had to think through what my data was telling me. I had to really delve into the process of taking on board the themes and issues emerging from my data, relating them to the theoretical framework I had established and drawing both inductive and deductive themes and codes from theory and data to try and make sense of it all. This is a challenging process that I am only really just beginning, but it’s like doing a giant puzzle, where you know many of the pieces are there but you don’t have the picture that they’re suppose to make to work from. So you have to work intuitively, making links and finding relationships that work and help to form a picture that makes sense. But you also have to remember all that knowledge you gained from the theory and the methods you spent the previous 18 months learning about and use that to develop the picture, or the story you are trying to tell. It’s a fascinating process and at the moment I’m not quite sure where my story is leading me or what the final picture will look like. That’s all part of the adventure.

I realise at this point that I have succeeded in writing a post all about my research without actually saying what my research is about. So in brief, I’m looking at how policy gets prioritised, who and what influences the process and what different it makes in terms of what actually gets done. I’m looking specifically at housing policy in Bristol before, during and after the Mayoral election that takes place this May. There’s so much to say about this agenda, about how things change, how decisions are made, where the influence comes from and who holds the power. It’s certainly a fascinating time to be doing research on housing policy and how national changes impact locally and by fascinating I really mean challenging. The situation changes so rapidly as does the response from housing organisations, lobby groups, councils and delivery bodies as they find themselves having to adapt to the latest proposal or policy change from government.

This is currently my world, a whirl of data collection and analysis, an ever changing policy framework, new announcements nationally and locally and extensive media coverage of housing issues. I’m enjoying every moment of it during the here and now, whilst also looking forward and trying to anticipate the final picture and story that I’ll be able to tell.

Measuring Poverty and Living Standards

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorlling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

IMG_4039Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

What’s popular on the blog?

DSCN0141As I haven’t written much recently on my blog I thought I’d take a look and see what’s been popular over the last few months. I thought it might help me to decide what to write about next and see what people are interested in. So here goes, a bit of a mixture of topics, some older some newer seem to have attracted attention.

The most popular is actually one I wrote up after I gave a talk to some of my fellow PhD students in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. The talk was about using social media as a researcher and was aimed at trying to interest phd researchers in the notion of engaging with a wider audience, connecting outside of academia and entering the world of social media to promote themselves and their research. It was a tough audience as many academics are somewhat sceptical about social media. Not sure how my talk went down, but the blogpost seems to have been well received and remains popular!

The other posts that have hit popularity over the last few months include one I wrote back in May on devolution, a topic that is of course hitting the news again at the moment, and one I wrote in July about constraints on growth, another topic that seems to remain popular. More recent posts have been on the Bristol mayoral election and one on neighbourhood planning, both receiving quite a bit of attention. The full top five list is as follows:

It’s probably about time I wrote another one about housing, but it kind of feels like everything has already been said. It’s such a depressing time to talk about housing policy at the moment, as we slowly but surely watch it all unravel, being systematically destroyed by a government interested only in home ownership, whilst ignoring the very real housing need that exists in many of our cities and towns, which will never be adequately provided for by the private sector.

Social media for PhD researchers

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 11.28.55Last week I gave a presentation to a group of PhD students about how and why I use social media and what benefit it has to me as a phd researcher. I’m certainly no expert but I was able to talk through some of the reasons I use various mainstream social media and what benefit I think I get in relation to my research. I have uploaded the slides to slideshare so anyone can view them – Social media for PhD researchers – but I will go through some of the key points below as the slides on their own don’t really tell the whole story. I wasn’t the most enthusiastic student of social media when I first started out, it was a necessity of my job at the time, and I reluctantly engaged! But I soon became a convert when I realised the potential and the opportunities social media provides for engaging with a much wider audience than is possible face to face in one locality. In the last couple of years I have set up my own blog, developed my twitter account and signed up to ResearchGate, all of which I find really useful for keeping up to date with what is going on, engaging with others and for sharing information.

But where do you start? There is a world of social media out there that is ever changing and highly confusing if entering it for the first time. So first of all you need to think about why you want to use it and what social media can do for you. I engage with aspects of social media for four main reasons, all potentially important for new academics:

  • visibility – to get noticed, build reputation, and to network;
  • share information – it can be a great broadcasting platform, for research and ideas;
  • engagement – to join in and start conversations, participate in debate with others;
  • information gathering – it’s a personal newsfeed, a great way of focusing news information on what I need to know.

On Twitter you can connect with people with similar interests and with organisations and institutions who produce information relevant to your research. For me that’s think tanks, housing groups and organisations, research institutions, academics from across the globe, government departments and politicians. It’s a great way of collecting information and engaging with others who talk about the same stuff I do! It’s also a great way to raise your own profile in particular areas of interest and expertise, and to get yourself noticed.

Alongside Twitter I set up my own blog site, using WordPress. It was easier than I ever imagined it could be and whilst my site isn’t perfect I have gradually improved it as I have become more confident making changes and adding ‘widgets’. My blog is a space to talk about issues that I’m interested in, to  raise issues and ideas, to share my own reflections on reports and events and it’s a place to talk about my research. It is a great way of engaging with others and getting feedback on ideas or issues and it’s pretty effective sometimes at raising profile and making me (my thoughts, research and ideas) more visible. As a result of writing blogs and promoting them through Twitter I have had the opportunity to appear on TV and radio shows/debates, to write articles for local news sites/magazines and written comment pieces for the professional press.

