What do qualitative researchers do when they grow up?

I love my job. I never intended to become a ‘qualitative researcher’; I wanted to be a lawyer. My parents like to remind me that when I was little, I wanted to work in a fish and chip shop. When I was a bit older, I declared that I wanted to be a teacher, and if that wasn’t possible I’d be a school cleaner. Unless you consider it significant that, aged 7, I conducted a survey to pick the most popular names for our kittens, research was not even on my horizon, let alone my ambition. As planned I studied law but then decided not to train as a solicitor. When one of my lecturers advised me to apply for a bursary to do a PhD I decided to go for it. The PhD was – like for many people – a difficult time. It seemed to be more a test of endurance and tenacity than anything else, and I almost gave up. Looking back, I am so glad that I persevered: I cannot imagine doing anything else. After my PhD, I managed to get a postdoctoral position on a study of compulsory supervision for people with mental illness. To be honest, I was not particularly interested in mental health/illness, I was more interested in criminal justice. Nevertheless, I applied for and was offered the job. That post was the origin of my interest in coercion and mental health.

I feel very fortunate to have work that I enjoy, am passionate about and motivated by. My commitment is such that, until recently, I continued working as a contract researcher, purposely avoiding a lectureship. I still do research, but as a freelancer. Researchers on contracts are often asked: “What are you going to do next?” The underlying assumption is that contract researchers ‘grow-up’ to be lecturers or are simply getting research experience to gain entry to a course (e.g. clinical psychology training). My plan was and still is to keep on doing research. I saw friends and colleagues lured away by permanent contracts and the promise of career progression bogged down by teaching and admin, unable to do what they loved and had trained for.

For various reasons, I have always worked on other people’s projects. Research grants and fellowships have eluded me. So why continue at an apparent cost to my income, job security, career progression, and ‘name’ (i.e. fame)? There are two reasons. Firstly, I do research because I enjoy the process, because I think it’s important, because I am good at it and because it is the best fit for me. I recall being introduced to Michael Marmot by Mel Bartley (both dizzyingly successful career researchers) and how we all agreed that research is a vocation. The second reason is somewhat confessional: I am a data junkie. I cannot get enough qualitative data. My data, colleagues’ data, students’ data, any data: I love getting to grips with it, sorting it out, making sense of it, interpreting it, and helping other researchers do the same. Students and co-authors will testify to the unbounded enthusiasm I bring to looking over their data / analysis! It is this love of data that drives me from one project to the next and adds to the fulfilment I get from one-to-one supervision and running my ‘bring your own data’ analysis workshops. These workshops expose attendees who are perhaps overwhelmed or disappointed by their data and the challenges of doing qualitative data analysis to the potential in their data and what they can do with it. Discussing, interrogating and commenting on each others’ data and analysis gives them confidence in their data and their handling of it; defending their analysis and interpretations helps them develop a deeper understanding of what their data is telling them and the techniques to work through difficult patches when analysis seems to be going nowhere. Sharing experiences in the group helps attendees to see how common their doubts, difficulties and delays are and how qualitative researchers must learn to embrace uncertainty and enjoy the process. I believe that the process of doing qualitative research is fraught with frustration, repetition, ‘wrong’-turns, ‘wasted’ work and sometimes boredom, but this is the process you have to work through to get the end result. It took me time to understand and accept that. So, what do qualitative researchers do when they grow up? For me, it is not a question of growing out of qualitative research but growing into it.

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