Doctoral research in Education is an open-ended, unpredictable, and ever-changing process. Now, with COVID-19 disrupting global education for more than a year, that complex (yet highly rewarding!) doctoral journey may have become even more unpredictable… to say the least.
Not to worry though. A group of doctoral students at the Faculty of Education (FoE) has been thinking deeply about how to design a versatile PhD project that is thoughtful and well-planned, yet flexible and responsive to the challenges that might pop up along the way (rapidly changing timelines, access to fieldwork). Unforeseen circumstances that require a change in course of one’s planned work are common during the doctoral process (with or without a global pandemic), highlighting the importance of contingent pathways to PhDing. We hope these ideas help you plan and conduct your research with ease and confidence, no matter what you may encounter in your journey.
We have a wide range of approaches to pick from when designing, conducting and writing about our doctoral research at the FoE. Many students pursue one large, multi-faceted project that culminates in the traditional singular monograph. Then, there is the less common PhD by publication (discussed very thoughtfully in Steven Day’s FERSA blog) and the even-less-common PhD by prior award. We have found particular promise in what we now call ‘the multi-study approach’. Multi-study dissertations include two or more conceptually connected research studies that are designed to answer and/or address an overarching research question or objective.
Although the multi-study approach is sometimes associated with specific disciplines or sub-fields in education, we see the multi-study approach not as solely discipline-specific nor as just a momentary, necessary adaptation in the middle of a pandemic. We believe it is a viable option for many doctoral students in the FoE to pursue meaningful, rigorous, and exciting research.
In this blog, we–a group of ‘multi-studier’ doctoral students–share our journeys with and preliminary understandings of the multi-study approach, and invite you to join the conversation and consider whether the multi-study approach might be a good fit for you. The second blog of this three-part series will dive into technical details and the processes, benefits, and drawbacks of the multi-study approach. The third and final blog will feature student spotlights with insights and wisdom from several FoE PhD alumna who successfully used a multi-study approach in their doctoral research.
Arriving at the multi-study: Coming together via individual paths
We connected as an informal group in June 2020, after many of us attended a FoE seminar on the multi-study approach organised by Associate Professor Riikka Hofmann. The seminar featured presentations from Dr Anna Pauliina Rainio and Dr Anika Radkowitsch, two researchers in educational psychology who used the multi-study approach in their doctoral research. Inspired by the presentations, several of us wanted to continue the conversation. We set up a zoom call, as one does during a pandemic, and started a dialogue that has been a delightful and stimulating mix of sharing and learning, debate, and collegial support over the past year.
As you might expect, each member came to the idea of the multi-study method somewhat differently. Despite the great diversity of paths, we realised this approach can be applied to various types of PhD plans – those foreseen and unforeseen.
- Gabby arrived at the multi-study approach only after having to redesign an extended ethnographic, school-based project examining the catalysts and processes of pedagogic change in Botswana due to COVID-19. She is now conducting three qualitative studies that address the same research question from different time periods (pre/during/post COVID-19). Two of her studies are being conducted remotely – a qualitative literature synthesis and rapid policy review featuring remote teacher interviews – while the third study will include a short period of in-school observations.
- Bea and Laura had always planned to undertake three studies within an overarching research objective, but they vary in their use of research methods. Laura is using the same quantitative dataset from India to examine three different research questions via three different analytic methods. Bea’s research draws on both quantitative analysis using a dataset from Uganda and qualitative policy document analysis to research early childhood education provision, access and learning outcomes.
- Lenka Janik Blaskova, a fourth-year PhD student studying friendships and wellbeing of children with developmental language disorders, realised part-way through her PhD that the multi-study approach could be a compelling way to organise her case study research project. She felt the multi-study approach offered a structure for the dissertation that fit her topic, data, and analyses, and helped her communicate her findings in a meaningful way and build a publication portfolio.
We were also delighted to know that our discussions and deliberations resonated, even with Kristi Nourie, a third year PhD student studying how secondary school teachers and students engage with collaborative digital textbooks, who is not using the multi-study approach in her doctoral research, but still found value in unpacking the multi-study method:
“I joined the group with an eye to my future and am sure that one day my projects and students will benefit. Over the past year, this group has discussed and debated research designs that I had not encountered, or perhaps simply had not recognised, in readings for my own work. I am certainly a more well-rounded student and a better-prepared researcher because of the thinking we have done together…aimed at allowing different aspects of a project to speak to one another. Those lessons are applicable to every project, whether multi-study or not.”
Converging on a concept: What is a multi-study PhD project?
In our early conversations, we found ourselves asking, “so… what exactly is the multi-study approach? And, how does it compare to other approaches?” As with many methodological considerations undertaken during the course of a PhD, these are complicated questions – ones that we grapple with regularly. While this dialogue has opened endless lines of inquiry about research methods, conceptualisation, design and presentation, we have also converged on some preliminary understandings. The visual below offers an indication of how we currently understand a multi-study approach within the context of other potential approaches. As illustrated, the multi-study method mirrors the structure and process of the singular monograph, but with the flexibility to break complex research projects into interlinking chunks that can be conducted and drafted in parallel or consecutively (and can be more easily prepared for publication during and/or after the PhD) and ultimately culminate in a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Want to get connected and learn more? You’re invited!
Whether you are interested in the multi-study for your own project, have questions about the approach, or just want to come and see what we’re up to, we would love to have you. We currently meet once a month during term-time and we’re hosting an end of year open meeting on 24 June. We would love to see you there. If you can’t make it but still want to tune in:
- Keep an eye out for parts II and III of this blog series
- Request to join the moodle page (https://www.vle.cam.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=221342) where we’re keeping a discussion board and record of our meetings and musings
Send us an email at ga359, bs620 or lmc85 @cam.ac.uk.
Gabby Arenge is a second year PhD student researching the processes and catalysts of pedagogic change in Botswana primary schools. Twitter: @GabbyArenge
Bea Simpson is a second year PhD student who is researching“Early Childhood Education Provision, Access and Learning Outcomes in Uganda Using Government Sources and Citizen Led Data”.
Laura Cashman is a second year PhD student quantitatively researching stakeholder engagement in education in the Global South. Twitter: @LauraNiChiosain