This guest post is written by Rod Pitcher who is a PhD candidate in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. He has submitted his thesis for examination and is waiting for the results. Rod can be contacted at Rod.Pitcher@anu.edu.au or follow him on Twitter @Rod_Pitcher
At this stage, nearing the end of my PhD candidature, I conceive research as being a process of growth, not only in the knowledge produced but also in the researcher. I believe that no-one can pursue research for any length of time without growing and developing as a person. That, I would like to think, is one of the most important features of research, that it effects the observer as well as the observed. I believe that my research has caused me to develop as a person.
I have learnt that research is a painstaking process. It must be pursued diligently and with care, as well as honestly and with an open mind. That is the only way to achieve the required level of objectivity and validity. The researcher must always have those factors in mind lest s/he succumb to the temptation to ‘massage’ the data to give the required answers. There can be no justification for falsity. Only complete honesty is good enough.
When I started my candidature I had a very simplistic view of research from my reading as an undergraduate. I thought that it was only necessary to observe a group of people for a short time to be able to understand their actions and motives. I imagined that most of the data would be gathered by simply sitting talking to the people and forming ideas about what motivated them. This understanding would then be used as the data for giving an account of the people involved. It came to me as something of a surprise when I had to arrange gathering my own data by planning the nature and delivery of my survey. It became plain that the planning part of data gathering is much more involved than simply asking a few people a few questions.
It came as something of a shock to me to see how often different researchers disagreed with each other. I wondered how I could ever make sense of the arguments and counter-arguments. That I eventually did so I put down to persistence and the pressure from my supervisors. It was a salutary lesson that I won’t forget quickly.
However, I now realise that it is through disagreements over results and procedures that knowledge is built and tested for validity. If all researchers agreed on what is correct there would be no way of tearing out the errors in knowledge and replacing them with better versions of the truth. The new versions of the truth may eventually also prove to be wrong and have to be replaced, but each version of the truth will, hopefully, be better and more correct than its predecessors. It is through the discussion of differences in methods and results that progress is made.
Before I started my candidature I had a vague idea that the data could be gathered, the results written up and publication take place all within a few weeks or months at the most. Now I know better. It can be years between the start of planning the data collection and the resultant journal paper seeing publication. If I wished to be cynical I might suggest that a lot of research is well out of date (Dare I say obsolete?) before it sees publication.
During the time of my candidature I have also become more able to make decisions regarding my work. At times I have had to make decisions about procedures and the writing up of results. Some of those decisions have been painful and worrying. However, it has all been a part of the learning process and I have gained from it in the long run. At times I felt myself unable to carry out my own decisions due to having to come to a compromise with my Supervisory Panel. Mostly I had to bow down to their superior knowledge about the PhD and follow their instructions. Sometimes it irked me not being able to go my own way, but I suppose that it’s all been for the best and I have learnt from this feedback.
It can be seen from the above that my research has changed me and my outlook. It has given me much to think about, and in so doing has changed my thinking about the processes and the results of research, both my own and other people’s. It has also helped me understand better what actually goes on in research and how doing research affects the person doing it.
As well as a better understanding of myself as a researcher I now have a better understanding of my colleagues as researchers. I have some understanding of what motivates them and drives them to be academic researchers. In that way, as well as many others, my research has broadened my mind and my life. Never again will I be the same person as I was when I started my candidature as a research student. That person now appears to me to have been very naïve about research and the nature of knowledge. He had little understanding of the academic world, the world of research and the world of the researcher. He has grown into a person who now has some understanding and wants more.
Undertaking the PhD has changed me. I’m not the same person as the one who started three or more years ago. I have more confidence in myself. I have proven myself — at least to my own satisfaction – as a researcher. I’ve enjoyed the process – most of the time. True, there have been low spots, but they are all part of the process of growing up as a researcher. I learnt as much from the low spots as I did from the good times. At least, about myself. There is now no way that I could go back to being the person who started a PhD all those years ago. I’m changed too much. It was all worthwhile. I’m glad that I did it and I would do it all again.
How are you gaining a better understanding of yourself through your study or research?