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Editorial: Observations from the field of PhD research

25 August, 2009

Editorial: Observations from the field of PhD research

“I want to do a PhD.” Editorial by Professor Marlene Sinclair

Evidence Based Midwifery: September 2009

Professor Marlene Sinclair PhD, MEd, BSc, DASE, RNT, RM, RN.

Many of you reading this editorial will be familiar with the statement: “I want to do a PhD.” You may have personal experience of being in this position or you may have been listening to a colleague considering this journey. To date, I have had the privilege of facilitating 11 women to safely walk in and out of the field of research and obtain a PhD in midwifery research. The journeys have taken us along many different paths, but I believe all of them have shared the same revelatory experience in which the moment of understanding of what it is all about occurred, and it was only then that they were able to say “Now… I see!”. The journey to this point in a researcher’s life can be very challenging as the student needs to be able to transcend the familiarity of everyday practice in order to see the world through the lens of a researcher. This takes exposure in the field of research, time, persistence, confidence and supportive feedback. Coming to know and understand the lived experience of doing doctoral level research is ‘very challenging’, and this is particularly pertinent in clinical midwifery where the field of research is the midwives’ daily practice. I deliberately chose the words ‘field of research’, because I think this helps separate ourselves from the familiar sight of clinical practice and explore an imaginary landscape to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the field of clinical practice through the eyes of a novice researcher.

Imagine yourself standing in an ordinary green field. Your aim is to experience the phenomenon of being in the field. Your working objectives are to describe what you see, hear, feel and think. Your tools are yourself, a pen and notepad. At first you may see nothing, but an expanse of grass and probably some weeds and stones, but as you focus your attention on achieving your goal you begin to see more and more. You may find yourself scanning the parameters of the field and quickly noting landmarks. You might even recognise familiar church spires or faraway landmarks. After some time when you begin to focus less on the need to find data, but allow your senses to take over, you begin to see small animals, butterflies, wasps and flies. You begin to hear the familiar and the unfamiliar, like the sounds of the crickets, birds, cows, dogs, aeroplanes, trains. Your skin begins to monitor the warmth of the sun or the frost of the morning and you try to protect yourself. As you begin to familiarise yourself with your new surroundings, you remember your primary aim and start writing furiously to try and record the event.

Questions begin to tug at your mind and heart. What do I write? How can I find the right words to describe what I see and feel? How do I organise my thoughts, what do I write about first and what is the order? How do I make sense of what I have written? Can anyone else see and hear what I have heard? When do I stop writing? These are the familiar questions that bring challenge and excitement to researchers and can only be answered from being in the field and living through the experience. Research text-books and supervisors will help, but the personal journey of learning and knowing cannot take place without self-exposure, supportive feedback and self-determination. This is real experiential learning and the process requires personal commitment, trust and old-fashioned ‘learning by doing’.

In my previous editorial (Sinclair, 2009), I made reference to my own doctoral research in which I spent hundreds of hours in labour wards observing women, machines and midwives. The observation was focused on understanding the role of high-technology in the labour ward. The focus was broad and the field was immense in terms of structure, organisation and practice (like walking into the earlier imaginary green field and seeing everything, but not knowing what was important). However, as time passed, my observation skills became more acutely tuned and I developed a systematised approach to data collection. It was only after many hours of literally observing everything that ‘was’ or ‘ happened’ in the labour room – from replacing entonox cylinders to watching domestic attendants cleaning the room that distractions became less obvious and my senses were activated so that the real research focus became clear. Only then was it possible to frame the observation in a manner that made the data selection more meaningful and manageable. The half-hourly observation pattern underpinning routine management of labour became the natural categorical record for writing about the actions, interactions and decisions in a more structured framework. This structure had always been there, but I had not recognised the obvious and the “Now… I see!” experience occurred only after ‘being’ in the research field for a long time. Every researcher needs time to become familiar with people, routines, procedures and patterns so that they can gain the confidence to look critically at the field with eyes that are trained to pierce the clouds of muddle and focus on what is important. Field research training is valuable regardless of whether or not the design is exploratory, descriptive or experimental. Every clinical researcher needs to develop skill in critically examining the field of practice with the lens of a practitioner, a professional and a researcher. The benefit of doing so can enable the researcher to ask more relevant and meaningful questions that are clinically and academically relevant to professional practice.

So, if a PhD is in your thoughts or on your horizon take the time now to consider your area of practice. Start by physically observing the phenomenon of interest and immersing yourself in the field of experience before designing the research route or unpacking the vast literary treasure of academia. Try to put on the lens of a researcher and stand with your pen and paper and begin to write down what you see, hear, feel and believe before you collect vast files of published papers. Taking time in the field to observe is never wasted, it is an investment for the future as it will enable you to make more informed decisions about the research design, method and analysis.


Sinclair M. (2009) Practice: a battlefield where the natural versus the technological. Evidence Based Midwifery 7(2): 39.

Professor Marlene Sinclair, editor
Professor of midwifery research at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland.

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