3 things I wish I knew before starting my EdD

I am currently sitting on the sofa with my youngest son fast asleep on my lap. I have just finished watching some videos by Ali Abdaal, which inspired me to think a bit more about why I started my EdD, and what my current self in year 4 of a 6 year programme would tell my start-of-EdD self. It has been a long run already, and it has most definitely not been an easy journey so far. Since starting my EdD my wife and I have had two children, I have taken on a number of additional volunteer roles, suffered some health and mental health setbacks, and lived through a global pandemic. If only my start-of-EdD self would have known (but then again, would I have started the EdD if I would have known all these things?). Anyway, without further ado, 3 things I wish I knew before starting my EdD.

1 Comfort zones will be demolished.

As a bioscientist, I am now researching the experiences of other people. These experiences are not expressed in numbers and analysed with clever statistics and algorithms. Instead, I am submerged in the murky world of qualitative research. Qualitative research comes with plenty of -ologies: ontology, methodology (which surprise surprise is not the same as methods), etc. This is still a relatively alien concepts, and at first I was confused as to why doing research needs to be made so complicated. But then I realised somewhere during my third year that although having some understanding of ologies is useful, it is much more important to be pragmatic, and to simply choose the best tool for the problem, rather than adapt the problem to the tool. Since realising this my identity as a grounded theorist has shifted from pure Glaserian Grounded Theory to a more pragmatic variant of Glaserian GT (if this sounds like gobbledygook then don’t worry, I thought the same three years ago!).

2 Sometimes it is better to take a break, even if you don’t really want to.

Taking breaks during doctoral studies is something that divides supervisors and students. For some, it is an absolute no-no, for others is it accepted practice. As a full-time academic doing a part time doctoral programme, I have always tried to treat my EdD as a part-time job, rather than as a course of study. I see my supervisors as my peers and mentors, and my doctoral work as just work. I therefore had no problems at all with taking two periods of paternity leave when my sons were born. I did with in my day job, so why would my EdD be any different? Luckily I have very supportive supervisors who encouraged me to take plenty of leave.

In late 2020 I was forced to take leave for a different reason. I was struggling with my mental health due to various reasons. It took me a long time to seek help, and once I finally did, I felt relieved, mostly. I had no issues adapting my day job to my new situation, but I did not take time off (retrospectively this was a bad idea… listen to your GP folks!). However, my EdD was a different story. I struggled to let go for a bit, and it took some straight talking from my supervisors to get me to apply for some leave. I will be forever grateful to them for this. To this date I still don’t understand why I struggled with this, but I am glad I took some time to look after myself. I am slowly getting back on track. I am always worried I am behind and that I may not complete in time, but hopefully that will get better over time too. The key thing I want you to take home from this is that it is OK to not be OK, and that it is OK to take time for self care. Your research will only benefit from it. An EdD (or PhD etc) is hard enough as it is, so don’t make it harder by muddling through. For more on this topic have a look at the great work Dr Zoë Ayres does here.

Burnout – emotional or physical exhaustion brought about by overwork or stress – ultimately leads to reduced productivity and output.

Dr Zoë J Ayres

3. Stretching your brain is fun.

I thoroughly enjoy my research. It is hard, difficult, frustrating and sometimes feels like it will never end. However, it is also lots of fun, and allows me to pursue my passions of evidence-based practice and open research practice. I am actively contributing to my field, and have met lots of interesting people that I otherwise would have never met. I help organise a regular early career grounded theorist colloquium, and have presented at seminars about and chaired panel discussions on a methodology I had never heard of 5 years ago. I am currently preparing an invited talk to some Canadian researchers focused on a novel contribution to grounded theory as a methodology, and have two manuscripts on the go. I have now made all my EdD research open and transparent where possible (link), and have coauthored a new platform for non-health related systematic review protocols. All this stuff came about mostly through my EdD, either directly, or through transferable skills I picked up that were useful for my day job.

So my last message is this: Enjoy your EdD journey. You (normally) only get to do this once, and there is so much out there that will benefit you. Engage with everything, and don’t be afraid to show your passion!

Poster presentation

On 26 July I will be presenting the following poster at the 12th Anglia Ruskin Annual Research Student Conference. Click on the poster to get a copy of the corresponding abstract. Alternatively, click here.

