Sculling (part 1)

Sculling:  a term used in swimming.  Sculling is a safety skill taught to beginners, where you move your hands in a repetitive figure of eight, allowing you to stay afloat in a horizontal position. Useful in preventing drowning, but you’re still stationary.

The Christmas break started with me submitting a 5,000-word writing task, set by my supervisors on two very specific questions. A colleague told me recently that you live with the PhD for the whole time you are doing it; even when you are not ‘doing’ it, you are thinking about it. She was right, of course, so in-between wrapping presents and letting my son eat advent calendar chocolate for breakfast, I kept things ticking over. More reading about gender and sport, and broader social research methods texts, notably Bryman, Bell and Flick.  I also used the time to update my research diary and go back over lecture notes and slides, in case I had missed anything useful. New discoveries in my holiday reading included Bourdieu and Gramsci, both a revelation, and not just because I was beginning to worry that I would never escape from Foucault.

I wasn’t due to meet with my supervisors again until a couple of weeks into the new year, at which point we would discuss my writing task and submitting my ethics application. You can’t start collecting your data until you have confirmation from the university that your research has been approved by an ethics panel, so it’s a pretty important element to have completed in your first year. So, with my son back at school, and the Christmas decorations stored away, I busied myself with some preliminary reading, including the university’s policies and procedures. I had naively imagined the process of writing an ethics application to be the ‘easy’ part of my first year. Some hoop jumping, yes, but a straightforward job. You will see very shortly how that thought turned out.

The January meeting with my supervisors to discuss my writing was disappointing. Whilst they are always kind, generous and diplomatic, it was clear that the standard of my academic writing was under par. My sources were outdated, and I had failed to fully grasp how much the landscape had changed within (and outside of) my research area since the 1990’s. I had done what all inexperienced researchers do and tried to cram in everything about my topic. The result was that most of what I wrote was stale and irrelevant (my words, not theirs). There was little writing to salvage from this exercise, and I left feeling like I had wasted everyone’s time. I know that a PhD takes (at least) three years, and part of that process is the getting better aspect, but criticism is hard, no matter how constructive and necessary it is (and it is only ever these things from my supervisors). Advised to go away and start the ethics application, my confidence was low. I went for a swim and cried under the water.

I spent the next day typing up my notes and listening to the recording of the meeting. Take home point: if your supervisors are ok with you doing this: do it. Listening back,  taking notes, I was better able to isolate the positive comments, digest them, and use them to plan my next steps. I understood what the point of the exercise had been: to get me to realise the importance of reading more current texts, to be able to better frame and then box off the broader aspects of my research, and get right down, quickly, to what I wanted to say. Writing 5,000 words of something that I would never use served the essential purpose of allowing me to let go of my master’s dissertation and move on. When I write about preparing for the APR process in part 2, this will make more sense. But there’s more, and walking along the beach later, mulling it all over, it was obvious. I’m not working hard enough. I’m still not swimming. I’m sculling.

I started the ethics application. Putting together an ethics proposal application is like reworking your research plan. There are helpful headings on the form, and like your research plan, these components are generic: context, aims, purpose, recruitment, data collection, data analysis, possible ethical issues, data storage and confidentiality, all within a reasonable word count. But it’s like writing about the future, and difficult to grasp exactly what you include, and what you don’t. I read examples of applications and the university guidelines but I was still finding it hard to understand exactly what I should include under each heading. I wrote it all up, with a sense of work incomplete.

It was woefully incomplete.  We had another meeting which left me feeling as if I was still not up to scratch. How could I have missed so much? Interview styles, and what qualitative research actually means, and why I’m using it. Note taking and the message it (might) give. Surely the panel know what I mean anyway? As one of my supervisors said, submitting a bad ethics application is, well, unethical. I went home, typed up my notes and listened to the recording; cried again, and went for a walk. I was still sculling.

I spent the next two weeks turning myself inside out. I read a lot of books on interview techniques, qualitative research and methods, recruitment and thematic analysis. I pulled everything apart, rewrote it all and picked over every single sentence. What exactly do I mean when I use this word and not that,  and why? I spent hours working out what the difference between ‘grassroots sport’ and ‘everyday sport’, whether my ‘gatekeepers’ were infact ‘facilitators’ (they became ‘informal gatekeepers’ in the end, should you care). Why am I suggesting face to face interviews and not telephone interviews?  Why might some participants rather not be anonymous, and how do I facilitate that? I changed the title of my research question because I realised that it didn’t do justice to my research plan – and understood why. I weighed it all up, thought about every single eventuality and made provision for it happening. I designed recruitment posters (with the help of a much more talented friend), and after care letters, spreadsheets with organisations and networks who I wanted to approach. In short, if I was including it, or thinking about including it in my research, I explained why. And even when I had done that, I looked at it all again, and added more minute detail. I wrote and rewrote and polished it and squeezed the supporting literature.

You may be wondering why I wasn’t doing this already, right? On a bad day, I do too. On a good day I tell myself that you don’t really know how much more you must do until you submit something and see what your supervisors think. And asides from all this invaluable insider information from your supervisors, you have nothing to measure your own quality against, other than work by fully-formed academics. In short – work harder.

Luckily this experience ended well. The quality of my next submission was good enough, and bar a few tweaks, my supervisors were happy for me to submit it to the ethics panel.  My supervisors questioned some of my changes but supported my reasons. For the first time since starting the PhD, I honestly felt as if I might have a small chance of understanding what I’m doing. And the ethics panel thought so too, because it was approved with one small change.

One happy accident worth mentioning: when I submitted the paperwork to the panel, the research administrator suggested I approach those organisations I wanted to work with now and ask if they would be interested in helping once ethics had been approved. I duly did this and sent her copies of the emails from willing organisations.  This went down very well with the panel, who felt it demonstrated thorough forward planning. It also saved me time, and I owe that administrator a drink, because it was her idea, and not mine.

What I have learnt from going through the ethics application process is this: writing a good one takes much, much longer than I had imagined (for me!). But I have come through the other side feeling like I really understand the mechanics of my research, and why. I feel strongly connected to my PhD for the first time, and a little bit more confident. The thrill of my ethics proposal being good enough is monumental.

It’s a relief to finally feel the difference between sculling and swimming, for a while at least.

Part 2 ‘Negative Splits’, about APR panic, conferences, student HUBS and rep’ing, coming soon.

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