22 September 2014

Big Projects and Small Children

I am fully enrolled at Heriot-Watt for my PhD. This semester I’m taking an Introduction to PhD Research class, which I’m hoping will help to smooth over some of the more academic areas of PhD study that I’m not familiar with. I need to understand the language of my field of research and the theoretical approaches to social research that are going to underpin my PhD project.

Prior to starting, I read and acted upon the theory of studying a PhD more than reading deeply around my subject area. This has been valuable on a number of levels, not least because I feel reassured that I’m doing a PhD for the right reasons and at the right time. Doing a PhD is a means to an end: the only way to prove you are a valid researcher is by doing an extended piece of research.

Two of the better (less daunting, good advice, no-nonsense) books I have found on the subject are How to Research and Write a Successful PhD by McMillann and Weyers and How To Get a PhD by Phillips and Pugh. Another book that will remain unnamed was nothing but text inside – no pictures, not even on the cover – no illustrations, not a measly table, which made for thoroughly intimidating and uninspiring reading in the age of infographics.

I feel like I have done some of the essential groundwork to set myself up as a researcher – building on prior experience within academia, joining (and in some cases re-joining, after maternity leave) professional associations, registering for various subject-specific academic bulletins, establishing a twitter profile for work, maintaining and updating my existing network connections, creating this website detailing not only my research but also my other activities. Mentioned on this site is my work, which I don’t want to lose sight of (we’ve been told not to lose sight of the real world), my background, my research and also, briefly on the first page, my family. I will come back to my family later on.

In the research workshop this week, we discussed the basics of our research and answered questions on these three areas:

·         What is your PhD research?
o    An easy one, as I’m working to this pre-determined and clear title: Gender and Occupational Segregation in Apprenticeships

·         How do you think you will go about it (e.g. data collection)? What will be your approach?
o    I’ll be using mixed method research: quantitative and qualitative research, a substantial number of interviews with practitioners, young apprentices, employers and employees, surveys and case studies, action research and detailed statistical analysis of Labour Market Information held by Skills Development Scotland.
o    And for my theoretical approaches… Ahem. This is where I need help. I know I will be using specific theories of career development, gender, equality, feminist economics, work and learning to contextualise my literature review but beyond that... well... this is why I am taking a research methods class this semester. I don’t currently know my positivism from my constructivism. Hopefully I will by the time the Christmas tree goes up.

·         Why are you doing a PhD? Where do you want it to take you?
o    This is the big question. Before even applying for the PhD studentship, I spent an entire week working this out. I wrote lists of pros and cons. I asked friends who knew me well. I discussed it with family. The lists went on and on.
§  The best answer I can give is personal achievement. All the other things are secondary (right point in my career, ties in to my other work, potential to shape policy, fits in around my circumstances)
§  I don’t know where it will take me. I might move into an academic career. I might move into consultancy or policy research. I might want to go back to writing plays and stories and never look at another academic journal again. It will take me into the unknown, as will be in the new position of having completed a PhD, that is all I know right now.

We’ve been told to read as widely as possible and to read that which may not directly influence our research. We may never get another chance to. So what have I been reading this week? More on the theory and practice of PhD research, rather than anything specific to the subject. All PhD students have some concerns about the task ahead. We learned this week in our workshop that most PhD students don’t complete their PhD. What are my concerns? This blog post by a previous PhD student covers some of them.  


I’m tackling the challenges of being a full-time mummy as well as a full-time student. In many ways PhD study fits in better around my baby. In others, it doesn’t. In my work, I was used to working odd hours (frequent evenings and weekends), and never having two weeks the same. I’m repeatedly reading and hearing that PhD researchers need a structure: a 9-5 day in your office works well and you should avoid weekends. Full-time weekday childcare would eat up my bursary by Thursday morning, so that isn’t an option. I also want to spend time with my son, which is a reason why I decided to do a PhD – my research will have to fit in around naps, bedtimes, and will eat into weekends (alongside some weekday childcare to ease the load). There is only one answer: thoroughly efficient time management.

If you know of any postgraduate researcher networks/groups/forums for parents, then please tweet me at @bolger_emma / comment below / send me an email.

4 September 2014