(Probably) the end

Hello! *Blows away the cobwebs and dusts furiously* I bet you thought that I’d forgotten about you all as I haven’t written anything here since May. Well, after my excellent attempts at procrastination earlier on in the year, I finally decided to buckle down and sort my dissertation out. It’s been quite a journey, which is why I’ve been so uncharacteristically quiet – both here, and on my own blog.

I’m glad to report that after many, many more hours of work than I’d originally estimated, resulting in the production of 22 drafts for the research paper and 7 for the executive summary, I successfully submitted the dissertation last month. I’m now basking in the knowledge that I’ve passed not only the dissertation component of the MSc, but the MSc itself.

Naturally, I have a number of pieces of advice to pass onto future part-time, distance learners undertaking the Occupational Psychology MSc at Leicester in future. The most important of these naturally relate to the dissertation.

Firstly, don’t undertake a piece of qualitative research simply because you’re not keen on statistics. Only do it if you’re really committed to your research question and a qualitative methodology is the only way you’ll be able to answer it. Qualitative research is definitely not an easy option, particularly if you’re looking to demonstrate it’s been performed rigorously and transparently. And you should be, of course.

Secondly, make good use of your dissertation supervisor. Keep them updated with your progress, tell them what you’re thinking about doing … and when they question you, listen to their advice and act on it. They know what they’re talking about! For example, I would have had a much worse question schedule had I not listened carefully to my supervisor’s advice at the start of the process. The quality of the questions that I eventually came up with resulted (I believe) in a far more coherent set of data when it came to analysis than I otherwise would have had. Good data certainly makes analysis more enjoyable, and it made generating evidence-based conclusions easier too.

Thirdly, find ways to enjoy the process. If you’re a distance learner, feelings of isolation and self-doubt seem to haunt most of us at some stage. Talk about your concerns to others – a Facebook group of fellow students in my first year and an email list in my delayed second year certainly helped me when I needed to sound off. The other way I found to enjoy myself was to deliberately argue for controversial positions that I didn’t necessarily hold (backed by evidence, naturally) in the assessments we were set. I seem to remember the ergonomics module being a particularly fruitful one for this approach. In occupational psychology, as in life, there are no completely right or wrong answers – simply positions you can justify based on evidence.

This is probably the end of my academic adventures at Leicester (or anywhere else for that matter). I’m looking forward to presenting my dissertation findings at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology conference as well as my graduation ceremony in January. I certainly hope to stay in touch with many of my fellow students and the academic staff who have encouraged me over the last three years. Your efforts have been hugely appreciated.

 

This article was originally published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 30th October 2016.

Post-40 Bloggers

10,000 steps a day – day 11 – dissertation done!

My dissertation is officially finished. Yay! Well, almost: I will proof read it again tomorrow before submitting all 9,000 lovingly crafted words. But, done. Which brings me to the end of my MSc, too. Here it is in all of its front cover glory.

Dissertation front coverMy advice to future students is simple. No matter how tempting it seems, if you’re going to do a qualitative study purely because you’re scared of statistics, think again. Qualitative research is far more time-consuming and the analysis process far more onerous than anything SPSS can throw at you. Trust me – I’ve done both now. Only do a qualitative piece of research if the question you devise demands it, you have masochistic tendencies and are completely committed to your ontological approach. Otherwise you’ll hate it. And even if you meet all of these criteria, you’ll still hate it at some point during the process. I know I did, but I got through it. There is hope for us all.

I believe that I deserve a beer, before I return my final library book.

BeerNaturally, I walked several thousand steps more than I needed to before I bought the beer. Day 11 and still on track. Only 19 left to go.

 

If you’d like to sponsor me to walk all over cancer during September, my donations page is here. Thank you to all of my sponsors who have helped me to raise £280 so far. Please join them if you can. It will make me feel like my dissertation has some real value (don’t groan).

A distinction in procrastination

Hello all – and please accept my apologies for being away from here for a little while. “No problem”, I can hear you all saying, “we understand that you’ve been working hard on your dissertation, reading research papers, collecting data and transcribing interviews, analysing it all and making astounding discoveries.”

Hmmm.

Well, the truth is rather more prosaic I’m afraid.

Yes, I have been getting on with my dissertation and doing all of those good things, but possibly not with quite the vigour I really should be. That’s for this month I’ve been promising myself. Instead, I’ve been finding lots of ways to procrastinate, while telling myself that a bit of physical exertion is good for the analysis process, especially as I’m undertaking a qualitative (and largely inductive) approach to it.

My car has never been cleaner.

Clean carThe garage has never been tidier.

Empty garageI demolished a rotten shed that had stood by the side of my house for more than twenty years …

Shed site… and built a new one twice its size. I’ve named it Sheddy McShedface …

Sheddy McShedface… and filled it with all of the things that were in the garage that should have been in the old shed but wouldn’t fit.

Shed interiorI’ve even cut the grass (the elephant is called ‘Steve’ by the way).

Steve the elephantI think these are pretty impressive lengths to go to as far as procrastination is concerned. I’ve awarded myself a distinction, but you may be able to do better perhaps? Do let me know – it will help keep me away from Seale’s book on qualitative research for another evening if you do.

