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.

One comment

  • Juup Stelma

    In response to Achilleas’ informative description of his experience of the ‘research training’ stage of the PhD at Manchester, I thought I would provide a bit of background, as I understand it, to why the structure of the programme is as it is.

    Before moving on, the following is as I view it, a staff member and supervisor of PhD students in Education at Manchester. Someone with wider knowledge of the issues may well challenge what I write here. My description, below, is also quite simplified – hence, please do not quote me ?

    About ten years ago, I think, there emerged a consensus among the semi-governmental agencies dealing with social science (which here includes Education) that there was a lack of methodological competence in the UK research community. One particular thing that was singled out was the lack of competence in quantitative methods. Basically, the observation made was that UK social scientists didn’t know enough statistics, or … there were not enough UK social scientists that knew statistics. Other areas of researcher competence were also mentioned, but perhaps did not feature as prominently.

    A number of things developed from the above observation. The most significant in terms of my aim here is different initiatives made by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). All UK social scientists compete to get research funding from the ESRC. Also, the ESRC provides scholarships for PhD students. I believe the School of Education at Manchester probably has a couple or a few PhD students whose studies are fully funded by the ESRC. Add to this, the ESRC is perceived as a very prestigious source to get funding from (both for the School, Staff members and for PhD students).

    In order for a School of Education to get ESRC funding for its research students the school needs to have in place a research methods training programme that satisfies the ESRC. As part of an initiative to strengthen the methodological competence of UK academics, the ESRC appears to have adopted the MSC in Educational Research model as part of PhD research training. If the School of Education did not require all their PhD students to go through this MSc then we would look bad in the eyes of the ESRC.

    Okay, I now realise that this is a very very very simplified view of things. However, I think it does provide some insight. I should also add that there is some merit in the ESRC’s initiatives. Other initiatives include the ‘Doctoral College’ initiative (ongoing – Manchester will have one), and the special funding for research projects which aim was to develop methodological competence among UK academics (completed). Taken together, there has probably been a strengthening of the methodological competence of UK social science. For an overview see:

    Check the box labelled ‘Enhancing Research Capacity’. Lots of useful resources!!!

    More locally, there are some benefits of doing research training alongside your fellow doctoral students. The sense of community that is created has been pointed out by Achilleas’ post. Knowing what ‘statistical significance’ means (as opposed to everyday significance) may also be of value. Yes, there are many positions here, and the debate continues. For example, an interesting question is whether ‘research training’ might be better spread more evenly over the course of a PhD programme. That is a debate that is happening at Manchester and elsewhere. Any input from current and past PhD student participants – people contributing to this blog – is of course invaluable in this debate. In time, the ESRC and the academic community may shift to a different position. Who knows… oh and I am deliberately coy about my own view here.