Pressing the Buoy

– a swimming term which means that if you apply downward pressure on your chest when in a prone position, your hips and legs will rise as your body acts like a lever.

– (or trying to understand the importance of Methodology and Methods)

It’s no secret that I am a list maker and dig a deadline. So the first thing on my to-do list in early September was to meet with my new supervisory team. As my lead supervisor has taken up a new post in Australia, this was the first time we had met as a group. For anyone else who may have experienced a change of supervisory team (especially when it’s your lead supervisor who changes), please try not to worry. It can feel daunting, and unnerving (whatever stage you are at), but in an unexpected way, it allowed me the chance to come back to the new semester with the feeling of renewed ownership of my PhD.  My summer had been relaxing and I had been fortunate enough to have collected a good amount of data, and I was keen to get analysing.

My plan this year is to have two to three chapters (or around 30,000 words) written to a good standard, and for it to be all better written. That is, to hang together better. It’s hard enough keeping someone’s interest in an email: 80,000 words needs to flow in such a way that you never lose hold of your reader’s hand. So – a decent word count, and a higher quality of writing.

I based this on what I knew was expected in my secondary progression review, as well as what stage I was at with my PhD. My supervisors agreed that this was a good plan and were also very keen to read some of my data. By this point I had interviewed 12 people, so I finished transcribing these and emailed them. I know that everyone hates transcribing – so these are my two tips. Firstly, read Cindy Bird’s brilliantly titled piece ‘How I Stopped Dreading and Learned to Love Transcribing’, a fantastic read which heled me to appreciate the importance of this task as a researcher and as part of my methodological preparation. Secondly, make it as attractive as possible: I bought the software Express Scribe for £30 (you can try it for free first) and downloaded it to my home PC. It slows down the recording to a pace you can you type along to, rather than starting and stopping, which can be the most gruelling of jobs. Once I got used to sounding like the girl from the Exorcist, I was able to transcribe an hour of data in around three. It also allowed me to do it in my pyjamas and eat biscuits. Really, you need incentives.

We met again a few weeks later to discuss the data I had gathered, by which time I had completed another 6 interviews, bringing my total to 18. I was feeling that I had reached saturation point, and as my interviews were often over an hour long, I had a good amount to analyse. I think the meeting with my supervisors to discuss this data was one of the most powerful I have had: I was quite emotional at several points talking about people’s experiences and I found revisiting these conversations quite hard at times. The other thing was how important it is to consider yourself in the interview (and as a researcher), something which brings me nothng but acute great discomfort. A piece of advice from my supervisor Dr Hannah Frith: learn to live with the discomfort, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. More on this later.

So – what came next was writing my draft Methodology and Methods chapter. I was terrified about this, this is the scary chapter, right, the one with the theory and epistemology and ontology? ‘Inexperienced researchers’ writes Berg (2004), ‘often think the methodology section is the most difficult section to write’. And for me going in, it felt like that, so I am going to spare you my agony and instead, here are my top ten tips, based on what my supervisors advised me to do (and what I worked out along the way).

  1. This chapter is a sales pitch. You need to convince the reader that your research methods and way of seeing the world are absolutely the very best ones to get your research questions answered
  2. Start with understanding what goes in a methodology chapter. As always, Pat Thomson is invaluable for breaking this stuff down:
  3. Revisit your Research Plan and your Ethics Proposal – these are your original road maps
  4. You will feel like you are writing a research methods book
  5. Read other people’s methodology chapters and give yourself some headings to start off with (i.e. the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative research)
  6. Work backwards – if you have gathered data, write about exactly what you did, then build on it
  7. Be prepared to feel overwhelmed about the theory stuff – how much do you need to put in about social constructionism, relativism, feminism – and why? I felt like I was having to include stuff in order to justify my dismissal of it
  8. Be prepared to feel quite excited when you realise that you finally understand (a little bit), how all of this comes together, and why you needed a plan in the first place
  9. Take brain breaks, as my son calls them – preferably in the fresh air. Walk, think, run, swim, garden. Talk to the cat. Keep away from Netflix.
  10. Remember it is a draft.

Now – disclaimer time. Since posting this, I have had a supervisory meeting with feedback on my chapter. It was somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, so I’m going to write an update: watch this space.

In between all of this planning I was offered the chance to do some teaching – something I had not anticipated to happen, and it was something I had not initially wanted to do. PhD students are often offered the chance to run seminars, which are smaller working groups with students where you get to go into more detail about an aspect of the lecture. I was lucky enough to have two groups: one on research methods and one on contemporary social inequalities.

I was beyond nervous about these sessions, and I did what a lot of people do when nervous, which is over prepare. I put together slides, handouts, read everything the students were supposed to read and then some. Now, on reflection, I’m ok with this, I understand my own coping mechanisms. Much of what I did in research methods became an outline for my methodology chapter, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I found teaching to be one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. From a selfish perspective, it helped me to organise my thoughts and test my knowledge, improved my confidence, revisit topics and themes I hadn’t thought about for a while. It made me realise how it’s ok to use The Good Place to explain moral philosophy and ethics. My tip? If you are offered teaching, take it. Talking to other students has been a thing of great joy and delight for me, because after all, I’m just another student.

What else has happened this semester? Well, the usual submitting of abstracts to hopefully present at some conferences (and get feedback on new chapter). I was lucky enough to hear Molly Smith and Juno Mac talk about their incredible new (and best-selling!) book Revolting Prostitutes – it’s a gem of a book by two very smart women. We also held a couple of Book Parties for Fox and Owl Fisher’s ‘frank, friendly and funny’ book The Trans Teen Survival Guide, in collaboration with Brighton’s Jubilee Library and Falmer Library. Read both of these books if you can, they are both beautiful and informative.

But mostly this semester was about getting that draft methodology chapter down on paper and keeping on track with my PhD as well as making time for swimming and fresh air. Always, always important.

As promised, I’ll be back quite soon with an update on how my feedback meeting went, and the tricky nature of writing a personal narrative.






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