When things don’t go to plan

20 Jun

I enjoy reading other people’s blogs and learn so much from them. I like reading people’s progress and their successes and I use this to help me progress. I also like to talk about the positives and share my experiences, as I have done in this blog. However, when things go wrong or don’t go to plan this affects most things in my life. As hard as it is, talking about the negatives and the challenges is also important, but there are few blogs which do that.

At the moment I feel like I have an impossible task ahead of me. This is hard for me to take as I consider myself a glass half full kind of person. I wrote in my research journal last night with the intention of publically blogging about it, but something stopped me. Despite being in a good place with my PhD for quite some time, unexpectedly, I now feel vulnerable and lost. Perhaps the embarrassment of admitting this stopped me publishing it. Or perhaps it was because my supervisors know I blog and could read it. I’m not sure. I asked the question on twitter last night whether or not we should publically blog our struggles as they happen. Some thought yes, others thought perhaps, and others thought perhaps not. I will.

A quick recap: I’m in my 3rd year of a part time PhD: Understanding risk perceptions and responses of the public, healthcare professionals and media professionals towards Clostridium difficile. My data is collected (media coverage analysis, public and healthcare professional’s focus groups and media professionals interviews) and analysis started. My principle supervisor moved away this time last year therefore I changed supervisors.

My problem is with my methodological approach. With my previous supervisor, my methodological approach was a broad qualitative interpretive approach underpinned by weak social constructionism. I never had to defend it or consider any other approach – this was what it was from day one. This I see is where my problem stems from. However, this isn’t the place for going into detail about it. My problem is that my current supervisors feel this is not a robust enough approach for my PhD. My written work is not strong enough to demonstrate that this is the right approach and my argument is not clear. If it is not clear, then it’s impossible to go ahead and analyse my data.  I found myself in exactly this position last year(explained in my earlier post dated 2nd Sept) but believed I had defended it enough to continue.

It is important that I say here that I do understand where my supervisors are coming from.  I agree that these issues need to be addressed or the rest of my PhD and ultimately my viva will be an uphill struggle.  My supervisors are supportive and I trust them. I know I can’t do this without them.

So as of Monday, I have been advised to stop data analysis and go back to methodological reading for a few weeks. No writing, just reading and reflecting. On doing this, I need to put my data at the back of my mind and reflect only on my aims and research questions while I consider other approaches.

This is where I feel lost.  How can I ‘unlearn’ what I have lived with for the past 2½ years?  How can I go back and change my methodological approach having progressed so far? A methodological approach is supposed to inform your research design and so on.  If I do change it, how can I say it has informed my research when it was chosen retrospectively? Finally, having lived with so much data for so long, how can I try to ‘forget’ about it while I consider other approaches?

I’m not necessarily looking to you for answers to these questions, as I know I need to work this out for myself. So for now, I will go back to reading and take the time to think about my supervisor’s advice and reflect, in the hope that my next blog will be a positive one. I would love to hear from anyone with similar experiences (student or supervisor) or from anyone who wants to say anything at all!


20 Responses to “When things don’t go to plan”

  1. Ailsa Haxell (@ai1sa) June 20, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    maybe a reframe; its not going back or leaving everything youve been working on. The process is just iterative. I know i sufficed my methodology earlier, revisiting it as i continued strengthened what i wrote of and strengthened my use of data.

    • dralexhope June 20, 2012 at 11:31 am #

      Hi Emma,

      Well done for blogging this – must have taken a lot of courage. I think that the issues you are having are quite common, nearly every PhD candidate must hit some kind of problem which they feel is threatening the very nature of their work and imposible to address. All I can say is that as I am sure you know, research is by nature messy, fuzzy and iterative, and I believe that this also applies to the methodological approach. Of course this is the centre of our work, but that does not mean it has to be inflexible, chosen at the start, not deviated from. You couldn’t possibly know what you know now at the early stages of your project, so an approach that looked robust then, may not be as applicable once you have begun to collect and analyse data. Changing, or more likely, tweaking the methodological approach after the fact, is possible, and I would suggest adds to the ‘story’ of your study, so write it into your thesis. It demonstrates reflective skills, critical thinking, flexibility etc. etc.

      I think that suggesting you pause and reflect is good advice. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your methodological stance or methods, but will give you time to consider the issue. You may decide that actually your way is right (this is your PhD, not your supervisors, thus you alone are the expert), but you will be better able to defend it.

