Part two: the ESRC requirements and being trained in research skills
Teaching ‘research skills’ for the social sciences is an idea that’s worried some historians I’ve spoken to this year, bearing in mind history’s uneasy relationship with the disparate components of social science and the concept of ‘science’ itself. However, the ESRC in its wisdom makes any PhD student it funds take a taught masters’ year first in ‘research methods’, unless they’ve already completed a course that fits the remit. So this post will focus on my experience of actually doing this course.
In frustrated moments, when I really believe in my PhD topic and want to get on with the research before the area I study becomes inaccessible or unresearchable, I wonder why I’m being made to learn research skills – and being tested on my ability to write an ESRC funding proposal – when I clearly managed to write a successful ESRC proposal last year. Otherwise I wouldn’t be on the course. However, I’ve completely – and personally, surprisingly – changed my views on this masters course, and feel there’s some worth in it.
The course took the obvious path, and actually I had to do far fewer modules than I thought: the first term covered mostly theoretical conceptual frameworks for research, including epistemology and ontology, and made me add vague labels, references and arguments to my previously held but entirely unthought-out ontological positions. Second term featured more practical discussions of sociological research, including casing and operationalising research projects, and the third term featured a weekend workshop on interview, focus group and survey research problems, and practical tips for proposals in future.
My main problem was the statistical aspects of the course – although I passed comfortably, the SPSS training, predictive/extrapolative modelling and survey work was hard mostly because of its irrelevance to what I’m doing currently and in the near future, although I realised that it was a real CV boon. Any “researcher” position loves SPSS skills.
There are obviously real problems in being ‘taught research skills’; the main one being that many of the skills, while incredibly useful for job applications – like surveys, focus groups and SPSS – would be hard to either justify or use in my extremely qualitative PhD. Being taught by sociologists meant that, in most lectures, we were talking about British or European political, mostly urban, large-scale populations, with references to texts and information I didn’t have (who knew British council data was so curious?). This was interesting, but did mean I persuaded each lecturer – with little effort, though – to let me do my own stuff. Which brings me to one of the real positives; although this is a taught course, the nature of attempting to teach sociology, politics, geography, psychology, education, history and international relations students ‘research skills’ means that the topics are so wide, and often the information is so theoretical or practical, that the actual essays and discussions can focus on any area or discipline. I easily managed to tailor my submitted essays to my own interests and reading needs, and I’ve covered a decent amount of general literature (on the study of generations in Africa generally, on studies of South African attitudes to AIDS, and on trans-national migrant networking) just in finishing the course requirements.
There were some social problems to this amalgamation of all sorts of different students: I forget about the inbuilt, often inadvertent snobbery of students (including me) and many researchers when faced with other disciplines’ methods and arguments. My own bugbear was the relative ahistoricity of a lot of debates, but I was also faced with frequent attacks on history – some of which I bothered to defend – which seemed to see current historical research as still boring, whiggish recitation of the past without practical outputs (although the practical outputs part is probably an interesting point to debate). It was probably a healthy removal from the history department, an insight into areas other than history and anthropology, and a good opportunity for theoretical navel-gazing.
Practically, I think I could put together a decent research proposal on something outside of my comfort or interest zone, make a vaguely impressive report using SPSS, and actually establish my epistemological position in my PhD (something that I feel actually might be important, the way I’m going with oral history theories). My key advice to anyone thinking of taking this route: it’s a free, if non-intensive masters’ course; if you want a massive challenge, then it’s not for you. If you decide it’s for you, there is value in the content, despite the real frustrations of many of the discussions and disciplinarity. Despite being a weird masters to take, it is probably useful for research and likely extremely useful for careers: if my funding vanishes, I’d feel confident selling some of these skills.