On the other side of the desk

I wrote an earlier blog about my experience of doing a PhD as an embedded researcher (read the blog here, the research paper here, a book chapter here, and check out the network blog here). With my traumas over I find myself on the other side of the desk as a supervisor to two PhD students whom are both doing their PhDs as embedded researchers.

It is symptomatic of embedded research that both students don’t want me to talk about their research for fear of upsetting the host organisation. Happily this isn’t because they have devious, ulterior motives written into their research designs, with an example line from their research plan: ‘week 45: strip mine data from pupils and teachers and sell to whichever organisation buys NHS patient data’. Rather, doing embedded research is small ‘p’ precarious, political, personal research. So having me running my gums about the challenges they are facing would not be exactly politic. Indeed, one student doesn’t want to identify himself/herself as an embedded researcher because this might change the way people in his/her research setting. Mum/ dad are literally the words.

Getting into the spirit of passing on my wisdom or at least explaining the particularly haggardly lines and scars on my face and very soul, I gave a class on doing embedded research as part of the MRes at ESRI. The slides are below:

In the slides I gave my tips on doing embedded research:

  • Start researching straight away! No really, start researching straight away. The initiative will no doubt change and most likely finish between the year two fieldwork phase. Get going!
  • Do lots of research on lots of different things. It won’t always be clear what your research is about, who and what is important or not. I believed the people I was researching when they said the initiative was about cultural change. It ended up being, in my view, about leadership so keep collecting data so you can change direction and have the empirical material to support your argument.
  • Identify (and re-negotiate) your relationship to the research commissioner, the organisation and everyone else. As I said above, embedded research is personal and political so you need to work with your gate keeper but also acknowledge where this locates you in the organization so you aren’t seen as the bossman’s/ bosswoman’s spy.
  • Understand power relations. See above.
  • Protect your privileged position. First of all you don’t really have a privileged position, not really. It is likely that someone powerful in the organization supports your work but apart from that you don’t really matter all that much. The trick is that not everyone knows this. In any event, learn to say ‘no’ if people keep asking you to do things that you don’t want to do.
  • Defend your thesis’ neutrality, offer micro-research. There is a chance that the individuals and organization supporting your research will want a fair-and-balanced appraisal of their initiative, what does and does not work. Equally likely however there is a danger that they will want positive puff-pieces to legitimate what they think works. Be very clear that the thesis is neutral and sacrosanct. You could negotiate micro-research projects that enable you to collect data and present it in accessible ways quickly to inform the initiative.
  • Be useful!
  • Play the long game! The world is a fast moving place and in a lot of places people move on. Pressures may lapse or views expressed off-the record can be returned to if key people move on. And they will 3 years is an eternity in most organizations. You are there for the long haul, relax and enjoy the ride.

If anyone else has any other advice or ideas I would love to hear them!

James Duggan

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