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Abi Eccles, Health Experiences Research Group, 12th May 2011

Life as a Research Assistant for the Health Experiences Research Group

I became a research assistant for the Health Experiences Research Group (HERG) in early July last year, shortly after graduating from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in Anthropology and Sociology. I remember feeling incredibly excited about the position, with high hopes for the potential opportunities and experience such a post could provide. It was straight in at the deep end when on my first day the very first thing I did was attend the monthly researchers’ meeting. I have to say that at time I found this pretty exciting (subsequent researchers’ meetings have since felt less exciting!) and also somewhat overwhelming; I was in a boardroom full of people I had never met, in an environment which was pretty alien to me, listening to my new colleagues discussing various projects, ideas and activities that the research group was involved in.
The initial feelings of being overwhelmed soon subsided and it didn’t take long for me to settle into my new work environment. One of the things which first struck me was that office atmosphere was relaxed yet buzzing as everyone busily gets on with their work; I think this is because people seem to be enthused by their work and feel a sense of pride in the healthtalkonline website. Right from the start I found my colleagues to be very welcoming, open and willing to impart knowledge and advice from their own experiences.

To begin with, my main role was to help Sara, (a researcher and my line manager), with two projects she was working on simultaneously; one was updating Healthtalkonline.org’s section on Autism and the other project was creating a new section of the website on Jewish Health Issues. I spent a lot of time checking interview transcripts, which involves listening to interviews while correcting any mistakes in the written transcripts and adding time codes to each page. Such a task may sound tedious but in fact the interviews themselves I found were very interesting and it was valuable to listen to interviewing techniques. I also become familiar with the aims and the general feel of the interviewing process. As my confidence grew I was keen to develop further and began writing summaries of the interviews I had listened to for the website. The pace stepped up a notch when deadlines to finish both projects fell within two weeks of one another. The weeks leading up to these deadlines can only be described as hectic, as we processed the two projects through various stages which are necessary to prepare them for the website. Once they were finished I felt very proud to have contributed to the final piece of work and had thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.

After these projects were finished, my role broadened to assist other researchers within the group with different tasks spanning various projects. This was a great way gaining further experience of the research process and the website in general, which allowed me to experience and learn a great deal. Around this time one of the researchers, Jenny, enlisted my help with three focus groups she ran to evaluate a new section on the website about the Menopause. My primary role was to film the focus groups so they could be used as a teaching aid but more importantly for me, it gave me the opportunity to experience the process of running a focus group. What struck me was how unpredictable the focus groups could be and I was impressed with how Jenny kept on top of this, reflexively reading the dynamics, staying in control of the group while giving them freedom to explore different ideas and opinions.

Like most people during the Christmas period I took some time off so I could spend time with family and friends. I remember how at this point, after five months in the role, I continued to enjoy all the work I was involved in. My experiences so far had confirmed to me that a career in qualitative research would be suitable for me, and this is what I would aim for. Soon after returning to work in January I attended a course on qualitative research methods run by HERG which was outstanding and I learnt a great deal. The previous experience I had gained within my role was particularly useful as I could relate this to the theory and methods which were taught. The course deepened my knowledge about interview approaches and enlightened me as to how qualitative data may be analysed. Another very valuable aspect of the course is that it allowed us to explore important issues which must be considered when designing a qualitative research project. There was also lots of practical exercises which allowed us to apply our learning, making it all the more valuable.

Equipped with what I had learnt from the course and after listening to many healthtallkonline interviews, I felt well prepared and confident that I could carry out some interviews myself. Luckily, an opportunity arose and I started interviewing people about their experiences of having hip replacements. I have now carried out six interviews and I am in the process of analysing them. Although it’s fairly tiring, interviewing has been the aspect I have enjoyed the most during my time working here. I find listening to people’s stories and perspectives fascinating and enjoy the interaction during the interview. One important piece of advice I have been given is to keep a research diary. This has helped me to evaluate and improve my techniques, develop my questions and generally feel more prepared for each interview.

The next big opportunity came along in March. I was asked to help Sue, Louise and Anne-Marie compile a new section of the website on shared decision making in clinical settings. This involved secondary analysis of already collected interviews spanning across a range of conditions on the website. After sourcing the material and analysing the interview excerpts, we wrote summaries of the relevant themes with clips to illustrate our findings. With a tight deadline and vast amount of interview data to analyse, the workload was arduous, but overall I got a buzz from piecing the data together and summarising the findings. It was an incredible few weeks of focused and rigorous work. However, with a great teamwork and communication combined with focus and a positive approach, the pressure did not seem to faze us and we succeeded in creating a final piece to be proud of.

Before starting I had high expectations of the opportunities and experience the post would provide me with and now I am nearing the end of my contract, I can confirm such expectations have been realised and exceeded. Throughout, my colleagues have always provided me with support and encouragement; thinking of ways in which I can learn more and taking time to advise me. Also, any of the talents and hard work I have displayed have always been recognised and appreciated by my colleagues within the group. This has given me confidence in my work and allowed me to develop and progress. Additionally, this has also created a sense of ongoing fulfilment and achievement. I feel totally inspired to continue working within this field and I have recently applied to do a DPhil in Primary Care with the Health Experiences Research Group.

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