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Posts Categorized / Methods

  • Jun 09 / 2016
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Anna Isaacs, Methods, PhD Experience

Fieldwork Reflections

Photo by Telco Kruidenier © 2005. Used with permission under the license of Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Photo by Telco Kruidenier © 2005. Used with permission under the license of Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/


By Anna Isaacs

Recently, during one of my PhD interviews, a participant discussed with me her reluctance to engage in preventive health screenings. Part way through the conversation she asked me if I had ever had a cervical smear test and, if so, how I had found it. I paused for a second and then replied that yes, I had, and while it might not have been in my top ten most enjoyable experiences, it was relatively quick and not unduly painful. “Oh”, she responded. “Well if you’ve had one, then maybe I will too….” Continue Reading

  • Jan 06 / 2016
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Methods, Tiago Zortea

Is it dangerous to ask or talk about suicide?

Photo by Charlie Foster ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.

By Tiago Zortea

This is an understandable concern. Suicide is a delicate issue since it involves suffering, emotional pain, and sometimes stigma for those who have lost loved ones through suicide or feel suicidal themselves [1]. In addition, there is a well-known phenomenon called the Werther effect” (or copycat suicide) where a person bases a suicide attempt on another suicide they have heard about (e.g., in the media). When it comes to asking someone whether they have suicidal thoughts, people might feel particularly reticent due to a concern that they will become responsible for that person if the answer is “yes”. These sorts of concerns can discourage people from talking and asking about suicide, and reinforce the idea that these conversations might, in themselves, increase the risk of inducing suicidal ideation and behaviour, especially if the conversation is with someone who is already depressed or psychologically distressed. Continue Reading

  • May 27 / 2015
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Anna Isaacs, Current Research, Methods

Is there a ‘cognitive dissonance’ in public health research and if so how can we address it?

Photo by Leroy Skalstad. © 2015. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Photo by Leroy Skalstad. © 2015. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

By Anna Isaacs

It has been seven years since the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health launched its report demonstrating categorically the profound impact of social and economic inequalities on health outcomes and declaring that “social injustice is killing people on a grand scale”.  The powerful effects of socioeconomic, structural and political influences over individual behaviours on our health are well known and well discussed. Yet, so often in public health research, we seem to park this knowledge at the door and continue working on behavioural health interventions that bring minimal, short-term benefits, if any at all. We may nod to the importance of culture, or socio-economic status, or even incorporate a socio-ecological perspective, but it is incredibly rare for such research to challenge, or even examine, the more fundamental factors that result in ill health. Continue Reading

  • Feb 11 / 2015
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Methods, Olivia Kirtley

So you want to go systematic? Three points to prevent you weeping into your keyboard

By Olivia Kirtley:

Conducting a systematic review has become somewhat of a rite of passage for PhD students.  Systematic reviews can sometimes get a bad press for being “boring” or “unwieldy”, but have the potential to provide critical insight into the state of an area of knowledge as we know it (or think we know it).  Often in the cold light of a systematic review, things that we thought were fact are revealed to be spurious.  Doing a systematic review is no mean feat however, from either a logistical or an academic perspective. Based on my own experiences of conducting a narrative systematic review, here are a few pointers to consider:

  • How many hits did I take again?

One of the most important things when conducting a systematic review is to be organised and keep copious detailed notes of every tiny little thing you have done.  And I really do mean everythingThis is a great excuse to go and buy yourself a nice new notebook or set up a shiny new Excel sheet to log everything you do.

Things you will want to keep notes on:

  • Your search terms (e.g. self-harm, suicid*)
  • The dates you conducted your database searches
  • Which databases you used, e.g. PsycINFO, Medline, PubMed
  • How many hits you got from each
  • The exact format in which you entered your search terms into each database (we’ll come back to this in a minute)

In addition to these notes, you should fill out (and include in your review) a PRISMA flow diagram.  PRISMA provides best-practice guidelines for conducting your review or meta-analysis, from producing an accurate, replicable search methodology, to what kind of things your review should cover.

Create an account within the databases you use, so that you can save your searches.  This will save you countless hours of trying to remember the exact format that you used to enter your search terms if your search times out or you end up having to update your review at some point.  Trust me on this! 🙂

You will also want to use some form of reference management software (e.g Endnote), so that you can transfer all of your search hits (not just the ones you think are relevant, that comes later!) to a place where they will not change, disappear or time-out if you get a phone call or start reading PhD Comics.

  • This is not a magnum opus.

You’ve read every single one of these X studies a hundred times and you know them inside out.  If someone asked you how many participants ate breakfast on the morning of the study in Bloggs et al (2014), you could tell them and also say how many sugars they each had in their coffee.  You want to show everyone that you know all of this information. Don’t.  This is a systematic review, not a magnum opus.  It is not supposed to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of details about each study, it is a finely curated set menu which only includes certain, relevant details that are specific to your research questions.

