Saturday, December 13, 2014

What’s Your Back-Up Plan?

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Let me tell you a story about my PhD.

I studied how architects and students gestured when they talked to each other.

I was trying to find out what role gesture played in classroom communication and what implications this might have architectural education.

Gesture is a visual medium, so I decided to use participant observation and video ethnography to collect my data.

I sketched out a research design and picked two universities as sites for case studies. I did an ethics application and then approached people I knew at each university. I asked if I could film them inside their classrooms and was grateful when they accepted.

I spent many days with these teachers and their students and encountered many unanticipated problems along the way. Cloud computing and large capacity smart phones were not yet available so data handling was … awkward. As it turns out, analysing film data is extremely time consuming; every mintute took me hours and hours.

Then there were the people problems. Being in the field was confusing and difficult for everyone. Observing in the classroom was full of basic, but tricky problems. Where should I sit? How long should I stay? Who should I film? I’m grateful, to this day, that my teacher informants, Pia, Anna, Simon and Peter stuck with me and the students put up with me.

After a year of struggling with these problems I finally started to see patterns in what I was observing. I talked about what I was seeing with whomever would listen. People seemed really interested (or, at least, were polite enough to pretend).

I developed some theories about what was going on and wrote a small conference paper. I started to plan the last semester of data gathering and map out a structure for my final thesis.

More importantly, after being consumed with self doubt during the early stages I started to feel really good. I had this research thing totally sorted!

Then, one day, I got a call from a member of department at one of my research sites. This person had become aware of my research through casual conversation with his colleagues. He demanded a meeting where he asked me long and searching questions about my ethics approval approval and my process of data collection, in, I might add, a quite aggressive tone.

I was mystified at the sudden attack, but tried to stay calm. I used all my recently acquired participant observation skills to try to work out what was really going on in the conversation.

It became apparent that this person had formed the opinion that my research was deliberately designed to bring his institution into disrepute. This was bewildering until I remembered an important detail: the two research sites were in different universities who had long considered themselves rivals.

I had studied and worked at one for a long time before moving to the other to do my PhD. I had thought nothing of this rivalry at the time but now it seemed I had a tribal warfare problem. Perhaps this person considered me a ‘defector’ out to do my old institution harm?

I talked fast, trying to convince him that my data could not be used to find out if one university was ‘better’ than the other - even if I had been interested in this question. But he just looked at me skeptically.

My heart sank when I realised another important detail: this person did not have a PhD and had no experience of doing research. Talking about epistomology was probably pointless. He was never going to believe me.

The meeting ended on a sour note, with him promising to refer the matter to the ethics committee, who, I knew, had the power to shut the project down and make me destroy the data.

I went home in a state of extreme agitation. This was a problem I literally could not solve. Had I made a fatal mistake? I had followed all the rules set up by the ethics committee to the letter - but would that be enough to protect me? If I lost half my data, the case study design would no longer work. Could I even finish my PhD?

I waited on tenterhooks for the axe to fall, all the time berating myself for not anticipating the problem. A week went by. Then another. Then a month. I asked at my university, but no complaint had been received. I didn’t know whether to relax or not. I was having trouble sleeping.

Two months or so later I ran into the person at a social event and asked him if he had sent the complaint yet. He chugged his beer and eyed me for a moment, in silence. Then he said he had decided not to bother as no one but the examiners would read my thesis anyway.

I politely thanked him and walked away, stifling the strong urge to throw my drink in his face. I wonder to this day if his concern was genuine, and I had allayed his fears through my mad skills of research ‘splaining, or if he was just screwing with me.

This story has a happy ending: I finished my PhD, but I think it illustrates an important point: you need a back up plan. Preferably a plan that involves losing ALL your data. This sounds drastic, but it’s really a sensible risk management strategy and is time well spent. I suggest you sit down and ask yourself a couple of difficult questions.

If you lose your data, can you easily source an alternative, equivalent set?

Researchers are being encouraged to share their results so in some fields there’s lots of open data around. Spend a bit of time searching and see what’s out there already (ask a librarian to help you if you are confused).

Or have a look at data in the public domain such as government data or archival data. Find a set that looks promising and write a quick research plan around it. Maybe it’s so good you don’t need to collect your own data after all! (hey - we can all dream).

If you lose your data, can you alter your research question slightly so you still have a thesis without any data at all?

This is what Stephen Johnson calls ‘the adjacent possible’. Could you look at the historical dimensions of a problem, rather than the contemporary issues? Can you do a completely theoretical project? Decide on a few tacks and write a quick research plan based each of these new approaches and evaluate them.

Of course, some disciplines are more forgiving than others in this regard: most scientists will have no project without data. In that case you need to ask yourself the really hard problem:

If you lose all your data how long, realistically, will it take you to either design and conduct a new study in the time you have left, or support yourself long enough to do it all over again?

If you need to delay your submission, where will you live? How will you support yourself? Are there visa problems? What are the rules around extending your candidature?

I hope I’ve convinced you to spend a day or so and make yourself a back up plan now - hopefully you will never have to use it!

How about you? Have you encountered a big problem which put your whole project at risk? What did you do? What did you learn?

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