Finding research questions

When I started along this journey, I had a topic which I wanted to cover. I had some ideas about the direction I thought my research would take me. I didn’t have a particularly well-developed ‘research question’. As I’ve read more over the last year or so, it has been relating a lot to the importance of a robust research question and that the research question itself needs to be at the core of the topic but also focus on what the purpose of the research is.

At the end of the last academic year, I was pretty happy with the way my research questions looked. I’d been tinkering with them for a while. Then I read a few more books about the process of research (I’ll post some reviews of the books I’ve been reading at some point) and reflected on how the topic I was focusing on had changed through political developments (Mental Capacity amendments going through Parliament at the moment and the discussions around that) and realised that maybe the questions didn’t do quite what I wanted them to do in the way I wanted them to.

I have tweaked them pretty much on a weekly basis since then. I started with some exercises suggested in some of the books I read and worked on some ‘brain storming’ processes where I wrote down (or typed because I actually did this on OneNote – so I could go back and ‘remember’ my workings in the weeks/months/years to come).

Sometimes I tweeted my random thoughts as well – when I was considering how to approach the topic and refine the detail. One of the books I read suggested as an exercise to ‘encapsulate’ the core of the research in a ‘tweet’ of 140 characters (pre-twitter changes!). I tried that along the way – even thought the exercise wasn’t meant to be an actual tweet – rather getting to the core of the issue you want to explore in a few characters. The responses I got from the tweet led me thinking along different lines.

While I’ve never been one for mind maps, or at least, I didn’t think I was, I transferred my brainstorming into a mind map. The mind map grew and actually being able to visualise where the branches and connections were, really helped me make sense of what I knew, what I wanted to know and how to try and make connections between them.

Mind maps and doodles and notes can be very personal. I mention it because it was something I hadn’t really used more than superficially but making sure I ended up with more than a bundle of random scribbles was important to me as I needed to be able to refer back to all the dead-ends and the paths which I decided not to go down. I should mention as well, as context, that at this point, I had done a lot of reading around the topic areas and reading recent research to check for ‘gaps’ so it wasn’t entirely taking a stab in the dark.

The mind map has become a central document now to my approach to this piece of work. I have refined questions and am still tweaking. I expect more tweaking constantly, but I like to know I have a starting point – even if that starting point can change.

So while I’m pretty sure that I still haven’t ‘found’ my research question/s as they will look in a year, or two years or three years time – I’m relatively happy with the work in progress that I have and by reading about the importance of robust research questions in research design, which is very much the point at which I am focusing now, I am happy to work with that.

On failing

My nervousness at starting research at a higher level might be confusing in the context of me having a Masters (MA) in Social Work. I’m not backward about openly talking about the journey of my Masters’ which may not be entirely typical. I started it in 1998 and it was a two year course which combined the Masters qualification with a postgraduate DipSW (Diploma in Social Work) which is what one needed in order to practice as a social worker.

It doesn’t feel like that it was that long ago but in the life of an average social worker, I guess it is. This was before there was any professional regulation of the profession so anyone working in social care could call themselves a social worker – and even if you weren’t working in social care you could call yourself it. There was also no such thing as a ‘newly qualified social worker’ or AYSE or whatever came through to support people when they qualified. We just left uni and took on whatever casework was going. If you were lucky (and I really was) you went into a team which had a strong core of experienced social workers who would be help you understand ‘what’s what’ and the practicalities of the job but no-one expected you to know everything when you started.

And at the university I attended (which will remain nameless for the moment), we were strongly encouraged to undertake secondary research/literature review-type dissertations.

I decided (and this was in 1999/2000) I wanted to write my dissertation about the emergence of internet self-help forums for people with mental health needs and the role of the professional in providing support in this context. It was a new area and there wasn’t much about it. I read a lot about the emerging internet culture and about group-forming in other disciplines and found some interesting case studies which had been done. Anyway, to cut a long story short, my supervisor, who never really took to me, was a bit sceptical but he read through my dissertation and said he thought it was ok. It wasn’t going to win any prizes but it was adequate. And off I went, submitted, collected my receipt for the submission and started work in a local authority a couple of weeks later – because I’d been awarded my DipSW in the meantime.

