I think I am ready now to expose my research questions to the world. Here it goes:

  • Are 1958 British Birth cohort members’ perceived social class identities affected by participation in higher education? If so, how?
  • What role does structure and agency have to play on working-class cohort members’ decisions to enter or not enter higher education as a young or mature student at some point in their lives between 1976 and 2008?
  • What meaning and significance does having a degree hold for cohort members as they reflect back on their lives age 50?
  • Can understandings of participation in higher education across the lifecourse be enhanced by the use of a mixed methods secondary dataset and by applying mixed modes of analysis?

Why is that scary? Well, because someone might ask a question about it that I won’t know the answer to. Someone may say ‘that it is a shit topic’. Someone may ask ‘what’s the point’ and I’ll have to articulate an answer. Someone might say, ‘oh so and so already did that exact topic, I can’t believe you didn’t know?’ Someone may say ‘wow, briliant topic, your thesis is going to be so interesting’ and I’ll think, ‘well, not if I can’t do it’. Or someone may say ‘you’ve put an apostrophe in the wrong place’.

But I like them, they feel like my little friends, always by my side, quietly nagging me for not spending time with them and forgetting their birthdays… oh sorry, that just slipped out.

Go on, be vulnerable and show me yours (research questions that is).

Thanks to Jessica Gagnon for the video link.

I feel really ashamed and embarrassed because I am behind with my project but it shouldn’t be like this. I have had to do no data collection, no transcribing, no recruitment of participants, no long observations, no travelling far distances or learning a new language,  nothing. All my data was there from day one, even before day one, I had my data long before I even started the PhD. But I am finding it a real struggle to analyse it. I can’t code beyond the descriptive. I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to do anything intelligent with it. My supervisors say to keep the project simple, but what about if I am not really capable of that either.

People give you pep talks and say you can do it and they believe you can do it. They seem to have this vague notion that you are intelligent. Of course they are going to say that. It’s just my swishy wool coat and smart leather bag that makes me appear intelligent you know. They want to spur you on. But what about if I am really just not capable?  I remember loving biology at sixth form and I had 100% attendance, but that still didn’t mean I could do it. I scrapped through with an E grade. And it is like with my steelpan playing. Turn up for practice and practice at home doesn’t make you a great musician.

But I will persevere, like I did with biology and music. Deep down I don’t fully believe that I can’t do it, there is still a small amount of hope there, I want to do it, I want my supervisors to love what I have done,  I want to have a PhD and I want to do this project.

But perhaps I am like those deluded people on The X-Factor where everyone around them says they can sing until it is too late and they have embarrassed themselves in front of a large audience.

Oh no, am I a bit like Jedwood in the thesis writing world? Well meaning, nice but ultimately a bit shit?

In the first and second year of my fabulous PhD (I’m practising a positive mental attitude) I would bump into a fellow student, and we wouldn’t talk for long, but what we did ask each other was simply “Have you got your research questions yet?”. We both used to say, “nearly”, “I think so”, “perhaps”.

I did get my research questions at the end of the first year, in time for the upgrade, but until today I didn’t quite like them or I had a niggling feeling that they weren’t quite right. That feeling you get when you accidentally start brushing your teeth with your sister’s toothbrush and it feels different and you think it looks different but you don’t fully realise until she walks in a screams at you with hatred and disgust.

But today something amazing happened. I think I finally have three research questions that I like. They are actually still the same ones from all that time ago, but I have finally composed them in such a way that feels natural to me. Before I felt that they were a bit stuffy or as if they were written by someone else. I didn’t feel like I owned them. But now I can proudly declare them! ‘Well go on then’ I hear you say – well, I think I better get final approval from my supervisors first…… then maybe I will get a T-shirt with them printed on.

So how did this happen? Well, reading a lot more of the literature that linked directly to what I have been finding through my data analysis. This was the key to feeling more confident and more comfortable with my study. I realised that actually, I can answer them and that they only needed an extra word here or there to flow better. And one question that seemed to have a bit missing has now been repaired and another which was really weak now is nice and strong.

