The Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences – Summer School!

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Free stationary!

This week I have been out of the office for 3 days out of the 5. I have been attending some training specifically designed for PhD students, with the focus on the social science (but not limited to disciplines of those who can apply to attend). The three day training course was a summer school held by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences who facilities funding, training and support for students undertaking PhD’s in the social science area.

This was a really good opportunity for me to get some actual PhD relevant training under my belt and I was really looking forward to meeting other PhD students within the same discipline and those who are not studying in the same area. I was able to meet other PhD students studying very social science subjects but there were also one or two from biologically driven and business background so it was nice to explore their research topics too. The programme of training classes was quite varied, and we could only register for those that we could physically fit into the three days. Therefore I chose two half day training sessions and two full day training sessions to make up my three day training frenzy.

Day 1 consisted of me attending two workshop training sessions: When Methods Meet and also Getting real about data: interviews and I chose these based on my own personal interests as well as what I felt would benefit my research.

The morning session was great and provided me with insight into two research methods

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View from session 1 (day 1)

which can be used together in research. These were survey and citizens juries. I had never heard of the latter before so it was good to see how another method could be used in the research context. It was a very practical session with us getting to hold our own citizens jury and participate in different things to get a feel of how the method works. Initially, our speakers explained a little at out each method and how they can be used in research (to give us some contextual background). They used the example of windfarms to explain how the two methods can be used to explore this phenomena as debates are ongoing onto whether people are for or against windfarm development. Anyway, we then proceeded to our practical session where we (the jury) heard evidence from our evidence givers on either side of the argument (our presenters). We then proceeded to discuss the issue, opinions and facts within our citizen’s jury which included a group facilitator (our presenters) who helped our conversation flow as well as maintaining a set direction. Now like many others, I had no idea about what a citizen’s jury was or even its purpose so you can find some more information here. The jury are there to deliberate about a set topic / question but do not come to a yes / no answer. Instead, they discuss opinions and agree an answer to a set question posed by the researcher which allows the researcher to gain further insight into the opinions discussed and reasons behind doing so. It was also really good to hear that citizens juries are often there to help make decisions and influence policy, something my research will be doing (hopefully). However, when one of our presenters explained the cost of holding just one citizens jury I know this method would not suit my research, or my budget. At the end of our session, our presenters discussed pro’s and con’s to the methods and explored how surveys and citizens juries can be used in one. It was good to see a practical example of how research methods can be mixed and has given me some thought as to what I can do for my own research methodology itself.

I found the second session of the day (Getting real about data: interviews’) particularly intriguing. The session focused a lot on walking interviews, how we undertake them and the practicalities of doing so. Our first task was to find a partner and carry out a short walking interview, discussing our next progress reviews as topic of conversation. As a group, we were able to see how walking interviews work. They are often used when the environment needs to interact with the research or when the environment can impact results taken. They are also used as a comfort method for those who are not at ease in the interview situation as it enables participants to chat to researchers in a less formal way, but still have the structure and flow of an interview. We then moved on to looking at some creative visual methods. Now these are creative methods used to help s collect data, so looking at things like photography and visual objects that can be used to help participants explain the things they want to and add physical context. One of our tasks was to draw out

ice breaker dots
Ice breaker activity (day 2)

our relationships between home / work / study and then to explain this to our partners. In our eventual group of 4, we all had different interpretations and different drawings. We were also asked to use playdough to explain the relationship we have with our supervisors which for me, was not an easy task. My fellow PhD student, however, did a fabulous job and tweeted about her creativities. You can see my supervisors tweet when she realised what our task was and how we got on. I can happily say my model was not photographable and I maintain the stance that I could not fully represent the relationship between my supervisor and I as it is so complex… (excuses really!)…