A couple of months went by to result time for the dissertations. We went into the university, I worked nearby and it was nice to catch up with colleagues but when I saw my name on the list, it said that I had failed due to lack of submission.

I called my tutor and he confirmed that he had never seen my dissertation at all. Obviously, I wasn’t happy but I had the receipt, right – which proved i had handed it over to the person in the university. So I took the receipt back to the university and they said they would try and sort it out. They called me a few days later confirming that my dissertation had been collected by my tutor the day after submission, along with 3 others. It wasn’t as if he collected 40 and couldn’t track them all down. He collected four.

Meanwhile, my tutor called me and told me that if I wanted to make a complaint about the process, it was better to do so before I had any marks in case it looked like I was complaining because I got a poor mark. Then he said he could ‘offer’ me an average of my grades over the previous two years as I had proved I had submitted the dissertation but it had never been found. I said no. I regretted that later – but felt it was a matter of principle. Sigh.

Anyway, a couple of weeks pass and I get a call from my tutor. He’s found my dissertation. It was in the corner of his office. Oh, he isn’t sure how that happened. He hasn’t marked it and he should have a second marker check it first as he was my supervisor but if I agreed to him marking it, he could do it and then it would be marked more quickly. I said yes. At this point, I was working as a social worker in a local authority team and it was busy. My dissertation wasn’t my biggest worry.

A little while after that, he called and left a message with our team secretary, asking me to call him because I failed my dissertation. Yes, I wrote that correctly. He left a message saying I’d failed. Now, me being me, everyone in the office knew the story of my dissertation so it wasn’t a ‘secret’ and I didn’t really have a problem with anyone knowing but it didn’t seem like particularly good practice. Oh, and I failed by 2%.

I was tired at this point. Really sick of the whole thing and felt really hard done by. I felt angry as well. How could he ‘lose’ my dissertation for months and then suddenly ‘find’ it in his office when the submission receipt was found. Oh and he was my tutor – he’d read the dissertation – or at least most of it before I submitted and hadn’t told me it was failing.

Anyway on I went with work. Then I got another call from him. Apparently he had had difficulty finding a second marker but he met someone he knew who could do it. They were meeting at a party or something (yes, he told me that). Right, so we had movement on this.

Unsurprisingly I got another call a while later saying the second marker had confirmed that I’d failed.

And that was it. I did write a complaint to the university via the head of the department and I copied in my tutor. But I never received a response. I suspect I may never have sent it to the right place.

I felt very hard done by and quite angry. But I had a job and it wasn’t one I disliked. It was busy.

I was working through an agency and my manager offered me the opportunity to apply for a permanent job. I didn’t accept. I saved my money and after exactly one year of work as a qualified social worker – I moved overseas for a couple of years. I was still angry.

There is a postscript of course, because I now have an MA in Social Work. When I came back to the UK, I got another agency social work job very quickly. Despite one year experience and two years away. I was very lucky to land in a good team with a great manager. I applied for a permanent job there when one came up.

I enjoyed it, never thinking about my qualification. I started my PQ1 and had an amazing mentor who was a social work manager in a different team. She encouraged me to think differently.

I used to go to Community Care Live every year and that year, I bumped into a couple of lecturers from my university (not the tutor I had). They asked me how I was getting on and I told them. I can’t remember how it came up, but they hadn’t known I didn’t pass the dissertation and expressed some shock (I’d done well academically through the course). One of them said I should go back and retake. I had 5 years to do so and this meeting was in the fifth year.

And so that’s what I did. I enrolled at the university. I was allocated a different tutor. I wrote a dissertation about the poor take up of direct payments for older people and the impact of ageism in the policy itself. And I passed. So I have my MA and on my CV it is down as being awarded exactly 5 years after my postgraduate diploma in social work.

Looking back I don’t want to say my original dissertation should have passed, but that process and the power at play, sure wasn’t a demonstration of the values one might expect in a social work professional – or any professional. It has been a very valuable lesson in power though. And one I’ve been able to reflect on and use.

When I consider myself to be a cog in the wheel of a large organisation or a system of policies that I am asked to implement in my role which make me feel utterly powerless, I recall those feelings of powerlessness I had and realise that I am not as powerless as I think I am. I have a voice and I have a knowledge of the systems and the policies. I can make my challenges. The power I have is and can be enormous and I need to constantly remember that and recall the feelings over powerlessness in order to make the comparisons. 