The research questions are vital to have nailed down for the particular type of method I will be using for the first stage of the data analysis. It’s called ‘structural coding’. Take a look at this book by Johnny Saldana (which is one of the most useful books I have come across so far) for suggestions on all sorts of coding types and here is a snippet of the structural variety.

Structural coding

Johnny Saldana: The coding manual for qualitative researchers

Strucutral coding 2image2image1(2)

I hope no one is reading this and thinking that it is odd that I only just feel comfortable with my research questions in my third year… ? Was everyone else sorted with this years ago and have finished their analysis already? Well, we are all different so stop having a go at me…. I THOUGHT IT WAS MY TOOTHBRUSH OK! *sob*

When I was an undergraduate in 1998-2001 the things that I got distracted by were online games and chatrooms. I did my MA in 2002-2004 and  I actually have nearly no recollection of that period at all strangely – perhaps that was my MySpace years.  But now during my PhD 2013-2016 the thing that is distracting me the most is Twitter and Facebook. I have hardly any friends on Facebook but still I go on there multiple times a day even though nothing new is in my feed. Twitter, however, has a huge amount of stuff on it to read and contribute to, so it is never ending.

Today’s big story has been the one about David Cameron doing some strange initiation ceremony with a pig at university and there has been lots of funny jokes about it on Twitter. But what benefit does it have to my productivity? None! So I decided that I need help and quickly, so downloaded a free piece of software called Cold Turkey where you can block certain webpages for a set amount of time. It seems to work because although my weak willpower means I feel I need to get onto Twitter every five minutes to check out the latest pig jokes, I got blocked and had no option but to focus on my thesis.

Reading about David Cameron makes me think about his penis which in turn leads me onto thinking about other politician’s penises and toe sucking and all other instances through time using up precious brain space. Blocking these things out has enabled me to think only about delightful things like philosophy and sociology, and just my usual allocation of penis thoughts.

Penis Knife by glitteringpoppies.co.uk

Penis Knife by glitteringpoppies.co.uk

I was reading Jon Rainford’s blog where he was questioning what he, as a PhD student should blog about. Blogging might be useful for oneself in terms of recording the PhD ‘journey’ (hate that phrase), and for other PhD students to read who are in the year below you to see what to expect. I know that at my university, I have met people around campus who know me through my blog and we had never met in real life before until then. So I do know that blogs can be of great interest and support to others and that is why I write and read them too.

They also said my hair looked better in real life than online.

Although I disagree as my stock photo of me ‘smugly standing on top of a roof terrace in Montreal with my trendy haircut’,  I think is my best one and I thought my hair was at its best then too, and it was about 30 degrees Celsius there …high humidity is not a friend of those of us with kinks and flicks.

Too smug, not smug enough, or just about right?

Too smug, not smug enough, or just about right?

Anyway, on the other hand, how many blogs can you have out there about the PhD journey?  Sometimes you don’t really want to necessarily reveal your work or findings, either because it is work in progress and you don’t want to share it yet, or perhaps you are worried someone will steal your work or ideas.

I have this worry a little bit, because I am using secondary data so anyone can do exactly the same as I have done, although I did create my own variable which I will be sharing for all to use when my PhD is published.

Here is a little sexy sneaky peak at my findings… have a look…. nice isn’t it!

Have you ever seen such a stunning Relative Risk Ratio?

Have you ever seen such stunning Relative Risk Ratios?

Do you want to know what the above data means? Well, Ok, it means that the 1958 British Birth cohort members who have a degree and were from working-class backgrounds are 7.71 times more likely than the middle-class to have gained their degrees as an older-mature adult (age 43-50 in 2001-2008) than young (by 23 in 1979-1981).  Women are 2.81 times more likely than men to have gained their degrees at this age than young. What do you think about that eh?

