Most people know that doing a PhD will lead to gaining the title of Dr, but most people don’t actually know what a PhD student does day to day, year to year. This blog just identifies my own journey through a PhD and how I learned what it means to do a PhD along the way.
How did I get onto a PhD?
In order to get onto the PhD I made an application through sending a cover letter, my CV and also my qualifications to the University, having seen a recruitment advert for the PhD on twitter. I was invited to a 25-minute interview with a panel of 5 including 3 of my current supervisors, an academic and a service user. The PhD topic was in the field of psychology and developing the evidence base for service user involvement work in clinical psychology training. The panel told me they would each ask a question and so I knew I had 5 minutes to answer each. This blog details my PhD interview experience.
What is this blog about?
This current blog is about my experiences of making sense of the PhD and what I did once on the PhD. The blog details the sense making of year 1 of the PhD and then is grouped into my empirical studies that I conducted continuously from year 1 through to year 4 of the PhD.
The first year of the PhD I was following the wave of optimism and positivity, having been successful at interview for the PhD. This helped curb any initial challenges that the PhD would bring for some of my journey. Now that I had actually got onto the PhD, what did I do now? The PhD was something I had applied to do, that already had a pre-created research proposal linked to the grant application that my supervisors had previously applied for. Although on the first day when meeting with the supervisory team I realised there was a lot of flexibility and we were all keen to shape the research area together that meant we could take it in a different direction, as long as we kept to the initial context of service user involvement and mental health training.
This meant that I needed to do some wider research on the subject area and psychological theories that might be applicable to understanding the subject I wanted to explore better.
The first 3-4 months involved a lot of reading journal articles on the subject, thinking about research questions that we might want to answer and my own experiences of being a service user and how this insight might lead to understanding others with similar experiences.
After a lot of reading and discussing what interested me, we decided that we would seek to understand the identities within the field of clinical psychology training as I was an expert by experience for a clinical psychology course, and my supervisors clinical psychologists or research psychologists within clinical psychology training, meaning we each were already experts in the field.
My interests have long spanned social psychology and clinical psychology, with me scoring highest on these modules in my undergraduate degree. Therefore it seemed perfect that the PhD would combine these different fields. I came up with a research proposal and ideas for empirical studies that were structured around social identity theory. These were progressed and developed along the PhD journey as my understanding of identity progressed and an understanding of the direction of the research. This progression will be detailed in this blog so you can see how through the process of the PhD and its direction changes and moves forward. This led to the process of designing, conducting and analysing research across the process of year 1 to 4.
Being an independent researcher whilst also working collaboratively
The process of the PhD meant I became an effective independent researcher and directed and led the research work but also learned to work with others in the team, to collaboratively create a PhD that was important and novel. Through the process of the PhD I realised it was a collaborative process and that it is a general requirement that supervisors have the opportunity to review and help refine written chapters, which is something that differs from undergraduate and masters work. This is something I needed to get used to as receiving feedback and edits to your work can feel defeating, and you might feel like your work is not good enough. However, you have a supervisory team in the PhD for a reason, in order to support and challenge you to produce the best work you can. The PhD is usually a collective group effort, which is why you experience group work in undergraduate assignments prior to your PhD. However group work in the PhD can be challenging because your supervisors are not just committed to your work, but they also have full time jobs and other research and PhD students and doctoral students they are supervising. It requires a balance of support from supervisors, independent working and also proactively chasing up supervisors and giving them deadlines you expect them to feedback on your work by, so they can prioritise your work.
My PhD: An exploration of emerging identities within mental health, education and research
I will now talk about the different areas of my research that were conducted across the entirety of the PhD, through first learning about the process and then becoming more expert in the field through conducting the research and through learning from the experiences of participants through the data. I went from making observations of myself and moving from service user to expert by experience, to moving beyond the self and a motivation to see whether those same observations occurred in the real world and other people.
Year 1 – 4
Study 1. A systematic and narrative review: Understanding the identity of lived experience researchers and providers
The first step in the PhD was to conduct a systematic review of the literature to understand what studies had already been done in the area in order to understand how my PhD could identify a novel contribution to the literature. The area of service user involvement has many different ways it is referred to such as expert by experience, patient and public involvement, consumer involvement, user involvement, survivor involvement, peer work, etc. and this led to a challenge in capturing the population through a diverse set of search terms. Another challenge was to also identify a research question for the systematic review that had not already been done, as well as a research that had already been done so there was enough research in the area to be included within a systematic review.
