Post 1. Reflections on the novice research of a PhD student (circa 2002). What’s its worth?

Yesterday I was tagged on Twitter by Dr Ashley Casey from Loughborough University (@DrAshCasey). As part of his excellent PEPRN blog post series he’d written a commentary of paper of mine that was published in 2002, entitled ‘The contribution of secondary school physical education to lifetime physical activity’. The paper was actually my first PhD study and was based on a mailshot survey of secondary school Heads of PE in northwest England. The general gist was that PE curricular and extra-curricular provision were based predominantly on traditional team games, which didn’t reflect post-school adult physical activity preferences. As such, the paper questioned the post-school ‘carry-over’ potential of secondary school PE and physical activity provision.

I really enjoyed Ashley’s synopsis of the paper and the questions he raised prompted me to wonder to what extent things have changed since the early 2000s. For a brief moment, the thought of repeating the study almost 20 years later popped into my head, until it got lost among the multitude of other projects, tasks, and other stuff buzzing around in there. I did though think about the paper and with the benefit of a few years experience and a more critical eye, I started to identify the holes in the research. The vague sampling strategy, the modest and likely under-powered sample size, lack of questionnaire validation, sources of bias in the data collection, etc sprang to mind.

Hell, I thought, do I really want people going back and reading this stuff?

But then I remembered the time and context of the study. At the time I myself had been a secondary school PE teacher so understood the issues raised in the paper from a practitioner perspective. The limitations of my paper from a research standpoint reflected my stage of development as a novice researcher, studying part-time while in my first lecturing post (I’ll put the ‘sympathy’ violin away now….). While it had obvious flaws, the paper did raise some key issues that provoked discussion, and by virtue of Ashley revisiting the article in 2018, I guess those issues remain topical, albeit within a quite different PE and school sport landscape. On closer inspection, I noticed that the paper had in fact been downloaded 877 times and cited 184 times (Google Scholar), suggesting that it was indeed of interest to one or two people (even if some will have critiqued it and ripped it to shreds)!

So, I relaxed my critical eye and thought it would timely to write this post for the benefit of current PhD students and early career researchers who feel the pressure and demand to publish their work, but who may question its value and contribution in what can be a very competitive and unforgiving environment (i.e., peer-reviewed academic research publishing).

Some thoughts for novice researchers…

There is context for every paper which relates to the topic under consideration, methods at the researcher’s disposal, as well of course to the researcher’s experience, stage of development, and level of support available to them. While citation metrics inevitably don’t account for these factors, it’s important not to be driven by these, as they are largely out of our hands as researchers (we can only do so much to disseminate and share our papers, without forcing people to read and cite them). In my opinion, it’s more important for novice researchers to focus on taking the time to plan, undertake, and write the best quality research you can at that point in your stage of development, taking advantage of the input and advice of critical friends and colleagues that you know can help (these are not necessarily always the most experienced colleagues either). Anyone who does research undertakes a journey which has many bumps in the road, but which with a bit of luck the journey will bring improved knowledge, understanding, skills, and academic ‘savvy’ which hopefully will translate to better quality studies and papers over time.

The actual process of preparing a paper for journal submission can be a challenge in itself, dealing with sometimes less than clear (or even contradictory) formatting instructions and navigating through the various online submission systems. Once the ‘submit’ button is clicked it’s nice to sit back and enjoy the moment before the next part of the process. Hopefully your paper will be sent to review, which means that at some point down the line (hopefully not too long, but review times too can vary wildly), reviewers’ comments and a decision on the paper will come back. This can be a “should I or shouldn’t I open the email” moment, but my best advice is to take a deep breathe, open the email, and read the contents with an open, objective mind, expecting that you will be asked to consider a number of changes to the paper. Initially I used to take reviewers’ comments that were critical or negative as a personal affront to my competence and status as a researcher. We invest so much of ourselves into the process that this type of response can be understandable. However, it’s certainly not very healthy or productive and I’d encourage novice researchers to resist doing this. Instead, view the comments as external critiques of your work (which they are), that in most cases will serve to improve the quality of the paper and make it more likely to be accepted for publication. With this approach, the process of responding to reviewer comments and revising the paper should be another valuable learning and development opportunity. Hopefully at the end of this process (sometimes involving a second set of comments and revisions….) you will receive the email that we all love to read, which congratulates you on having your paper accepted for publication!

Every published paper should be celebrated as a success and as a milestone on your research journey (yes, even for more experienced researchers who often jump from finishing one thing to moving straight on to another without taking time to enjoy the ‘win’). Everyone will always have an opinion on the merits or otherwise of our work, but I would urge novice researchers to embrace each success and truly value their work, irrespective of where it is published.

To sum up then, getting your research published is not easy. No, it won’t be perfect and it will be unlikely to win a Nobel Prize, but it’s a measure of your progress and development, and an indicator of where you at, at that specific point of your career. Downloads, citations, and collaborations will happen in time if you keep doing good work.

So, have confidence in your ability, do the best quality research you can, be proud of the end product and its worth in your field, and aim to reach a little higher with each new paper. When you get a knock-back (which we all do), dust yourself down, use the critical feedback to your advantage, and go again!

3 thoughts on “Post 1. Reflections on the novice research of a PhD student (circa 2002). What’s its worth?

  1. Nice one Stu. Enjoyed reading that. I have often looked on from afar at your journey. I also remember your fortitude when engaged in your dissertation. You treated it like a job and put in the day shift when everyone else kept pushing back the work despite a looming deadline. I also remember sprinting round a track and giving blood samples to help you gather data. Happy days.

    1. Happy days indeed Rich! You boys were heroes doing that study – finger prick blood samples with freezing cold hands!! Thanks for the comment pal.

  2. Very timely Stuart based upon my own journey as a former secondary school PE teacher who has now entered the world of HE. I have experienced the highs and lows of research, yet continue to enjoy the challenge and learning opportunities it brings.

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