Being a PhD student can be a lonely business – the challenges of sustaining momentum and motivation have been well documented even in those halcyon pre-pandemic days, including in previous posts on the BERA Blog (Morris & Cudworth, 2018). Being a PhD student carrying out educational research can bring further challenges: whether through finding your position within the qualitative/quantitative debates or navigating between the tensions of theory and practice, it is certainly not the same journey as that undertaken by my biological sciences peers or others who join a research team with a preordained project. When the pandemic hit, I was starting my final year: I felt like I’d finally found my ‘place’, had navigated my research study to a position I was happy with, and had managed to still my imposter syndrome voices at least for long enough to embrace the messiness of my research journey.
The last 14 months, however, have tested every bit of tenacity I had. With two children at home (one of whom is clinically extremely vulnerable), the quiet spaces in my house, and in my head, have disappeared. And all the while, tensions abound in my parent-researcher role: how, for instance, can I be committed to the purpose of educational research but not invest time and energy to support the education of my own family? It became impossible to both prioritise their success while also role-modelling success by prioritising mine. Of course, I tried to do both, and although many others have undoubtedly faced similar challenges, they are rarely discussed. I feel very lucky to have supportive supervisors, and an extension, but I still can’t focus as well as in pre-Covid days.
‘All the while, tensions abound in my parent-researcher role: how, for instance, can I be committed to the purpose of educational research but not invest time and energy to support the education of my own family?’
I recently applied to present at a BERA Early Career Researcher (ECR) Network event on ‘overcoming challenges in educational research’ to try and re-channel my thoughts away from helping with quadratic equations and back to my research. When preparing for this, my first thought was to share challenges I had overcome: to present a glossy, more comfortable picture of the things that I have managed to achieve despite everything. But time is short, and I knew that every moment invested in an event like this needs to count; so I chose instead to sit with my own discomfort, to feel exposed as someone who is overwhelmed at times by the messiness of analysis, and to risk feeding my imposter syndrome demons by articulating my challenges. This always seems hardest when it feels like I am facing challenges that others don’t seem to share. So, for example, my themes are absolutely not sitting as neat, well-defined entities with ‘clear and identifiable distinctions between them’ (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 20), but instead have multiple interlinkages and high levels of interdependency: to create such clear and distinct themes I would need to make them so big and overarching as to lose the nuance and detail that I most value about my in-depth participant interviews. Even suggesting that this is a challenge is hard to do, as by doing so it potentially reveals my ignorance. I worried about the reactions from my peers and more experienced researchers: might a lack of validation damage my motivation so much that it will take a month of procrastination to rebuild?
I need not have worried. Sharing the process, my problems, the messiness of my work, was welcomed, accepted, supported – and prompted a range of thoughtful questions and observations. It was okay to embrace the challenges. I may not have overcome them – yet – but openly articulating the problems and discussing them with an informed, supportive audience is definitely a positive marker point that has left me more motivated and determined to complete this part of my research journey, pandemic or not. So, my message to anyone considering taking part in a similar event: do it! It’s a fantastic opportunity to unpack your challenges in front of a helpful, knowledgeable audience and hopefully help your motivation and confidence too.
This blog arose from the January 2021 symposium in the series ‘Overcoming challenges in educational research’, run by BERA’s Early Career Researcher Network. A further seven symposia on this theme are planned across 2021, with the next coming up on Thursday 24 June. Click here for more details.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa
Morris, D., & Cudworth, D. (2018). From zero to hero: Anecdotal tales in pursuit of the elusive doctorate [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/from-zero-to-hero-anecdotal-tales-in-pursuit-of-the-elusive-doctorate