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.

Doing a PhD – Year 2

Last year I was part of the Bristol Doctoral College, Year in the life of PhD blog, which involved providing one blog per term on what it is like to do a PhD. Whilst I’m not involved again this year, I thought I would carry on the practice of blogging about the PhD process and my progress. So here I am, just beginning the second year of my PhD and it seemed like a good time to reflect on my first year and look ahead to what this year will involve.

My first year started with taught courses and assignment writing, continuing my learning on research methods. These pretty much occupied me full time for 4 months and wasn’t quite how I’d wanted to begin my PhD! However, on reflection, I can certainly see the benefit of having to do them as I have used much of the knowledge gained during that time to help me develop my research further.

After completing (and passing) all the assignments it was onto some theory, well quite a lot of theory actually. In my usual logical, methodical manner I decided to start at the beginning and read my way through a logical sequence. Which basically meant starting with theories of the policy process (of which there are many), moving onto agenda setting theories (lots of those too) and eventually focusing in on Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework. This then took me on to theories about multiple levels of governance, models of governance, power theory, community power and local leadership. Which is quite a lot of theory to get to grips with, but kind of covers most of the issues I think I need to know about or at the very least it provides a good starting point.

Having buried myself in theory for a few months, I then needed to do more work on my research approach and the methods I wanted to use. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do but needed to build this into a coherent approach based on some recognisable ontology and epistemology. This took some serious thinking, as my practice based brain struggled to work through some of the more detailed philosophical arguments about methodology and approach. But I got there in the end, mostly thanks to the grounding in research methodology provided in my MSc course and the additional 3 units I took at the beginning of the year. This together with the work of Rod Rhodes, on interpretive political ethnography, was enough to convince me that I knew where my research would fit and how I should go about it.

My MSc Graduation

My MSc Graduation

Then came the point when I was finally ready to put together my progression review/upgrade documentation. This is a key point for any PhD student, where they are formally assessed to see if what they have done so far and plan to do is good enough to allow them to carry on with a PhD. For me this meant providing a total of 15,000 words on my research approach and on some key elements of theory, together with completing the progression review form. I could easily have written 30-40,000 words at this point, so my main challenge was narrowing it down and deciding what to submit for consideration. The next step was the Panel Review Meeting. I approached this as a great opportunity to discuss my research with some senior academics, who could help advise me on how I might improve what I was proposing and who could challenge and question elements of my research. Whilst potentially daunting, it was a really positive discussion, with two extremely helpful and supportive academics. I learnt a lot about my own understanding of some of the issues and about some of the assumptions I hadn’t realised I was making. I also learnt a little more about positioning my research, defending positively what I was proposing and discussing points of interest.

I came away from my review meeting with a lot of issues and ideas whirling round in my head and even more theory to consider (social practice theory in particular). But I did come  away feeling pretty positive, I’d had a good discussion, received some positive feedback and once I’d submitted a bit of additional information, was told I could continue with my PhD. Good news indeed!

During the year I also submitted my application for ethical approval of my research, another key point in any research project. My research will involve interviewing elite actors, potentially ‘shadowing’ them and using participant observation. It’s a form of interpretive political ethnography, that combines methods to try and understand things from the point of view of the participants of the study. It’s also based on a small case study in Bristol, where I was previously a local councillor and have been involved in various aspects of city life for many years. Thankfully, the response from the ethics committee was extremely quick and efficient, and only asked for a small amount of additional information which I was able to provide without too much extra work. I then receive the approval I needed, which was another key milestone for my PhD. Basically, that now means I am pretty much ready to go out and do my fieldwork.

This next year will mostly be about data collection, interviewing, observation, and document analysis. It’s going to be a busy year and the idea of starting my fieldwork is exciting but also daunting and a little scary. I’ve got a bit of work to do on developing my data collection and analysis strategy, making sure I am fully prepared (or as much as I can be) for my fieldwork, but I’m almost ready to go. This next stage involves not only collecting data but also thinking about how it works with the theory, about identifying the right people to speak to, the right events to attend and the right time to be involved. It means reading more theory, working out themes and issues, coding transcripts and analysing data as I go along. A pretty daunting set of tasks, but something I’m really looking forward to.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 10-12 months, burying myself in the Bristol Mayoral election process!

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 art of writing

The blog post that follows is a slight departure from my usual commentary on housing, policy and politics issues. It’s related to my phd work and comes from a blog I first wrote for the Bristol Doctoral College. I hope you enjoy it!