My confidence is much stronger now and I’d be able to speak out but it also reminds me how much I’ve grown professionally and personally since I qualified.

There are many routes my life has taken since 2000, some of which I wouldn’t have taken if I hadn’t had that period of confusion, challenge and failure. 

Failure isn’t a point in time, it isn’t unusual and it isn’t ‘other people’. If we fail, it may be because other things are happening which have to be prioritised, like our health and wellbeing – it might mean that there are more interesting routes ahead of us and different challenges to face. 

If I could see myself now, from the view of myself as a newly qualified social worker who had their confidence bust to shreds and a caseload of 49 – wondering if I could ever be as competent as my peers, I’d tap myself on the shoulder and say, nearly 20 years later, you will still have a lot to learn, but you don’t have as much to prove – you’ll be fine. 

The growth comes from continuing to learn and wanting to learn. We never ‘qualify’ ready to practice because the only thing that makes one ready to practice is practice. 

And now I’m back to study further and longer. And maybe to prove something else to myself that I am capable of this. 

Learning to ‘research’

I have been focussing my reading very much on methods and methodology recently. This might have come a bit later than it should have considering I am in my second year of a five year course, but I am still in on a very sharp learning curve. Trying to divide my time (alongside a full-time job, of course) between reading about the subject matter of my research and reading about research as a new knowledge area to develop may not be quite as well-balanced as I’d ideally like at the moment.

Through my reading, I came across a couple of books, for I am mostly focussing on books rather than articles for my methodology reading, which have been a bit snotty about interviews as a primary research method. One was very much referring to interviews as secondary data which is constructed as opposed to ‘real life’ data which is found ‘in the wild’ (my terms between the inverted commas but I think that was the meaning). Interviews were, perhaps dismissed as ‘too easy’ or an obvious choice which create data that might not have the same validity.

The other approach was very much about a ‘hierarchy of research methodologies’ where the evidence-based quantitative/positivist research was more rigorous by nature than smaller scale qualitative interviewing.

I’m planning on using interviews as my primary way to gather research data. I have already scheduled (kind of – waiting for it to be confirmed) a pilot interview or two. I am not yet knowledgeable enough, I don’t think to challenge the authors, but I think there’s a fair case to be made for interviews – not least because it is the best way to access the information and language that I want to analyse in order to better understand the research questions I have provisionally settled on (for today – I have to say that my research question/s are currently being tweaked on a daily basis).

Thinking about interviewing in particular, it came to me that really that’s all I’ve ever been doing in my years of social work. I started my MA in social work in 1998 so for about 20 years or so, I’ve been ‘interviewing’. Interviewing people to complete assessments and reviews, interviewing people to understand the circumstances of their lives which have led to interactions with the state embodied in the social worker. I have had to interview in difficult situations, when people have not wanted to speak to me because they feared me or my role, because they despised me and/or what I represented or because they were unable to.

On my first placement at University in 1998/9, in a local authority older people’s team, I remember going out on a visit on my own to ‘review’ a relatively straightforward care package. When I returned and spoke with my practice teacher, she asked me a lot of questions, about what I’d heard, seen, smelt – how I had felt, what observations I had.

The words were only one signal to me, the frayed carpet remained in my mind, thinking about the impact of mobility and potential harm a fall might cause. It reminded me of the importance of observation skills and listening skills in the role I had.

Later, when I went to see people at home for the first time, I would look around rooms and try and find a connection – one house, where a man had many paintings and sculptures of horses (which was unusual in inner London) and it had started a conversation where he reminisced about his life as a jockey, photos of family which were admired to start conversations that people felt comfortable with. Often when I visited people at home, and I worked in older adult’s mental health services, I would offer to make them a cup of tea or coffee when I arrived (when I knew them – it obviously, depended on the context and wasn’t always appropriate) but it allowed me to check the contents of the fridge and the shelf-life of the milk without making an explicit statement. It was these observations that allowed me to build up pictures. I also relied on feedback from family members, paid carers and staff at day centres or community groups who would feed back. This was all giving me pictures from which to form judgements and create a view about how to interpret a situation.

