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Fearless in Fieldwork

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Suddenly the thesis is real

This year 2019 has been all about fieldwork and method.  Suddenly the thesis is real!  Most researchers say they enjoy this part of the doctorate the most and I can see why.  The reading and theory integrates with what you are discovering, what is going on, and what you are learning.

“a scary place”

Yet it is a scary place – being in the field.  I am an experienced manager and presenter and have participated in countless recruitment interviews, yet I was so apprehensive about the research interviews and observation that I undertook a number of practice sessions with friends and family.  This was invaluable and gave me the confidence to begin.  Even then, the early stages feel unfocussed; it’s adaptation all the way.

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Figuring out methods

How do you actually do research?  The bookshelves groan and articles abound.  But fieldwork  only makes sense when you get out there and try it.  ‘Flying a plane while building it’ sums up neatly what is going on, as theory and method intertwine and multiple iterations back and forth from field to desk shape the study as it progresses.  This is certainly true of practice studies which are informed by a study of work and what is important to practitioners.  However studying action, or ‘praxeology’, is not simply about ‘what people do’ in their everyday work. Rather, it is about how their work forms an intelligible, collectively understood system of activities which are socially and materially situated. A practice perspective de-centres individual cognition and motivation and instead makes collective practices the focus of study

“fieldwork only makes sense when you get out there and try it”

This way of thinking first emerged in 2018 when I was introduced to practice theory at the Interpretive Policy Analysis Summer School (#IPASS2018).  In parallel, my supervisor lent me the seminal work, ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ by Michel de Certeau. I didn’t – and still don’t – understand all of it – but it started me thinking much more deeply about strategizing and the work of managers as process and practice.

Summer  Learning Interlude

To really get to grips with a practice perspective and understand what a practice ontology really means, I felt I needed to learn about it, not just through books and articles – important as these are.

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The key is through teaching from academic experts and talking to PhD students employing this perspective.  The home institution can only ever be a foundation, so off I went to the Practice Studies: An Advanced Introduction – an annual Summer School held at Warwick University which was recommended to me by a PhD buddy.  Led by some of my key authors including Davide Nicoloini, Hari Tsoukas, Jorgen Sandberg and Richard Whittington, I was girlishly excited about meeting them! 

 

The School comprised three days of intensive teaching, workshops, one-to-one mentoring, informal discussions and a research clinic where we had the opportunity to present and seek feedback on our work.  Late night drinking was out as we were all reading and prepping for the next day’s work.  It was a truly brilliant experience which fired me up for a re-draft of my literature themes and approach to my thesis Introduction.

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I have reconnected with fieldwork and data collection with renewed purpose.  And I feel ready for the upcoming British Academy of Management (BAM) conference 2019, where I will discuss method within the Critical Management Studies track and get involved in the BAM Strategy Special Interest Group.

Watch this space!

Reflecting on 2018: Staging Posts and the Academic-Practitioner Identity

Doctoral Journeying – Staging Posts

 

It feels good to be starting year four of the Prof.D and I’m excited to be about to present at the annual student conference this coming January week.  I have written a draft literature review, an introduction and an outline summary of my proposed methodology.  Much new reading has been done.  My focus is much clearer.  And I have my University ethics approval.  At the end of 2017 after submitting the research proposal (Professional Development and Design Module), my research questions and methods still felt rather fuzzy.  So, what has helped me move forward in 2018?  In a word – conferences!  I am not always as disciplined as I should be but boy, does a conference focus the mind.

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Academic conferences have different purposes from the practitioner events I am used to.  Both are about networking and meeting up with friends and peers.  Both concern hearing about and discussing new ideas, listening to interesting speakers, contributing to personal and professional development and even enhancing personal profile.  But in academia, the testing and hopefully validation of the researcher’s work that conferences offer is a much more significant motivator.  I have however also tried to integrate my academic work into my professional life; translating it for the practitioner audience.  For example, in September 2018 I presented on inclusive growth (my thesis topic) at the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference.

 

Here are the ‘big push’ events of 2018:

 

January: Prof.D Student Conference to present a research overview to peers; this experience made me realise that I was overly concerned with rationale and that the focus wasn’t clear; i.e. my summary failed to connect with most of the other students who didn’t really understand what I was trying to do – never a good place to be!

 

April: International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) conference in Edinburgh; presenting a first stage literature review to the Implementation Stream; this was a brilliant opportunity to present at my first formal academic conference on an international stage; I have posted separately on this but in essence it forced me to get some good writing completed and introduced me to the concept of translation.

 

July: Interpretive Policy Analysis Methods Summer School (IPASS18), Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, Amsterdam: although not a formal conference, this again forced some writing and discussion in a supportive environment of doctoral students from other countries; it also prompted a rigorous look at methods; introduced me to practice theory; and introduced me to an informal academic advisor and a new policy network.

 

September: Public Administration Committee (PAC) Committee conference, Northumbria University, Newcastle: this conference required me to submit a section of the thesis – for which I chose the Introduction chapter; the event offered critique and peer review from other students and academics; it made me think about the ethical issues connected with researching in my own field; and it introduced me to organisational ethnography as a complement other methods.

 

Doing the Doctorate in Good Company

 

Conferences alone don’t do the job of nudging the thesis forward though.  I owe a large debt to many people for emotional and practical support: family and friends, my supervisory team; my doctoral colleagues – both on and off the course; other academics – both inside and outside my institution; plus the bonus of online resources.  The two co-founders of the Professional Doctorate Society (of which more below) have been a help and inspiration throughout and the session we had together for reflection and review in October was hugely energising.  I don’t take any of this for granted and am glad that I never feel alone.  No wonder some people begin to write their thesis acknowledgements well before time!

 

Choices: Practitioner or Academic?

 

library 2This last year saw me getting into some very deep discussions with other doctoral students and academics about what it means to be an academic.  Am I about becoming a practitioner-academic rather than academic-practitioner? I started to wonder.  I am reasonably good at lecturing; I actually enjoy theory; I relish in-depth discussions which don’t necessarily have to lead to ‘actions’; I revel in ‘making the familiar strange’; and I am in my element with all kinds of reflective and philosophical endeavours. And I have made some wonderful academic friends.  But it’s in the professional environment where I find my greatest satisfactions; the business of ‘making a difference’ to society – motivations which have driven my career in the public sector planning and economic development spheres.

 

At the IRSPM conference, one academic opined that I simply cannot ‘have it all’ and must choose between the practitioner and academic life.  In one sense, I agree. I have spent decades building up my knowledge, expertise, contacts and profile in my professional field.  In the academic world I could only ever be a minnow.  However, this doesn’t mean that I can’t play a part in the academic community too; but it will need to be a tailored role where I can really add value.  After all the deliberations, it was reassuring to be able to confirm that the ProfD/DBA pathway is the right one for me.

 

The Profdocker Identity

 

The Northumbria PAC Conference was an excellent means of gaining feedback and reassurance, and have some fun along the way.  But it revealed something else about which I had perhaps only been dimly aware.  That something is the ‘life experience’ gap between ‘mature’ doctoral candidates (i.e. folk like me) and youthful PhD students not far from their first degrees. It’s not a question of what’s better, just what’s different.  I realised how much more I had in common with fellow mature students in employment, compared to other younger students studying a similar topic or method.  Why?  Because despite the shared interest in thesis subject matter, the peer understandings were much deeper with practitioner students.

 

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That said, the inescapable reality is that there is no-one else like fellow doctoral students who want to discuss doctoral study in quite the same navel-gazing manner!  After all, it’s the thing that binds us together. It is this reality which has prompted the development of the Professional Doctorate Society which three of us on the course founded and are now evolving in collaboration with others. The Society could potentially go beyond peer student support within our institution to the reaching out to fellow doctoral students worldwide who are combining work and study.  The endeavour is thus as much about practitioners as doctoral students; and goes to the heart of debates about the purposes of university education.

 

I am looking forward to presenting my work to my fellow Profdockers in January 2019 and discuss further how the Professional Doctorate Society could develop.

 

Next: Into Year 4: All about Data

Introducing the Thesis 

Don’t be Boring

Good news: the Introduction is written.  Bad news? I know it’s already out of date –  but that’s okay!

20181212_174123I have already reflected on the difficulty of finishing a work.  But how about starting it?  In many ways that’s even harder.  Advice abounds on what to include or omit, the right length, the scene-setting.  What exactly am I introducing?  I had many doubts about whether I should have written it at all at this stage, especially as some advisors recommend leaving the introduction to the end.  I have no doubt that I will rewrite the chapter many times over.  But having a marker feels well worthwhile.  Some advice likens the Introduction as a ‘taster’ to make the reader want to read on. In that sense, the doctoral craft is little different from any piece of writing.  Don’t be boring!  I keep saying to myself.

Everyone tells you that reading is the easy, pleasurable part of a thesis and writing the difficult part.  How true.  Some academics write quickly and well; they have a gift which manifests itself in multiple journal articles and even books.  I am too much of a perfectionist really and although I write reasonably well, I spend too much time honing and refining.  But it is indeed the writing, and also presenting, of the thesis where the leaps in thinking occur.  I have got into better habits of writing regularly, even if it’s just a paragraph or two on what I have just been reading.  So writing that introductory chapter has been really important in clarifying my thinking and getting to a point where the rationale, scope, theoretical underpinning and objectives seem to hang together in a much more satisfactory way.

Putting myself into the thesis

What are the ethical implications of researching one’s own organisation, let alone one’s own field?  How will I manage to find sufficient distance from my subject matter, from people who I might know, from my knowledge base in professional practice?  In my heart of hearts, I am confident that I have the right perspective but I know that it’s something I’ll need to write into the thesis in depth and be prepared to address at Viva.

My practitioner identify is something which I also realised I would need to write into the Introduction itself.  So the rationale for a practitioner-academic in a doctoral thesis isn’t only about literature gaps, or researching problems in the professional field, but personal reasons surrounding career and life journey.  It is this that creates the passion and perseverance needed to sustain the project.

What’s the Bullseye?

The foundations of my thesis haven’t really changed but perhaps the best thing now, three years in (can it be that long?) is that I have been able to nail my focus – or ‘bullseye’ – ‘inclusive growth’.  After much mind mapping complete with the rainbow of pens; after endless doodles, notes and diagrams; after more reading (always more reading); and after a (regrettably somewhat incoherent and later retracted) draft transcript which I sent to my supervisors (well haven’t we all?!) –  I saw that ‘inclusive growth’ needed to be my bullseye.  The task to develop the introduction and literature review to the next stage still feels huge – but manageable.

Conferences Rule!

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I have to credit the 2018 Public Administration Conference (PAC) in Northumbria University in September this year for getting me to the point of even producing my Introduction.  Conferences are brilliant for forcing some half-decent writing!  But these events also yield feedback from fellow academics and students, prompt reflection and usually result in some new reading sources.  PAC is an informal and friendly environment, offering excellent support to doctoral students – I recommend it highly for anyone researching in the very broad field of public admin.  It was also notable in introducing me to organisational ethnography.  Although I love observing and analysing group dialogues, I thought that I wouldn’t have nearly enough time and resources for this kind of endeavour.  It turns out that ‘ethno-lite’ may indeed be feasible.

This brings me to research methods – the elephant which lies straight ahead of me; the gateway to the intimidating business of data collection. I’ve never recorded an interview and the whole business feels pretty scary.  But before I forge ahead, I need to engage in some reflection of my doctoral year.

Next: Reflecting on the Academic-Practitioner Identity

The Data Funnel

The problem of finishing 

When is a work finished?  I was pondering this question at Edinburgh’s National Gallery while viewing an exhibition of Jenny Saville’s extraordinary paintings last month.  I heard a couple discussing whether one of her paintings looked finished or not and it got me thinking, when is a work ever really finished and how do we decide when to stop?

Translating this into the land of the #profdockers, when is a chapter, a journal paper or indeed the thesis truly finished?  I’m told that a common reason for getting ‘stuck’ is the difficulty for researchers deciding when a piece of work is finished and they are ready to ‘let go’.  With my own submissions, I am only ever about 70-80% happy with the product and perhaps this is as good as it gets, but the feeling of unfinishedness is always vaguely disconcerting.

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Artwork by Jenny Saville – finished?

One way to force my hand I’ve found is to sign myself up for conferences where I have to submit and present something; this ensures completion by a due date as well as the chance to discuss work.  After the excitement of the IRSPM in April 2018, presenting a first stage literature review (see post on the Imposter Syndrome), I thought – what next?

Interpretation is infinite and knowledge is political

The answer was to delve more deeply into interpretive methods – embracing the incompleteness and uncertainty that are the hallmarks of the approach.  Cue my sign-up to a brilliant Summer School on Interpretive Policy Analysis.  Held in Amsterdam at the Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, a group of some 20 doctoral students spent five days exploring what an interpretive slant on policy means for how we think and therefore what we do and in consequence, how social change happens.

Interpretation is infinite. Data is not knowledge. Knowledge is political. Helping people to reflect is part of the researcher’s role. The context is also ‘me’.  Be careful of definitions.  I got many takeaways from what was a truly stimulating and thought-provoking week of lectures and activities including on site practical exercises.  I also got the chance to meet two of my author heroes – Maarten Hajer and Hendrick Wagenaar, and to receive personal feedback from an academic, chosen for complementarity of topic or method. Particularly compelling for me was the emphasis throughout in encouraging policy-makers and researchers alike to question their framing of problems and solutions.  So my research questions are a product of my ‘frames’, drawn from my socio-cultural background and influences.  I am well and truly part of the research – and with the setting being in my own field I am in it up to my neck!

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Amsterdam – nice place for research methods summer school!

Funnelling the search for methods

My motivations for attending the summer school were mainly to help me develop my research methodology and methods. It certainly did that as well as forcing me to nail my approach in a final assignment.  We were rewarded with a certificate – a nice acknowledgement of the hard work.  I’m sure I could go on indefinitely – thinking and developing the perfect research method.  But I know I must finish the planning, and get into the field.  I have already begun exploratory talks and readings but with a greater sense of purpose.  It feels incomplete and not quite ready and that challenges me as something of a perfectionist. But I know I have to finish the thinking and start data collection, accepting that the qualitative methods are iterative and will evolve.

 

 

Next: Writing the Introduction

Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of My First Academic Conference

‘The Imposter’ Syndrome

We all know about the ‘imposter syndrome’ but I hadn’t imagined how it would manifest itself at my first academic conference.  Who do I think I am, being here amongst all these professors, experienced academics and famous authors I thought.  Yet it happened, I survived it and I am all the better for it!

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The Idea

All doctoral students are encouraged to attend conferences as a way of presenting their work, getting feedback, making contacts, and helping their thinking along.  A helpful fellow doctoral student pointed me in the direction of the International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) – an international three day event which, conveniently, was to be held in my home city of Edinburgh in 2018.  Focussed on public value, the link to my local government experience and setting was ideal. The event format, comprised primarily of simultaneous small group informal seminars, is ideal for early stage researchers and the conference actively encourages new researchers and practitioners.

But how could I, an inexperienced researcher, only just into the third year of the doctorate, have the cheek to submit an abstract?  The answer, as my supervisor wisely advised, was to submit a literature review, presented as a thinkpiece.  One advantage of this conference, as I discovered, is that only the abstract, rather than a finished paper is required for the initial submission; as I was then knee deep in my research proposal, that was pure relief.  To my great surprise, then trepidation, the abstract was accepted and suddenly the imposter syndrome began to take hold.

The Writing (and re-writing – ad infinitum)

The real work began in writing the conference paper – 7,000 odd words of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.  Most doctoral students read the manuals, the web posts, the sage advice from wise heads about how to write.  The good and bad habits, the tools and techniques, the barriers, pitfalls … and so on. We make resolutions, we plan, we try to organise ourselves.

The reality of course is somewhat different. I begin with wide-ranging – albeit often irrelevant, if interesting – reading; free writing; rough ideas, doodles and diagrams; incoherence and muddle.  At last a draft is ready. And rewritten and rethought, and rewritten … ad infinitum.  Writers block occurs.  Thoughts and dreams are invaded.  Everything elsewhere in life seems to have a bearing on that dratted paper.  Just as I decide that the reading is well and truly done for the moment; ‘work with the data you’ve got’ advises my engineer husband sensibly – advice ignored as another ‘vital’ paper pops up – changing everything.

At last, and usually in my case an unfeasibly brief timespan before hand-in, it all starts to come together.  Then my adrenalin kicks in and the final week passes in a bubble with minimal sleep, culminating in an all-nighter.  Exactly what all the manuals tell you not to do.  I am usually about 70-80% happy with the result.  I went through this marathon, only to find shortly before submission that the deadline had been extended – a common occurrence I’m told. Cue scream. Never mind, time for numerous further proof-readings.

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The Presentation

I discover that I have a 20 minute slot including Q&A.  (At that point I didn’t appreciate that academic chairs often have a fairly flexible idea of timekeeping.)  Do you need the slides in advance I inquired of the organisers, who replied with a wry laugh that if they got that from the academics, it would be a small miracle.  But bringing the presentation on a memory stick brings its own kind of anxiety, especially as there was to be no technical support.

In my professional life, slides comprised solely of bullet point text are virtually outlawed but are still part and parcel of the standard academic toolkit.  What to do?  I decided on a mix of images and some bullet points but with suitably bright colours, reasoning that discourse analysis is challenging enough without sending the audience to sleep with black and white text.  To avoid my ‘up against the wire’ habits, I arranged a dry run with my supervisory team a week in advance.  As usual, they provided much-needed reassurance, bless them.

In the end, all went well. I revealed my ‘imposter’ fears and the room immediately filled with the warm glow of support.  I even had a full-blown pep talk later about where my research was taking me.  All great stuff from a collegiate and thought-provoking few days.

The Aftermath – Pride, Legitimacy and Belonging

Reflecting on my experience of being a ‘newbie’, I rather liked the feeling of being able to expose my uncertainties and actively canvass advice from experienced academics.  It certainly helped me focus on the language I use for audiences in different theoretical fields, as social constructionist approaches are still relatively rare in policy research. Perhaps most of all, I left feeling well and truly part of an academic as well as a professional community.  In that sense, the reality of being a doctoral candidate really hit home and with it, a sense of pride, legitimacy and belonging.

So, any doctoral students out there wondering whether to take the plunge and submit a conference abstract, I highly recommend going for it!

Next: The Data Funnel (i.e. getting to a coherent research method)

Leaving a Legacy

 

The ‘so what’ of doctoral research

‘Doctoralness’.  Yet another new and rather splendid word – heard at the Prof.D ‘student guidelines’ lectures in January 2018.  What it means is a key test of the quality of doctoral research.  ‘Doctoralness’ is about how the work adds to society’s knowledge and organisational practice, from both theoretical and applied perspectives, the latter so very important in the Professional Doctorate route,

In short, it is the ‘so what?’ question.

There have been points in the doctoral journey where I have got stuck at a crossroads and wondered whether the stronger methodological focus of the traditional PhD is for me.  But I always come back to what really drives me – how we can create a better society.  And although I believe that academic research has a huge role to play in that, it is agents which bring  about change.  Hence the importance of continually asking ‘so what?’

Legitimacy and legacy

During the lectures, we discussed how motivations can alter over the doctoral programme.  For me, the sense of confidence, of life purpose, and also, my ‘legitimacy’ as a practitioner, and not just as an academic, have all intensified.

But what of having ‘something to prove’, often a motivation for later life doctorates, as the tutor explained, compared to young post-Master candidates.  Thinking about my long Council career which ended with a kind of ‘fizzling out’ rather than at a high point, I have reflected on this and think there is much truth in my need at some level to ‘prove’ my intellectual capacity and capability. Legacy is important to us all but we can leave a legacy in many ways, not just by being promoted to higher positions in the staff hierarchy.  So, having given several decades to local government, which I fundamentally believe to be a force for good, I care very much about making a mark in my professional field.  It is just not me to walk away and make my mark in some other domain.

Reducing the expanding universe

I know that I face real challenges with my chosen methodological approach – discourse analysis – in how I will make my research meaningful to my professional field.  Complicating things is that my field is wedded to positivist thinking, causal studies and quantitative analysis.  At its simplest, the basic ideas surrounding discourse analysis – language in use and the meanings we ascribe to it – isn’t difficult, but like many concepts, it is in their theoretical application where things can become opaque.

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At this stage of embarking on the thesis stage, I have what my supervisor cheerfully calls an ‘expanding universe’. I am reassured that this is normal for early stage doctoral students and one which, in time, will reduce to the admittedly tiny addition to knowledge which is feasible within the 4-5 year timeframe.  It is small comfort to learn that some academics spend many years framing their proposal and working out a method which will address their questions.

But what we prof docs have as our key advantage, is the knowledge of our professional fields. That deep cultural understanding is one which can only be gained through work experience.  Of course it also sets up our biases and ‘baggage’ but, provided we acknowledge this in stated limitations, it gives us a tremendous head start.  I will hold onto this thought as I pick up my literature review again and begin to structure my chapter headings for the 60,000 words which lie ahead of me!

Next:  Preparing for my first academic conference

A new life journey

Why Blog?

This blog is to help and inspire others who may be considering a life change like mine – to develop myself as an ‘academic practitioner’.

Why am I doing this doctorate, what is it like, how is it connecting with my professional life, and where is it taking me?  These and other questions exercise me all the time and reflecting on them is all part of the journey.

The blog isn’t meant to be a ‘how to’ guide for doctoral students. So it’s not about, for example, the mechanics of literature reviews – there’s plenty of material out there on that already.  But where relevant I will include my own tips for overcoming writer’s block, procrastination, reading and data overload, and all the other challenges which can affect the doctoral student.

Where am I now?

At the start of 2018 I am now two years into the course and about to embark on the Phase 2 doctoral thesis stage, with 25,000 words and a Professional Masters under my belt.   The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is a common pathway to a Professional Doctorate and the first stages are rather like an MBA in microcosym.  Once Masters is achieved after two years, it’s into the thesis stage which should be achieved in 2-3 years.

What is a Professional Doctorate?

But what is a Professional Doctorate?  Well, the ProfD is equivalent to a PhD but: it’s intended to be combined with work – therefore more rooted in professional practice; it’s more structured; involves more teaching and assessed assignments; and in this particular course, involves studying with a cohort of other scholars.  This last is a major attraction to many potential students – not least myself; I didn’t fancy the ‘loneliness of the long distance PhD student’ type scenario. The cohort learning approach is also of great research interest to universities because evidence indicates that the support of peers is nearly if not more important than the supervisory team.

Life changes from chance events

Why study for a Professional Doctorate?  At the stage I’d reached in my local government management career it was a pertinent question then in early 2015.  So often life changes emerge from chance events – in my case an informal conversation over a pre-conference dinner with an academic.  “I love doing research but not sure I want to be an academic” summarised my end whereupon he said quick as a flash, “what you want is a professional doctorate”.  What’s that?  Definitely my reaction –  as this route to a doctorate is still relatively unknown and unpractised – though growing steadily.  Some clueing up on the internet, a lot of thinking, and many conversations with husband, friends and my manager during 2015, and then – I was on my way to becoming a student third time round!

A chance too good to pass up

What I didn’t anticipate in early 2015 when the process began, was the seismic shifts that would affect my employer that year – severe budget cuts which resulted in encouragement to staff to take voluntary early release, enhanced packages, and the possibility of redundancies down the line.

Earlier reorganisation had already resulted in the break-up of my team and reduced my role to something akin to an internal consultant.  That creative and autonomous role was not without its benefits, I still loved the work, and was an expert in my field.  But, my head told me that a return to my previous managerial role was, realistically, just not going to happen.  It dawned on me that I could set up as a consultant, combine this with the part-time doctorate AND have more time for voluntary work and promoting causes I care about – in a freer environment; it seemed like a chance too good to pass up.

It wasn’t easy. I felt I was leaving my local government ‘family’, having worked there so long.  Moreover, being used to the security of employeeship, it also felt a little scary. But now, two years down the line, I am loving it and feel incredibly fulfilled, motivated and indeed privileged.

Top 6 reasons to study for a ProfD?

There are many reasons to study for a professional doctorate but if I had to settle on the top six for me, these would be my pick:

  1. Challenge and intellectual development
  2. Lending a sense of purpose and structure at a time of major life change
  3. Credibility in my professional and academic fields
  4. Leaving a legacy
  5. Developing new networks
  6. Broadening career options

What’s Next?

Presenting my research outline to peers and getting stuck into ever more reading, writing and data gathering – look out for future posts!

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