Jackie Barker is a second year PhD student at the University of the West of England (UWE). Her research is on patient and public involvement (PPI) in a health network. In this blog post, she offers her experience of involving a member of the public in designing and executing her doctoral research. She tweets as @opsologist.
Doctoral researchers have an opportunity to be the change Patter blogged about in (re)framing public engagement. The aspiration is to engage the public with reciprocity, conversations, debate and mutual research. I think I have a way, because I’m trying it in my PhD.
In health we use the term involvement i.e., “research being carried out ‘with’ or ‘by’ members of the public rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them.” (INVOLVE *). Researchers in this field are expected to walk the talk by both studying public involvement and involving the public in that study. The research on involving the public agrees about how to do it successfully: involve the public early and all the way through and with a clear role. So when, at our first meeting, my supervisors put involving the public on the to do list for my PhD, I decided to use the evidence to make it as successful as possible.
The way I’ve done this is by having a public advisor, let’s call him Nick. What follows is a description of how Nick and I together, in our own small way, have tried to enact these high-falutin’ notions of reciprocity, conversation and mutual research.
Stage 1 – I thought this was supposed to be MY doctorate?
If it’s my name on the certificate (and I hope it will be), then how can I possibly give up control over the design and execution of my research and share it with a man in the street? Of course, this is the wrong question. I already share control of my research with my supervisors, with my participants, and with the funder. At most, having a public adviser is a marginal extra loss of control. My advice? Suck it up.
Stage 2 – Finding Joe Nick Public
On the one hand the public is everywhere. On the other hand, finding anyone interested in not just reading my thesis, or participating in my research but contributing to it seemed like a tall order. You can’t just trawl the streets. You have to go where the interested and engaged public is. Then see if any one of them wants to take the next step and be involved. I was lucky. I belong to a Public Involvement Journal Club at UWE. Every other month all the people with an interest in PPI research read a relevant journal article and come together over their sandwiches to discuss the paper. The public is invited. And some of them actually come. Your university probably runs some engagement activity. Go along. Charm someone into joining you.
Stage 3 – Are we ‘simpatico’?
I take this Italian word to be something about getting-alongness and something about being able to understand each other. Journal club at UWE is a debating forum. I liked the cut of Nick’s jib. In his arguments he referenced philosophers I hadn’t heard of, and put forward views I certainly didn’t agree with. But he did it all with a dry humour that I knew I could work with. I took the plunge and invited him for a coffee after.
Stage 4 – The (mutually agreed, reciprocal) job description
Be prepared for your coffee-date’s first question: what is it that you want me to do? But also, don’t have all the answers. The PhD is a (minimum) 3-year endeavour. You want your adviser to stay the course. The benefits need to cut both ways. It turned out that Nick wanted to understand the process of research better. He wanted to learn some of things I needed to learn. Sometimes we both want to explore the same idea and we do this together, debating via email and in person. Nick also had skills to offer. He’s a writer himself and this makes him an excellent proof-reader. He’s an historian, and has read widely in areas I have never touched. We constantly exchange reading recommendations. Nick could offer something to any researcher (even one studying earthworms – his example). But for my research, he offers a lot more. Nick wasn’t at Journal Club just because he’s interested in public involvement. He is also a patient leader who has had a proposal for a piece of applied health research adopted. He is working with clinical researchers and clinicians on a literature review to inform the design of a randomised control trial (RCT). As he says, he is “passionately committed to a notion of partnership between active citizens and those who design and produce both products and services, in the public and private sectors.” Every time we meet I come away with a re-charged enthusiasm for my work.
Stage 5 – Tea (me) or an Americano (Nick) and cake every 6 weeks
Of course, we didn’t write a formal job description. But I did capture our discussion and summarise it on an email. We agreed to meet over food and drink: our discussions are more chat with a critical friend than formal, minuted meeting. We try to meet every 6 weeks and the venues range freely across the best cafés in the west. If I want Nick to review anything, I give him as much notice as possible. When he comments, he proof reads, he criticises my argument (I’m using Critical Realism, he’s a fan of phenomenology) and he makes suggestions on my writing style: it’s a full-service review.
For me, hardly any. One more meeting to organise. A bit more planning required. Another voice to take account of. More criticism to come around to.
My ethics review flew through – my participant information had already been reviewed and changed by an actual member of the public. My access is phenomenal because Nick often uses his connections and inside knowledge and makes introductions for me. I get to verbalise what I think I’m doing in advance of supervisor meetings and in place of boring my family. I have access to (at least) twice the reading I’m doing because Nick picks up anything he thinks might be useful. We joke, we have a cuppa and maybe another cake if there’s lots to catch up on. I’m a convert.
*INVOLVE, 2015 What is public involvement in research? Available from: http://www.invo.org.uk/find-out-more/what-is-public-involvement-in-research-2/ [Accessed 07 May 2015].
Brett, J., Staniszewska, S., Mockford, C., Herron-Marx, S., Hughes, J., Tysall, C. and Suleman, R. (2014) Mapping the impact of patient and public involvement on health and social care research: a systematic review. Health Expectations : An International Journal of Public Participation in Health Care and Health Policy. 17 (5), pp.637-650.
Image: Hans Schilling, illuminator (German, active 1459 – 1467); Diebold Lauber, illuminator (German, active 1427 – 1467), Josaphat and King Avenir in Conversation, Alsatian, 1469, Ink, colored washes, and tempera colors on paper, Leaf: 28.6 x 20.3 cm (11 1/4 x 8 in.), Ms. Ludwig XV 9, fol. 196. Getty Museum open access image bank.