Members’ musings 2023

PhD Blog on PhD experience

A decade ago I was casting about for a promising PhD research theme, knowing it would be around my teaching practice for both practical reasons and because I seem to naturally be in an endless questioning process about most aspects of my teaching practice. I knew I would be researching to improve some aspect of my practice. Therefore, Action Research was an obvious fit methodologically. After I finished two years of structured modules, during which reflective practice emerged as a strength of mine, I find I am digging myself a deep trench theoretically; considering supervisors suggestions on research themes;  afraid to jump into the sea of action where I no longer control what happens. I  eventually settle on reflective writing. However, AR is both more than and less than a methodology. More because it is a whole approach to living one’s practice and less because it is capacious, capable of accommodating a wide range of sub-methodologies including Whitehead’s Living Theory among others. Multiple  approaches to data analysis can be found within AR. I settle for Braun & Clarke’s thematic analysis. I have been reading and rereading a book by John Cowan on innovative practices in higher education, including reflective practice around which my research questions begin to crystallise. After my third reading of John Cowan’s book I decide to check if the author is alive and kicking. I find that he is and, to my amazement he turns out, like me, to be a civil engineer! I write to him to thank him for his life’s work on reflective practice which has had such an impact on my own thinking. He immediately offers support and he becomes a remote critical friend and a supportive companion for the journey. That was in November 2014 and we are still collaborating actively. My research questions remain rather fluid for some time; I get a kicking at one progression for lack of progress; I respond by cutting external workload and, like a good engineer I generate a program of work; I assemble my application for ethical approval. Unable to interview my own students for reasons of power asymmetry, I am disappointed, but recruit a well qualified and experienced researcher to do the interviews and press on. This ethical stipulation proved to be a wise decision. Interview data collected by my independent researcher proved almost certainly more revealing without my presence than it would have been otherwise. I get ready for data generation and collection on my teaching practice. I adopt a two stage (though overlapping) data collection process: stage one focussed on my practice of teaching RW and stage two on my students response to my practice. I experience ongoing doubt about my work which I dramatize at one NEARI gathering. I am tremendously busy with teaching, reflecting on teaching, collaborating with gatekeeper colleagues; almost daily critical friend correspondence, lesson plans, reflective memos; practice development across 3 parallel student cohorts; collecting student feedback on my practice. I experience periodic slumps into dismal pessimism but little by little I also see more clearly the wonderful privilege enjoyed by academics to dig deep into areas of personal interest. Writing, writing, writing. Drafts and feedback loops multiply and it seems more words are written and discarded than kept, but a shape begins to emerge. Pushed hard by my supervisors, I am reluctantly wielding the axe to produce something readable in a tight academic style. Gradually that axe fits itself to my hand and I begin to wield it with a perverse pleasure. The work is gradually teaching me how to write academically. An encounter and relationship with a journal editor, established at a UL seminar, leads to a first peer-reviewed publication. This article was eventually made fit for publication due to exceptional patience by two accomplished  reviewers. Relationships matter at every stage of the journey. These days, I partially repay that debt by reviewing regularly for that journal. Covid isolation motivated me to assemble and record a series of  PowerPoint presentations on my progress for my supervisor. Actually, the starting point for these presentations was a single diagram that responded to a friend’s questioning about my thesis. I find I need dialogue in order to develop and fix insights about what I am up to. I need an audience. NEARI was one of those audiences and a periodic occasion of refreshment. The ordering of the extremely messy reality of the development of my practice through AR extending over 18 months proved to be the keystone chapter of the final thesis. While NVivo was used liberally , and to good effect given the volumes of data I had generated, I found I refreshed my thinking by using other tools as it occurred to me including handwritten timelines with events and themes and spreadsheets to try to get an overview of some hundreds of individual emails generated during the 18-month active research period. Simply looking at a differently formatted screen helped me to refocus when fatigue set in. I gradually come to accept the ineliminable tensions set up by assessing reflective writing and the wide range of reflective competence among my students. In the latter stages of the write up, some feedback suggests, among other things, that I am not doing AR at all! I am beginning to develop the confidence to accept most feedback but to stand my ground on some issues. The feedback counselling me to be brief provokes me to further improve the text. Other aspects of feedback prompt me to uncover resources in the literature that support my approach of rapid formative cycles of plan-act-reflect with rapid data analysis, followed by a single summative gathering up of final reflections on the data. As the finish line hoves into view I call in favours from historian friends, political scientist colleagues and family and friends for help with proofreading. I am continually surprised at how blind I can be to the flaws in my own work. I eventually exhaust my supervisors’ energies and they declare that it is time to submit. I eventually subjugate Microsoft Word to bend to my will and submit. I attend a training session on navigating the viva. This was both calming and useful. I decide I want to assert some pride in my work and I invite a dozen colleagues to my opening presentation of my viva. The viva proved almost anti-climatic. One remark among others stays with me: ‘It is amazing that there is no mention of academic politics anywhere in the thesis’. Don’t mention the war!

Dr. Tom Cosgrove

Tom’s doctoral thesis is entitled On Wholeness in Engineering Education: The Role of Reflective Writing’ and is now in the UL digital repository at



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