I am very excited about my project and I think the time is coming for me soon to write something about my work rather than my hair or feelings. Or feelings about my hair. Although I think a blog about the ups and downs of one’s hair when a PhD student would make the most fascinating reading. Someone please feel free to steal and do that idea! Ta!

Pearl Jephcott was a radical youth worker who was made redundant in the 1940s and became a sociologist and researcher who studied everyday topics like women’s work, young people’s leisure, Notting Hill and what it is like living in the new high rise flats in Glasgow. She used what we may term innovative or creative research methods like diaries, children’s drawings, participatory action research, ethnography, mixed methods and so on. She died in 1980 at the age of 80 with sociologist as her occupation on her death certificate. However, she was an accidental sociologist and did it only because of her redundancy, says Tony Jeffs who was one of the many speakers and Jephcott fans speaking at a symposium about her life and work at the University of Leicester on 9th July.

You can  read all the Tweets from the event in this Storify (I just dumped all the Tweets there rather than create a proper story as one should do) or look at this new blog created by Jephcott fans and organisers of the event, John Goodwin and Henrietta O’Connor. Also you can read their article in the journal Sociology ‘The Legacy of a Forgotten Sociological Research Pioneer’ that outlines her work and her approach.

Here I wanted to focus on a new concept that was coined at the event to describe an approach to research that seemed to strikes a chord with many and I find inspirational when trying to figure out where I belong in the research community: ‘Jephcottian’ . I must say one thing first,  I have not yet actually read any of Pearl Jephcott’s work…but I would consider myself leaning towards the Jephcottian philosophy. What on earth does Jephcottian mean and how can you be Jephcottian if you have never even read her work? Well, don’t get irate, let me explain.

Jephcottian refers to the following, according to Goodwin and O’Connor and you can read an elaborated definition on their new blog

As the symposium went on, I think three other aspects of what constitutes Jephcottian can be made more explicit. The first is her philosophy of collaboration. She would work with huge teams of undergraduate and postgraduate students, with the people who she was studying, and other research assistants. She would often be leading the project, but the male Principal Investigator would inevitably get most of the credit. She however did not do this and she acknowledged the contributions of all who helped on the project.

Secondly, her work may be thought of as action research and participatory research in today’s terms. I think the following three projects listed below were dissertation student projects and it is interesting to learn that Pearl herself helped to redesign the bins on one high rise housing estate, much to the joy of the bin men and residents. If you live in a flat you will know that the bins are a common site for feud and passive aggressive note leaving (do not even get me started on my neighbour’s inappropriate use of the recycling bins (nappies), gross!).

A third aspect of her approach to work is that she used illustrations, paintings and graphics in her books. My sister is a graphic designer and we have often talked about how we would collaborate and do something sociological together. it could be something like designing an academic poster that is not incredibly dull and wordy, some exciting promotional materials to sum up my PhD topic when its finished that I can send to people as a form of ‘dissemination’ but also self-promotion when I am seeking work, etc. Starting simply though, I think we could all add a bit of graphics to our crosstabulations. Look at this one!

I think my multinomial regression would look extra swish with some graphics, although I think I best not attempt to draw a representation of a working-class and middle-class mature student….it could end up insulting to all concerned! Oh go on, here is my first attempt. Pretty good eh?

What do you mean what is it? – Those are power station chimneys in the background by the way if that helps your interpretation.

As was often mentioned in the symposium, a lot of today’s methods that are considered innovative, different and ground-breaking, Pearl was doing this a long time ago, and not because she was trying to be different, but because they all just seemed to be something worth trying out. To mix art and text is hardly something that radical is it really, we just seem to make it so.

