Katherine Gulliver: Journeying through the methodology of a PhD

Katherine Gulliver

Meeting deadlines

The first year of my PhD was spent with my head swimming with the words epistemology, ontology, axiology and methodology. Talking to my PhD colleagues and friends, we grappled with our research designs for innovative methods, original contributions and passing the RDC.1. The PhD has three significant milestones; RDC.1, RDC.2 and RDC.3. The RDC.1 is the first stage in the PhD and involves an assessment to pass to continue the journey. An expert commentator, outside of your supervision team, is invited to approve your research proposal. The expert commentator will look at the academic content, whether it is feasible and appropriate for a PhD, the project resources identified, training, potential to fulfil the project, and ethical considerations.

Head down, eyes focussed on the computer screen, I fulfilled the criteria and met the deadline. Fortunately, meeting deadlines is one of my strengths, and studying the PhD part time meant that I could spend time refining my research proposal and gaining ethical approval. After passing the RDC.1, the next hurdle was the RDC.2 ‘Confirmation of Route’, which confirms your progress and checks potential for the research to be an original contribution to knowledge. It involves more written work which is also helpful towards writing the final thesis.

Head down, eyes focussed on the computer screen, I fulfilled the criteria and met the deadline.

My focus on passing the deadlines required me to identify my ontology (where ideas originate from), epistemology (what we think knowledge is) and methodology (my plan for the research itself). When I had to submit a piece of work, I was often drawn to a systematic and methodical approach as I felt it would help me to meet the deadlines. For example, I created observation schedules filled with tick boxes and time intervals. My preference for observing in my own research however was naturalistic, open, and qualitative based.

Interestingly, it was after meeting the deadlines where I truly developed a sense of methodology based on my ontology and epistemology. My supervisors encouraged me to explore this, and I had the opportunity to visit a lab of the Psychology department in the University of Surrey when my brother Tom was invited to take IQ tests.

My brush with a different paradigm

Sat in Observation Room 2, I felt a world away from educational research. It was a very quiet room, with a vast whiteness, oozing light and space. I intended to watch my brother from outside of the room, but the room with the two way mirror was unavailable. So, I sat near the corner of the room, head bowed slightly, bent over my notebook as I scribbled my thoughts away from the table where Tom sat opposite the Researcher. I was pleasantly surprised to see the tests presented as games and playful challenges. Tom seemed confident and happy to try, without fear of getting something wrong. It was fascinating to watch him with the different researchers, following their instructions, and reacting to their praise. I was eager for him to feel the ‘can do’ attitude, and be proud of himself.

I observed Tom complete the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI). The WASI consists of four subtests. Two subtests, Vocabulary and Similarities, measure Verbal IQ which was measured to be 9 years 2 months and 9 years 6 months. The two subtests, Block Design and Matrix Reasoning, which measure Performance (or non-verbal) IQ were 6 years 10 months and below 6 years 2months (his performance on the block design test was below the range of ages measured). These results are useful in providing evidence that Tom, age 30, requires further funding for appropriate support and care to enable him to live independently. 

Positivistic research such as the tests completed by my brother to measure his age equivalent scores, help explain his lived experiences as a man with an intellectual disability. In this way, the positivist paradigm has blended with another paradigm (critical realism) which aims to produce beneficial action. What was interesting in my visit was that the researcher, a human with their own discourse, showed similar principles but different epistemology to myself. In her work, she showed that her methodology was to use tests to measure scores. In her language and actions with Tom, she treated Tom as a whole person.

I needed time and space to explore, analyse, reflect, sit with and sift through knowledge …

This raises questions; my ontological and epistemological positioning does not lend itself to positivist-style research, but it seeks to explore particular social problems in order to address the issues, creating practical outcomes. Positivistic paradigms are often labelled as ‘disinterested scientist’ regarding voice, comparing to Critical theorists who advocate, and constructivists who facilitate multiple voices of participants (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). However, researchers at the Psychology Lab were not disinterested in Tom’s voice, but were using a quantitative methodology to facilitate Tom’s voice in a way they can use to help advocate for him. This showed me that research can fall across all paradigms, and it was important for me to understand and explore these concepts personally.

An unhurried journey

The deadlines were useful in focusing the development of the doctorate, and ensuring that I was on the right tracks. However, in my rush to make institutional deadlines, the work I produced is strikingly different to my writing now. A significant part of my PhD journey was to allow myself time to process my thoughts, and think deeply about how I understand epistemology and ontology. I needed time and space to explore, analyse, reflect, sit with and sift through knowledge. This links to David Orr’s (1996) concept of slow knowledge, highlighted recently by Alison Clark in her blog on slow pedagogy  and the unhurried child. Education is increasingly using standardised tests to measure performance and accountability, which promotes and values fast knowledge. Drawing on the concept of the unhurried child, I agree that time is necessary to slow down, think and question assumptions.

A postgraduate doctorate in Education is a fascinating and complex journey. There are times when decisions are needed, progress must be assessed and deadlines met in order to continue. However, it is a personal journey which has highlighted the importance of viewing methodology as a process, rather than a product.  

For those who what to find out more:

A short video clip on Epistemology and ontology:

Doctoral studies Frequently asked questions https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/student-life/your-studies/research-degrees/doctoral-college/frequently-asked-questions

Slow pedagogy and the unhurried child: https://www.froebel.org.uk/research-library/slow-knowledge-and-the-unhurried-child-time-for-slow-pedagogies-in-early-childhood-education

Denzin, N. K. & Lincoln, Y. S. (2000) ‘Paradigms and perspectives in transition’. Handbook of qualitative research, 2 pp. 157-162.

Orr, D. (1996) Slow Knowledge, Conservation Biology, 10 (3) 699-702.

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