An independent learning and support mechanism for postgrads
Supervisor’s Notes: Three postgrad students whom I supervise had varying degrees of difficulties with their transfer vivas, and particularly with defending their choice of method, and explaining how they went about choosing it.
Frequently, a research method is chosen for a study (often too early), but when it comes to defending that choice and describing how the method itself has developed over time, responses are found lacking in the students’ responses to questioning. I felt that working together to strengthen their methodological expertise might be helpful. For this reason, I suggested that they form a short-term methodological study group.
Here, in a nutshell, are the potential research methods that each of the initial group have under consideration (taken from their method chapters work). As you can see, there is much that the initial three have in common in terms of the methodological approaches under consideration:
- Karen Cooper: Qualitative > case study > focus group > interviews
- Louise Oliver: Case study > biographic narrative interpretative method > interviews > reflective teams
- Mandy Podee: Interpretative sociology > qualitative > in-depth interviews and/or focus groups > narrative inquiry approaches
Just before the group formed, I examined a PhD transfer viva for Jo Thurston. It was agreed during, and then following the viva, that she would explore more fully auto-ethnographic and auto-biographic approaches in her research. Jo agreed, therefore, to join the group.
Below are their responses to questions that I submitted to them after about two months of meeting as a group.
– Kip Jones
How did the idea for the methodology study come about? Had you been involved in any projects like this previously?
Mandy: My supervisor, Kip Jones, kindly introduced me to the group of postgraduate students who do similar projects in terms of methodology. I attended several workshops regarding methodology in my first year, but those workshops provided only basic knowledge, and I didn’t have much chance to discuss with other students like I do in this methodology study group. in this group, we also share reading materials. We learned to think about other members when we find articles that could be useful for their projects.
Karen: Suggested by my supervisor in terms of identifying a few people who were using similar methods but different approaches. Have not been previously involved in any projects specifically focused on one methodology.
Louise: Dr Kip Jones brought the group together; this was a very different group to anything I have been a part of before.
Jo: I was introduced to the idea of the study group by one of my examiners (Jones) for my transfer document. I have never been involved in anything like this and was nervous to be in a situation where I would be ‘comparing’ my methodological knowledge to others! It is always nice to hide behind the written word, but to have to talk to others about methods is more exposing, but great practice for the final viva!
Are there elements of method that you share in common? How does this help the group to move forward?
Mandy: We all do narrative research so it is common for us to share textbooks. We can also share our work with each other and receive advice from each other since we are working in similar fields.
Karen: Yes, in terms of historical background and development of the methodological approach. It has helped us all in terms of sharing not just the stages of our study, but we have also got so much from sharing different literature and resources between us. We have now reached the stage where we are so aware of each other’s work that we recognise sources that may not be specific to our individual research, but know whom in the group it might be helpful for! We have become more open and developed critiquing ability with constructive feedback.
Louise: The elements of the method we share together is the use of narrative and, to some extent, biography within our research methods. Therefore, we are able to talk about the history of narrative research, debate the methodology as well as support one another with the best approach to writing about our methodology and method. It is this commonality which was the initial push forward in keeping the group together.
Jo: It was so interesting to see how, despite the fact we are all using slightly different approaches, the commonality of our collecting people’s stories united us in our conversations. We agreed early on to all look at the history of biographical methods and the commonalities and divergences that we had found were really interesting points on which to build conversations. We each agreed to read each other’s draft chapter three’s and then present our methodologies to each other to practice articulating our approaches and question each other. We all have a common goal of passing our PhDs so we wanted to provide a platform to enable each other to talk through challenges and practice the skills required to defend our work.
One particularly interesting aspect of the project is the relationship between each other, each other’s work and your own thesis. Have links developed?
Mandy: We often discuss our writing feedback from supervisors, then we come up with some ideas to help others. I personally think that this is one of the best parts, because as I discuss my work with others, it helps me to understand and be more confident about my topic.
Karen: Due to the small number in the group, we have developed a true bond with each other in terms of support—both personally and a greater awareness the stages of everyone’s research and understanding. It has helped me is in terms of developing my own knowledge of the methodology and the underpinning philosophies and epistemologies within the approaches used by others within the group. This again, then strengthens the ability the reason and defend our individual approaches, the similarities and differences.