Leading onto the last point, which is…

  • This message could not be delivered…

Systematic reviews are usually longer than other types of papers, but this does not issue you with an automatic licence to bore the socks off people or for lazy (or even zero) editing.  Just as you would do with an empirical article, always ensure you trim the fat; keep the paper as lean as possible and make sure that your take home messages come through loud and clear.  Your systematic review should not be a 50 page list or read like a bibliography.  Even though you are looking at previous work, the insights and conclusions you arrive at should be new, interesting and move the area forward.  This type of paper is about synthesis, not repetition.

As that great orator, Dr Kelso, once said “nothing in this world worth having comes easy”.  Doing a systematic review can be tough, but you will get there!  It is a great learning process and a fantastic opportunity to develop detailed expertise in your area.  Who knows?  Maybe your new insights could provide the platform for a quantum leap in your field!

Do you have any top tips for conducting systematic reviews? We’d love to hear them in the comments or on our Twitter feed @IHAWKES1.

  • Jan 28 / 2015
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Arlene McGarty, Methods

A good thesis is a finished thesis!

By Arlene McGarty:

I bring you my first IHAWKES blog from the “preparing to write up” phase of my PhD. And boy, what a nice phase it is. It’s that point in a PhD when all the research has been conducted, the stresses of recruitment and data collection are a distant memory, that never-ending analysis did in fact end, yet the dreaded “writing up” phase has not fully begun. It’s a very welcomed, albeit short, period of calm in an otherwise hectic process. So, in a bid to prolong the serenity a little longer, I’ve put together 5 top tips which I’ve found particularly helpful as I prepare to write up.

1. The writing should have started a long time ago

You’ve probably heard this from day one of your PhD, from everyone that has ever done a PhD. And I’m sorry to jump on the bandwagon, but they’re right – writing as you go makes a huge difference. It’s not a case of starting chapter one on day one, but simple things, such as taking notes whilst reading or drafting method sections when data collection procedures are still fresh in your mind, will prove extremely useful as you prepare to write up.

2. Plan ahead

It’s important to develop a general plan for your thesis and think about how it will be structured, what your chapters will be, and to familiarise yourself with your Institute/College thesis guidelines. This initial plan will give a structure to what you’re writing and soon you will start to see how different elements of your thesis fit together. As you prepare to write up, a plan of each chapter – detailing the information to be included within each section and subsection – will keep your writing focused and will let you view your thesis as many small, achievable sections of writing, rather than a single, daunting piece of work.

3. Set deadlines

Deadlines are an important aspect of keeping the writing process on track…and I love them! If it were not for deadlines, I’d still be aimlessly trawling through BMJ Christmas issues and watching Still Game best bits on YouTube. When it comes to writing up, working towards a thesis submission deadline that is months away is unrealistic and more than a little demotivating. Set short-term deadlines with yourself for sections of a chapter and plan deadlines with your supervisor/s for sending them completed chapters. If you struggle with keeping deadlines you set for yourself, get a friend involved who can encourage you to stick to it.

4. Make use of other people and resources

Even though writing a thesis is a very individual piece of work, there are still plenty of people and resources to support and guide you through it. Within the University, there are numerous classes to help you develop the skills required for writing up. There are also books and endless online resources covering writing strategies and techniques; however, top tip 4.1, make sure that reading about writing doesn’t distract you too much from actually writing! Then there are the people around you – fellow PhD students, staff, and supervisors will have a wealth of do’s and don’ts when it comes to writing. Remember, however, that everyone is different, so find a writing routine that works for you.

5. Look after yourself

As the end becomes nearer, there’s a feeling that the more you work the sooner you’ll be finished, which makes non-stop writing seem oddly tempting. However, the most important part of writing up is you, so if you’re not in good health your thesis will suffer. It’s important to get away from writing now and again, so don’t forget to keep active, socialise, and relax.

Finally, as I reflect on my top tips, I find myself questioning the validity of my opening comment – am I really in the “preparing to write up” phase? Maybe this is not a standalone phase but a continual and gradual process over the course of a PhD, as the skills and information required to write a thesis are accumulated and honed over time. As thesis writing goes, those little things you do throughout your PhD – going to classes, writing here and there – are the things your future self will greatly appreciate. And when you put all these little things together, the prospect of writing a thesis will not feel like the overwhelming task that it once did.

  • Sep 24 / 2014
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Katie Gallacher, Methods

Building Bridges in Qualitative Research

By Katie Gallacher:

The late John Donne famously said “No man is an island”. However can we say the same of our research projects? In relation to quantitative research, we probably can. Systematic review has become the “gold standard” method of research used to inform national policies and guidelines. This is widely accepted as a method of synthesis for quantitative research, but finding an equivalent for qualitative studies has been more controversial. As part of my PhD, I have endeavoured to carry out a systematic review of qualitative studies, fully aware there is still widespread debate about whether this is an appropriate or worthwhile task (and I certainly found it no mean feat!).  

