By Kelsey Graber, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
I am blessed with a terrible tendency to be unnecessarily long-winded and verbose in my writing. In my as-ever-necessary learning and practice of concise academic writing, I was taught a valuable lesson: each point made should clearly contribute to the theme of the paragraph, which in turn should contribute to the central thesis of the paper. Every sentence should have purpose in driving forward the main argument. This is a challenging, yet apt notion to adhere to in our academic lives – does every step we take need to be thoughtful, purposeful, and driven exactly toward our desired destination? No. But should we strive to maintain that thesis (or destination, as capricious as it may be) in mind as we explore? I think so. There are a number of us that perhaps never imagined ourselves pursuing a graduate degree in Education per se; however, now as graduate students in this Faculty, we are tasked with navigating how to be “education-adjacent” while still forging our unique research paths that strongly intertwine with other disciplines. We must find the connections from education-based research to that central thesis of our own three years of doctoral work.
Until beginning this PhD, studying Education was never a part of my… well… education. I studied psychology, child development, and neuroscience, and before returning to graduate school, I was a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, working within the Departments of Psychiatry and Medical Simulation. A PhD in Education was not a part of the plan. What was integral to the plan was identifying an inspiring supervisor (✓) with shared interests (✓✓) who had the expertise and drive to support my own interests within the sphere of his/her realm of research (✓✓✓). I identified such a supervisor in this Faculty, which inspired me to reconsider the discipline within which I could focus my research. Whenever I explained my proposed research, I described a body of work that intersected psychology, medicine, and child development. In my application for this university, I wrote: “I aim to pursue research that will improve the health-related quality of life for pediatric patients by understanding the impact of positive interventions, such as play, on psychosocial development amidst adverse circumstances.” Wordy as ever, but this statement highlighted my need for an interdisciplinary approach to work that I could envision developing within this Faculty.
I imagined that I would end up in a department of psychology or psychological medicine. What appealed to me about the Play in Education Development and Learning (PEDAL) program was their recent emphasis on exploring play and health from a cross-disciplinary background that included research from the fields of medicine, psychiatry, child development, and play. Though studying Education seemed, on the surface, like a deviation from my career path’s central thesis, the values and goals emanating from the department and the PEDAL group were right on target; I finally saw an opportunity to snugly fit between different areas of interest.
Throughout my first term here as a PhD student, there were certainly moments of feeling out of place in an Education Faculty. I would sit in a seminar about research methodologies applied to assessing educational systems and felt undeniably discrepant, not allowing my mind to be flexible in seeing links between what I was learning and how I could apply similar principles in my own work. This is the blessing and curse of doctoral-level-education: the curse is having worked so hard and diligently to devise your own line of research, your main argument, with all ‘phrases’ and ‘lines’ contributing to a desired end. It becomes extremely unnerving to take in new information and consider restructuring where you thought you would be heading. The blessing is having the freedom, flexibility, and support to do exactly that, and to study within a department that encourages such expansions and potentially exciting deviations from one’s original path. It helps to remember that there is a reason (likely many reasons) you and this program chose each other. The ever-present challenge for those whose work is inherently multidisciplinary or slightly adjacent to the education field is to discover the connections that will contribute to a developing central thesis, perhaps from a perspective that we did not originally anticipate.
In classes about education-based research, I will not be explicitly learning about how to conduct research in a hospital environment with children who suffer from chronic illness (which would beautifully align with my interests and would be wholly impractical for most everyone else’s). What I am given is an opportunity to study within a Faculty and research group that promotes interdisciplinary consideration, and to think about how facets of education-based research might link to health-based research. As an example from my own research interests, in a pediatric hospital, the ways in which information is conveyed and children learn about their environment or circumstances can be thought of in terms of healthcare pedagogy – a concept I never thought to consider before learning about education research. This led me to discover an area of healthcare research that specifically targets the pedagogic processes at play when working with patients and the benefits of sharing a frame of reference (e.g. Hult et al., 2009; Browning et al., 2007). Will that topic be a focal point driving forward my central thesis? Likely not. Could it be an educational concept that contributes to a line of inquiry that supports my thesis? It absolutely can.
In the current moment of this global health pandemic, we are all finding ourselves in a space that is unexpected and uncharted – working in a way that might be “adjacent” to what we anticipated doing during this time. Some might suddenly feel uncomfortably far removed from their own work, or perhaps their work feels uncomfortably far removed from the acute moment we are in. The message remains pertinent: maintain and revisit your end goal, your central thesis, and ensure that what you do now contributes to where you are headed. Along this unanticipated detour, find the connections and ways of adapting to meet the road ahead. For me, this healthcare crisis has brought a brand-new perspective to studying play and health as I consider children’s activity during a pandemic. This shift in perspective will look different to each of us in the scope of our individual research, but importantly, to be based within a faculty that emphasizes and encourages collaborative, cross-disciplinary engagement is to the benefit of us all in this unprecedented time. The adaptability we have begun to foster in the Faculty of Education will be our strength, and will be the impetus to connect the fortuitous work we do now with our end goal down the line.
Browning, D. M., Meyer, E. C., Truog, R. D., & Solomon, M. Z. (2007). Difficult conversations in health care: cultivating relational learning to address the hidden curriculum. Academic Medicine, 82(9), 905-913.
Hult, H., Fridh, M. L., Falk, A. L., & Thörne, K. (2009). Pedagogical processes in healthcare: an exploratory study of pedagogic work with patients and next of kin. Education for Health, 22(3), 199.
Kelsey Graber is a PhD student supervised by Prof Paul Ramchandani and
Dr. Christine O’Farrelly within the PEDAL Centre. Having worked in hospitals both in the US and the UK and with a background in psychology, her research interests are at the intersection of children’s physical and mental health. During her doctoral studies, she will explore the role of play in healthcare, with a specific interest in the impact of play for children with chronic or severe illness.