Adapting PhD research during the Covid-19 pandemic

5 minute read

Guest author: Caitlin Hafferty (@CaitlinHafferty), PhD researcher at the Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire, UK. Please note, this post was initially published on the author’s own blog, https://caitlinhafferty.blogspot.com.

The pandemic has had a substantial impact on the work of PhD researchers and research staff. As a UK-based PhD student (within geography/planning) who was about to start collecting data when the pandemic started, my own research has had to be almost entirely reconsidered.

In this post, I share some of my experiences from the process of adapting my PhD research. On one hand, this has been very challenging, but on the other has offered new and exciting opportunities. This post has been partly inspired by a Q&A I participated in recently during a great ‘Virtual Data Collection’ event with LiQUiD Lab (@LiQUiDLab), and follows some of the questions I was asked about how I adapted my PhD data collection from in-person to online methods. Hopefully sharing this willl be useful to others who might be in the same situation!

With regards to the impact of the pandemic on doctoral research more broadly in the UK (including the impact of lack of funded extensions on PhD researchers), you can find out more by following @PandemicPGRs on Twitter. They also have a very informative website: https://linktr.ee/PandemicPGR.

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

What issues did you encounter during the pandemic and how did you respond?

At the start of the UK lockdown in March, I was in the middle of collecting data for my PhD. 

For context, my ‘original’ project aimed to build a toolkit for planners and local authorities to engage members of the public and stakeholders in planning and environmental decisions. I’d planned fieldwork throughout Spring/Summer 2020 which consisted of in-person qualitative methods for collecting data, including interviews and focus groups. One of the main methods I’d planned to use was “mobile interviews” (based on some work I’d done for my MSc), which involved walking with participants around an area of interest and mapping the conversation using GPS-tracking, audio recordings, and photographs. 

My fieldwork also involved quite a bit of travelling for meetings and site visits, also working closely with local authorities (e.g. councils) and community groups. This was all based around Gloucestershire (a county in South West England), so I had moved from Cardiff to Cheltenham in early 2020 to get started. 

It quickly became clear that I’d be unable to continue my research as planned. Under UK lockdown restrictions, it was not possible (or ethical) to conduct face-to-face methods for data collection with potentially vulnerable community groups. Public bodies and other organisations I was working with were also focusing on tackling new challenges and emergency Covid-19 relief. 

I made the decision to adapt my PhD quite early on (around April/May), not only because my original project was no longer feasible but because I wanted to do something which had the potential to be useful to those impacted by the pandemic (e.g. the groups and communities I had worked with). I discussed my concerns with my supervisors, who were (and continue to be) incredibly supportive of me and the new research direction of my PhD. However, this was not straightforward – these were all very unexpected, significant changes and it took a considerable amount of time to re-orient my work during an unpredictable and high-pressure period!

How did you navigate adapting your PhD fieldwork, particularly moving planned in-person methods online?

Re-orienting my fieldwork involved adapting some of the core aspects of my PhD. This included making relevant changes to the central aim, objectives, research questions, methods for collecting data, research participants, and case study areas. In addition, I had to re-submit two essential forms to enable me to carry out my research. These were a ‘project approval form’ (detailing and justifying my planned research) and ethical approval (i.e. showing that my research was compliant with the ethics and GDPR requirements of my institution and funding body). 

I’ve written about some of the ethical challenges I overcame during my PhD in this blog post, particularly with regards to my use of online interviews and automated transcription software applications. 

Importantly, I decided to use only online and remote methods for data collection for the entirety of my PhD – an online survey, online interviews (via Zoom and similar), and potential online focus groups. This involved thinking about new ethical and technical considerations (including what might be lost, or gained, by conducting remote/online interviews instead of face-to-face) and reading  about new theory, methods, and approaches. In October, I published a blog post (and infographic) on the merits and considerations of online and offline methods (and the importance of a ‘blended’ approach) within a planning and public engagement setting – however this also has some relevance for research! You can hear more in this Podcast with Bang The Table, where we discuss my research and the challenges of moving in-person engagement online.

Infographic on some merits and considerations for online engagement (source: Caitlin Hafferty for Commonplace).

Other changes to my PhD included shelving work and writing I’d completed for my original project (this was very hard to do!), however I did try to retain as much as I could in my new plans.

What advice would you give to other PhD students who might encounter similar changes and adaptations?

It’s been incredibly challenging, but in hindsight I’m glad I took the plunge and adapted my project. Of course, everyone will have differerent experiences depending on the nature of their project and the context in which they are carrying it out (I’ve been in a privilaged position in many ways, for example I do not have any caring responsibilities at home).

I’d recommend to anyone exploring online research methods to read around digital ethics literature. This is vast area of research, so it’s worthwhile focusing on your discipline and/or the methods you are adapting (e.g. the ethics of moving interviews online). For example, the SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods is a great place to start, as well as this book by Christine Hine on Virtual Methods and Doing Qualitative Research Online by Janet Salmons. If you’re a geographer or social scientist, reading up on digital geographies is really interesting – e.g. this book by James Ash and Rob Kitchin. There are also lots of journal articles on adapting specific methods, e.g. online interviews – for example these articles in Area and the International Journal of Social Research Methodology.

When shifting methods online, it’s also important to think about the context in which you are using it – remembering that technology is not always ‘used for good’ and can increase social injustices. To quote this fantastic article by Tracey Gyateng:

“And it is because these inequalities exist, [we need to] understand the context & environment in which technology will be deployed, and work with the people who are most likely to be affected…

Have an understanding of the social, historical & political environment in which you are working. This requires you to do research, and actively include groups that hold less power in society.”.

As I mentioned, adapting my work has been exciting in many ways. This has included encountering new areas of research and engaging with a variety of different groups of people. For example, like my PhD the pandemic has had a significant impact on groups and individuals working within my research field (planning, policy, and the environment). Practitioners and policy makers have had to rapidly adapt their work and project strategies, involving picking up new methods and developing technical skills. My new PhD project researches within this area and has been adapted in a similar way, so I’m excited about the potential contributions of my research to knowledge and best practice.

Impact, engagement, and outreach have become central to my PhD (you can find out more here). I’m now more aware of, and my work is more focused on, the practical benefits and utility of my research output rather than purely academic debates (however, these are still very important!). This also inspired me to start a blog, which has turned out to be a great way for me to reflect on my PhD journey and share my experiences with others. 

Thanks for reading, and I hope that this post is useful to other researchers who might be in a similar position. Perhaps most importantly, reach out and connect with others and share your experiences – we are all in this together! 🙂

About the author

Caitlin Hafferty is a PhD student in environmental planning at the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI). Her research is fully funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and looks at the use of information, communication, and collaboration technologies in the planning and environment sector. Specifically, she is interested in how organisations (including planning and public bodies) engage the public and other stakeholders with environmental, planning, and policy decisions. She is an active member of the Participatory Geographies Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), and has been involved with a variety of different events and activities. You can find out more here.

Get in touch: caitlinhafferty@connect.glos.ac.uk (email); @CaitlinHafferty (Twitter); https://caitlinhafferty.blogspot.com/ (website and blog).

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1 Response to Adapting PhD research during the Covid-19 pandemic

  1. Pingback: The YA blog in 2020 | AESOP Young Academics

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