The first year was overwhelming trying to do this, and I felt as though I hadn’t achieved that much – but doing a review is a process and all the reading and understanding of the nature of the literature in my field meant that this would help me when I was ready to do the review. I was also reading up on different methodologies to do systematic narrative reviews and figuring out what methodology I would apply in my own. I also helped undertake another PhD student’s systematic review that supported me in learning how to do my own.
It’s been a process – I didn’t do and finish my review until my final year of the PhD. However, the process of learning throughout the PhD meant I was able to do it effectively when I was ready. This chapter is also one of the best in my PhD where I come up with a novel conceptual framework to understand the identities of lived experience researchers and providers through the EMERGES framework acronym, identifying Empowerment, Motivation, Empathy of the self and others, Recovery model and medical model, Growth and transformation, Exclusion and Survivor roots as themes related to identity development in lived experience researchers and providers. It involved group work again, and a multidisciplinary team of lived experience researchers and providers, academic psychologists and clinical academic psychologists. The pre-print of the review can be found here: https://psyarxiv.com/gjh2c/
Year 1 – 4
Study 2. A Social Construction of Identities in UK Clinical Psychology Training
My second study in my PhD involved understanding how groups in clinical psychology training (experts by experience, expert carers, trainee psychologist and experts by qualification) constructed their identities. This was influenced through the first stage of social identity theory, self-categorisation. The idea was that through focus groups we could recreate the social groups of individuals within clinical psychology training to effectively be able to observe their identities.
By the end of my first year I had applied for ethical approval and attended a University ethics committee review to ensure the research did no harm to participants. A semi structured interviewing schedule was developed with key stakeholders and the supervisory team. I read about how to conduct focus groups and by the end of my second year I had conducted four focus groups with a total sample of 26 participants taking part, of which 8 were trainee psychologists, 7 experts by experience, 7 expert carers and 4 experts by qualification. Some of the focus groups were also moved to being held online due to the context of COVID-19 and a global pandemic.
This piece of research was analysed through social constructionist and critical realist epistemology thematic analysis. The analysis process had been identified prior to the conduct of the focus groups in order to ensure the analysis fit with the type of dataset we would have and what it was compatible with. Thematic analysis does not impose a particular type of approach for analysis and so we could be flexible with what we used that was relevant. As a research team we decided that social constructionism would be appropriate in understanding how identity is constructed that can be understood through the language and interactions between members within the focus groups. I spent some time reading on thematic analysis and social constructionism. This supported in coding the data through this lens. I began by immersing myself in the datasets, through reading and listening to the focus groups. This then led to coding meaningful segments of the data and then developing themes and sub themes, and these were evaluated with the supervisory team before being labelled. This has been written up into an empirical study and currently needs to be reviewed and amended based on supervisory feedback.
The themes found that identities can be understood through multiple identities of personal and professional identities that are sometimes actively separated to reduce burden of lived experience. Sometimes they are integrated to be authentic and for disclosure and sometimes they permeate each other without realising. These identities can also be visible and invisible. There were also learner and expert identities in each social group. There were motivations to rebalance the power between groups within clinical psychology training. It was also found that these different social groups had them and us divisions between them, motivating groups to want to connect and reduce barriers so that groups within clinical psychology training could work together more effectively.
What I have realised about qualitative research is that analysis and interpretation of the data can be subjective but having an expertise into the field through my expert by experience role and my supervisors being experts in clinical psychology training helped with identifying themes relevant to the field. Through reflective and reflexivity on my position in relation to the data reduced the subjectivity of the interpretation of the data.The qualitative process is also an iterative process that requires multiple rounds of feedback from supervisors in order for the study to be written in a way that can be understood by others outside of the field. This requires developing your writing to have clarity so you are able to tell a logical story that can be understood by all. This study will be written up for publication too.
Year 2 – 4
Study 3. How do trainee psychologists identify with their trainers? Developing a reliable and valid measure of identification in clinical psychology training.
Following application and acceptance of ethical approval from the university, this study was conducted to develop an in-group identification measure to understand how trainee psychologists identify with their trainers (experts by experience, expert carers, trainee psychologists and experts by qualification) through affective and cognitive processes. This study is my quantitative chapter and explores the second stage within social identity theory, social identification, that is responsible for identity formation. In this study we created an in-group identification measure for the context of clinical psychology training.
The idea of the study came from a reflection that trainee’s whose mental health was important to their identity would identify more with experts by experience (people who teach trainee psychologists from their lived experiences), which was though would facilitate their learning and positively influence common factors in their clinical skills.
The measures adopted for use incorporated cognitive and affective processes of identification and separate mental health and professional measures of identity. These different psychometrics were administered to a sample of 108 trainee psychologists to see how they identify with experts by experience, expert carers, trainee psychologists and experts by qualification. It was found that even though the psychometric was a two-factor measure of identification covering affective and cognitive processes, we also found a third factor encompassing the idea of an evaluative type of identification. This evaluative factor meant that when trainees identified with their trainers they felt negatively affected when their trainers were criticised or negatively affected in their roles.
We also found that trainees identified cognitively with trainees and experts by qualification, as that was their predominant aspired identity and identified less with experts by experience and expert carers. This may have been because there was less prevalence of mental health identities and carers within the trainee population.
The research involved an exploratory factor analysis that I knew how to do due to my MSc. However it also involved a confirmatory factor analysis that I self-taught myself how to do through reading research and also identifying training videos on youtube. This study has been written up and drafts are currently being reviewed by supervisors and amended by myself prior to submitting to a journal.
Year 3 – 4
Study 4. Developing a supervisory guide for lived experience researchers and providers
Study 4 is the final study in my PhD that I also applied and received ethical approval for. The learning from across each study conducted in the PhD such as the EMERGES framework from the systematic review, findings from the focus group and also in-group measure and survey, helped identify the broad range of issues that lived experience researchers and providers have to navigate relating to their identity.
This study brought these themes together and asked lived experience researchers and providers, a sample of 19, to place 54 identified themes on a grid based on their usefulness to them as topics to explore in supervision. The research took a Q sort methodological approach that identifies the subjective responses of participants. At present I have collected all the data and still need to do the analysis of the research.
The analysis is a mixed methods approach that brings together demographic, contextual survey and Q sort data to understand their responses and a type of factor analysis specific to Q methodology. The factors identified will be profiles of particular types of lived experience researchers and providers that group similar themes together. Through identifying profiles of these different lived experience researchers and providers will enable us to understand unique subjective needs for supervision as lived experience researchers and providers. The research has involved researching and understanding the methodology, recruiting participants and now requires me to analyse the data and write up the study for feedback from supervisors and amend prior to submission to a journal for publication.
Year 1- 4
Theoretical basis of identity chapter
The application of the theoretical basis of identity has informed the design and interpretation of the research. It was therefore important to have a theoretical chapter of the identity theoretical basis including social identity theory, identity theory, intersectionality and liminality. However, through an understanding of the theory meant that identities of those in clinical psychology training and lived experience researchers and providers needed further clarity and exploration, justifying a focus and rationale for this PhD. It was important to have an understanding of the theoretical evidence base from the beginning, but which I learned more about across the four years.
A history of service user involvement
I also have a chapter that provides a historic timeline of service user involvement that details the treatment of service users from being shackled in Bedlam and having no power and being actively oppressed and coerced in the past to now being active participants in decision making regarding their healthcare and contexts where they are experts by experience where they have the power to shape training of healthcare professionals, research and policy, consequently transforming their identities. This therefore means there is a requirement to understand how this change in their roles affects their identity providing a rationale for this PhD.
There are multiple additional challenges the PhD student might go through such as imposter syndrome that typically affects PhD students from minority backgrounds. The idea of doing a PhD also puts a lot of psychological pressure on the student and the expectations of them from themselves and others. The PhD in Psychology is also often a research endeavour that is unique to the individual, and in my case I didn’t belong to a lab group, and so it is difficult to develop a support network. The context of COVID-19 also means the PhD student is further isolated from support from their university. Mental health is also significantly worse in graduate PhD students. Therefore, even though there are work pressures these other additional challenges the PhD student might face makes the process of doing a PhD even harder. Whilst it is acknowledged the first year can be empowering and enabling, the second and third year are usually filled with imposter syndrome and the valley of shit (the idea that there is a lot to get through with insurmountable challenges along the way) to the fourth or final year that is pure adrenaline and requires productivity. Therefore the nuance of a PhD journey can generally only be understood by those doing a PhD or recent PhD graduates. Supervisors who may have done a PhD may to some extent have moved past and forgotten these experiences so understanding can only really come from peers.
Summary and conclusions
This is a blog that identifies the process of doing a PhD through a reflection of my own experiences and activities in conducting my PhD. Hoping it gives some insight into the research process and what is required of a PhD student, particularly in the context of Psychology. The challenges include identifying a novel research question, developing novel ways to measure the answer. It also requires a balance of working independently and collaboratively.
Only through the process of conducting a PhD and going through it, do you find out what it means to do a PhD. This means that support can be found through those who are also PhD students and others that may be researching or working in your field of interest. It is generally expected that those outside of a PhD context or academia do not understand the pressures on the PhD student or the day to day, year to year challenges a PhD student goes through. This blog might go some way in supporting others to know what it means to do a PhD, using my personal experiences as a PhD student, as a case example, to learn from.