It has been a while since I’ve blogged here, despite good intentions; this is not indicative of inactivity, far from it! I have now been in post at the University of Edinburgh for 5 months, and this seems as good a time as any to reflect and take stock, and note some of the joys, challenges and experiences of life as an early career researcher (ECR).
Firstly, as I’ve not said anything here about the project I am working on, I’ll give the briefest outline. I am undertaking a longitudinal qualitative research study attached to a randomised control trial (RCT) of two treatments for type 1 diabetes. This involves interviewing a sample of participants on both arms of the trial, within 2 weeks of them having an initial training course and then again 6 months later. Although I have a nursing background I am by no means a diabetes expert, and it has been a fascinating few months learning about diabetes and how people live with and manage it. I am really grateful to all who have given up time to speak with me for the project, it has been a real privilege hearing and being entrusted with people’s stories.
The project is in a very different area from my PhD, which looked at sexual and reproductive health services in central/eastern Europe. Although I have worked in the NHS over many years this is my first experience of researching in the NHS, and one of the first things I learnt when coming into post was that the bureaucracy involved in research in eastern Europe is as nothing compared to that encountered when researching in the NHS! This is all for very good reasons of course, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of research participants who are potentially vulnerable, but I quickly found that being on the other end of the decision-making process waiting for permissions to be granted required levels of patience and fortitude I previously did not realise I had!
Another issue which came up for me early on was the feeling of not being entirely in control of the research and also (relatedly) that of ownership of the research. Because the proposal for the RCT and the qualitative sub-study had been drawn up some time ago, I was recruited into a project which was already established and to which I had therefore at that point contributed nothing. Clearly this is very different from PhD research (at least in the social sciences) where the design and intellectual development is entirely the responsibility of the researcher from the very beginning, and I found this aspect quite difficult in the early couple of months. My colleagues were very clear that they expected my intellectual input in the refining of the research and direction of the interviews, but it wasn’t really until I started actually observing and interviewing that I really felt much of a sense of ownership and intellectual investment in the project. The intensity of the feeling of lack of control and ownership surprised me, and is something I would caution new ECRs to prepare for (or at least be expecting!). It has largely been the support and encouragement of colleagues, as well as (most importantly) the willingness and openness of research participants to share their stories, which has provided the impetus I needed to feel that this is my research and that I can make a significant contribution to ensuring that the stories with which I am being entrusted can be used not only to advance academic knowledge but also to improve diabetes treatment and management.
I also discovered quite early on that a qualitative study attached to an RCT is a relatively rare occurrence. The trial also involves a significant psychosocial study measured by questionnaires at various points throughout the duration of the trial, led by a team at another university, and I think that we are fortunate that there is such a commitment not only to the medical methods and aspects of the treatment but also to the psychosocial aspects of living with and managing a chronic condition. I hope that our results and publications are able to advance the case for more such studies to be incorporated into future RCTs. I am attending a conference in Sheffield in November reporting the findings of a study precisely looking at qualitative research and RCTs, I am really looking forward to this.
As well as this study, my post has a career development aspect, and to this end I am being actively encouraged to publish from my PhD. I recently submitted an article adapted from a conference talk I gave 3 years ago to a leading journal, so am hopeful that something will come from that. I am also planning and writing a few further articles currently and so hopefully my list of publications will be significantly enhanced in the next year. Before I submitted my recent article I gave it to my boss to have a look at; this was quite scary as other than a blog post and my CV she had not yet actually read any of my writing, and I was surprised at how protective about it I was and how anxious I was for positive feedback. It was really useful though to take the risk – I did my PhD in an area studies (Central & East European Studies) department, and with only one exception all of the conference talks I have given have been to CEES conferences, so I am used to writing and talking in contexts where people are familiar with the area and the contexts within which social and political changes are happening there. Given that the journal I was submitting to was not an area studies journal it was really useful to have someone unfamiliar with CEES to look at the article and highlight where I had made assumptions about the level of knowledge of my audience. Her feedback was really useful in terms of giving me the confidence to chop out the weaker aspects, but also left me shocked at just how much I had assumed prior contextual knowledge! So one of the things I will be doing as a priority over the next few weeks is writing up a basic background which I can draw on for future articles which hopefully addresses the gaps left by my assumptions of prior knowledge.
I’ve also realised that, having not done CEES research for a while, coming back to my PhD material and reading up on recent scholarship has been brilliant and I am still absolutely passionate about it. I am lucky that I think there is a lot I can be writing from my thesis and lots of places I can disseminate that research, and am enjoying the planning a lot. I’m really happy that I was contacted by my PhD external examiner recently and asked to be on a panel she is proposing for a conference next year; this along with the Health in Transition conference I attended in June in Bucharest makes me feel that I am still keeping my hand in with CEES research and that makes me very happy.
The last 5 months have been a bit of a rollercoaster – as well as getting myself established in post and working through my identity as an ECR, I also had some health issues which amongst other things reminded me that no research takes part in a vacuum and behind every piece of research are personal stories that are never told. I can say though that I have definitely landed on my feet, I love my job and am grateful for supportive colleagues, and I am committed to doing my best to make the most of it.