Day 2 comprised a full day of statistics!! Well technically not proper statistics, more on how to visually represent data and communicate it to a variety of audiences in the session called Data visualisation and statistical communication. Now this session was great as it was hosted by a Lecturer in Quantitative methods and also a graphic designer, two areas that are important in statistical communication. We took part in an ice breaker activity designed to help us mingle and get to know each other. It turns out, covering each other in sticky dots is quite fun and we got to keep these as souvenirs! The morning was something I had not really thought of before and explored the deign aspects around visual communication. These were principles of design to help the researcher communicate data in a way that was visually representable of the data itself and also understandable to the audience. We were then asked to complete a series of tasks to solidify our learning of this knowledge. We played card games and Pictionary to understand the concepts further as well as analyse some charts to see if we could spot the principles within the data presented. I quite like this way of learning – being information of the information and then using the information to help us create knowledge. For me, the application of information is a key aspect of knowledge production. I now understand the principles of design but also know about how these can be applied to practical settings and have lots of resources to help me with this when the time comes in my PhD. The afternoon faired with the same structure but this time we learned principles of statistical communication – basically what to do to present your data statistically with the least fuss possible. I know after 4 years of statistics training, this never gets old and it is always important to understand about statistical communication for those who have never researched or learned about it before.

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Statistical communication via Lego

It’s great being able to do all the statistical data analysis in the world but if you cannot communicate it to your audience and tell them what you have found then I kind of question the point. We spent the remainder of the afternoon building statistical representations of data out of Lego and seeing how well we could explain our ‘findings’ in terms of practical objects. This seemed to work okay!

Day 3 was a full day of Strategic Ethnographies. We heard our guest speakers (Professor Robin Williams) talk about some of this research and how the ethnographic approach has been used. He gave us a brief introduction to the method and some of the challenges before we heard Professor Sampsa Hyysalo (via Skype in Finland I do believe!) talk about his research in terms of how strategic ethnographies can be used and what he has done with the method so far. We also listened to Dr Mozaffar Hajar who told us about how her research (on innovations in the workplace) used the strategic ethnographic to track the development of innovations over time across different sites. It was good to hear both internal and external researchers discuss this as I was not really sure what the method was in the first place. They explained research topics that have used the method to explore research questions and did explain that innovation and social learning have both been included. This kind of got me thinking about my own research – workplace learning and innovation and whether  using strategic ethnography would be a suitable approach. My initial gut reaction would be a ‘no’ as I am not looking at events changing over time or cross-culturally, however, using different techniques within the method may help me explore my own research questions further. For me, this is something that I am looking into right now, the most appropriate methodologies to use and why (including the research paradigm). The session has prompted me to look into strategic ethnographies a little further so that I can justify my choice whether or not I would use in as part of my PhD.

We then delivered our ‘One Minute Madness’ presentations, similar to the one I did at the School of Computing research student conference in May and my fellow student, Iris, tweeted the one I did! This was a great opportunity to see the research topics of other students and the varied nature of each research project. It turns out that no-one else is researching workplace learning or innovation but I don’t think any research topic was actually the same, which was nice. After lunch we were able to explore problems within our PhD’s in terms of theories, methodology and also ethics. It was good to hear that other students are currently facing the problems that I will be encountering so I was able to note down some sound advice form them all so that I know what to do. One prominent point that came up form discussions was the role of the supervisor. We often forget that our supervisors are there to help us form the basic things of design to more complicated matters of ethics. We discussed how supervisors sometimes have knowledge of their own subjects that overlap with our topics and may have met others in the area who can help us in terms of things like data collection. For example, if I was struggling to get organisations on board for my research, I could ask my second supervisor who already researches and works within the employment area and will have various contacts who I can get in touch with.

And that was that The session ended my three day summer school training sessions and enabled me to see how important sessions like this are. More importantly, the training showed me that there are a lot of diverse topics being researched at the moment, but it is often the student experiences that overlap and being us together whilst we travel through the research journey. Networking opportunities such as the summer school are vital to keep us going, firstly to realise that we are not alone in the problems we are facing and secondly to know that our individual research journey is not actually an individual journey at all.

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