My job

Reflections on a research career

The novelist EM Forster wrote in the preface to A Passage to India: ‘It is by chance, more than any peculiar devotion, that determines a man in his choice of medium, when he finds himself possessed by the obscure impulse towards creation.’ On the other hand, JK Rowling’s Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter believes that it is our choices and not our ability that makes us what we are. When I joined the University of Ulster after completing my PhD, I was asked to teach research to undergraduates. Now, 17 years later, I am still researching and teaching research. It may look as if time has stood still. Yet the opportunity (or chance, according to Forster) that was presented to me was a godsend. Research has provided me with new and different ways to look at the world. Each research tradition or approach looks at phenomena from a different perspective. It is fascinating to see how researchers are busy seeking the ‘truth’, which they often claim to find, but which remains elusive. What is most rewarding is that each new study is a learning experience.

I also have a particular interest in how science has developed and how it produces knowledge. Recently I read Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern. This fascinating book traces the origins of chemistry from its roots in alchemy. It provided me with insights from which I can draw parallels and comparisons with the development of other disciplines, such as nursing.

I trained in the days when the term research was never mentioned in nurse education programmes. Students were supplied with four books to last the three years of training. There were no nursing journals in the hospital library. It was optional for students to refer to other literature. There were some medical books and, occasionally, we would dip in them for our assignments.

My first encounter with research was during my undergraduate study. The sociology degree provided me with training in research methods. All staff and students undertook a collective project

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I also have a particular interest in how science has developed and how it produces knowledge. Recently I read Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern. This fascinating book traces the origins of chemistry from its roots in alchemy. It provided me with insights from which I can draw parallels and comparisons with the development of other disciplines, such as nursing.

I trained in the days when the term research was never mentioned in nurse education programmes. Students were supplied with four books to last the three years of training. There were no nursing journals in the hospital library. It was optional for students to refer to other literature. There were some medical books and, occasionally, we would dip in them for our assignments.

My first encounter with research was during my undergraduate study. The sociology degree provided me with training in research methods. All staff and students undertook a collective project in the form of a large study of facilities for under fives on a nearby housing estate. Each student was expected to take part in one aspect of the research process. I was so ‘enthused’ about research that I joined every subgroup and took part in the whole process.

My next involvement in research after the degree course came during the PhD programme I undertook at Keele University. The topic I chose, ‘Health care in Mauritius’, reflected my interests and also gave me the opportunity to go back ‘home’ for my fieldwork. The whole experience was a real eyeopener. As part of my study I carried out interviews with families who had experienced the death of an infant. I travelled to the four corners of the island, to places where I had never been before, and talked with people from a range of backgrounds. I was out of my depth on occasions when participants expressed their grief. As I had no supervisor to ‘hold my hand’, I had to do the best I could on my own. I can still recall how hospitable, friendly and helpful these families were to me. To this day, it remains by far the most useful and rewarding experience of my research career.

Presently, I am involved in a number of projects including one on the sexual behaviour of teenagers and another on the evaluation of a nurseled smoking cessation clinic. I am also busy writing the second edition of Nursing Research: Principles, Process and Issues. The first edition was extremely well received and I hope the second will be, too.

I cannot recall research being mentioned during my clinical days. What intrigued me was that different nurses often did different things to address the same problems without any evidence to back up their actions. For example, on one of the wards for older people some nurses added All-Bran to the patients’ porridge to prevent constipation while others added cornflakes instead. Some nurses would cover pressure sores while others would leave them open to dry. No one ever referred to any research or other evidence to inform practice. I often wonder to what extent these practices or similar ones have indeed changed. Based on these observations I have little doubt about the need to base practice on evidence.

My advice to beginning researchers? Think of a simple, clear question related to your practice that you could answer. Too often new researchers want to solve everything and end up confusing themselves and others. Think carefully about how you will obtain a sample, how long it will take to collect data from the sample, and how you will analyse the data. Do not hesitate to ask people with more experience than yourself for advice. Also, read how others have carried out their studies. As your career progresses, try to build on the knowledge you have generated from your previous studies, instead of hovering from one topic to another. Discovering new knowledge, and the satisfaction of being recognised as an expert in a particular field, will motivate you to do more research. Unfortunately, the difficulty of obtaining funding for nursing research means that researchers sometimes have to ‘grab’ what is available and end up doing research on several, sometimes unconnected, topics.

I believe that chance plays a great part in one’s career, as do the right choices. Equally, ability and interest are also important ingredients that contribute to one’s achievement. If I had not acquired the ability (through training) and the interest to do research, I wonder what I would be doing now.

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