Shifting perspectives and shaping questions

FullSizeRenderWe moved offices recently. Not far, just down the road. The same city, Manchester, arriving at the same train station, Oxford Road, exactly the same first few hundred meters but then a slight shift of a couple of street to the left.

What has struck me over the last week as I have taken a number of new routes to work is the difference this slight shift has brought in terms of my perspective of the city. I used to just come out of the station, walk over a busy foot bridge and arrive at the office. A journey of maybe 3 minutes full of the hustle and bustle of a lot of people heading over a small bridge, cross the tram line and there I was.

Now the same beginning but then a diversion, in a few short steps a completely different world opens up. Different architecture, incredibly grand and indicative of the industrial heyday of a thriving victorian industrial powerhouse. Juxtaposed with modern architecture and a new tram system. Little gunnels and backstreets going knows where, new shops waiting to be discovered as the go to place for lunch. A few meters one way or the other and everything changes and, as I was strolling along, I was reflecting on the relevance of perspective to research. A few weeks ago someone asked me, ‘what kinds of questions make researchers roll their eyes?’ Several thing came to mind and one of them was being asked, ‘what is your research question?’

This is the one that cuts to the chase and is the bane of the lives of many a researcher.  You know immediately when someone asks you this that you are required to come up with something short and pithy. There is no way you can waffle your way out of this one. The usual round the house explanation of your general topic, why is it important and roughly what you are interested in just won’t get you out of this one.

One word to the left or right can make all the difference, the addition or deletion of a verb or noun can shift the focus dramatically. Having been convinced that you were going to be undertaking a quantitative study you may suddenly find yourself heading towards something qualitative. Being certain that you wanted to avoid statistics like the plague you may find yourself contemplating the prospect of grappling with correlations and regressions. Oh those verbs and nouns, small words with great power.

And this brings me back to my walk to work. I am experimenting with different routes, seeing what’s involved in each, trying them out to explore the different perspectives brought by each. Which is right when it’s raining, which if I want a coffee? Which is quickest if I am late, which makes me smile and feel happy?

At the start of a research project this is exactly what we all need to do to craft a great research question. The nuance may not be immediately apparent, we may need to write several versions, explore several routes, speak them out loud to hear what they sound like. There is skill and expertise in crafting a clear research question which, at some point in all of our research careers, has had us rolling our eyes. If you think the first question is right treat it with caution, before committing to it explore a few more perspectives first, who knows where that might take you.

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Do I need an MSc or PhD in order to ‘do’ clinical research?

DSCN2331You know the kind of question which when asked you think, ‘Oh yes, I know the answer to this one’ and then the more you think about it the more complicated it becomes? Well, this week I’m batting the above question backwards and forwards. As someone with a background in academia my initial response to the question was, ‘yes, get on track with a postgraduate qualification’. But as I have reflected on this I have spent the last few days standing up and knocking down metaphorical skittles.

Why is this question important? For two reasons. Fristly, we are running a workshop next week for NHS based clinicians coming to the end of an Health Education England funded internship. The internships seek to provide clinicians with the opportunity to spend time linked with an academic supervisor to increase their understanding of what is involved in different aspects of the research process. It is hoped that this experience will inform their decisions about a future research career and indeed some are already progressing to a Masters or a PhD.

However others have decided that the pursuit of a postgraduate qualification may not, for a number of reasons, be the right option for them, and are exploring this question. Being certain that they want to be involved in research what are the other options? Secondly, it is probably one of the most frequent questions I am asked, along with, ‘how can I get involved in research?’

If you are exploring this question yourself a good starting place is to explore – what you mean by being involved in research? Do you picture yourself involved in collecting data or delivering an intervention on someone else’s study i.e. being in a supportive role or do you picture something more than this?  Being involved actively in discussions about the design of a study, inputting into the development of a funding proposal or application for ethics approval, having a level of involvement in the analysis of data or reviewing drafts of outputs from the project. This distinction is important and one which is often misunderstood by people in the early stages of their research career.

Both are totally possible without a postgraduate qualification but are reliant upon you develop the necessary connections and networks. The analogy is one of doing an on-the-job apprenticeship, you join the firm and work with established professionals to learn the trade and as you develop you become part of the team.

The starting point then is that of taking the initiative to seek out and make connections with researchers undertaking research in your area of interest. These may be fellow clinicians or they may be people based in academia. This requires you to be proactive in identifying, establishing and nurturing your networks. Making the effort to meet people to talk about your interests and find out how you can get involved in what they are doing.

Whilst a formal postgraduate qualification will provide you with a more rounded experience and develop a wider range of skills and expertise being part of a strong research group and developing as a clinical collaborator will also enable you to develop research skills but probably more focused on delivering specific projects in your area of interest.

To establish such relationships there is a need to not only make connections but also to be explicit in your desire to be an active member of the group who wants to develop and grow as a researcher. Negotiating this kind of role, especially when you are new to research, can be a challenge and requires a degree of self-confidence but it is crucial if you want to be involved in research without undertaking formal postgraduate study.

So the metaphorical skittles that remain standing at the moment have written on them, ‘If as a clinician you form the right connections you can without doubt not only be involved in research but develop your research skills and expertise’

However I also know that hurtling down the alley towards these skittles is a great big ball containing responses to a question I posed to NHS based early career researchers last year – what is the value of a PhD. I will share that one with you in a later post.