Negative splits – a swimming term which means you swim faster for the second half of the distance than the first.
This post is dedicated to Professor Katherine Johnson, who supervised me in the first year of my PhD. Katherine has been, and continues to be, a huge influence on me, and her support and advice was more than I could have hoped for at the beginning of such a massive life change. Katherine has taken up a new post at RMIT University in Melbourne, where she will continue to build and create pioneering research around LGBT mental health and trans youth.
After the high of my ethics being approved in April came a succession of tasks, each of which was intense and involved me being incredibly busy until July. So busy in fact that it’s taken me until mid-August and to write about it, and ironically, I’m doing it on holiday, in-between twice daily swimming marathons with my son and partner, and consuming vast quantities of food.
Tasks have included data gathering, designing a poster and helping out at the University’s fantastic Festival of Postgraduate Research (the poster competition was won, I am thrilled to say, by my PhD BFF, Kristin O’Donnell). I also gave a dry-mouthed presentation of my literature review at the annual Psychology of Women and Equalities Section conference, sat on two panels, am still a PhD student rep on two university groups, am arranging for speakers to visit Brighton as part of the University’s Centre for Transforming Sexuality and Gender programme, attended three seminars, heard Juno Roche read from their fantastic book Queer Sex, went to one research methods training day, helped out with the 2018 Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex Conference, and the real biggie: my annual progression review, or APR.
Quite a to do list, right? When anyone asks you why a PhD takes so long, above are some of the peripheral reasons. You will be relieved to know that I am only going to write about data collection and the APR, because quite frankly, you have busy lives. But the one thing I will say is this: try and get involved with events when you can. Check with your supervisor what you need most; I know that I need lots of research methods training. Not only is it good experience, but networking and leaving the house are quite nice too. As a wannabe social scientist, I sometimes forget that engaging in society in real time, with real people, is quite important. I have written before about the importance of seeking out voices outside the academy – activism is always way ahead of academia, and I am lucky enough to be researching in an area which has a generous, vibrant and informative social media presence. Once more for the back: don’t dismiss those voices talking about issues on other platforms. I am eternally grateful to those artists and activists who generously share their thoughts, feelings and work, in particular to Fox and Owl and the work they do at My Genderation, making films about trans people, which are made by trans people, for a wider audience.
Data collection – otherwise known as talking to people – has been my ongoing focus since my ethics was approved. Getting my ethics done early has meant that I have been able to contact the organisations and networks who I hoped would gatekeep for me and pass on my request to potential participants. Responses can be slow, and if, like me, you need to focus your time and brain power on the hard stuff which is just around the corner, the sooner you can gather your data, the better. Also – and it’s understandable – not everyone who gets in touch with you will end up as an interview: I am currently seeing a 50% take up. If you can use social media, then this can be helpful: a few of the organisations I contacted were happy to tweet stuff which I then retweeted, and this got picked up people who have direct links to the people I wanted to reach, so it’s worth having a digital copy of your recruitment poster to hand. Don’t rely on the internet, though, you need to be reaching out to communities too, not relying on them to do the work for you.
My first interview was kindly arranged for me as a pilot by my supervisor Dr Nigel Jarvis and went better than I could have hoped. I was nervous about meeting them; would my recorder work, would I recognise them, would I say something massively inappropriate? But once we had got the formalities out of the way (my lack of experience showing massively as I fumbled over consent forms and niceties), it was a wonderful experience, often emotional and at times laugh out loud funny. My top tip: take tissues and don’t turn off your recorder until the conversation is definitely over. Amateur that I am I kept turning it off and asking my poor interviewee to repeat themselves.
Since that first pilot in May, I have completed 9 more, 7 of which have been by telephone. Don’t dismiss telephone interviews: they are just as rich as in-person interviews, and often allow for different disclosures. They also allow more flexibility as an interviewer (no travelling!) and as a parent, they’ve been invaluable. Gina Novick (2008) writes brilliantly about the benefits of telephone interviews in qualitative research, so her piece is worth reading. My other tip is to log every person: when and how they contacted you, where they saw your advert, and all communication. This helped me to remember to gently nudge those who dropped off the radar without hassling them and get an idea of which places worked well for recruitment. I also made notes about how I felt the interview went and any key themes. Whilst this will all come flooding back when you transcribe, (oh god, the transcribing), a bit of housekeeping now will be beneficial for your methodology and reflection later. Oh, and another thing – be willing to send your consent forms and any other paperwork in the post with a SAE to the person you’ve interviewed. If someone is generous enough with their time, it’s only polite to make the admin as easy as possible for them.
I’m enjoying data gathering – talking to people – immensely. It is nothing like I thought it would be. It’s often funny, sad, difficult to hear, occasionally shocking, but so much of what I am hearing is deeply intertwined with other themes that I’m finding it hard to know where to start unravelling it all. I’m also mindful of how my findings can be disseminated back to the community who have been so generous in sharing it with me in the first place. Alternative methods may be more interesting and easier to digest than more traditional methods. I guess that’s the point of qualitative and social research. You have to know when to shut the fuck up and listen carefully to what the other person is saying.
Which brings me neatly to my annual progression review. The APR has been on my mind since October and it is, essentially, a review of your progression on the PhD, taking place roughly 8 months in. But what does progression mean? Simply put, it’s sitting in a room with two academics – readers – who will ask you about your research. Do you seem to have a handle on your research? How’s your theoretical framework? Where exactly are you locating your research, Abby, sport or gender? As I have mentioned before, I’m a compliant soul, and I work best (or at least I feel best) when I have a clear guideline on what I have to do. I like word counts and feedback, deadlines and a manual. This compliance is also my undoing, and I am aware that my contribution to knowledge needs to be original, and right now, everything I do is pretty text book. I don’t think outside of the box very often and when I do, it’s normally by accident. For me, knowing what the APR guidelines were, helped me to plan what I needed to do. As always, there is a huge amount of reading and writing – 10,000 words as well as evidence of your engagement with your studies. Remember the advice I gave about keeping a Research Diary? Well, here’s the proof that it works, because I was able to check back and see what I had done this year and log it all in a neat little spreadsheet. Every tiny thing from my to do list and more became my evidence. It doesn’t have to be the same for you – this is my PhD after all – but that little diary just about saved my life. It was my proof, it was a record of what I had ‘done’ this year. If you do one thing – keep a research diary. I have Dr Mark Erickson to thank for that top tip.
What was useful with this admin, was that it freed me up to write those 10,000 words for my APR, and this is really what your readers are going to ask you about. But as prepared as I was, the review was hard in places, but weirdly enjoyable and supportive. I also had one of my supervisors, Dr Rodrigo Lucena De Mello with me, which was great for my nerves and my confidence. He couldn’t talk, but the smiles and nods and the massive hug afterwards were worth the silence, as well as offering clear and positive feedback, because I had forgotten EVERYTHING the minute we left. Everybody’s APR is different, but my advice would be not to worry too much. It’s a process designed to help you tease out what you may suspect you are struggling with. And you know what, you might even enjoy it.
My desperation to join my son swimming right now seems a good enough reason to conclude this post, and with it my first year of the PhD. It can easy to feel like you have not ‘done’ anything when you study for a PhD, but looking back, it’s not a bad start.
Coming next: Year 2.