Explaining your PhD topic in 50 words or less

Argh! Came a cropper last year when trying to explain my research in front of a respected professor and peer in a similar field to mine. I was unprepared to give a full talk, which I suspect was actually the aim of the morning group, so I just wanted to ask him about activity systems theory, but I was also unprepared for his rather probing question about what my research was actually about. It left me feeling rather shocked and shaky that what I was unable to explain quickly and precisely what I had been researching for the past two years, but I was also rather irritated by his quickness to denigrate me publicly. While it was not a wholesale collapse of my research, I would have much preferred a private meeting.

The whole experience reminded me to explain my research to both lay people and people outside of my expertise that my research looks and sounds messy, but that this is normal in narrative inquiry methods. It also showed me that my research is highly inductive. In other words, I’m not really sure what I am going to find out until I begin to analyse my data.

Like the many times I have already had light bulb moments throughout my PhD journey, this meeting, while an unhappy experience for me, was a good reminder that I need to learn how to talk about my research in a particular way.

So, for all you lay people out there, my topic is this: I am investigating the effects of participant values and beliefs on the practices of one-to-one tertiary singing lessons. It is a mixed methodology study, which includes the use of survey, interview, video footage and email as the data generation tools. I am employing a cultural psychology approach, and I am using narrative inquiry methods to analyse and write up my data.

Any questions?

It is an inductive method, where many results will not be apparent/ thought of until I have analysed my data. Therefore, while I have been researching intrinsic motivation on student practice; goal setting and motivation theories; practices of the music lesson; teaching for expertise; and the “pedagogy of care”, I have not limited my readings particularly to any one area. I may discover interesting power struggles in my data, or themes about adult learning that will require further reading. I am certainly under no illusion that the current reading I have done will be enough to get by for my literature review.

How do I analyse and write up my data? Well, actually, by watching and re-watching the data, which take the form of videos. Themes from the videos will emerge as being important to me, the researcher, and by checking the interview transcripts, I can begin to build a picture of the process of the one to one lesson and the values and beliefs that control the processes within the lesson.

I will be writing up my findings as narratives, which has its own set of challenges, and will necessitate the inclusion of a discussion chapter to unpack some of my writing.

My methodology is not grounded theory, but it has many similarities to Grounded Theory methods, where the data is inductive and you don’t even bother with the literature until you have analysed the findings and created a theory.

At this point I am feeling a bit better about my research. Yesterday I read through my confirmation document, which was better than expected, and which should provide a useful template for me to follow when doing my complete drafts. I have so much to do, but I am feeling better now about what I need to do.


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