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As I write this, I am a feeling a bit sick and scared. Not because the cream cheese, salmon and avacado bagel I just ate lacked flavour, when last time I made one it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten (is it the salmon – it is a lot paler than the previous pack I bought, did the multiseed bagel overpower the flavours, was the avacado underripe, have my taste buds changed, am I dying?) but because I am trying to find the ‘gaps’ in the literature and formulate some central research questions.

The issue of a gap is an interesting one and one which I have decided to reject.

The problem with the gap-filling idea, Patrick Dunleavy author of ‘Authoring a PhD’ (2003) argues, is that 1) perhaps there is a reason why there is a gap, perhaps it is not an interesting gap and 2) perhaps this gap is so exciting that many other researchers will start filling in this gap before you can and then you lose the whole uniqueness of your project.

The way to avoid this second problem is to frame your question in a personal and slightly idiosyncratic way. He says “It is best to try and frame your thesis around an intellectual problem or a paradox, not around a gap. It needs to focus on a set of phenomena that ask for an explanation, which you can express as a non-obvious puzzle for which you can formulate an interesting and effective answer.” p. 23

He suggests you

  • Keep in mind the concept of ‘value added’. Keep an eye on how your work adds any value to the literature and research that has gone before. To what extent has it transformed, enhanced or differentiated what has gone before?
  • Think about what your answers to your question may be from the beginning. Of course as you collect and analyse your data you may not find what you expected, but view your thesis as a rough block of marble which you make a rough form before chiseling away at it to make a final sculpture.
  • Try to problematize your research question. That is “…set the answer you hope to give within a framework which will show its intellectual significance…” p. 23

So even though I feel a bit sick and scared, I can already see this rough form materialising which is very comforting and perhaps my food will taste nice again once I have relaxed a bit.

I just hope my final sculpture is not as horrific as this one I made at age 14:

"Argh, I can't formulate a clever research question!"

“Argh, I can’t formulate a clever research question!”

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Last week I interviewed my supervisor for a promotional video to be used on the department’s webpage. She then interviewed me back about my PhD topic.

The last time I properly saw myself on camera not messing about and therefore in ‘natural’ mode was when I worked in a department store and had to watch a playback of CCTV footage when I was involved in catching a credit card fraudster (rather fun – the perpetrator said she had no idea that I knew she was a crook, so I felt rather smug about my acting skills). But watching that back was horrid, not because of the terrible crime (and by the way, it was sooo obvious the credit card was fake, Natwest does not use comic sans as their logo font), but because you get to see your mannerisms that you never actually see. But thankfully you don’t get to hear your voice. However, this interview I will have to see my horrid mannerisms and hear my voice when it gets published.

I don’t think I came across very relaxed in the interview, I stumbled a bit and my supervisor didn’t ask a question I had rehearsed a hilarious answer to – this was meant to be my moment where people gasp at how witty and natural I am on camera. However, I really did enjoy talking about my work and it is good to have the opportunity to practice speaking about it. So in this post, I will recreate the interview in an idealised form – including all the wonderful witty and intelligent things I wanted to say. You might like to try it yourself – it is good to practice being interviewed for when  you are famous.

Instagram: Interview TV set design

 

Supervisor: So Annika, you are one of our new PhD students in the department. What is the topic of your PhD/thesis

Annika: I am using the 1958 British Birth Cohort study to look at people’s educational ‘careers’ through the lifecourse. I am particularly interested in looking at patterns of participation in Higher Education over the lifecourse. What types of people went onto Higher Education and when did they go. For this cohort, attending University at a young age was quite rare. When they were 18 in the mid 1970s only around 8% of the whole UK population would have attended and of this 8% most would have been middle class young males who went to grammar school. I am interested in the outliers – those who studied at a higher level, but were never expected to at childhood as well as those who were expected to go to university young, but didn’t.

Supervisor:  What appealed to you about using the 1958 cohort study as a key source of evidence for your  thesis

Annika: This group of ‘baby boomers’ are very interesting in terms of educational reforms. They were one of the first groups to have to stay on in school as the school-leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 in 1974. They were also caught up in the shift from selective schooling system (the 11+ tripartite system) to comprehensivisation. Then in terms of Higher Education, as older adults they would have been able to take advantage of various reforms in HE, particularly in the 1990s when polytechnics became universities.

In terms of the actual data, the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study (also known as the NCDS), has a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data. So you have the very large sample of around 17,000 at the beginning of the study where you can look at childhood test scores, parental aspirations, teacher’s aspirations an ‘imagine you are 25 essay’ the children wrote when they were 11 and most importantly for me, the 220 life history interviews conducted at age 50. I am experimenting with mixed methods, so this dataset is ideal.

Supervisor: Are there advantages or disadvantages of the sample all being born in a single week in 1958?

Annika: To investigate a topic using people all of the same age is very interesting because you are controlling for age and generational effects – everyone in the sample would have experienced the same societal changes. They would have been brought up with similar attitudes and expectations around education, gender roles and employment. Of course this will differ according to social class, region and of course they are all still individuals with agency and different life experiences – but I like the fact that they would have all been brought up in the same era.

In terms of disadvantages, [note: hilarious joke coming up] I can’t see any just yet – however, I was reading one of the lifehistory interviews and one cohort member pointed out that since they were all born in the same week, they would all have the same starsign – Pisces I think – so therefore the data and their destinies may be influenced by that, so that is something to bear in mind and may skew the data! (filming has to stop as we all, including the filming crew, burst into laughter).

Supervisor: What are the advantages of using existing data in your PhD research? – are there any disadvantages?

Annika: Well, the disadvantages of using interview data someone else has designed and collected is that you do not get to ask the participants direct questions about your topic of interest. You can get frustrated because the interviewer doesn’t probe where you might have. However, I actually find this a very interesting challenge methodologically – how they talk about education spontaneously without being probed is interesting for me in itself and lends itself well to narrative analysis. A big advantage is that I have access to a very large dataset. Ranging from 11,000 to 17,000 depending on what sweep I am using and then the 220 life history interviews – which is a very large sample for qualitative research.

Supervisor: What a wonderful topic and a fabulous interview. The best I have ever heard!

Annika: Yes, I know. Thank-you.

 

(c) 2014 Annika Coughlin

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