2018 PGR Conference Poster NV

Grounded Theory Seminar

Causeway Business Centre, Petersfield

On 24 and 25 May I attended a Grounded Theory (GT) seminar in Petersfield. This seminar, led by Dr Helen Scott (Grounded Theory Online) with a surprise Skype appearance from Prof Tom Andrews (UC Cork) is aimed at doctoral researchers in all stages of their doctoral journey and intends to give researchers a platform to discuss their research, and to seek guidance from GT experts and peers.

I decided to attend this seminar as I am currently in the proposal stage for my EdD and was struggling with my understanding of the method and what it would look like in practice. Unfortunately Glaser’s approach of “Just do it” (no swoosh here, Glaser coined the term before a big sports clothing company did) is not the most helpful when you are trying to write a proposal as not only a novice GT researcher, but also a novice qualitative researcher.

I set of on my journey early on the 24th, and soon realised the M25 is a pig! After 3.5 hours I finally arrived in Petersfield, in a very nice business centre in what appeared to be a grade-listed building. After a friendly welcome and some much needed coffee, the seminar was underway. It was a small group, with seven researcher from various fields (urban transport, nursing, psychotherapy, business management, policing, ICT and education management) in various stages of their research (range: proposal writing stage – thesis writing-up stage).

Day 1 started with an overview and discussion of the GT research process. Although all of us were familiar with classic Grounded Theory, it was good to see that there was plenty of discussion on various details of the process, such as the purposes of properties, dimensions and degrees of a concepts, and how this affects GT research practice. Importantly, the discussions did not only address theory, but there was plently of talk about practice and GT in real life (real life is messy, but GT can cope with that).

After this, it was my turn to present my project, where I am in my journey and what I am struggling with. Although I had given this some though on the way in (plenty of time to think when you’re stuck in traffic), it was hard to put my concerns into coherent words. I am still not sure why, but I think it had something to do with being around people who were further on in the journey, and I am still getting used to the GT language. Confidence is a weird thing. However, I managed to talk through my project with Helen, and received some great peer-input from the rest of the group. This is what I think was the best aspect of the seminar: talking stuff through with other doctoral GT researchers, and hearing their experiences, woes and worries. As a result, I am now much more confident, and felt able to contribute to further discussions.

After a lovely lunch in a very nice garden, we discussed three more GT projects, during which everyone contributed and some lively discussions were had. It was now time to go to my hotel and have some dinner. I was fortunate in that two other seminar attendees stayed in the same hotel. We ended up having a great discussion over dinner and a few beers, evaluating the day and discussing our research. With my mind buzzing with research ideas and my brain turned to mush I went to bed.

Day 2 started with a brief recap from day 1, after which we went on to discuss another 3 grounded theory projects. Valuable discussions were held, and I felt much more able and confident to contribute to discussions and ask probing questions. My role as a lecturer came in handy as I could provide one attendee who was an MRes student with some advice. After another lovely lunch, we switched to practicing coding and memoing from an interview transcript provided by Helen. As a group I think we did a decent job, and again I felt confident I could make a valuable contribution. It turns out Glaser is right: you do really learn GT bu doing it. After a bit of an uncertain start, I got the hang of it and now understand coding a lot better. towards the end of the exercise, Helen shared with us her codes for the interview, and it was quite remarkable how similar our codes were; grounded theory is a powerful method!

We ended the day with a surprise Skype visit from Professor Tom Andrews, who shared with us his take on grounded theory. Tom was unfased by the technical difficulties we experienced and patiently answered our questions. It was really useful to hear from another GT expert, and hearing him confirm much of what we heard over the past two days. I now have Tom’s most recent paper on GT which I look forward to reading and incorporating it in my final #ARUEdD paper.

Overall, the grounded theory seminar has been a great experience. I have learned a lot, and feel much more confident that I will not make as much silly mistakes in my research as I would have done if I had not had this experience. I will most likely return in a year or two to get more assistance. I would wholeheartedly recommend the GT seminar to everyone considering or undertaking classic grounded theory research. Apart from the subject matter, it was incredibly valuable to discuss my work and woes with others doing similar research, and to simply network with like-minded researchers. We now have a Grounded Theory WhatsApp group, and it is going to be good to stay in touch!