I’ve always enjoyed writing, even if I don’t always do it well. I find it a creative process, that brings to life all those thoughts and ideas, commentary and debate that whirl around in my head, but frequently have no real outlet. Writing has been a part of every job I’ve had, in different ways and for very different audiences. I’ve had to adapt and develop my own style to respond to the demands of others, and to work to other people’s deadlines that often serve to stifle my own creative process. But, nonetheless, I enjoy writing. I write for fun here on this blog and write contributions to local news websites and magazines, such as Bristol 24-7 and The Bristol Cable, and for the professional press like the Planner Magazine. All of these provide an opportunity to write about things of interest to me, sometimes related to my research but often not, where I can freely express my opinion. That’s part of the fun of writing.

Over the last couple of years I have had to get used to a different kind of writing, one that is more controlled and evidenced, that fits with particular conventions. Last year, when doing an MSc, back in the academic world for the first time in over 20 years, I had to complete formal assignments and a dissertation. This involved a form of writing that was entirely different to anything I have done in a long time. Then this year, embarking on my PhD, I have once more had to develop my style further into academia, a style change I find both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because my inclination is to keep things simple, use simple language and keep away from jargon. Rewarding because when it works and I can combine simplicity with complexity there is a real feeling of achievement.

My approach to writing is to see it as a creative output, something that occurs naturally for me in response to learning. After all, what’s the point of all that learning if you can’t share it with other people? A blank page, for me, is an opportunity to articulate and share, rather than something to be scared of. Writing is like creating a painting, there are different layers that are needed to build the picture, which on their own make little sense, but together they can evolve into something worthwhile, a masterpiece that others will enjoy. I view writing my PhD in a similar way. There are layers that I will write at different times, continuously throughout the process, that need to come together into a coherent story at the end. There’s a complexity to this writing process, in terms of debate and argument, analysis and detail. But there’s also a simplicity about it, where carefully crafted pure and simple arguments can be brought together into quite a simple story. A story that will grab the readers attention, and will slowly but surely take them through the complexity in a way that makes sense. In a way that brings them to your conclusions with a sense of understanding and agreement.

There’s lots of advice to students about how to write, much of which suggests you set yourself a daily writing target, which you then stick to no matter what. I can see why the discipline of this is important and why it must work for many people, but I’ve tried this approach and for me the writing that comes from it is stifled, boring and constrained. If I’m not in the mood to write, then forcing myself to write just doesn’t work. I’ve written assignments like that and when I go back to read them I can tell that it was forced rather than creative thoughts that made up the report or essay. The work is dull and it’s lacking in energy, even if the points made are the right ones, the style is very different. I prefer an approach that feels more creative, one that has routine, but is based on my preferences, rather than someone else’s (there’s a good discussion here on creating routine when writing, drawing on the work of Ronald Kellog).

When I first begin the process of writing something new I try to avoid the clutter and distraction of notes generated from my reading. I start with a blank page. I then try to form my thoughts on what I have read into a short discussion of key arguments, issues and themes. I do this without the clutter of referencing and acknowledging who said what and how. I do it from memory, from thoughts that occur to me from reading my notes and I do it when I am feeling creative and able to write fluidly. For me this works, most of the time! Of course, sometimes the creativity is just not there, it’s beyond my grasp, I can’t think where to start or how to structure my thoughts. I’ve come to recognise those times and instead I do something else with my time, like more reading, organising files, and literature searching. All the time continually mulling over the story I want to tell and trying to work out how I can construct it. I may also use this thinking and reflecting time to write something else, something less constrained, where I can write freely without the confines of academic convention – something like a blog maybe! Eventually, often after much reflection, I am ready to write and can go back to the writing that needs to be done.

The challenge of writing is an integral part of any PhD. The only advice I have on writing is to do what works for you, try different approaches and look back on what’s worked when you’ve written things before. But above all, enjoy it, it’s a precious opportunity to express yourself, articulate your thoughts and tell the story of your PhD for others to enjoy.

From methods to theory #phd

blog booksOver the last week or so I have been putting together a phd plan to identify what I need to do, and when, over the next 3 years. This is just the initial sketch and broad outline, but is a guide to setting more detailed objectives (a task I started today for year 1). The thing that struck me most is that 3 years isn’t very long. When you begin to break it down into small chunks of work to be done before you start the fieldwork, the first 12 months vanish very quickly under a myriad of literature, methods and planning. So it seems I’ve planned the next 3 years of my life in broad outline to fit my research requirements (note to self – must remember to plan in some holiday time!).

A couple of years ago, when I was out in the world of work, if you’d asked me what I would be doing next year, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, there was no long term plan to work to. However, if you ask me that now, I can tell you I will hopefully be doing fieldwork, deeply involved in research, attending meetings, talking to people and observing processes – at least that’s the plan, assuming I get that far!

One of the things I realised when drawing up my plan, is that I don’t really quite know what my research is about. Well I know the broad area I’m interested in and I know what I want to study, but I’ve a long way to go before I am fully cognisant with the existing literature in my field and before I fully appreciate the complexities of specific methods of research. I’ve started that process, but the learning process has only just begun. I’ve so much more to learn and so much more to read and understand.