It does of course take time and commitment. There seems to be little point in signing up to different elements of social media if you’re not going to use them, and if you’re not going to commit to spending some time engaging. This is a common concern amongst those who consider using social media and then don’t, because it will take up too much time! Well yes it can, but you have to think about what you are getting back from that time. For me it is definitely worth it, to have engaged with other PhD students, academics, think tanks and politicians, received feedback and comments, to share thoughts with others I might not meet, is all worth the time spent doing it. It also a very effective way for me to collect information and keep up to date. But I can see why people might be concerned. The simple answer is it takes up as much time as you let it, you’re in control of how much or how little time you spend engaging with social media, no one else!!

There are some things I wish I had thought about a little more before I started out using social media, that might have helped to focus me and to identify what would work best. For instance, thinking more about why I wanted to use social media and the audience I was trying to engage with, would have helped me to better identify the best tools. Instead my approach was a bit ad hoc, I carried on using the same ones I had used at work, only to find they might not be the best for what I am now doing. I joined new platforms, like ResearchGate, to engage with an academic audience and I changed the content I used and the platforms I used it on. I am still learning through trial and error what content works best on what platforms. I have spent some time thinking about what I want my public profile to look like and I change it occasionally, keeping some consistency across different platforms. I’ve also thought a bit about what success looks like and how I might ‘evaluate’ if social media is working for me.

I’d encourage PhD students to give it a go, but think about what, why and how first, then just get started and see how it works for you!

The grand finale to an amazing year – my MSc graduation!

IMG_1123I never quite believed I would make it and get to this point, but last week I attended my graduation ceremony. A fantastic finale to an amazing year. Doing an MSc in Public Policy at Bristol University after so long away from anything to do with the academic world was a real challenge but one I thoroughly enjoyed. The ceremony itself was spectacular, a lot of pomp and ceremony, but enthralling in its own way. A lovely day made even more special by the friendly service provided by all those that helped to make the event go so smoothly, and for whom nothing was too much trouble. I was initially in two minds about whether or not to even attend, but I am very glad I did.

IMG_1115After a year of hard slog and a pretty intensive work programme it was nice to receive some recognition and to celebrate the achievement with family and friends. My father and his wife enjoyed themselves, as did my partner. It was also great to catch up with class mates and lecturers who made the year so special. Without the help and support of so many of the staff, both academic and administrative, I would probably not have made it through and certainly would not have enjoyed my time so much. The discussion, debate, and challenge generated during lectures and seminars were something I had been missing for many years. The chats and discussions with fellow students, about life in Bristol, essays and assignments, and life back in their home countries, were endlessly fascinating and I learnt a huge amount from them. I have made some new friends, and despite the geographical distances, with many coming from China, Thailand, Canada, Azerbaijan, Denmark and Palestine, to name but a few. I hope we’ll keep in touch for years to come.

2015-02-12 13.49.47I owe a very special thanks to some amazing academic staff in the School for Policy Studies: Noemi Lendvai, David Sweeting, Alex Marsh, Sarah Ayres & Ailsa Cameron for their support and help throughout the year and to Emma Western and Andrea Osborn for getting me through the systems and processes and being so friendly and always willing to help.

I have written previously about what it was like being a mature student – My year as a mature student and One year ago today – so won’t repeat what I said then, but suffice to say the experience has been both enlightening and at times quite scary. It’s a year I’ll never forget and the graduation ceremony was a great way to bring it to a close.

2015-02-12 11.46.45

And now onto the next challenge – I am currently 5 months into a PhD programme, at the School for Policy Studies at Bristol University, and am just beginning to realise the very real difference between doing a Masters degree and embarking on a  PhD!

Back to work – blog summary!

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgSo, a cheeky little post here for those of you who managed to stay off twitter and other social media over the holiday period. I wrote four blogs over christmas and the new year, which you may have missed, so here’s a summary and list to make things easy for you as you ease your way back into work!

  1. Top of the blogs 2014 – a summary of my most popular posts throughout the year. They cover politics, housing, Bristol and economic growth issues, pretty much as you’d expect really. The most read, by a long way, is the one entitled “Time for grown up politics” a plea for a focus on issues rather than personalities!
  2. From practice to academia: a personal conundrum – where I discuss the challenge of trying to think like an academic after so many years out there in practice, using theory as the foundation of thought rather than experience. Not an easy balance to get right.
  3. Top of the blogs: my favourite reads – a collection of the blogs I read regularly, an eclectic mix that covers housing, politics, policy, planning and Bristol. I’d recommend all of them as a good read, informative and interesting.
  4. A housing wish list for 2015 – mischievously subtitled “what I’d do if I was in charge” this is a post about housing, in Bristol mostly, and what I would focus on as a priority if only I had the opportunity to influence things!

So that’s it, you are now up to date with my blog and ramblings over the holiday season. Now it’s back to work, which for me means writing another assignment!