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.

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!

The beginning – again

I don’t know how or if this will develop in any way but I never thought I’d quite be able to stay away from the blogging too much.  I started writing about social work on the internet back in 2007 when I was finishing up my postgraduate certificate that qualified me to work as an approved social worker (now approved mental health professional – it changed shorted after I finished).

I wrote through my work as a social worker in a community mental  health team for older people, closed the blog, wrote for a while on a multi-author site before changing jobs, continuing to write but with much less frequency and more recently, moving onto Medium.

But this year, I’ve moved back to study for the first time for many years and I thought it might merit a completely new blog with a slightly different focus. This blog will always have social work and things related to social work at it’s heart. I’ve been doing social work too long to shake it off. But I also want it to be a shared journey of my learning and growing through my studying. I will encounter new challenges and will be come across new information.  I don’t expect it will interest many people apart from me but if it helps someone discover new things about social work and research and the way they impact each other as well as my personal goal to complete a research degree while working full time in a social work/care/mental health field, then by all means come along with me and enjoy the ride.

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