Renowned qualitative researchers Glaser and Strauss warned in their early work that the continued failure to link local grounded theories into larger formal theories would relegate the findings of individual studies to “little islands of knowledge” which may never be utilised if kept in separation. So should we start to build bridges between these islands in order to encourage policy makers to use qualitative research in their decision making?  Would this help us ‘keep up’ with our quantitative neighbours? Or does the synthesis of qualitative work simply destroy the underlying principles of this type of research? Any thoughts on this by readers would be greatly appreciated!

In a nutshell, quantitative research is generally associated with a realist positivist stance, which assumes that knowledge is objective and true and accessible through what can be observed.  This is the customary stance taken by those carrying out a systematic review, the typical purpose of which is to summarise the findings of available studies to estimate the ‘true’ answer to a particular research question. Qualitative work has strong links with interpretivism rather than positivism. This assumes that there are multiple realities, and that knowledge is a socially produced construct, making truly interpretivist approaches deeply cynical of any one coherent theory as a singular explanation of phenomena. As you can imagine, holding this viewpoint makes the synthesis of studies challenging, as if there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered, only a collection of different stories that all have their own truths, then synthesis would be pointless and would destroy the integrity of individual projects. Sandelowski eloquently states “Just as it goes against the nature of poetry to attempt to summarize even one poem about love, so it seems both epistemologically and ethically inappropriate to attempt to summarize findings from one or more qualitative studies about human experiences of health and illness”.

I hold the opinion, similar to others before me, that by synthesising qualitative studies, it is possible to generate more powerful theory, and that by not doing so we risk isolation from policy makers and clinicians. I am an academic GP carrying out a PhD which examines the experiences of those who have had a stroke, and I believe that the synthesis of qualitative research can add to our knowledge of how individuals experience healthcare, and how we can improve their interactions with healthcare providers. I understand that not all patients have the same experience, and that caution should be exerted when making generalisations. But with enough knowledge about the sample being researched, and with enough transparency in reporting by qualitative researchers, I believe that synthesis is possible, and in fact, important. So, I guess my stance is that of a ‘modified’ or ‘critical’ realist, with sensitivity to the heterogeneous nature of the studies involved, and with the appreciation that what I seek to understand is a variety of representations of the reality of living with stroke. Are there any other modified realists out there? Or indeed any realists or interpretivists who would like to challenge my viewpoint?

Even for those who feel that synthesis is possible, the best method remains under debate, with a plethora of choices available. This could be viewed as inspiring or infuriating, either way it is certainly a demonstration of how popular this type of research is becoming. As is the case with all good research, the correct method is no doubt heavily reliant on the individual research question and underlying assumptions. One thing is for certain: the increasing numbers of qualitative studies and their use in informing health policy has undoubtedly led to a demand for the appraisal and synthesis of this type of research, and this has to be a good thing. So let’s continue to build bridges!

  • Aug 13 / 2014
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David Blane, Methods

Putting the tea into theory-driven research

Image by Mark Mags. © 2016. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Image by Mark Mags. © 2016. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

By David Blane

As early career health researchers, we IHAWKES have some familiarity with theory, whether it’s a theory of behaviour change from psychology or a grand theory like Marxism or feminism from sociology. I would suggest, however, that when it comes to applying theory to our research, many novice researchers (myself included) are a little less confident. What theory should we use? How do we apply it? Can we generate our own theory? Continue Reading

  • Jul 16 / 2014
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Matt Jamieson, Methods

Some opinions about cross-departmental collaboration

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla. © 2013. © CC0 License via Unsplash.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla. © 2013. © CC0 License via Unsplash.

By Matt Jamieson

At last month’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing student led conference (IHAWC), Professor Lawrence Moore talked about multi-disciplinary collaboration.  As a cross-discipline PhD student with supervisors in computing science and psychology, I could relate to the themes of the talk, e.g. the advantages of broadening the scope of your research and adapting to working in different academic cultures.  I’ll try to add to these with a few observations of my own. Continue Reading

  • Jul 02 / 2014
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Anna Isaacs, Methods

PhD research with marginalised communities: a few questions about ethics…

Photo by Alexandra. © 2015. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Photo by Alexandra. © 2015. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

By Anna Isaacs

In my distant pre-PhD life, I spent a considerable amount of time each week volunteering with migrant and refugee organizations. In fact, the improvement of migrant and refugee health, and more broadly the reduction of health inequalities have long been my primary ‘vocational’ goals. To me, doing a PhD is a logical extension of these interests, a way that I can best develop my particular skills to meet these ends, albeit in the setting of academia rather than a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Continue Reading