Louise: This to me is not just a methodology group, it is a methodology support group where we help each other out theoretically as well support each other emotionally; this has brought the group to form quickly, and a close relationship between us all has developed. Adding to this, we all know of different academics outside of our group, and have encouraged links that way as well.
Jo: I feel we have really bonded over this experience and keep others in mind when we come across research, etc., that might be relevant to their study. My personal research has developed because of ideas and questions posed by others in the group. We have also adopted a slightly pastoral role for each other…possibly because we are all women and have naturally nurturing instincts/professional roles. I have only known these women a few months but we are literally rooting for each other to finish our studies and watch each other walk across the stage at graduation. I think it is particularly important for international students to be within a study group such as this to truly integrate them into their study experience and provide another level of support in addition to official university mechanisms.
What advice would you give to social scientists interested in using a similar study group? How can these help postgrad students particularly to develop methodology?
Mandy: If you aren’t fearful in bringing up your problems with others who do similar things, it will definitely help you in your work. By exchanging study materials and presenting your work, it will lead you to be more efficient in your research and build up self-confidence.
Karen: To start with small numbers – as what was helpful was that has been no sense of competition but more an awareness of what stage everyone is at, individual challenges, and being open and honest about any difficulties and pressures at any given time. This also has been made easier with short focused weekly sessions in the first 2 months. The smaller groups have meant that these sessions have enabled everyone to have enough individual time for expression and their voice being heard. It was helpful to have an initial starting session that was facilitated in terms of introduction and potential possibilities of the group formation. It helps in several ways, for example, defending explaining their own research and methodology for their work with a developed understanding.
Louise: I think that the group being quite small has helped. Also, I am aware of the professional backgrounds of the majority of the group, who are in caring professions – which I think may bring in a different dynamic to the group, in the way that we support one another, have a shared ethos in practice and how we approach research. This group has been extremely helpful and I would not have developed my understanding of the methodology as quickly if it were not for the group, how we organised ourselves and set tasks for each week. So, each week we would each present or discuss something new.
Jo: Chapter three has a fairly mechanistic structure and as such, no matter what the methodology, if you are in a methodology study (‘support’) group (!) you can support each other through the chapter development and talk through ideas, etc. e set weekly goals to keep our focus and momentum (you don’t just want to waste an hour chatting about how hard everything is!) and this was really important. To be able to research and then talk through your writing on history, for example, helps the student work through their methodological understanding and rehearse the articulation of justification etc.
How has working in a study group made in easier to return to working alone and in isolation? Or have you found an answer to this in the group process itself?
Mandy: Working with the group helps me in terms of having clearer picture for my own work, therefore I find it easier to work on my own project afterward. Also, when I have problems, I know that I can always ask others either by email or at our group meeting.
Karen: I feel that the answer has been in the group process itself. The nature of the small group itself has been informative, motivational and developmental, which is self-evident in the progress and understanding we have all made during this process. After two months, the group has been become a key factor in my personal learning and development. We appear to have no desire for the group working process to have an end point and have developed a joint affinity in the journey. We changed the name from Methodology Study Group to Methodology Support Group!
Louise: We have decided not to work alone and in isolation again. When I have been working on my methodology chapter, I have kept the others in the group in mind, and sent them research which I felt was relevant to their own individual studies, and they have done the same for me. It has taken the isolation out of what I do and we have decided to continue our group beyond writing our methodology chapters. This is to provide support throughout our research — not only to support each other emotionally and take away the isolation but to continue the critical debates about research which, I can say, I have found extremely helpful.
Jo: The study group has been such a positive experience for each of us we have arranged to continue to meet to talk through progress and challenges, albeit slightly less frequently than once a week. To meet as a group makes us accountable for progression as you don’t want to let down the others and not produce the work that we have all agreed to look at! The setting of small goals for each week enabled a more focused approach and that has continued for me in working on my own. It is seeing the next group meeting in the diary, however, that helps me maintain momentum and keep progressing to chapter completion!