Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Personal Dimension in Research

Entry for 11 January 2007:

Scottish SPR meetings this year have been preceded by a two-hour Research Community meeting open not only the MSc students, but also to our research PhD students, the Counselling Psychology students from the joint Strathclyde-Glasgow Caledonian course, and really just about anybody who wants to come and talk about research. We usually start by going around the circle with everybody reporting where they are with their research and what kind of help they might need.

Last night, as we did this, it became clear that a key theme was personal issues in research. This had been highlighted for me over the holidays by conversations I had with my oldest son Brendan about his work on his dissertation. Like many graduate/postgraduate students, he had become somewhat stuck in his progress on his dissertation. Somehow, the lack of structure and scale of a major research dissertation (whether at the masters or doctoral levels) seems to raise all kinds of personal issues for people. (This was certainly the case for me when I was a graduate student.) Perfectionism, overambitiousness, ambivalence about research, work-life balance problems, fear of failure, fear of success, difficulties dealing with lack of structure, writing blocks, lack of support from mentors, isolation, social anxiety, distractions/problems maintaining focus, lack of proper research training, uncertainty about life direction, failure to find and maintain protected time to work on research and writing; these are most of the main personal issues that I have encountered over many years of helping students through the dissertation process.

So we talked about these personal issues for much of the Research Community time last night, people offering support to each other, in some cases getting suggestions for how to move past the difficulty, in other cases just realizing they were not alone in their stuckness. Brian and I each talked about stuck places with our writing, Brian with his dissertation, me with my writing, in particular my long-delayed work on my paper on the Adjudicated Hermeneutic Single Case Efficacy Design (A-HSCED) method. Various of us talked about the fragility of the research/writing process, how easy it is for it to be pushed out by other more pressing demands. But we also about how strong the research/writing process can be once it takes hold, when one enters a “writing bubble” (John McLeod’s term) or when a “writing demon” (my term) takes hold, and it is as if we are possessed by the work for a time, sometimes to the consternation and frustration of those we love.

At times, I think it can be really valuable to provide therapeutic work to help researchers get unstuck. Procrastination, writer’s block and so on often take the form of conflict splits, frequently with an ineffectual coaching part of the self that only seems to make things worse, or a harsh critic part that paralyzes the person. In a depressive-type research block, parts of the self go on strike to protest not getting their way, effectively blocking the part that wants to work, which in turn becomes a killjoy preventing the person from enjoying themselves. For these problems, Two Chairwork can be useful, helping the person explore the conflict that underlies the stuck point. It would be very interesting to offer a research consultation process that focused on these issues.

(BTW, Brendan got unstuck and at last report was once again making headway on his dissertation.)

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