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 8th May 2016.

Falling off the ethical happy path

It’s Sunday morning. I’m currently surrounded by books, academic papers, highlighter pens and lots of scrappy notes. I’m ploughing my way through the individual at work module in an attempt to start the last assignment of the course, excluding the dissertation. It’s been hard to concentrate on this module during January, partly because of work commitments, partly because of a stinking cold I’ve had for the last week, but also because of the wrestling match I ended up having with the newly-automated ethical approval process.

Some hints for future students (based on my experience of the process in January 2016):

  • Your dissertation supervisor is actually your co-researcher as far as the ethical approval process is concerned.
  • The departmental ethics officer (DEO) that you’ve been assigned (by dint of the first letter of your surname) is your ‘module leader or authorising supervisor’. Providing the details of the actual module leader or your actual dissertation supervisor is definitely the wrong thing to do.
  • If you get this step wrong, it appears that there’s no way that anyone can re-route your application to the correct place, so you have to start the process again.
  • It’s (at least) a two-step submission process. Once your supervisor (co-researcher) has approved the application it ends up back with you to submit manually to the DEO. Unless you remember to check your emails and hit the submit button again, the DEO won’t see your application. I’m unsure as to why this is the case – all of the routing information has to be provided up-front by the applicant – so it simply seems to introduce an unnecessary time-lag into the process.
  • Once you’ve made a mistake and you (reluctantly) decide that the best course of action is to start again, the system won’t allow you to clone or cut and paste information from a ‘stuck’ application into a new one (well, unless you know how to use the ‘view source’ option in a web browser of course …).

In conclusion – don’t fall off the ethical approval process happy path – it’s frustrating if you do. But given how easy it is to make mistakes, my professional persona would love to spend some time with the designer of this system to help them make it just a little more robust. So here’s my offer – if you’d like to get in touch with me, I’ll happily come and spend a couple of hours with you in Leicester, free of charge, to help you improve the experience for future students and researchers. I’ll also bring cake.

Which takes me back to my current module assignment – it focuses on ways of dealing with stress at work. Given the month that I’ve just had (and I don’t mean dealing with the frustrations of the ethical approval process – they were the least of my worries), it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Eating cake while working on improving things would seem to be an excellent way of reducing stress, but sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any research evidence out there to suggest that it would be effective. Unless, of course, you know differently …

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 31st January 2016.

My 2016 target: one word every two minutes

It’s been a busy month – probably the busiest of the course so far. The deadline for the penultimate module, on Training and Development, came and went on 12th November, with the deadline for the dissertation proposal following just 4 weeks later on 10th December. I’m glad to report that I made both deadlines, but I do feel like I’ve barely moved outside of my study at weekends for the last 3 months. Looking at the weather outside this afternoon and listening to reports about the centre of Derby being overrun with festive shoppers, I guess that may not be a bad thing. A bah humbug to you all.

The final module (excluding the dissertation) – The Individual at Work – is now underway. It has an assignment focussed on psychological stress and I suspect that most of us on the course feel that we’re fairly well acquainted with the concept after the last few weeks. Stress is one of those areas of psychology where there seems to be lots of research and also widely varying opinions – even about something as fundamental as its definition. I think I’m going to need a lot of A3 paper to help me map out the debates and approaches to the subject if I’m going to successfully figure out how best to tackle the assignment, which consists of a 1,600 word consultancy report and a related 1,600 word academic essay.

Perhaps bizarrely, knowing how long it takes me to write assignments and how many drafts I usually create before I’m happy with them (8 seems to be my average), it’s the word count figures that are keeping me motivated at the moment. I only have to find another 12,200 perfectly crafted words to finish the course now. My course calendar suggests that I have 510 hours of study left to complete, so that’s only 24 words an hour – less than one every 2 minutes. How hard can that be?!

So for the next few months, that’s what I’ll be thinking about. I’ll be quietly telling myself that I can definitely come up with one good word every two minutes, even if most of them really get written in the last few hours …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 13th December 2015.

Ethics: not just a checklist

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

 

General Norman Schwarzkopf

The British Psychological Society introduces its resources on ethics by stating that they are “… central to everything we do whether in research or practice”. They’ve certainly been front and centre for me over the last few days in the context of planning the research for my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to make sure that my proposal adequately addresses the ethical standards that the university expects us to comply with. I’m hopeful that what I’m proposing will prove to be relatively unproblematic. I’m not going to use deception in my research (I’m not Milgram), nor am I going to set participant against participant (I’m definitely not Zimbardo). But even though I won’t be emulating their practices, which seem hopelessly unethical by today’s standards, I still have a duty to make sure that I try to protect me and my participants from any unintended consequences that may arise from my research. So I’ve been taking ethical considerations seriously in my design, rather than viewing it as simply a checklist to get through.

Most of my ethical concerns are around making sure that I have permission from the organisation I’m working with to gain access to participants and data, that the research setting I use for interviews is safe and comfortable, that I take adequate precautions to protect participant confidentiality and that the electronic and physical security of the data I collect is assured.