However, the event was not a total love-in of all things Pearl, many comments were also brought up that there are certain things about her work that we could not get away with today. For example, her theoretical framework may be a bit lacking, she didn’t fully describe how she analysed her data, there may have been a moralising tone in some of her writing, she didn’t always let the participants speak for themselves in her write ups, she may sometimes over interpret what they said and so on. But, as was pointed out, you can’t really judge projects of the past by today’s standards. Also, Pearl was originally a youth worker.  Everything she did therefore, was from the place of wanting to help communities and young people in particular. The tone and approach is a product of the time, but, this should not detract from the main message of her work and approach, which was to value, research, and help to improve the everyday lives of people. One of the last things that John Goodwin said at the event was that the work of Pearl Jephcott reminds him of why he likes research and sociology in the first place a reminder that he needs in times when there is a big pile of student disciplinary files he needs to get through.

There is something I feel about her spirit too, she seems free, a renegade and independent – not caring what others may think of her. I don’t even know if this is the case, but for some reason Pearl makes me feel happy and excited about research and I haven’t ever read a word of it and I think that is a pretty cool impact for someone to have!

My last post ‘ No future for you, no future for me, no future for someone with a PhD? seemed to strike a chord with quite a few people as I received my greatest number of hits on a single post thus far. I think the inner sadness must have really come through in my writing style because my family had a little intervention meeting to check up on my mental health and other people have written me encouraging messages! However, although this was coming from a particular level of emotion, we can all feel happy, sad, optimistic and pessimistic all at the same time and this pessimism is not my constant persona. Rather I am quite an optimistic sort. Therefore I will write in the near future about strategies for looking for jobs outside academia as well as ways in which we can build our CVs to appeal to other sorts of employers – utilising some advice I have received from people in this hour of need, so thanks kind people!

My optimism has also come back because yesterday I had my annual review with my supervisors. I was quite surprised that many fellow students and their supervisors seem to be taking it as a bit of a tick box exercise, whereas me and my supervisors are ‘good girls’ as well like to think of ourselves and we like to obey all the proper rules and regulations and guidelines. So my reflective statement was properly reflective and very useful for me and my team so they could see inside my mind. Also, I reckon if I suggested it, we could have had a group hug because we are all enjoying being together in our meetings and learning from each other.

However, thoughts about group hugs aside, we were also in a very firm military mood and we planned out my timetable for completion. They are very keen for me to finish on time and will not even let me think about going over. Although I kind of want to go over just a tiny bit so I can carry on getting cheap travel with my railcard…. but I better not think like that or I will get told off.

So in the words of one supervisor, the next few months are a military operation as I am a little pushed for time given my current stage. The only long break I am allowed is two weeks off at Christmas and when I submit something for feedback I am not allowed to relax whilst they take a week to read it and we meet up. Nope, I have to get right on with the next task. It’s going to be back to back chapter after chapter.

I am however ordered to have scheduled leisure and mini-treats, for example, if I complete a really good piece of work one morning, I am allowed to have the afternoon off for example, and I do have two very short trips planned. Most extra-academic related things are off though. I am not allowed to attend long conferences, present at conferences unless its a presentation I have done before and I have only done one so this won’t happen, but basically I have no time to plan or practice new ones, and finally writing papers is definitely off the cards for now.

This is a bit of a relief actually because as my last post suggests, I have been so concerned about the future and being ’employable’, REFable’  and able to compete with others who are perhaps more driven and career minded and quicker at doing their work, that  that I’ve been neglecting the present. However now it is confirmed that for now that all these extra things that make you REFable and have ‘impact’ or what not,  is not even a possibility right now and that news feels great!

We will however create a publication plan at the end of my project, so publications are still going to be written and I will probably aim to present at the SRHE in 2016 or BSA in 2017 after I submit (yay!). Also, since I will be unemployed, I will have ample time for these activities 😉

So this is it. The proper pressure and relentless work starts now! I am looking forward to it actually. I respond well to drill masters, orders, punishments and little rewards. With no pressure to think too far ahead and about other things I can focus on my lovely exciting research project instead and cross the ‘career panic’ bridge later.

So here is my timetable if you are interested:

 

Variety is not the spice of life...

Variety is not the spice of life…

(c) Annika Coughlin 2015

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