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The experiences and ‘light-bulb moment’ of an early career researcher following a BERA Postgraduate Forum symposium

Amanda Tayler

Though I didn’t realise it at the time, studying while working in the early years sector marked the emergence of my research interests. I was a practitioner at the forefront of new government policies to ‘professionalise’ and ‘upskill’ the early years workforce via academic qualifications; now my doctoral study is looking at this ‘reform’ of the workforce, with a particular focus on the relatively new qualification of Early Years Teacher Status. I want to know what this qualification ‘looks like’ in practice, and what work an Early Years Teacher does. I want to tell the stories and capture the day-to-day experiences of those holding the qualification.

Arriving at Keele University for BERA’s Postgraduate Forum symposium on research methodology in November 2017, I admit to feeling rudderless and suffering from acute ‘imposter syndrome’ (Cope-Watson and Smith-Betts, 2010). Having just completed a pilot study for the thesis, I had too many ideas pinging around in a fog of a research idea. The gathering was small – 12 of us, all at different stages of the doctoral journey and from a diversity of backgrounds. I was instantly reassured by the first speakers who, though much further along in their studies than myself, were experiencing doubt and dilemma about their studies. One commented that at the very early stages it feels like ‘juggling jelly’!

It was fascinating to hear about everyone else’s research interests, the focus of their studies, how they approached their data collection, and the issues that had arisen along the way and how they dealt with them. When it came to talking about my study, I offered a review of my pilot study and a plea for ideas from those more experienced about how to approach my data collection. This was especially pertinent to me, given that my participant in the pilot study had hated what I had asked her to do – yet this is one of the purposes of pilot studies, to test your data collection tools (Creswell, 2012).

‘This light-bulb moment was both a shock and a comfort. How had I missed something so obvious?’

The other researchers were quick to offer ideas and share their experiences, suggesting different approaches as well as more creative methods of data collection (Kara, 2015). Then a facilitator said something blindingly obvious: ‘What are your research questions?’. However, at that point I had not finalised them, and this felt like a challenge – especially when followed up with, ‘How are you going to devise your methodology if you do not know your questions?’ Hmm… how indeed. This light-bulb moment was both a shock and a comfort. How had I missed something so obvious? But also, how did I expect to be able to devise an appropriate methodology without the questions? This demonstrates Lichtman’s (2013) point that this type of peer discussion is valuable for working through ideas at any stage of the study.

Other participants suggested further data collection methods, such as re-examining an ethnographic approach and more creative methods such a video diaries, which was really useful as they were approaches I had been considering following looking at the of work of Kara and the possibilities of ethnography.

So I took back this challenge to my studies, re-inspired and re-energised. It was back to the literature. I re-read three key texts relevant to the study and, from re-reading them, the questions emerged. I forwarded these to my supervisor, who said that they were much more focused – and so the fog begins to lift a little, and the jelly is less difficult to juggle! This is what I have taken away from attending this event: that it is ok to be uncertain; that often the path can be lonely; that peer support and collaboration are helpful mechanisms for many aspects of the process (Axelrod and Windell, 2012). Sterne (2017) argues that explaining your thesis to others can allow you to further clarify issues and ideas for yourself, and I certainly found this to be the case.

I plan to attend many more such events in the future, and I urge readers to attend these types of symposia should the opportunity present itself. It was an incredibly useful and supportive experience for me.


References

Axelrod B and Windell J (2012) Dissertation solutions: A concise guide to planning, implementing, and surviving the dissertation process, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education

Cope-Watson G and Smith-Betts A (2010) ‘Confronting otherness: An e-conversation between doctoral students living with the imposter syndrome’, Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education 3(1): 1–13

Creswell J W (2012) Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches, third edition, London: Sage

Kara H (2015) Creative research methods in the social sciences, Bristol: Policy press

Lichtman M (2013) Qualitative research in education London: Sage

Sterne N (2017) ‘Should you join a dissertation support group?’, webpage, PhD Life: A blog about the PhD student experience, University of Warwick. https://phdlife.warwick.ac.uk/2017/04/12/should-you-join-a-dissertation-support-group/ (accessed 12 January 2018)

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