One of the biggest headaches I faced in my first term as a new postgraduate student was thinking to myself: what subject am I actually researching? Many people have attempted and failed to answer this existential question regarding their research identity. While I don’t intend to be able to answer this complex question here, I’ve found it interesting to explore in an attempt to understand and come to terms with these dilemmas as a young researcher.
As in most new situations, this term I’ve had to introduce myself countless times. Your twenty seconds of ‘zoom fame’ now comes in the form of a brief self-introduction from the awkward silence of your bedroom. It’s your time to present your research identity: everybody wants to know about your experiences (or lack thereof), your subject and your proposed research. My peers all seemed to come to the MPhil with a distinct research subject in mind. With first degrees in sociology, geography or psychology, their postgraduate research seemed naturally grounded in their undergraduate subject. I did my undergrad in education, so where did that leave me? I had moved from education to education… Compared to my peers, I rather felt that I was missing a core ‘subject’ foundation. My undergraduate degree was a lovely mix, touching on most aspects of all the social sciences. My research now focuses around issues of identity, language, community and belonging; so far, I have specifically relied on Welsh identities in my work. My undergraduate dissertation was a cocktail of history, genealogy, sociological theory, policy analysis, and media studies. I felt this seemed to leave me in some sort of scary ‘no man’s land’ of subject specialism. Below I have explored the three main dilemmas I’ve come to reckon with in the pursuit of ‘finding my subject’ which I hope you will find interesting and perhaps even relate to in some way.
- ‘I am subject-less…’
Though not explicitly by choice, I’ve found myself being unintentionally interdisciplinary in my educational research. I’ve found my research interests are not always neat and self-contained; they need and deserve help from a variety of subjects. While I cannot claim expertise in these many areas, considering different disciplines has made me look further afield to spaces where educational research wouldn’t necessarily find itself. For example, recently I went looking on Instagram for inspiration about Queer Welsh identities. I don’t feel research needs to be neat, or fitting to one particular subject, but rather should aim to give the reader multiple leads and directions within which to take it further. Education has given me a huge toolbox of methodologies to work with – I refuse to rely on just a few tools from one subject. It’s given me the freedom to call on the most appropriate topic, method or expertise, even if that lies beyond typical subject boundaries. This perspective directed me towards using a Foucauldian genealogy in my last dissertation (perhaps this frustration with subjects came from Foucault’s influence on me?); the allowance to explore other fields in pursuit of answering your research question can make for interesting and original learning. Furthermore, this ‘subjectlessness’ can perhaps make finding a supervisor a challenge; however, I have found that this has allowed me to work with fantastic supervisors who are open minded to my uncertainty, a trait that I feel they too sometimes share and value themselves
- ‘Everyone is an expert!’
I’ve always felt there’s this belief in education that ‘everyone is an expert’. Many of us come from some form of formal education. We come to a study of education with countless stories and experiences of school and learning. Early in my undergrad years I found it frustrating when my friends or family could debunk something that I’d been learning about for months with a simple “Well actually, in my school…”. For me now, I see it differently – this is one of the greatest features about researching education. It is a subject that almost everyone can relate to in some way and it’s what I feel makes education so special. I’m a firm believer that research is for people’s benefit, so people should be directly involved, valued, and heard. I think we need more stories, perspectives and experiences in research about education. I now relish hearing any sentence that starts with “When I was in school…”
- ‘Oh so, you want to be a teacher?’
With study of education often comes the assumption that teaching is the ultimate goal. When I tell people that I do not aspire to be a teacher, they are often surprised. Education as a subject has a rightful link with teacher training, schools and children, which can, of course, bring a vocational expectation to the subject. The vast majority of my undergraduate peers now teach and many of my postgraduate peers have some experience in schools- as do I. I’ve found that although educational research might not necessarily be about schools or children, education provides access to crucial sites of knowledge, identity formation, learning, un-learning, discourse and policy. Although my research on identity might seem a little abstract at the moment, I hope that one day it will help towards developing schools as safer sites of identity formation and performance.
I’ve learnt from writing this post that the dilemmas you face in your subject can often turn out to be the same that serve as motivation to keep you going. I’m sure that 2021 will bring on further dilemmas in my pursuit of my research identity in the field of education that will require continued re-positioning. I’ll be in touch when I have my next research identity crisis.
Alys Roberts is an MPhil student here at the Faculty of Education. Her chosen thematic route is the Knowledge, Power and Politics strand and has research interests in identity, nationality and belonging. She holds a BA (hons) in Education Studies from Bath Spa University. She is also a 1+3 Economic and Social Research Council DTP scholar hoping to stay at the department to complete her PhD. Find her on Twitter: @alysroberts