Four months into this phd and I have mostly been learning about methods. I have had the ‘pleasure’ of attending more taught courses and writing more assignments – not actually something I had fully anticipated I would be doing and I have to say that reading about methods and methodology is not my favourite past-time. I do, however, understand why it is necessary, it has provided me with a good grounding in methodology to hopefully be able to make the right decisions about my own research, even if I found much of the reading entirely tedious. So it’s been a somewhat painful introduction to doing a phd and not an entirely positive 4 months really, but a necessary evil it would seem. I’m now looking forward to extending my learning beyond methods based information, into topic based reading and literature – that’s where my interest is and why I embarked on this process to begin with.

So, to the issue of what my phd is about. When asked that question, we are told we should be able to respond in a couple of sentences, after all we don’t want to bore people too much by going into too much of the detail! My phd is about agenda setting and policy initiation and change. It’s about local election processes and how people influence agendas and policy at a time of political change. It’s also about Bristol and the Mayoral election in 2016, with a particular focus on housing policy. That’s what I’ll be spending the next 3 years learning all about and I’m both excited and daunted by the prospect. A phd is an individual learning process and one where I am in the driving seat – if it all goes wrong there’s only one person who can sort it out, and that’s me! It’s challenging, which is part of what makes it worth doing, and it’s interesting as my phd brings together in one study the things that I find fascinating – housing, policy, power and influence, politics, Bristol – what more could you want?

From practice to academia – a personal conundrum

puzzle2This year, 2014, has been an interesting, inspiring and challenging year. It’s the year when I began the transition from manager and policy specialist in the practical world of business to enter the world of academia, as a student of policy. It’s not been an easy transition. The biggest struggle I have faced, and still do, is learning to think like an academic rather than a practitioner. My focus is still too much on identifying practical solutions and real answers to problems, on understanding things from the practitioners point of view and on reading about what’s actually going on in the world. I am beginning to realise my mistakes, but still find myself with an internal battle, between being practical and being academic. I know it’s not that clear cut, but it is how it feels sometimes!

The year started with me in the second term of an MSc in Public Policy and finished with me having completed my MSc and started out on a PhD (see my blog for Bristol University Doctoral College on PhD life). During the year I sat through 9 taught units, submitted 8 assignments (1 still to complete) and a dissertation – that’s a lot of writing, with a lot of reading to back it up! Some assignments worked better than others, some I spent a lot of time on, others less so – the marks frequently did not reflect the time spent writing them. The one consistent issue I found with my writing, which was probably highlighted most by my dissertation, was the battle I encountered every time when it came to focusing on theory. After 20 years of working in practice, focusing on issues and solutions, with theory a distant memory, I have found the relentless need to use theory as the basis of my work a real challenge. It’s just not the way I am used to thinking any more. So the conundrum for me is – can academic work be both academic and practical? In the field of public policy one would hope so, but the focus is still very much on developing or challenging theory.

If, for example, I was doing a phd on housing policy, do I need to know what is going on in the world of housing policy? Do I need to know what the different political parties are proposing, or what the latest think tank report is saying, or about the difficulties practitioners face when it comes to delivering new housing? Or, can I ignore all of that and focus entirely on theoretical developments, what other academics have written and how these models and theories can be challenged or developed further? In the academic world it appears to me that the latter is actually the norm in some disciplines, but is it right?

The obvious answer is perhaps that the theory is there to inform practice, that we need theoretical developments to help us understand what is going on in the real world. But surely that means we need to know what is actually happening in the real world as well? So the two worlds overlap and the battle begins as to where the focus really is. That’s my conundrum and challenge for 2015. In 2014 I had successes and failures with the concept – some assignments went well, whilst in others the battle was won by the practical side of my brain. As an example, I wrote my dissertation on barriers to affordable housing and found myself more interested in answering the question about what the actual barriers are and why they exist in practice, than exploring a particular area of the theory. So I used the research I did to actually answer the question, but largely without making full use of the beautifully crafted conceptual framework I developed at the beginning of the dissertation, which talked about Kingdon’s multiple streams framework coupled with central-local and local-local relations. Needless to say I didn’t quite achieve the mark I wanted and hoped for! But a valuable lesson was learnt the hard way – theory, theory, theory – the foundation of all academic work.

The challenge for me over the next year is to begin with the theory, to see theory as the foundation of my work and put the practical side of my brain into second gear for a while. Start with the reading on theories of the policy process, governance theory and housing policy, rather than political manifestos, think tank reports and actual government policy. Whilst also remembering that, for me at least, there has to be a point to my research, that it will have some purpose in the real world, as well as in the academic world – a tricky challenge indeed!!