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Planning for uncertainty

Planning for uncertainty

Planning for uncertainty may seem contradictory but it is the strange circumstance that we find ourselves in when conducting research amidst a pandemic. Although we all have unique projects with their own lovable and sometimes frustrating characteristics, we have come up with a six tips that may be applicable across diverse research contexts. These tips came from a great discussion (more like a supportive therapy session) between PhD students and staff in the Department, in which we shared our own plans, aired our concerns and offered guidance.

1. There is no such thing as being 'stuck'.

It is in the nature of research that even the best-laid plans encounter obstacles , some of which make us feel like we can't proceed. Yet, one of the (many) joys of research is the limitless creative ways to meet our research aims -be that changing method to re-framing our questions. Trying to view these obstacles instead as opportunities can make the world of difference to your mindset as you continue to work.

2. Find others in the same boat.

To help fully explore your options , finding people researching similar topics, in a similar region, and/or using similar methods could be a great way to get support and bounce off ideas. You don't have to do this alone. This could be through contacts in your Department, your own personal contacts or friends and family you know. The academic world is surprisingly small and there is likely to be someone out there thinking along similar lines.

3. Timeline of research.

Thinking about different timelines for your data collection could be useful to ensure you get the data you would like. For PhD students, the classic linear model of a first year literature review, second year data collection and third year write-up may no longer be useful in the circumstances. Could your data collection and write-up be intermingled? Or alternatively, instead of having three PhD chapters based on your own empirical work, could you identify secondary datasets to analyse remotely to form one chapter as you wait for travel to open up again? Think about how you can make the most of the limited timeline of your PhD work, whilst still meeting your research aims.

Check out the Table below for an idea about how can conceptualise the different options available to you as you try to answer your research questions.

Scenario

Description

Research Questions

1

2

3

A

Travel restrictions eased by 2021 and fieldwork possible.

Secondary data-based

4 months from August 2020

Primary data collection

4-6 months from January 2021

Primary data collection

4-6 months from January 2021

B

Travel restrictions extended into 2021, but fieldwork possible within local area.

Secondary data-based

4 months from August 2020

Primary data-based using local researchers

4 months from January 2021

Primary data collection

2 months from April 2021

C

Travel restrictions extended beyond PhD time-frame, but local fieldwork possible.

Secondary data-based

4 months from August 2020

Primary data-based using local researchers

6 months from January 2021

Primary data-based using local researchers

6 months from January 2021

D

Travel restrictions extended beyond PhD time-frame. Local fieldwork not possible.

Secondary data-based

4 months from August 2020

Secondary data-based

3 months from January 2021. Revise question.

Secondary data-based

3 months from April 2021. Revise question.

4. Time and skills needed to change methods.

In this blog series , we aim to explore innovative research methods that can be used to collect data ex situ, including phone surveys, working with local researchers, and switching to secondary data. Exploring new methods can be time-consuming and require new skills, both which are important to plan time for your scenarios. For example, if you switch to using local researchers, how long will it take to identify these people and train them effectively before data collection can take place? If you switch to using secondary data, it takes time to identify what data is easily accessible, and to decide how you will subsequently analyse it. You may even need to revise and improve your own research skills to do these things These are important considerations which may impact on when you decide to move from one scenario plan to the next.

5. Using your funds in different ways.

If you are no longer able to conduct research face-to-face, the costs that would have been required for that format could be used to explore avenues you might have thought were not possible.

6. Be realistic.

We can't plan for every possible situation that we might come across in our research - so don't get bogged down too much on the 'what ifs'. Scenario planning is a useful platform for discussion between you and those involved in your research, from supervisors to participants. Most of all, it can help you feel a bit more prepared and certain going forward in your research . Even if things turn out completely differently, practicing scenario planning is a useful skill and can help you adapt more quickly quicker in future situations as they arise.

If you have any more tips you would like to share please get in touch. Look out for our next blog posts coming soon on ICT survey design, working with local researchers and doing archival work at a distance.