Fearless in Fieldwork

meadows pic

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.


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.



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.


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.

leeds three legs crop

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.


path by the loch. kinlochleven mar18

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

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!


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.

IRSPM books

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)