On combining work and study

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I was reading an article about genetic testing recently* through two lenses: the implications for my work practice, and themes that could be relevant to my research project. This happens quite often; I use email alerts through both my work and uni systems, with different but overlapping purposes, and not infrequently an article that comes up in one context is equally or more applicable in the other. It was through one of these alerts that I became aware of the article, which sat firmly in the ‘overlapping’ area.

Way back when I had my first conversation with my supervisor, while I was still planning how I might embark on my new study phase, she commented that one of the benefits of studying part-time is the opportunity to immerse yourself in your reading, and take the time to process it effectively. There’s obviously no universally correct decision about whether to study part-time or full-time, as so much depends on individual circumstances, but this has definitely been the right decision for me. My weeks are composed of two threads of activity (work and study) but I’m able to weave the threads together in a way that strengthens and adds value to both. I find I’m reading and considering everything in both contexts, and it’s amazing how often my experiences in one area help me to make sense of (and even renew my enthusiasm for) what is going on in the other.

Emerging from this, there are two points that I want to highlight in this blog reflection: the importance of passion, and dilemmas in boundary-setting.

Having made it through my first year in quite good shape, I’m convinced that undertaking research on a topic that I’m not only interested in but passionate about will be one of the keys to maintaining my energy through the long haul ahead. Already, if I was feeling at all ho-hum about my research topic, it would be feeling like a grind…and there’s a long way to go yet. I hear myself talking about my research topic to other people (a kind of out-of-body experience!) and realise that (apart from needing to shut up before I see their eyes glazing, not after) it doesn’t take much to get me started on an enthusiastic explanation of what I’m doing and why.  That signifies to me that I’m still passionate about it – I can feel the passion as I talk about my research. See previous comment about eyes glazing over.

The passion is closely linked with the relevance to my area of work. It’s a two-way process, with each reinforcing my commitment to the other. I find similar themes coming up in my conversations with families or other services providers, and in my academic reading (where I’m discovering both new information and ongoing gaps).

Like so many things in life, though, there is a flip side to this, and that’s the need to consider where the boundaries need to be drawn, so that the passion is channeled effectively and appropriately. When I mention boundaries, I’m talking about boundaries on two different levels. Firstly, there’s the boundary that needs to be drawn between work and study. Although there’s value in these being complementary and mutually beneficial, they also need to have some separation. Ethically, they need to be appropriately separated so that (for example) the privacy and confidentiality of families I work with is protected. Philosophically, I need to be conscious of different contexts so that my analysis is effective, and my respective roles as Family Advocate and researcher strengthen rather than undermine each others’ validity. And, finally, logistically I need to keep them separate to some degree so that I focus on tasks and divide my time in a way that hits a suitable balance between work and study, and don’t become overwhelmed or immobilized.

The other dilemma about passion (and the containment thereof) is specifically relevant to my role as a researcher. As a social work researcher, my intention is that my research will lead to real change and a better service environment for families who have a child affected by a genetic degenerative neurological disorder. However, unless I approach this reflexively, I run the risk of straying into ideology and leaving the outcomes of my study open to (justified) claims of bias and analytical weakness. Somehow, I will need to find a suitable balance between passionate involvement in my topic and acknowledgement of my own perspective, and enough ‘distance’ that I am able to hear what others tell me, and to allow myself to be ‘surprised’ by unexpected (and maybe contradictory) findings. I think this is a common dilemma for social researchers. Depending on the researcher’s situation of herself/himself ontologically and epistemologically, different degrees of personal involvement will be appropriate..to bracket or not to bracket, that is the question… I suspect it’s also a common source of criticism by positivist researchers who would strive for objectivity and would find any degree of personal perspective to be anathema to strong research.

As you can tell by the ramble above, I am still untangling my tangled thoughts about all this, but writing them into this post has been a starting point.

* Vento, J. and Schmidt, J. 2013 Genetic Testing in Child Neurology. Seminars in Pediatric Neurology. 19:167-172.

About postgradpanda

I'm a full-time PhD student, researching the perspectives of parents who are caring for a child with high-level physical care needs, on their relationships with diverse service systems and on their identity within or outside those systems. In December 2014 I left my social work position with a genetic support group but remain associated with the group as President of the Committee of Management. In other hours I write poetry and short stories, go sailing, and am learning to play my double bass.

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