managing research risks – riding the wave of #phdpandemic

A lot of research doesn’t go to plan. Researchers encounter a few hiccups along the way and in order to avoid problems, they make adjustments to their process. The research goes ahead, just slightly differently.

But what usually goes wrong in research? The most common problems in the kind of research that I do are things like failing to recruit enough people or places, participants withdrawing or refusing permission for their data to be used at some point, research staff leaving in the middle of a project, one of the research investigators getting ill.

These kinds of hiccups are not surprising. They can be imagined, and then planned for. Then, if they do occur, it doesn’t come as a complete shock, and you already know what to do.

In the normal run of things researchers seeking funding often have to produce a risk management schedule. They have to anticipate things that might go wrong, things like those listed above, and decide whether these are a high, low or medium probability. Then they put a contingency plan in place. Then they go on.

But only very occasionally a research project doesn’t get off the ground. Or it has to close down prematurely. Occasionally up until now, that is.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put down pandemic as a risk. Who actually knew that this was going to be a thing, and that it would close down labs, projects, and perhaps even the PhD? But now it is on us.  Now is the time when risk management thinking becomes really real. What do we do?

Many universities are now asking their PhDers to draw up risk management plans. This is not simply a bureaucratic exercise – if risk management plans are completed and handed in, they will give graduate school administrations some helpful information about the kinds and numbers of extensions, additional funding and support they might need to provide.

But considering risks has another benefit. Thinking the unthinkable means PhDers and supervisors have to face up to today’s hard choices. Risk management teaches us that having a plan, and then another backup plan, are helpful. We don’t just sit around waiting to see what might happen, we don’t leave things to chance, unless we calculate that this is sensible. We decide how long to let things drift and the point at which we have to make a choice. So putting all this down on paper – and that’s the risk management process – might be a very helpful strategy for PhDers and supervisors as well as their universities.

If that’s the case, what to do? How does risk thinking work?

Some of questions that are helpful for PhDers to ask and discuss with supervisors are:

  1. Even though I hadn’t planned to, can I stop my empirical work now?

How much data have I got already? Is the data substantive enough to answer my question? Does stopping now give me an opportunity to add in some desk work (see 4)? Is there a theoretical or conceptual resource I can use to do more with the data that I have?

2.   Can I keep going with my empirical work?

Are these changed circumstances an opportunity to do something I hadn’t anticipated but will nevertheless help me answer my research questions(s)? Will people and places be happy to have me continue or will my presence be an unwelcome intrusion? Even if they agree to keep on with the research is this an ethical ask at this point in time? Will people/places start by wanting to be agreeable but are in reality likely to get sick of me getting in the way? If so, do I need to stop (see 1) or can I redesign in some way (see 3)?

3. Can I redesign my research in some way?

Can I switch to an alternative method or methods without altering my research question? Can I use online methods? Can I make an existing desk work section (using materials available at my desk such as media, archival sources, policy texts) a bigger part of the study? Is there a creative way to engage people that they might also find enjoyable and of benefit? ( See Deborah Lupton’s helpful open source googledoc for some alt. methods possibilities.) And will people want to do it (see 2)?

Or will the redesign change my research question in some way? What? How? Is this really defensible? Will the resulting research be coherent? Will it just create a mess?

Do I need new ethical approval? How long will this take given that they are now working from home? What if the Ethics Committee say no to different methods (see 4 and 5)?

4. Do I need to put my research on hold for a bit?

How long can I realistically wait? If I can wait for a bit, what can I most usefully do in the meantime – analysis of current data, write a paper, write a chapter or two, catch up on some key reading?

Do I need additional support ( funding, permission) while I am waiting? How can I get support to do this? What does my institution and/or funder need to do to support me to wait? How can my supervisor help me to make this case?

Will things have changed by the time I can pick things up again? How might this affect the research? Will things have changed to the point where I need to do some rethinking (see 3)? What is the likelihood that I won’t get permission to continue when we get to whatever the new normal is?

What is the point where I have to say I need to stop altogether (see (5)?

5.  Do I need to abandon my research altogether?

If the answer is no, then – Is there a point in the future when I can pick the research up again? What might I need to do in order to pick it up again?

If the answer is yes, then – Am I going to be able to start this exact same thing again? Will it be something different next time and if so what – and if so, how can I start to prepare for that now (see 4)? How can I get support to do this? What does my institution and/or funder need to do to support me to do this? How can my supervisor help me to make this case? Does my supervisor have the time to do this now they are having to put all their teaching online?

Some tough choices to make.

I am sure that you can think of other things besides these – but it’s a start and, most importantly, you see how risk management thinking goes. And what it does.

Facing up to difficult circumstances and unpalatable decisions can be a way to take some control. Thinking through risks means we can ride the pandemic wave, no matter how bumpy it is – rather than fall off and be swamped.

But of course, we need support to do that. Universities are gearing up alternative ways to provide that support now, so do check your home institution webpages.

But also we benefit from collegiality – our new #phdpandemic account @virtualnotviral is holding weekly chats about all things doctoral in unprecedented times – Chats begin on March 23, 9am GMT and 8pm, AEST.

Photo by Maja Kochanowska on Unsplash

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Pandemics and PHDs


The pandemic is upon us. My university is moving rapidly online with everyone who can working at home.

I’ve seen a lot on social media about how to teach online, whether to teach on line, and how to offer students support. I haven’t yet seen a lot about PhDers and their research. Well maybe a bit about labs.

Some of the people I work with are in the middle of field work, or just starting. They work in and with schools, galleries and community organisations. In other words, populous places which may or may not be closed for an indefinite period of time. Some docs are close to having enough data. Some aren’t. And because of the time-limited nature of the PhD in the UK, this data deficit might create real problems for them.

Up to three of the PhDers I work with have research which may have to be redesigned mid-way through. Redesigned so that their data is not entirely people-based, and/or not as comprehensive as envisaged. While I am confident that we will be able to sort something out, this redesigning is not an easy task, intellectually or emotionally.

The half-done problem won’t of course be confined to our small group.

I cannot imagine how many PhDers are currently worrying about whether they can do the research they want to, whether they have to start again, and/or whether they can afford the additional time it might take to get their projects done if their designs are un-modifiable.

This midpoint situation is obviously an immediate challenge not only for PhDers but also their supervisors.  I have already written to people I am working with who are in the middle of field work, suggesting that we meet straight away to discuss options (by distance mode of course as I am self-isolating after getting back from overseas, and the university is moving online.)

But the effects of the pandemic on PhDers is something that universities also might be able to do something about, sooner rather than later. They need to not wash their hands of PhDers, but be very proactive in offering reassurance and support.

For example:

Some PhDers might want to suspend their studies – and be able/afford to do so. Current rules about suspension of study usually make illness or serious crisis of some sort the only reason for suspension of studies. This pandemic is just such a crisis and ought in itself to be enough reason for leave from study if it is requested. Enrolled doctoral researchers need to be informed about this option as soon as possible.

Some PhDers may need to change their research designs and titles to reflect a necessarily changed design. In some institutions and with some research funders, such changes require lengthy and substantiated justification. In this instance, doctoral researchers need to be given permission, be told that such changes are possible in the circumstances. And ideally, research scholarship funders ought to make funding for an additional catch up period available to those people who have no possibility of changing their research mid-stream.

Some PhD designs may now look a trifle unusual. Ethnographers and action researchers for instance may now have a unique opportunity to see how their site responds to a crisis. (Others will not be able to continue, they will simply be locked out – see above.) So examiners will need to understand and respond positively to any forced change of circumstances with knock on effects on the research. The need for understanding of changes also needs to be written into institutional viva guidelines for this cohort of PhDs.

Some PhDers will find the pandemic just one thing too much. The PhD is already highly stressful. This crisis on top of the usual stresses may mean that many more people than usual will need additional support. Universities must offer extra counselling services. But graduate services might also offer online discussion group spaces where PhDers can talk about their worries and specific issues, writing and research difficulties and so on, together. Facilitating self-help support groups is surely a key function for grad schools at this moment in time. (And yes this is also something I am going to do in my own school, with my colleagues .)

I am sure there are other specific PhD pandemic issues I haven’t yet thought about. Please add those that concern you in the comments and I will spread the word through my social media networks – and I’m sure you will too.


Events move fast. I’m now adding links to useful resources and activities.


(1) link to list of academic publishers giving free ebook access through CV19 affected university libraries

(2) Deborah Lupton’s Innovative Methods for Field Work, a collective google doc. You may have to get permission.

(3) Resources for fieldwork from Dr Anuja Cabraal


1) Australian higher degree students’ petition. A link is coming so you can add your name.

✊✊Call for solidarity with HDR students in Australia ✊✊

Link to petition to add your support here

In light of the unprecedented situation provoked by the coronavirus pandemic, a group of concerned HDR students have developed the following open letter. As the situation stands there has been no indication that any of the policies or conditions under which we are enrolled will be altered given the situation. This is a concerning state of affairs.

We are sending this letter to institutions, student and trade unions, academics and individuals for support. We encourage you to join us.

HDR Students and the pandemic

Universities are already beginning to close down teaching facilities and local libraries are closing. It is likely that other social institutions, schools, childcare settings, and workplaces will be shut. Access to the internet may be impacted by increased use as more people spend time at home. In light of such developments (many of which we understand are in the interests of public health), we the undersigned are convinced that our capacity to continue research in these circumstances will be highly limited, even if we don’t become sick ourselves.

In order to mitigate the impact of this crisis we demand:

• All candidates final submission dates are extended by a minimum of 12 weeks

• All milestone dates are extended by a minimum of 8 weeks

• Additional support is provided for working from home – for example, small grants for home office equipment, ergonomic furniture, internet costs and the like.

• Additional leave of absence without penalty be granted to any HDR students who are unable to reasonably work from home (if they don’t have adequate space, ergonomically sound equipment, access to labs and so on)

• Extended sick leave for students (including scholarship payments) by a minimum of 6 weeks

• Carers leave for students (including scholarship payments) by a minimum of 6 weeks

• An extension of scholarship funds to reflect any period of leave students have had to take.

• The granting of hardship funds for part time students without scholarships who are unable to work because of the current situation.

• That the wages of all university casual workers be paid in full for the period of a university closure

• That paid sick leave be granted to all university casual staff.

2) HEPI Blog post on CV19 and PhDers

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, pandemic, stress | Tagged , | 18 Comments

research as creative practice

Health warning – this is a tiny rant about one of my pet peeves, research “training”. It also draws on my own research in creativity and education.


My starting point – Research is a creative process.

The connection between research and creativity is embodied in some disciplines. C. Wright Mills for instance famously talked about the necessity of the ‘sociological imagination’ – understanding how larger unseen social relations are embedded in and frame everyday events, conversations, processes and relations.

But perhaps the equation of research and creativity is more convincing to non-social scientists if we look at common understandings of creativity. The recent Durham Commission on Creativity and Education in England offered these definitions:

Creativity: The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before.

Creative thinking: A process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts. Creative thinking is present in all areas of life. It may appear spontaneous, but it can be underpinned by perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking and collaboration.

These two are not just for/by artists. They apply to research, to what we researchers do, right?

Let me explain. We generally accept that research is about making a contribution to knowledge. If this is so then research is, by definition, making something that was not there before. Perhaps confirmation studies are an exception to this rule, but certainly doctoral research is almost always geared to the production of something “novel or individual in its context”.

Bear with me here. There is a point to this. If research is a creative practice, I’m curious about how creativity is being supported and fostered across disciplines and institutions.

I’m situated in the UK where there are mandatory courses for social science and science doctoral researchers. I’ll just talk about my field of social science here, but I think the point is true for scientists too.  The required courses are intended to help the next generation of social scientists to understand research designs and underpinning philosophy, and to acquire a basic “toolkit” of quant and qual approaches. Well and good, that’s perfectly admirable and understandable – and if I was a policy maker I’d want to do that too.

But I’d also recognise the problems. This training  is often a “one-best” model. It is also time-limited, a module, a workshop. What can be covered is thus also limited. And generally what’s on offer doesn’t cover nearly the range of approaches and situations that social science doctoral researchers encounter. PhDers often have do a lot of additional work on traditions and approaches that are barely mentioned in the mandatory courses.

What’s also at issue,and more to the point, is the kind of implicit messages – the hidden curriculum – that goes along with the courses. The emphasis tends to be on technique – follow the yellow brick road of set processes – and on a “canon” of research literature. Fix the design first, specify outcomes. Design the impact. All very linear and logical. Walk this way. Talk this way.

But one of the things not covered at all, or as well,  in this kind of “training” are processes that are integral to creativity and creative research thinking.

I’ve been wondering how prioritising research as a creative  practice might change the ways in which we organise the “training” we offer to doctoral researchers. If creative thinking involves for example

  • making connections between apparently disparate ideas
  • generating a lot of possibilities
  • coming up with interpretations with distinctive and unique characteristics
  • challenging taken for granted lines of thought and
  • exploring and elaborating a line of thought

then how might this re-orient the ways in which courses in research design and methods, and in analysis, are designed and taught?

If creative people are curious, not easily satisfied, inventive and lateral but also determined, tenacious, disciplined, evaluative and purposeful – then how do our courses support researchers to build these dispositions and a repertoire of strategies? How do we also encourage the collaboration that can accompany creative work at scale? What if we put creativity at the heart of research education?

I reckon we wouldn’t stop emphasising the importance of being systematic. Or making sure that the implications of working with specific traditions of inquiry are clear. My proposition is not a binary. Abandon what we do now and opt for something entirely different. Rather, it’s about changing the conversations.

What if… we built in regular discussions about what it means to work creatively and how this sits with common notions of rigour and trustworthiness. What if we considered seriously the place of intuition and serendipity in research, come to terms with the messiness of process, develop strategies to think divergently rather than always following pre-set processes, or play with inventing new ways to investigate a problem.

Sometimes I think we act as if we don’t trust doctoral researchers to be able to deal with debate and uncertainty and cope, we think that without prescription they will be lost. No, that can’t be right. Continue.

Creative approaches to being researcher, thinking research, doing research are now live conversations occurring in multiple scholarly fields. While there are exceptions I am sure,  these conversations often don’t find a place in the introductory and generic courses on offer in the UK. Is this a problem? Yes – sometimes it is. Doctoral researchers can experience considerable dissonance between their “training” and the thinking in their discipline. And it sometimes takes quite some time to unlearn the apparently “correct” approach to inquiry taught in official “training”  – and take up a different option.

Lack of attention to creative practice is also a potential problem for those who care about research in and on the world. Given that those who fund research training want a new generation of creative researchers capable of solving massive social challenges, it does seem rather myopic to leave creativity to chance – or the capacities of supervisors and the luck of the draw in early career support.

Perhaps there is more that can be done. I know there is more that could be done. If research is creative, and if it is both dispositional and practical, and if it is of high social importance, then I do wonder why we don’t pay more attention to it.


Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, courses, creativity, doctoral education, doctoral pedagogies, doctoral research, methods, research methods, research training | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

writing advice – caveat emptor


Advice. Loads of it. Coming out of our ears.  And on every possible topic, including research and writing.

Advice needs readers. But we readers also need to be, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “crap detectors”. Howard Rheingold has worked up this idea, using Hemingway’s terminology. Rheingold has developed a little protocol that can be used to check out how much faith you should put in online information. This is his Crap Test:


    • How recent is this information?
    • If viewing on a website, how recently was the site updated?


    • What supporting information is available?
    • Is this source mainly opinion? Is it highly one-sided?
    • Does the source use outside references, or does it self-reference (an example of circular reporting)?


    • Who is the author?
    • What are the author’s credentials?
    • Where was this published?
    • Is this sponsored information?
    • What kind of advertisements are on the page, if any?

Purpose/Point of View

    • Is this fact, opinion, or opinion presented as fact?
    • Does this information appear biased?
    • Do you feel like the creator or author is trying to sell you something?

Now, I think that there are some additional and different questions you might want to ask if you are looking at advice about doctoral education, research and writing advice.  (And you might also want to junk some of those that Rheingold proposes.)

I’ve made a start on a reworked Rheingold crap test – a test for writing and research advice for PhDers.

So – here goes Patter’s doctoral research and writing crap test.


    • Who is the author?
    • Do they have a background in the subject they are writing about – are they either formally trained in the area or they have been systematically researching it?
    • Do they have professional knowledges they are drawing on? What?  Where?
    • Are their cvs available? Can you trace them to a reputable employer, an ORCID number or a publisher?) (And yes, I’m very happy if you want to apply this test to me in the first instance! Make a start here with my google citations.)

Reliable and trustworthy

    • Does the advice giver situate their work in the research on writing and doctoral education? Do they offer strategies that are well grounded in research and practice?
    • Do they offer a one-best solution – or do they recognise the diversity of disciplines, pathways and possibilities? Do they offer the same solution for all situations?
    • Is their advice primarily designed to sell you a service?  (That is, it only gives you a teensy teensy snippet of information, stops before it gets to the useful bit and then tells you to buy a package or service. If the advice giver is self employed you need to check the person out, go back to credibility.)


    • Do peers recognise this advice-giving author’s work?
    • Is their research available? Are they well published?
    • Is advice all that the person does? Do they teach what they are advising on? Do they edit a journal? Run a learning or research support service? Supervise and examine? Have they done any of this in the past? (See credibility)
    • Do they overclaim – if this is a shared story of experience (that is, n=1) , is this acknowledged?


    • What discipline(s) are they working from and with?
    • What traditions are they working in? Is what they say necessarily  going to be applicable?
    • What is their stance on knowledge, writing and research – is it the same or different from yours?

There you go. A beginning crap test to apply to writing and PhD advice. Caveat emptor.

Well, yes I’ve left things out, it’s a start. What else would you add?

P.S. And here is another rubric to check out.

Photo by Jo San Diego on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, advice, crap detection, Howard Rheingold, poor advice | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

playing about with data


Not everything we do in our research has to have a definite end point. Sometimes it’s good to set aside all those anxieties about ‘getting through and getting done’. We might even like to take some time to simply play about with our data. Experiment. See what happens. Perhaps there are new insights to be gained from temporarily ignoring deadlines and producing drafts.

If you are prepared to take a bit of a risk, and take some time out, then here are a few suggestions to stimulate a bit of data play.

  1. Gather together a set of random household objects and place them in a bag. Close your eyes and pull out three things. Open your eyes and see what you’ve chosen. Now write about your data in the light of these three things – what data does each of these objects bring to mind? Why? How are these three objects related? How might your data be related in the same way?
  2. Move away from your usual writing place to a new public space. Listen to what the people around you are saying. Write down phrases that catch your attention. Now choose four of these fragments. Which of your data seems to fit with them? How? Why? Do they marry together? Can you write a half a page which makes these phrases and data into a meaningful story?
  3. Make a list of the emotions you feel when you are reading through your data. Ask yourself what there is in the data that led you to these feelings. Now do some free writing about your emotional responses. Read your writing back. Is there anything here that offers a new angle on future analysis?
  4. Make a list of the significant events that appear in a section of your interview data, things that you have been told happened. Write these as scenes to be filmed.
  5. Look at some of your emerging analysis and make a list of the data that you are leaving out. Write an elegy for the data you are thinking of letting go.
  6. Consider the notion of regret. What is there about your data that might cause you or your informants regret? Free write about what these regrets might tell you about what you can and can’t say from your data.
  7. Find an online photo of an art work you like. If this was a representation of some of your data, what would it be saying? Why this data and not others? What is the resonance between the data and the work? What does this say to your next move in analysis?
  8. Find a place in interview data where you remained deliberately silent. What would you have said if you could? What might have happened if you had spoken?
  9. Take a section of your data and make a list of all the relationships that appear. Now free write about one of those relationships. Imagine putting those involved in the relationships into situations different from those you have information about. What happens and why?
  10. Take two interview transcripts with two different people. Imagine they are having a conversation. Write the dialogue.