This made me think about the research methods I have been reading about, mostly qualitative, to be fair – the interviews, the observations, the focus groups even – all activities I carried out and still do carry out every day (well, most days) at work. I speak to people mostly, but then I interpret and explain the information that has been given to me in a format that makes sense to the state – it might be a report I’m writing or an assessment or a review, it might be about presenting my interpretation at a ‘panel’ or explaining my position to my manager.

But also, in my work, I need to understand data. I need to look at information from audits of services and staffing levels on wards. Information about the use of restraint, seclusion and incidents. This needs to be interpreted and understood.

Basically, all those skills I have to be a social worker, they aren’t that dissimilar to research skills I am learning about. Of course, I’m not saying I would interview a research subject in the same way I’d speak with a person who I was working with – but there are some analogies. When I practised as a AMHP, we had to be clear about the purpose of our assessment and the implications of it from the start. When I completed a continuing care assessment, I had to explain how that information would be used and ensure that I used criteria which were established to provide evidence to support my interpretation and judgement.

The skills we learn to practice are research skills. The differences between being a social worker and being a researcher of social work, is, perhaps the impact of the theoretical approaches we take. When we interview and interpret for social work practice, we use social work theories and methods. When we are interpreting and understanding practice for research purposes, we have other contexts in which to understand.

But maybe learning to research isn’t quite as alien as it seemed to be to me, and what I am really learning is how to interpret the data I gather in different ways and in different contexts.


I’m lucky that as part of my studies, I have students who I am working alongside as we make our way through the first, taught part of our professional doctorate. I know many might not have the same group of colleagues taking journeys at the same time.

Over the last few months, since I attended a workshop in Manchester facilitated by Dr Helen Kara and organised by Dr Lisa Morriss, where I had the opportunity to meet and talk to other social work/social care doctorate level students, I realised that there was value in building broader networks – outside ones’ own university and outside ones’ own subject area.

While nothing beats the opportunity to meet face to face, I wondered aloud if there was a group or forum online specifically for those research students in social work/social care. Initially within the UK but not exclusively. While ‘asking on Twitter’ isn’t always the most effective way of finding all information available, I didn’t get response although a few people responded that it is something they would be interested in.

On that basis, I created a Facebook Group ‘Research in Social Work and Social Care’  

While I can’t promise endless insightful content, it is, for the moment, just a place to gather and hopefully build networks in a subject-specific context but also learn together about how to research and what it looks like in a practical context.

So if it’s something you’d be interested in, please do join. At the moment, I’m the only member! But it was free to set up so nothing lost in the process…

And maybe it’ll be a space where we can all share resources/experiences and information over time.

Organising study notes

Near the beginning of my studies, I realised I needed days to make sure I remembered what I read. I tried many different things. I like writing notes into notebooks as I read – so started with different exercise books (the ones from school but A4 size) to make notes about the books I was reading and making sure I kept up with the references.

Then I realised this might not be the most effective. I have lots of notebooks I use for work and am not the tidiest person in the world. I decided to go ‘electronic’.

So each book or paper I read, I made notes on a different Word document with thoughts as I make my way through the relevant reading. Sometimes with useful quotes added. It’s like creating a précis that I can go back to.

I saved each one as a separate Word document with the name of the article, paper or book/book chapter into a folder called ‘articles read’ (it’s not just articles of course). Because I got a bit paranoid about losing data, I back it all up to a USB stick, DropBox and OneDrive – cos I just can’t trust only one cloud storage space!

I have another folder with all the papers I have collected along the way, mostly in PDF – that’s the ‘articles PDF’ folder (they aren’t all PDF but this is just in my head!). When I started, I printed all the PDFs off and had them in separate paper folders depending on the topic – so one for ‘Human Rights’ and one for ‘Mental Capacity’ etc – but the numbers of articles grew and the printer ran out of ink…

That’s when I started to think about reference management software. I bought EndNote at student discount rate and used that the first year including for my initial literature review work. I liked a few things about it and I’d never used reference management software – but my organisation wasn’t very good from the start. I liked that it ported Harvard style referencing (and lots of others) into my essay but I did have to do a bit of tweaking as well. EndNote synced well with my iPad as well.

