Research training experiences
An important feature of doctoral studies at The University of Manchester is that at the beginning of our studies we are expected to undertake formal training in research methods, in the form of taught modules offered by the MSc in Educational Research programme. This training, the exact structure of which is generally negotiated with one’s supervisors and the School, is intended to address two goals: Primarily, it is designed to provide us with a firm theoretical and practical grounding for our own research. At the same time, it is intended as an opportunity to engage with methodological issues which transcend the narrow focus of our PhD so that we will be able to access, critically appraise and perhaps even supervise a broader range or research.
One challenge that I think many students face is finding a way to reconcile these two goals, i.e. balance the requirement for broad methodological competence with the demand for in-depth expertise in the specific methods required for their own PhD. At worst, I think there is a real danger of these two goals being at a disconnect, so that one might find oneself engaged in two strands of incompatible and unrelated research e.g. a discourse analysis of staffroom talk for one’s PhD and a statistical comparison of language students’ attitudes and performance for an MSc module. I do have to say, however, that the quality of supervisory support at the LTE is such that one is unlikely to experience such problems, especially if one starts with a clearly articulated research agenda from the outset.
What I did to address this challenge was to begin my own research with a small-scale exploratory inquiry, which I designed to mirror the structure of the Research Training programme that had been agreed with my supervisors. One difficulty was that I was unable to follow a module focussing on Critical Reading at the outset of my studies, which meant that it would be counterproductive to follow the intuitive pathway of conducting an extensive literature review before starting data collection. Making a virtue out of necessity, I adopted a grounded theory approach, which involves starting with a clean theoretical slate and gradually building one’s understanding through abstraction from the data. It worked quite well. Another example: in the first semester of my studies I was required to produce an assignment on qualitative data generation, synthesising information from two sources. I used this assignment as an opportunity to practice interviewing and questionnaire administration as I elicited information from language teachers and learners at the language school where my main research will take place. The findings that emerged from these data eventually became the core of the conceptual framework that informs my study.
The process was not always unproblematic, as the structure of the programme often forced me to place the methodological cart in front of the conceptual horse. My use of grounded theory could fall under this category. I was also rather frustrated by the fact that the MSc provided separate modules for qualitative data generation and analysis, whereas I preferred a more integrated approach whereby generation and analysis proceed in tandem with each process providing impetus for the other. At another point, I found myself collecting statistical data from language coursebooks without having a clear idea of how I would be asked to analyse them, and –predictably– when the assignment rubric did become available the data I had at hand seemed inadequate. Eventually, this led to the formulation of an open-ended, multi-step content analysis procedure that uses emergent variables (of which I am quite proud, by the way!) but at that time I was more than a little frustrated by what I perceived as a lack of coherence in the programme.
Despite such imperfections, of which there were many in the Research Training programme, I do think that my exploratory inquiry worked out well in the end, in that it allowed me to do lots of conceptual ground clearing, experiment with a number of research ideas and trial various procedures for obtaining access to the research setting, interacting with research participants, generating and analysing data, and presenting my findings.
More importantly, the Research Training programme gave me the opportunity to interact with other researchers, such as Paul Breen and Magdalena De Stefani, and work with them towards attaining shared goals. This kind of peer support is obviously important in all educational settings, but even more so in the context of doctoral research, because doing a PhD is -to a great extent- a solitary process, where the support of like-minded individuals facing similar challenges is invaluable. So, if I had to summarise the impact the research training experience had on me, that would be that it made me a part of an academic community to which I am proud to belong.