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A PhD in Psychology?

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Last week Stephanie Taylor attended the PhD student conference for the School of Psychology and Counselling at the Open University. 

Academic study implies a trajectory. First you study one module, then another, until eventually you’ve completed a qualification – probably a BA or BSc. At that point, most people have fulfilled their study goals. However it’s possible that you want to obtain a higher qualification or perhaps you just like studying. If so, you might go on to do a postgraduate degree, like a Masters. Again, this is a natural stopping point but a few people will decide to do more study and register for a ‘research degree’ like a PhD. ‘PhD’ is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy but the title is rather misleading because the research can be in any academic area, including psychology. Doing a PhD is less like a next step than a whole new life project, usually connected to an academic career. 

On the 17th of July, some of the PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling met for their annual conference. The students include current members of the Open University staff and they were joined by other academics from the School. The topic for the day was ‘“What I have learnt this year”: Reflecting on the process and method of research’. The aim was to talk about some of the realities of psychology research, including the insights and problems that only emerge when you’re actually working on a project. 

Of course all psychology students learn about research – about literature reviews and project design; ethics and informed consent; data collection and then the analysis of data to produce findings. However, the conference unpicked some finer details and more complex issues. Here are some examples.

A literature review leads the researcher to reconsider their initial concepts, and then to rethink the whole project and research question, almost amounting to starting again.

The researcher finds that the political situation they’re studying is changing faster than they can make plans to investigate it.

A research topic turns out to concern everybody, leaving the researcher unsure about the basis for selecting the sample of participants.

A research topic is so sensitive that the participants reject all the available terminology for describing it, because every alternative is offensive to someone.

Running a focus group becomes a worrying prospect because opinions on the topic turn out to be so polarised that the participants will almost certainly disagree vehemently.

A participant gives consent to be interviewed but then ‘doesn’t play’, arriving for the interview as arranged but challenging the researcher’s competence and the whole project and refusing to answer any of the questions. 

Each situation was discussed at length, referring to the experience of everyone attending. The day confirmed that research planning is necessary but research practice also requires skills that are only gradually acquired. The conference was an opportunity to consider problems that hadn’t been planned for and questions that had no straightforward answers. One of the OU’s senior professors used to say that after completing a PhD, the student would be able to see how the project could have been conducted more smoothly. But, he went on, that retrospective insight is irrelevant; the point of conducting original research is, by definition, to do something that hasn’t been attempted before, so there will always be new problems for which you’ll need to find new solutions. And that was what the conference was about!

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