In year two, I kept EndNote (because I bought a copy!) but decided to try other reference managers. Not quite sure how I ended up with Readcube Papers, it certainly isn’t the best known or most well-used (that must be Zotero/Mendeley), but I ported my library over and quite like it. That might be because I am only comparing it with EndNote but I’ll stick with it for a bit. I like that I can (although I can do this with EndNote as well) store my PDFs within it. Probably because I started when I was in year two, I was able to ‘organise’ from the start. I imported all my links from EndNote but was able to tag and sort them into topics that made more sense. It was like ‘starting afresh’. Of course, it was also entirely unnecessary. But (did I mention my obsession with backing up), I also went back to my Word document summaries and copied and pasted them into the ReadCube ‘notes’ so when looking at my references, I don’t have to go back into the Word documents I’ve created and can read my summaries, thoughts, relevant quotations etc directly from the references.

I don’t know if this is the system I will continue to use. I also use OneNote as my ‘research diary’. I started a paper-based research diary where I made notes on my thoughts and feelings and different approaches (including ongoing tweaking with research questions – ideas about developing methodologies and methods). Then I lost my paper-based notebook. I’m sure it’s still in my house somewhere but got lost in a ‘tidy’. So I use OneNote. I have a ‘notebook’ called research diary and add a page for each day I write in it. It’s just thoughts as I go along. I also have notebooks within OneNote for tweaking research questions and I like it because it is accessible from my phone and iPad but also because I can import links, documents, webpages and PDFs into it. It’s a bit messy but it means it won’t be ‘lost.

I have also played with Mindmaps. I struggled a lot to make sense of my research topic and research questions. I knew the area I wanted to delve into but was having difficulty breaking it down and identifying specific research questions that worked. The mind mapping really helped – just a bit of brainstorming and putting words and ideas together and seeing how they fit together visually. I use Apple infrastructure – I have computer that runs MacOS and have a iPad and iPhone (I know, I know). I tried Mindnode but didn’t get along with it so well (that is entirely about how my mind works and the things I wanted the software to do). Eventually I settled on iThoughts – and putting out my ideas and plans on a Mindmap really helped. I’m sure I’ll come back to that as a specific post later.

I can’t ‘advise’ that any of these systems ‘work’ because I honestly don’t know but sometimes it’s a difficult terrain to navigate, especially coming back to studying after many years when technology, apps and programmes are much more well-developed than they were when I last studied.

But this was a basic run-through on what I do to try and remember things at the moment!

The Next Steps

I think it’s fair to say that my intentions to blog regularly through the research process didn’t really pan out. It’s been a busy year, work-wise. However, I entered the second year of my course and the reading is really ratcheting up so I thought it might be time, as my focus moves away from catching up and more to moving forward, to reconnect with the blog.

So my goal, although as is the wont with blogs, that might change, is to think ‘aloud’ about my engagement with research – both reading and learning about research but also starting to undertake my research independently.

As I am undertaking a professional doctorate in social work, my research and study is very much focussed on the social work profession and practice within it. I was fortunate earlier this year to join a workshop held in Birmingham, organised by Dr Lisa Morriss facilitated by Dr Helen Kara

I wrote about my experiences and reflections on the event here. This helped me form some ideas in my head about networks and how important they are and might be as I head off down the path of research. I have some informal links now, mostly through Twitter, with people I have come across who are on similar or related paths. I have explored forums for postgraduate students  and some blogs around research and postgraduate study including Thesis WhispererResearch Whisperer,   PhD talk , Doctoral Writing SIG and blogs from Helen Kara, James Hayton and Raul Pacheco-Vega as well as many others.

Then there were some resources I’ve ‘stored’ to go back to like Sage Research Methods which I can access through the university library. I’ve been interested in learning about methods and methodologies but also trying to increase my understanding of the subject area I am working in, while also trying to remember what I’ve learned.

So my aim with these posts is not to discuss my actual research, but more the process of learning to research. I am very much a beginner. I have never undertaken primary research and never studied research methodology. I managed to get a Masters but it was an extended literature review when all’s said and done.

Now, I have a desire to know more but keep learning more about what I don’t know and that’s a pretty scary place, but somehow, writing about it helps!

%d bloggers like this: