The growing popularity of the professional doctorate means that increasing numbers of practitioners are undertaking research in their own workplace. But what does it really mean to adopt this dual role in an environment where you are already embedded? This blog reports on the challenges and rewards of undertaking such a task by looking at my own experiences of conducting empirical research in my place of work.
For the practitioner undertaking a professional doctorate, one’s own workplace seems the obvious place to start, for two reasons. Firstly, the researcher’s area(s) of interest may well have been prompted by issues, hunches and anecdotal evidence noted during professional practice; this was certainly true in my own case. At the time of starting my doctorate I was employed as an A-Level teacher in a provider of 16-19 education that also offered BTECs. Why, I wondered, did all the available discourses – policy, the popular press, dialogues with teachers and parents – promote A-Levels as the more desirable, more academic route? See, for example, the thought processes behind the recent A-Level reforms, which aim to preserve the elite nature of this qualification through a return to a linear structure. How aware are students of the power processes at work when they decide which pathway to follow?
Then, of course, there is the comparatively easy access to participants. Twenty four students took part in individual interviews with me, in which they were invited to narrate their experiences of academic transition, focusing particularly on their motivations for choosing their course and their expectations of the programme of study they had selected. They were recruited by putting posters up around college advertising the study, and whilst volunteers didn’t exactly flock at first, a snowball effect meant that students who had enjoyed participating soon told their friends, who then also signed up. Interviews were held in locations familiar to the students as part of their (and my) normal college day, making the process relatively quick and easy. Recruiting and conducting a staff focus group was similarly straightforward.
‘This kind of insider research, conducted by a practitioner working within their own profession or setting, is not without its challenges’
So far, so good. But this kind of insider research, conducted by a practitioner working within their own profession or setting, is not without its challenges. Ethical considerations must be carefully thought through, as despite anonymisation of both setting and participants the necessity of revealing my own identity means it becomes possible to locate the site of the research. Furthermore, insider research requires the researcher to look carefully at their own experiences, values and beliefs, and question the impact this personal autobiography might have on research design or the collection, interpretation and presentation of data (Polit and Tatano Beck, 2009). For me as an A-Level teacher with little to no contact with BTEC students as part of my normal working life, this was a potential area of personal bias, particularly as some of the A-Level participants were known to me as members of my teaching groups. And what of the power imbalance here? As a teacher within the site of the research, the relationship between myself and the student interviewees was not starting off on an equal footing, potentially affecting the dialogue between us.
Fortunately, these issues can be overcome. By acknowledging and reflecting on my existing beliefs and experiences I have been able to adopt a level of reflexivity which mitigates the impact of my own professional autobiography and helps foster confidence in the validity of the research and my credibility as a researcher (Patton, 2002). Transparency of approach has been key from start to finish: from the design and piloting of the study to the collection, analysis and presentation of data. Regular meetings with my supervisor and the completion of a research diary helped me track and record this process, enabling reflection each step of the way and the documenting and justifying of each decision. Ethical guidelines have been closely followed in considering what exactly I could promise participants in terms of anonymity, and whilst the location of the research could potentially be identified, individual participants cannot. My role as researcher rather than practitioner was emphasised throughout the study both verbally and in writing, and recruitment was conducted anonymously through an agent to eliminate the risk of selection bias.
Thus, whilst insider research is not necessarily the easy option, the benefits it can confer – in my opinion – outweigh the potential issues. The joy of a professional doctorate is that it locates research in real-world contexts, allowing us to examine a social phenomenon in situ whilst drawing upon a wealth of professional experience and knowledge, and I, for one, am grateful for the opportunity to have followed this rewarding route.
Patton, M.Q. (2002) Qualitative and Evaluation Research Methods (Third Edition). London: Sage Publications
Polit, D. and Tatano Beck, C. (2009) Essentials of Nursing Research: Appraising Evidence for Nursing Practice (Seventh Edition). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins
Presentation details: Post-16 Transitions and new School-university partnerships Wednesday 6th September 2017, 17.15 FUL-213