Brighton Journal of Research in Health Sciences

Supporting Research in the School of Health Sciences


Thoughts from the ground looking upwards

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10976404-enfermedad-del-cerebro-humano-y-el-rompecabezas-de-inteligencia-con-un-laberinto-azul-brillante-y-elI love to write. I even wrote a book once. Of course I never allowed anyone to read it and it has long since been packed away, abandoned in a box somewhere in the loft. This, however, is a short and heartfelt piece I’d very much like to share with you. My name is Deborah and I’m about to start my PhD full time here at Brighton. I say about to start, in fact I’ve been planning starting this for the last year and for a quiet and rather shy person this has been some seriously scary stuff. I’m not talking about the academic side, with two degrees, a Masters and eleven years of teaching experience, that side doesn’t worry me. It was the whole concept of moving out of my comfort zone that left me literally quaking in my boots.

To put this into perspective, I’ve performed and supervised minor research projects before and it’s a process my methodical and problem solving brain really enjoys, but a PhD? Over the years since my first degree in 1989 people have often asked me when I was going to start my PhD and my answer was always the same, ‘never’, which is strange in itself since my personal mantra has long been ‘never say never’. Exactly! Where’s the logic in that and why would I feel the need to always say never even though the thought had crossed my mind many times? Why had I always dismissed it?

It all started almost a year to the day in July last year when I told my departmental head I was interested in performing some research and starting a PhD. Other people weren’t surprised at my decision but to me it was an absolutely enormous and almost unthinkable step that seemingly came out of nowhere on the spur of the moment. After all those years of saying never I jumped from ‘I’d like to do some research’ to a full blown PhD in about two minutes flat. So you’re probably thinking what is your problem here, why is it such a big deal? Well in one single word, ‘confidence’, or I could stretch it to two and say ‘self belief’, both are inextricably entwined and lead to the same agonising fear of taking that bold step out of the shadows and into the spot light. The same fear that made me give up my ballet as a child, prevented me from persevering with my book or showcasing my photography skills. After much soul searching I realised my routine stock PhD answer of ‘never’, was in truth the answer to a completely different unasked question: ‘Are you brave enough to do a PhD?’ Therein lay the real issue. I was scared stiff.

Over the years as a part time member of the academic staff I never really had much contact with the Clinical Research Centre (CRC) team even during my time as a Senior Lecturer and Clinical Manager. Although the concept of evidence based practice was very real and thoroughly embraced, ‘proper’ researchers were something that existed somewhere else. My work was highly clinical and student/patient based and I spent most of my time at the Leaf Hospital, I saw the career researchers as aloof and elitist, I saw myself as belonging to a different academic world and quite simply of no possible interest to them. They spoke a level of research language I didn’t understand or feel included in, symbolically they are housed on the top floor, even finding the right door and climbing those steep narrow staircases to reach the CRC was tricky, like a psychological maze. I use the term maze, rather than labarynth because to my apprehensive mind just physically finding them hidden away up in the roof seemed designed to make me take wrong turns, to put me off and get lost just as a maze is designed to do, rather than facilitate exploration like a labarynth. Maybe I’m just particularly sensitive but I know I’m not the only one who faces these fears and insecurities when in comes to moving out of our usual professional comfort zone.

What I’ve realised is that this was all in my head. I saw the PhD process as so much more than simply a large piece of heavily assessed academic work, I created my own barriers. I saw it as a process for laying myself bare to public criticism, of risking being seen as inadequate. I was worried about setbacks and failures and I realised it was this negative mental block that had been holding me back all these years, not just from my PhD, but from so many other things. I was scared of starting at the bottom again, of being ignorant and unsure, of getting it wrong and looking daft, of not understanding the language and process. Ultimately I was so used to being good at what I currently do that I was scared of having these new fledgling researcher abilities judged in what I perceived as a harsh and critical environment, one where I wasn’t sure I belonged or indeed was even wanted.

I have to say I hang my head in shame at these ignorant admissions.

One year on the CRC could not have been more supportive or helpful. Far from being elitist and aloof, once I physically found the right staircase and door the rooms were airy and light, I was made to feel included and valued, offered coffee, a quiet space to work if I needed it and abundant support and advice that has led me to feel that not only can I do this, but I that I will do this well.

With their support and advice I’ve come a long way even though I’ve not officially started yet, I know where I’m going, have formed my supervisory team and with their collective experience and help I’ve been shaping and forming my research questions and proposal ready to hit the ground running in October. Their support and the informal mentoring from my work colleagues and the research network has changed my whole outlook on the challenges ahead and I’m genuinely full of excitement about starting my PhD in October. Despite being the new girl I’ve been made to feel like an integral part of the research community, even though I’ve not even really began and I can’t thank them enough.

If I had to pick a moment when it all started to change for me it was when I took a deep breath last October and plunged headlong into attending the advertised research meetings, presentations and workshops, (work schedule allowing) and with each event my confidence, self belief and sense of belonging began to grow. I realised I was not alone in this and yes I would make mistakes, but that I’d put them right and yes I would have to stand up and defend my research from harsh and maybe unjust criticism, but with the right support and training it would be good research and both it and myself would stand up to that test and become stronger for it. I may still be on the ground looking upwards, but the climb doesn’t seem anywhere near so steep now that I know the research team are there to support and guide me on the path to being an early career researcher.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. As teachers we are constantly evaluating not just the content and application of our educational work but also the outcome. We all have well proven strategies to assess whether the pedagogic approach we have chosen for our students was effective, but how many of us really ever sit down and deeply assess our own development? I did, it was scary, I shook the box and this short piece of writing is part of the result. How do I know I’ve made a difference to my development? I know because one year ago I would never have submitted this for publication.

Deborah Whitham, Clinical Educator, Leaf Hospital, University of Brighton

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