      Whatever happens good luck – and thanks for the post


      • Emma Burnett June 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

        Thank you for taking the time to comment Alex. It is very much appreciated. It was a difficult decision to post this, but I am glad I did. I like your perspective about using this experience to add to my story – so not being afraid to say ‘this was tried, but actually it didn’t work, therefore this was what I did about it’. Pausing and reflecting is a hard thing to do, but I know it is the right thing to do. My supervisors always tell me that this is my PhD and that they are here to help and guide me – after all, it is only me that will have to defend it in my viva. I really value their advice.

        Thank you again for your support and hopefully my next blog will be a positive one!

    • Emma Burnett June 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      Thank you for commenting Ailsa. Knowing others have gone through similar methodological issues helps enormously

  2. lizith June 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    One of the comments one of my supervisors made to me very early on was that I would probably find I was doing some reverse engineering during the latter stages of my doctorate. Yes methodology informs research design, analysis, etc, but as we progress, we engage with other methodologies and approaches, some of which may speak to the work we are doing and may be worth incorporating, or even replacing aspects of what we were thinking. As I see it, this is all part of the messy nature of both research and telling the story of our research. Personally, I have found reflective time invaluable in enabling me to see dimensions to my work I would not otherwise have seen – and some of those are becoming very central to my argument. Take the time to think and reflect and see where it takes you – if it goes nowhere in particular, nothing lost as you will have gained in knowledge, it it goes somewhere, it adds to your story and the robustness of your argument.
    Thank you for sharing the dilemma – good luck in working through it. I’m sure you will come out in a good place!

  3. Claire (bookworm_29) June 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    I know you weren’t too sure about posting this entry, but glad you went through with it because it’s important to know that a PhD is never easy.

    As I mentioned yesterday I’ve been through similar situations many times and at such a later stage in the PhD it feels a huge task. I think Alex’s advice though is spot on and it’s not going to be as big a change as you think.

    You ask the questions:
    ‘How can I go back and change my methodological approach having progressed so far?’
    ‘If I do change it, how can I say it has informed my research when it was chosen retrospectively?’

    Speaking from the experience of being in a similar situation a couple of years ago (so I suppose I was more fortunate it didn’t happen at such a late stage) the answer to this is simple: you can not redo the study/change your method. You may retrospectively think something is better (which you could discuss at various points in the thesis), but really what you need to do is reflect on what it is that you actually did and find a way of explaining and defending this. Therefore in addition to going through the literature just make sure you read your own notes/consider your own ideas as well – you’ll work your way through it 😀

    • Emma Burnett June 20, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

      Thanks for this Claire, I appreciate you taking the time to post a comment. I think the taking time away to read and reflect will be a very important thing for me to do. Hopefully then, my thoughts will be clearer and more focused.

  4. Sarah June 20, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Hi Emma,

    As others here have said, well done and thank you for posting this. It’s hard to post something that isn’t extremely positive, but a PhD is a real mix of highs and lows and I think it’s great that you chose to write about it.

    I wish I had some wise and useful advice for you on this, but in all honesty my first reaction to reading it was, “Oh, God, I really hope that doesn’t happen to me!” I found reading and writing around methodology quite difficult. My research design was obvious to me from day one, but fitting it within a methodological framework is much harder. I think that you have to trust in your supervisors (as you say you do) and believe that you *can* change your methodological approach at this stage.

    You asked: “If I do change it, how can I say it has informed my research when it was chosen retrospectively?” All you can do is be honest and reflective in your writing up of this experience. Your examiners have all been through the PhD experience and will understand, as long as everything is clearly explained and justified. As you say, you already have all (or a lot of) your data, but whatever changes you make *will* inform your analysis.

    And: “Finally, having lived with so much data for so long, how can I try to ‘forget’ about it while I consider other approaches?” You might be surprised how easily you can file details of the data away in your mind while you focus on other things.

    Good luck with it all – think of this as just a detour on your journey.

    (Which reminds me of Dirk Gently, from Douglas Adams’ books – he would sometimes navigate by following a car that looked like it knew where it was going. He said, “I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.” A phrase (and sometimes a navigation method) I use a lot…)

    • Emma Burnett June 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

      I loved your first reaction Sarah – I would have felt exactly the same if I had been reading someone else’s blog! Your perspective around including these issues in my write up agrees with many others and as you said, being clear in my explanation and justification is key. In terms of your comment about analysis – this was exactly what my supervisors were getting at in that my current approach was not informing my analysis in any way. I really like your ‘detour on your journey’ analogy’ – I will definitely use that and Dirk Gently’s quote. It describes my situation perfectly! Thank you for taking the time to comment Sarah, much appreciated.