If you are interested in a grounded theory seminar, or in grounded theory as a research method, please have a look here. I have no affiliation with Grounded Theory Online, but they are very helpful!



EdD progress update

Picture © 2016 Themely.com

I realise it has been a while since the last post, and a lot of things have happened in the day job, but also the EdD journey I am on. Specifically, since starting the EdD at Anglia Ruskin University in September 2016, I have successfully passed 3 out of 4 written papers, with the 4th one due in June this year. The first two papers have resulted in journal publications (paper 1 here, paper 2 is currently in press at IJEM), a conference abstract based on paper 2 has been accepted (find it here) and I have been allocated a place at the 2-day Grounded Theory Seminar in Petersfield in May.

The next steps are to finish paper 4, which is the formal research proposal, followed by submitting my application for research ethics approval. After this, the real fun starts (positive thinking here…) in the form of data collection through interviews with course leaders. Additionally, I want to investigate whether paper 3 can be turned into a published paper on application of Glaserian Grounded Theory to investigate HE course leader experiences.

I look forward to the rest of the journey. So far the EdD has been a great experience, with brilliant support from staff from the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education (you know who you are!) and very helpful discussions with the other people in my EdD cohort.

Upwards and onwards!

Letting go of my comfortable bioscience identity


It has been a while since posting, and this post has been brewing in the back of my mind for a while.

I have now entered the second year of my EdD at Anglia Ruskin University. I have passed two of four assessed papers, and have been lucky enough to have the first one published and the second one accepted for publication pending minor revisions. I’m still not quite sure how that happened.

I have now reached the stage where I have to “properly” start thinking about my research, the methodology and methods I plan to use, and offer some sort of justification for them. This is immensely daunting, and I am still on a very steep learning curve when it comes to social science research, paradigms, ontologies, axiologies and all the other “-ologies” associated with qualitative research. It is scary to think I am supposed to go into stage 2 at the end of September…

On the drive to work yesterday, and again today, I was mulling this position over. It is an odd realisation that I am experiencing feelings of accomplishment in my bioscience “day-job” while at the same time feel like a complete impostor when it comes to my EdD. Someone will soon find out I don’t know what I am talking about, right..? How do I reconcile these feelings, and how do I make sure they stay balanced?

I have been thinking about ways of conquering these feelings of inadequacy, and last night I woke up with a light-bulb moment: perhaps it is time to let go of the comfort-blanket offered by my professional identity as a bioscientist, and create a new blanket instead. I am supposed to transition to becoming this hybrid bioscience-education management practictioner-researcher with feet comfortably in two fields. There will probably always be tensions between the two identities, but they should be able to co-exist and each be called upon when required. Creating the new blanket is the process of doing the EdD, and the actual finished product will be the completion of this project in a few year time. I am ok with this.

This timeline also means it is ok to be insecure and uncomfortable for a while. I have been lucky enough that I have landed in a very supportive cohort of EdD students, and have met some great academic staff that are willing and able to advise where necessary. Last but not least, there is the brilliant Twitter EdD community for support. There are some excellent bloggers and tweeters out there doing EdDs who are struggling with similar issues to mine, and together we will get there! #EdD #ARUEdD to the rescue!

Upwards and onwards. Time to start writing about my research approach. Time to get my head around Grounded Theory. Time to keep up with #AcWriMo.

A new journey

It will be a long one …

It’s official: from September 2016 I will once again be a doctoral student. It has been a long process, and it has taken a lot of thinking and discussion with various people (you know who you are, thanks!), but I decided to apply for a place on the Professional Doctorate (EdD) in Education at Anglia Ruskin University a while ago, wrote a preliminary research proposal and was invited for interview a few weeks after submitting it.

The interview was more like a professional discussion than an interview, and was actually a really good experience. It has given me food for thought before I start, but it has also made me more enthusiastic.

I will be investigating if and how HE course leaders in small specialist institutions use evidence as a base for their decisions, with Writtle College as a case study. I am looking forward to the new challenge, and to the new direction my career will take me in. As this project is directly linked to my role at Writtle, it should be immediately useful. Hopefully I will have some time to fully reflect on my career choices and decisions later in the year. Blog post to follow.

This summer will be spent finishing various research projects. I have one or two papers to write/resubmit before I start the EdD, so plenty to do. But before that, finish the never-ending marking… it will be over soon… it has to be…