‘I’m a PhD student…..Get me out of here!’

22 Nov

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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.

Although 2 months later, I was able to see some positives from the situation, as I posted here, seeing the positives beyond that post has been pretty damn tough. I still have not returned to my data. Rather, I have continued to read, reflect and write over and over again. I became fixated on trying to ‘find’ a qualitative methodology that I could ‘fit’ my study into – one that would please me, my supervisors and ultimately my external examiners. This continued for 6 painful months (although it feels longer). The outcome was (for many lovely reasons) that this study will be a multiple case study.

Ta da – problem solved!

So prior to my supervision last week, I created a philosophical, theoretical and methodological table so that I could identify key concepts and justify their uses for my study and demonstrate how they linked (thank you @planetchampion for that advice). Guess what – while talking it through with my supervisors, I quite clearly managed to explain that multiple case study actually did not and would not work!

After in-depth discussion, and going right back to the beginning, vocalising what exactly my study is about and what my aims and research questions are, it became clear. I was never going to be able to ‘fit’ my study into a neatly packaged qualitative approach at this stage and it was always going to be like trying to squeeze a ‘square plug into a round hole’. Oh, it could be done, but I would need to reconsider just about everything – almost starting over again. Believe me, after almost 3 years, this really wasn’t a route I was keen to go down.

So, the outcome of the discussion was that my methodological approach will stay along the same lines as it was initially because that is the way it was designed! However, while I have been painstakingly considering just about every other qualitative approach over the past few months, I recently came across Interpretive Description. This was first developed by Thorne in 1997 as a response to complex research needs within nursing and other applied health disciplines which are not readily answered by traditional qualitative methodologies (I have tweeted some informative papers about ID recently). This approach aligns with my initial approach, the structure and aims of my study, is consistent with my philosophical and theoretical stance and is considered rigorous and credible. It has also been used by many other qualitative researchers and PhD students. Of course there are limitations and they will of course be acknowledged, but limitations are congruent in all approaches

The positive side of this past year is that I can now very clearly justify why other approaches are not suitable for this study, defend the approach I am using and provide a rationale for every single step (forwards and backwards) I took to get to this stage!

So my title of this blog post reflects how I feel at the moment (not in terms of quitting, but finally getting out of the murky methodological jungle). The past few months have been the closest I have been to quitting. I feel I have been in this miserable, murky, methodological jungle for ages, with no map or compass to help me out (not that I’m any good at reading maps by the way!). This place, I suspect is probably not a million miles away from The Valley of Shit  (@thesiswhisperer)

Anyway, thanks to the support of my family, colleagues and everyone on #phdchat (there are some pretty special people on there!), I kept going.

For now, I think I have found a workable map and compass and am heading the right way to get myself out of this murky methodological jungle. I’m not quite there yet and only time will tell, but for the first time in a long time, I feel I know the direction I’m heading in….

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9 Responses to “‘I’m a PhD student…..Get me out of here!’”

  1. Julie Rasmussen November 23, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Hi Emma, I’m really pleased you have found your way out of the swamp. What a journey! It will make interesting read in your methodology chapter. Great to see that you are back blogging. Keep it up, you are doing great!!

    • Emma Burnett November 23, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

      Thank you Julie! Hopefully I’ll not be visiting that place again anytime soon! Great to chat with you and thank you for your support and advice. I’ll be thinking about you for your Viva in December – you will be great! 🙂

  2. dtbarron November 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    Emma, thanks for sharing – it’s ‘good’ to know that even three years in its ok to struggle; it’s certainly something I’m doing at the minute, I take heart that persistence and openness to ideas will win the day. BTW still haven’t read the paper you tweeted recently – work is getting in the way of the I retesting things 🙂

    • Emma Burnett November 24, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

      Thank you Derek! From my experience, it’s absolutely ok to struggle in parts. My road has not been a straightforward one that’s for sure! I loved the paper I tweeted and the quote ‘enforcing methodological orthodoxy to research traditions that just don’t fit’ – was very salient for me! 🙂

  3. Pearl Smith November 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    Hello Emmae,

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. I am going to encourage my dissertation mentees to read your blog. A couple of them can certainly relate to your struggle and my find in it some much needed reassurance they can make it. .

    • Emma Burnett November 27, 2012 at 9:02 am #

      Thank you for this Pearl. It certainly does help knowing you’re not alone with such challenges and that there is a way forward! On the positive note also, I am sure this experience will make me a better, more knowledgable researcher. 🙂

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  5. Gareth Thomas January 6, 2017 at 1:31 am #

    It’s not just the PhD issues and woes I believe in my case life gets in the way, every day worries and struggles. I have spent the last few months procrastinating and on the verge of giving it up. I have a clear methodology and framework but I still feel overwhelmed and that some how I am not intelligent or academically minded enough to do this PhD and I am in the final year of a full time one. I have finished all my practical, intervention, questionnaires and interviews, I have completed my first draft of the literature review/Introduction and a systematic review, I still have 5 more chapters to do from scratch and a year to do them. It would be nice to see light at the end of the tunnel. I am normally a really positive guy grrrrrr.

    • Emma Burnett January 6, 2017 at 9:29 am #

      Hi Gareth, I totally hear you. This is all very normal (even though it causes so much anxiety and frustration). I’ve been there, and I am sure the majority of PhD students have also. Whenever I felt like that, I revisited my lists and action plans and reduced them to bite sized chunks. I then ‘forced’ myself not to be concerned with the amount of work I still had to do (which is not easy!), but rather to focus on little chunks of work. It was amazing how much this allowed me to relax and stay focused on the ‘here and now’. I soon found that when I returned to my list and actions, I had actually made good progress. Five chapters in a year is doable – revise your list, action plan, and timeline and go! Good luck, you can do this….

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