  5. strictlykaren June 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Hi Emma
    Good to see you have blogged about this. I have also had similar issues in my study so appreciate you anxiety but it may be a very worthwhile process. I have changed research focus and slightly shifted methoologically during my study but it will be a better study.

    I have some papers on bricolage ill tweet them later. I’m liking the concept as a means of explaining the complemenantry relationship between influences.

    It’s not black and white, the shades of grey really bug me.

    • Emma Burnett June 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

      Thanks for this Karen. It’s really good to know others have changed methodological focus and their PhD is still progressing. I am absolutely the same with the shades of grey – I really would like everything tied up in a neat little bow! Will look forward to reading the papers you tweet. Thanks again for your support 🙂

  6. strangealliances July 4, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    I’m coming in quite late to this discussion, but feel very encouraged by the post. I’m an EdD (professional doctorate in Education) student with a background in science. In many ways your post reflects the struggle I’ve had over the last two years. Coming from a science background I have had enormous problems adjusting to educational research as the data is words. At one point I almost considered giving up as I sat with my third lot of new material after redrafting a completely new assignment for the third time. At that point it was make or break. That was the worst summer I had ever had, but was a massive turning point and I haven’t looked back.
    Mine is a taught course for two years with a total of four assignments before the proposal is submitted.
    Although I am not at your stage, the prinicple is the same. Because nothing has been straightforward it has taught me to think outside the box and helped me develop further than I might if everything had been straightforward.
    So I suspect you will get far more out of this doctorate than just the research and you will end up a better researcher for it.
    Very brave of you to write this post, but as I said very encouraging.

    • Emma Burnett July 4, 2012 at 7:37 am #

      Thank you for replying and for sharing your experience. I can completely understand where you are coming from when you say that your most difficult time was also a massive turning point. Since I wrote this blog, I have done nothing but read and reflect and even after only a couple of weeks, I can now begin to see how I can move forward with this. Moreover, reflecting on what you said, I can also see how this experience, no matter how painful it is, will certainly help me be a better researcher and indeed help me develop a more robust thesis. I suspect (a little bit down the line yet) that I will look back and realise that this was definitely a good turning point for me too. I have also been encouraged by all the comments and feedback I have received through this blog and through twitter – they have helped massively 🙂 Good luck with your EdD!

  7. Julie July 18, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    Hi Emma, I have just come across your site and its been really interesting to read.

    I am also doing a PhD (full time) exploring perceptions & experiences of Clostridium difficile infection. I am using a qualitative study using constructionism. I decided on a case study as my approach, using ethnographic methods. However, to get there my supervisors made me explore lots of different avenues before deciding on the right methodology/methods that were best suited to answer my research questions. It doesn’t sound like you were asked to do that?

    Perhaps its not as bad as it may seem. Perhaps all you need to do it go back to your methodology books and write about why you did not choose these other approached/methods. Once you have ruled these out, you should be able to justify your current approach, or decide it needs tweeking. I hope this makes sense.

    I used healthcare staff, visitors and patients on two hospital wards. Its been really exciting, exhausting, and sometimes frightening. I would love to chat to you about your study. I did laugh when you suggested people don’t use their own mobile phone for research. The ethics committee picked me up on this, and advised me to go and buy a cheap mobile, for the reasons you explain!

    • Emma Burnett July 23, 2012 at 11:25 am #

      Hi Julie. Many thanks for your comments. I would be very interested in having a chat about our PhD’s as they sound very similar. I shall pop you an email.

  8. anthea February 4, 2013 at 1:37 am #

    A lot of doctoral students have this problem, because they are not being taught enough in the way of research methodologies before they start their PhDs/EDDs and what have you. That and supervision often sucks. That’s if you even get a supervisor that acknowledges your existence. Time and again, my friends struggle with their dissertation research – not because they are stupid but because the system is failing them.

    • Emma Burnett February 4, 2013 at 11:57 am #

      Thank you for your comment Anthea. It certainly was a difficult situation and there are so many things I would have done differently if I knew what I know now! Thankfully my current supervisors helped me get back on track 🙂


  1. ‘I’m a PhD student…..Get me out of here!’ « Emma's blog - November 22, 2012

    […] So way back in June this year, I blogged about a really difficult situation I was faced with – for the second time during my PhD. I stopped data analysis and returned back to my methodological approach.  All explained in this post. […]

  2. Changing PhD Supervisors: Help or Hindrance? | Emma's blog - April 8, 2014

    […] this has been far from easy as I have noted previously in a previous blog post. Indeed, I am not ashamed to admit that I have shed many tears over it. I admit that for totally […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: