academic travel diary: coping with mess

So on this trip home to Australia my passport disappeared. I maintain it was stolen in Tullamarine somewhere in the jostle between Customs and the car park. This was almost a disaster because not only did it mean that I had to organize a new passport but I also potentially had to manage to get back into Britain without my residence visa.

As it transpired the passport turned up after four days, handed in without the wallet and money, found in the car park. So my panic about the visa was no longer an issue. However, because I had had to report the passport stolen I still had to go through the process of getting it replaced.

This process took about a week and a half and during this time I discovered that:
(1) relevant UK websites do not have any particularly helpful information about this specific situation. I can’t be the only person that this has ever happened to …
(2) three different people can ring the UK Border Agency and get three different answers – ranging from just turn up at Heathrow to you have to stay out of the country for three months
(3) The Australian passport office not only requires a birth certificate but also Australian identification – e.g. driver’s license, credit card – even when the citizen lives out of the country. (I had both as it turned out but I don’t know what would happen if I hadn’t)

Now none of this was impossible to sort out, although I’m still not sure what the right answer to a lost residence visa actually is. But getting to sorted out was of course highly stressful and it meant quite a bit of handholding and chauffeuring by my Aussie friends Jill and Barbara. It also meant I just had to be patient and sort through things step by step, meanwhile crossing all digits that things would turn out OK.

The whole situation reminded me a bit of research and the kinds of barriers and obstacles that researchers often face when trying to set up and conduct projects. Mess often happens. The worst case scenario can come true.

In a recent patter comment Simon Bailey talked about the time when a teacher he was observing wanted to see his ethnographic notes and then, when she saw the details he had recorded, decided to pull out of the project. One of my current doctoral researchers nearly couldn’t get her Masters in Research Methods project done because ethics clearance took three months and was then a refusal. She has also had terrible difficulty getting access to one research site on which her question depends, and has then found that the work she is doing with young people is taking three times longer than she thought. To top it all off, barely enough people will give their survey back.

When things go awry for fully fledged academic researchers it’s not so bad – things can generally be coped with and projects adjusted. For doctoral researchers, mess means not only working out how to respond and adapt, but also sometimes they have to face the prospect of no longer having a viable project.

I’m sure that all kinds of research messes happen often. However, just like my visa situation, I wonder why there isn’t more information available about messy situations. Why is the discussion of mess and research-threatening problems such a silent area…. ?? We all know research isn’t clinical and pristine, so why do we continue to present it as neat and unmessy in, say, research methods texts and in research proposals and bids?? Is it because like the UK Border Agency we’d rather not make public the possibility that sometimes the rules are flexible and can be adjusted to take account of circumstances??

I’m interested in messy research and coming clean about it. I’m planning a series of posts about it… anyone interested in guest posting or participating, do let me know.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in mess, research methods, research project and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to academic travel diary: coping with mess

  1. Ben Kraal says:

    I’m in, Pat.

    I like to read papers and theses where the author comes clean about their mess, about changes in direction or in research question in response to circumstances.

    I had quite a messy experience in my PhD, which all turned out for the best and was fortunately not especially stressful. The mess is not particularly well-described in my thesis but I think is apparent if you know what to look for.

    My current research is *always* close to being a mess and I think that my colleagues and I, PhD students included, are always half a step ahead of the mess.


  2. Tseen Khoo says:

    Hi Pat – Enjoyed reading the post but was sorry to see that you had passport adventures on your recent trip here!

    As for the ‘messiness’ of research, I actually have a post in the pipeline about what to do when your GANTT chart (or timeline) doesn’t behave. I’m hoping to have it scheduled soon (may not appear for a month or so). Excellent point about how research is most often made to appear seamless and with ‘natural’ progressions. So many anecdotal accounts of ARC projects that I’ve heard are of the “Well, X happened so we couldn’t actually do Y, but we still did Z and ZZ, so they still got good value from us!”. This notion of ‘still getting value’ is something I find interesting.

    Look forward to the messy series!


  3. Peter Matthews says:

    Couldn’t agree more! Jones and Evans at Birmingham uni did a fun and interesting comic on this subject – the reality of running a research council project.

    In my thesis I included a “methodological narrative” from the first person perspective which was honest about the process and pitfalls of the research. As an ethnography it also aided validity for the reader. But I think the same level of honesty would be refreshing across the board and very useful.


  4. M-H says:

    Sorry about your passport troubles – international travel is becoming so fraught with increases in security and paperwork.

    I heard just this morning about a situation where a student had nearly finished her data collection for an ethnographic study in an institution, and a new senior member of staff tried to stop her doing any more work, and also to prevent her using the material she already had. This is where your ethics approval can be handy – the university has a part to play in your work and they can be formidable insitutions, if they operate to support the student – which they did in this case. But it was very upsetting and timewasting for eveyone involved.

    I agree: we should talk more about these kinds of situations.


    • pat thomson says:

      Interesting. I wonder how many people just dont get access at all because of the fears of what could be said… I suspect that higher education is more worried about this than many other locations, although I have no real evidence to suggest that other than being around conversations. Its one the side effects of marketisation among other things I guess…


      • Ben Kraal says:

        In my research I have encountered corporate Risk Managers whose job it is to prevent anything bad potentially happening to an organisation. They have minor conniptions when they learn that we will be entering their workplace with video cameras. They often quite like ethics paperwork which has reassuring statements about who specifically will and will not see the video and how securely it is being kept.


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