Paraphrasing the words of General Schwarzkopf, I hope that I’ve figured out the right things to do – and that I remember to do them in the midst of the battle that juggling study, work, family and health will undoubtedly be in 2016.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 2nd December 2015.

Dissertation proposal progress

I’ve just realised that it’s been rather a long time since I wrote about the progress of my dissertation proposal. August, to be precise. So with the deadline for submission rapidly approaching and making that gut-wrenching, whistling, wooshing noise that all deadlines seem to make, it means that it’s probably time to update you on my progress.

I’ve taken my own advice from August to heart and I’ve wisely decided not to boil the ocean. Having originally approached the dissertation with the vague idea of doing some research into the factors that affect the performance of salespeople (I now realise after much reading and thought that such a list is quite likely to be an infinite one), I think that I’ve finally ended up with a reasonably focused research question to investigate.

That’s good news, but perhaps what is less good news is my belief that the research question I’ve chosen lends itself to a qualitative, interpretative and post-modernist approach. While I’m excited about my research and the way in which I plan to do it, I’m still somewhat concerned that I didn’t force myself to come up with what would have been – for me – a much simpler quantitative, experimental and modernist approach. Oh well. Only time will tell if my social constructionist convictions have written a cheque that I won’t be able to cash.

I’ve a bit of fine tuning to complete on the proposal (and especially on my project plan) over the next couple of weeks. I’ll then be able to take a bit of a break from study over Christmas before the reality of the research process kicks in again early on in the New Year.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 22nd November 2015.

On not boiling the ocean

Over the weekend my studies reminded me of a photograph I took last year. It shows two families of elephants trying to cross the Chobe river from Botswana to Namibia. Unfortunately the groups became tangled up, so much trumpeting and manoeuvring was required to ensure that they all crossed successfully. It was an awe-inspiring sight. At one point it looked as if the whole river was boiling, such was the effort being expended by the elephants to stay afloat, keep with their respective families and cross the river at the same time.

Elephants at Chobe 2014The reason I was reminded of this picture was because of the effort I’ve been putting into refining my dissertation topic so that I can produce an interesting, but limited in size, research question. One of the many pieces of advice that we’re given as MSc occupational psychology students is not to be over ambitious with the scope of our research – as less is often more. The topic area I’ve chosen is rather like the first photograph – lots of elephants of different sizes, all swimming around and trying desperately to attract my attention, when what I need is clear sight of a single elephant …

Elephant at Chobe 2014… and preferably, quite a small one.

Young elephant at Chobe 2014Anyway, at the risk of stretching this analogy possibly a little too far, I think I’ve managed to find my elephant. At the moment I’m still not completely sure whether the elephant I’ve found is too big, too small, or just the right size, as it’s still partly hiding behind the bushes of “more research required”, but at least I now have a photograph(*) of it pinned above the desk in my study.

 

(*) Not really a photograph, but a piece of A4 paper with my provisional research question printed on it in large type. I did say that I’d probably stretched the elephant analogy a little too far …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 18th August 2015.

Mind your language

I mentioned in my last post that I was knee deep in reading for my dissertation proposal. I’m still knee deep, but the ideas are starting to become a little better formed now. One thing I can confidently say is that all of the questions I’m interested in researching involve understanding the way that language is used in the context of business to business selling – something I’ve been involved with for most of my professional career. This means that I’ll almost certainly be using a qualitative methodology, one of the many variants of discourse analysis, to undertake my empirical research into the topic. This is not the conclusion that I wanted to come to, based on my past experience of how much time qualitative projects consume!

As part of my undergraduate degree, I undertook two full-scale psychology projects. One of these was an experiment, which gratifyingly gave me and my partner in crime two significant and one insignificant result after the stats had been crunched. As far as I was concerned, this kind of ‘split decision’ was brilliant as you can learn just as much, if not more, from experimental results that don’t conform to your expectations. It also makes producing an interesting write-up straightforward, particularly if you follow the standard psychological report-writing conventions. In the grand scheme of things, it really didn’t take that much effort to produce something that I was happy with.

The other project was a qualitative one requiring the use of critical discourse analysis. For all kinds of reasons (transcribing interview data is one – I figured out that I can only manage this at a rate of about 16 hours of effort for 45 minutes of data), this type of research takes far, far longer to do well. Probably the most challenging part of a qualitative project is interpreting the data. With experimental research, there’s usually only one (correct!) way you can crunch the data through a stats software package. With data from a discourse analysis project, there are endless ways to analyse how the participants are using language to take positions to either justify themselves or to blame others. Analysis is hard work, and crucially, you also have to consider the way that your own experiences and interests influence your conclusions. The researcher is explicitly present in the data, rather than a factor that has been assumed to be ‘controlled out’ through good experimental design.

If you’ve had experience of quantitative and qualitative research, which do you prefer – and is it the same approach that you feel gives you the greatest insight? For my own part, I certainly prefer quantitative research from the point of view of simplicity, but the insight that rich, qualitative data gives is often worth the effort.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 5th August 2015.