I am sure that you can think of loads of other playful things you might do with your data.

Of course, none of these exercises are the same as the formal procedures that most of us are expected to use in analysis. None.

But it is sometimes the case that doing something a little out of the ordinary can alert us to other possibilities, and to how our expectations shape see what we see in our data.

Taking a new position, expecting nothing, being open to something novel and offbeat may just produce a new line of thinking, a line we weren’t anticipating.

Equally, it may not. But then you don’t know that until you’ve tried shaking your usual approaches about, just a bit.


Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash


Posted in academic writing, data, data analysis, play | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

dogs and cats and rabbits and..

This week I’m working on book proofs. And right at the start, in “prelims”, I noticed an acknowledgement I’d made. I’d written:

Charlie, our surly and eccentric elderly poodle, needed to be put outside at regular intervals; she ensured that I did not end up with completely overwhelming back and neck troubles from too much screen work. RIP Charlie.

This needed no correction. But I couldn’t help a moment of being sad all over again about the death of a much loved doggo, and even got a bit teary as I thought about her life partner who had died a year earlier. And then I realised that this was probably the last acknowledgement I would write, for a while at least, to a canine companion – we’ve decided not to get another pooch for just a bit.  But life without dogs is strange after having spent most of my life in their company.

Then I began to think about the place of animals in academic life. And their importance, particularly during writing. My little thankyou to Charlie is hardly the only place or time where the importance of a furry friend is recognised in a scholarly text.

There are often pictures on various social media of academics walking their dogs – walking/thinking companions. I’ve seen lots of cats perched on computers, paws preventing the flow of composing. And various snaps of dogs in conversation with their “owners”, often asking for food, walks, or simply that their human step away from the books and come outside. I’ve seen the occasional guinea pig and rabbit too. We have had #academicswithcats and #academicswithdogs (but maybe we need more).

Now, of course living with animals is not just important to academics. But I suspect that they may play a particular part in our lives.

We spend so much time with our noses buried in books or seated at the computer, or puzzling over data. This is often time when we are alone. Well, we are connected of course to loads of other people through the texts we read and write. And as we read through transcripts or field notes or lab records, we remember the location, the people present, the physical surroundings, perhaps even the sounds and smells. So we are not necessarily alone in our thoughts.

But we are often physically isolated in an office at home or at work.

The presence of another creature immediately breaks this pattern. As we read or write or think, we are simultaneously aware of another being, perhaps sleeping, snoring, moving about, chewing, farting, sniffing, wriggling. Often, we are required to stop what we are doing and pay attention, fetch a toy, speak, make contact. Even as I write this post, I have been interrupted by our current house guest, Archer, a large black boy who usually lives with a cousin, but who is temporarily with us at the beach.


In moments of hound-induced disruption it is clear that my needs are not the only ones that matter. My work is not all that counts.

While these interruptions may at times be marginally distracting, they are equally often amusing, comforting, reassuring, playful, touching. They take us out of our heads and the little scholarly world we are creating/living in. They bring us back to our bodies and meaningful connections.  We understand again that sociality and relationships are not just with our own kind.

So this week, it’s a metaphorical thumbs up and more public thanks to the various species that we live with, and the multiple ways in which they support our endeavours and we theirs.

And yes, yes, fill up the comments with your animal pics and stories.

Posted in academic writing, dogs and cats | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments