Last week, I started working with a group of physical scientists so that they can implement a piece of social science research.  I was at the kick of meeting of the RECARE project.  The project looks at addressing a range of soil threats and takes an interdisciplinary approach to doing so.  This means that we are looking at the physical process, but also participating with stakeholders to design management options.  I am managing a stakeholder analysis that should lay the foundation for this participatory process by identifying who should be involved and what role they may play.  However, with 17 case study sites, a variety of languages, and the desire to build long-term relationships between the scientists and the stakeholders, I am working to facilitate the analysis so that our soil science experts can implement it.

By having partners move outside their traditional disciplinary boundaries, it is intended that they will understand and integrate the social science in their own understanding.  Rather than have a social scientist do some social science that is separate to the core physical processes, we can co-generate knowledge and therefore co-generate physically and socially viable management options.

I started with the idea that I would provide a protocol to partners to implement and last week, I presented my ideas to the partners.  I also provided a feedback form.  I had hoped to get an overview of what partners already knew about their stakeholders, and gain some insight into what would be important to ask if determining stakeholders’ interests and influence in land management.  Some partners were enthusiastic and onboard from the offset.  Others did not greet my approaches with enthusiasm.

Discussions were difficult (if good humoured), and I felt like I worked hard.  Ultimately, it was very productive; both in terms of the partners shaping my work, and in terms of communicating the aims of the analysis.  I came away with a better understanding of the challenges in asking researchers with a physical focus to include a strong social focus in their research.

Approaching people is intimidating.  I don’t mean that partners are nervous about talking to people, or that they are socially awkward.  Indeed far from it – they are a very sociable group.  But as soon as you include people as your sample, you have to find a way to explain the stakeholder analysis, manage expectations in terms of outcomes, and reassure participants as to what their role is and isn’t, and how their information will be used.  If the partner themselves is unclear about this, then it’s very difficult to communicate it all to a stakeholder.

An overlapping concern is that maybe stakeholders just won’t want to talk.  Perhaps they will have better things to do.  Or perhaps they will be worried about sharing information, particularly if there has been a difficult political or social history.

The mistake I made was to propose only providing a protocol for the actual data collection (questions, etc.).  I now realise that I need to provide help and guidance on how to approach stakeholders and introduce the stakeholder analysis and broader research.  These will include example permissions forms and confidentiality agreements. Information sheets will be linked to the broader project’s dissemination strategy.  These are all tools I would normally create to go alongside my own data collection.  I had just not considered that they were not usual in research that doesn’t include people, and therefore had not thought to make it explicit in what I would provide to partners.

Even with these tools, I can go further to help partners feel confident in taking the decisions and responding to stakeholders ‘on the spot’.  To use the protocol, they will need to feel confident about asking alternative questions or responding if something in the protocol is not relevant to a particular stakeholder.  I hope to have mitigated some of this by asking partners to feed into the protocol design.  But in addition, I think I shall quite enjoy finding ways to train or empower partners from a distance; I am already thinking of videos and/or decision support tools I can provide.

Even with additional materials and support from me, the biggest challenge is in partners feeling like this is an additional job on top of a full workload, and thus a distraction to their core research.  This is actually a minority view in our project, with the vast majority in full support.  I did present a range of examples to provide justification and rationale.  But for those who remain unconvinced, I do understand.   I really do.  I just presented a world with different language and approaches and expectations; learning and implementing it will take a little time, even if I am committed to minimising this.  But I hope by making it as easy as possible, partners can implement the analysis, and will see for themselves the value it brings to their focus research.

Posted by: jleventon | September 21, 2013

My Favourite Teaching Day

This week the students return to the University of Leeds.  To fuel my anticipation for the coming semester, I thought I’d blog about my favourite teaching experience from last year.

I manage a first year undergrad course called ‘Environmental Science for Environmental Management’.  The students attend lectures in blocks relating to an area of environmental science (hydrosphere and water, atmosphere, etc.).  They then come to workshops where they work in groups to answer research briefs.  I write these briefs so that they tie the science they study into the management of topical environmental problems.  The students are assessed through presentations and posters that answer their research briefs.

Last year, I was given a bit of money through the School of Earth and Environment’s Teaching Enhancement Fund (thank you!) to turn the final workshop into a conference.  The students had been studying soils and the biosphere, and the topic of the conference was Payment for Ecosystem Services.  We had guest presenters from within the school and from external organisations, we printed the posters properly, we had coffee and cake and conference programmes, and a range of staff from the school came along.

The day went well.  There are things I will change for next time; such as adjusting the research briefs to reduce overlap, and perhaps giving my colleagues more notice to increase the chances that they can come.  However, I really enjoyed watching our guest presenters, all of whom gave a real-life relevance to the topics we were studying; I hope they inspired the students as much as they inspired me!

But the reason it is my favourite teaching experience is because the students really impressed me.

All of them had noticeably upped their game for this final workshop.  They all dressed smartly, had rehearsed their presentations, had clear slides and spoke well.  The posters looked as I would expect a strong conference poster to look.  Overall, the academic content and the examples they used were great and showed some real critical thought. Obviously there was variation between the groups, but I think everyone achieved their highest workshop mark that day.

I’m looking forward to teaching those same students this year as they progress and develop further in their second year.  And I’m looking forward to seeing how this year’s intake tackle the research briefs I give them.  I’ll meet them all for the first time this week for the Fresher’s Fieldtrip, and I’m quite excited!

Posted by: jleventon | October 30, 2012

On Language, Research and Error…

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a guest lecture given by Professor Robert Chambers here at the University of Leeds.  I suspect that most students of international development will have engaged with Chambers’ work on participation, and I am no exception.  He was visiting Leeds to talk about Professional Error and Ignorance in International Development.  The lecture was every bit as interesting as the title suggests; Chambers asked us all to consider the varying ways in which we introduce error in understanding through our positionality, understandings and interpretation of data.  Its certainly got me thinking about my own data collection, analysis and use; the sources of error therein; and how I deal with it.  Being fairly nomadic, and working in a range of countries, one of the things I have focussed on is language.

I cannot escape the fact that language is a potential source of error in my research.  Amongst others, I’ve conducted research with participants who speak Hungarian, Greek and Bemba; all languages from different roots.  For my own research, identifying policy documentation and stakeholders (and participants) is hard going when everything is written in a different language, or even a different alphabet.  Therefore introducing the potential to miss participants, documents and contexts.  Its not such a problem for executing methods if I am interviewing policy elites at the national level as English is their working language.  Finding the right contact details, getting past the receptionist and making an appointment can all still be challenges though!  Below the national level and with community participants, conducting a meaningful data collection method in a language that is not my own is truly difficult and potentially leads to mis-understandings or missed data.

Whether or not we should learn the language we are researching in seems to be a bit of a divided topic.  I’ve witnessed a candidate, in his thesis defence, be interrogated on why he chose to stick to case studies where he already spoke the language.  The questioner felt that the candidate should have based their selection entirely on academic justification and learned the necessary language. Like the candidate, I think I disagree with this stance.  I speak other languages to a good standard.  But it takes a huge amount of time, more than is usually covered by PhD stipends or research grants.  Furthermore, I wonder whether I will ever understand the deeper meanings and cultural foundations that underpin another language.  Intonation, humour and meanings behind words vary between languages; more so where the language has a different root (e.g. Slavic vs Latin).  I think it takes years of immersion in a language to understand all these things.  Without such immersion, I would argue that misunderstanding such meanings, or not noticing them, would be a source of error in research.

Perhaps the most obvious and common solution is to use native language research assistants.  During recent work in Zambia the rapport that my research assistants had with community participants was incredible and gave me confidence that the data collected was rich and meaningful.  But this was better achieved when I gave them more autonomy and allowed them to be assistants rather than just translators.  Thus diminishing my control over the direction of data collection and my deeper understanding of the data collection process and in turn reducing my ability to accurately incorporate that data once I got it back to the UK, even when the research assistants had been carefully managed.  Such separation may also be beneficial; in my PhD research, I felt like having a translator between me and the participant allowed me to remain impartial and prevented me from becoming emotionally engaged with participants.  I believe this allowed a dispassionate and therefore less erroneous analysis of the data.  However there is obviously a balance to be struck in maintaining both separation and sufficient involvement to understand the data and its context.

My approaches for dealing with the language issue target both research design and its practical implementation.  On a practical level,  I like learning languages so I try to learn what I can.  Depending on how much I am able to learn in the time available, I can use this to start looking for documents and stakeholders.  It also allows me to get some rapport with participants, even if I can’t conduct the entire interview in their language.  In my PhD I was fortunate to have sufficient time to learn enough to be able to identify themes in responses before my translator spoke, allowing me to remain responsive.  However, learning to this degree is less possible in my current post-doc research where I am not spending such long amounts of time in the field, and where formal language training is not accessible.  Instead, I am trying to design-out potential issues, making sure that the detail of analysis required by my methods/research questions does not exceed the detail that I am actually able to gain in light of my language abilities.  For example, at the community level participatory mapping and creating picture cards are decreasing my reliance on verbal communication and are appropriate for the data that I need to collect. Where I have verbal data collected in a different language, I will be using it for coarse themes rather than attempting to perform a detailed discourse analysis.

Hopefully, through these measures and by remaining reflective on these topics I will be able to avoid some of the errors that were so articulately discussed by Prof. Chambers.  I am open to other advice, tips and thoughts though!

Posted by: jleventon | June 29, 2012

Transitions Revisited

The last detailed post I wrote was about the transition from PhD to post-doc.  Six months later, I feel that so much has changed in the way I work, the way I view post-doc life and the way I see myself as a researcher.  So I thought it was worth repeating the post from this new perspective.

Previously, I wrote about problems in positioning myself in terms of my research area and topic.  I am now much more clued up on my topic, but also much more confident in not having a solid definition.  I have come to accept that for me, part of being a researcher requires a constant, iterative consideration of some key questions:

  • how does this work fit together for a broader research trajectory?
  • how do I develop and expand upon these ideas, rather than just keep applying them to new areas?
  • what does my evolution of ideas mean for future lines of enquiry?

I am appreciating the huge range of opportunities available to me as a post-doc to explore (and re-explore) the answers to these questions. For example, a workshop on my post-doc topic (climate compatible development), provided a chance for colleagues here at Leeds and further afield to consider how our different perspectives could be combined around a particular problem.  In doing so, I was able to see my own fit within it.

I am then able to expand this fit to a broader environmental governance research area through participating in research groups that are focused more on the academic area.  For example, I recently presented my ideas on ‘what sustainability means in my research’ to the Social and Political Dimensions of Sustainability group as a starting point for (constructive) discussion.

Unexpected conversations while making a cup of tea or impromptu office discussions have proved equally as fruitful.  I have had my eyes opened to gaps in my knowledge, overlaps with colleagues working on very different research topics, and to new perspectives.

I also previously wrote about the fear of not knowing enough about a topic and about feeling the need to prove myself.  Such fears are much bigger if I view my research as a solo effort.  The biggest lesson from my post-doc is that it isn’t.  I need to move on from the PhD-style solo-working, self-sufficient approach to research and the production of outputs.  My work fits alongside other projects and other people’s priorities and I need to make sure that I account for these.  I do find it hard and I am still figuring all this out.  But I also find it beneficial in improving the quality of my research, and ultimately useful in answering the above three questions.

Now I am six-months wiser, I think that my transition to post-doc has been about undoing some of the fierce independence (and resultant isolation) and the narrow focus that I found necessary in my PhD, particularly in the latter phases.  I hope I am becoming a better researcher by being involved, talking about my work, and listening to the input and work of others.

Posted by: jleventon | February 27, 2012

Last week I was asked to speak at a seminar for the Researchers in Development Network (RiDNet) at the University of Leeds.  The topic was on using research assistants in international research.  I realised that I could talk for hours (rather than just 10 minutes) on this topic.  So I decided to summarise a few key points and provide a foundation for questions.  This mindmap is the result.

Posted by: jleventon | December 18, 2011


There’s been a long gap in blog posts from me.  I started a post-doc at the University of Leeds, UK in mid-October, and so I moved from the Czech Republic back to the UK.  It would be easy to blame my lack of blog posts and my sporadic, random tweets on the craziness of settling into a new job; or perhaps the time-sap of commuting from Sheffield, house-hunting in Leeds and then setting up my flat.  But as all that happened in October, and now its December, its not much of an excuse!

The actual reason I haven’t posted for a while is that I don’t know what to post about.  It sounds stupid when you think about all the things I could say about this period in my life.  But before the move, I had been able to position myself quite easily.  I could identify myself by my career status (job seeker, formerly PhD student), my research area (environmental governance), my research topic (contaminants in groundwater) and my lifestyle (nomadic).  Now I am back in my ‘home’ country, employed, researching climate change adaptation and figuring out how to teach.  Only my research area stayed the same and I am not sure that I feel comfortable enough in my new definition yet to be able to communicate with the wider world about it.

Yesterday, I realised that my transitional confusion is what I should blog about. Its a bit scary to be setting myself up in a whole new environment.  But its also quite common – many post-docs move topic and location after their PhD (some multiple times). In doing so, I’m sure many repeatedly feel the fear: The fear of sounding stupid to people you don’t really know yet; the fear of not knowing enough about a new topic; or the fear of annoying people with your different working style.  It can all be a bit bewildering.  However, I am finding that it can be simultaneously great as I am shown new perspectives and get to work with some great people on exciting projects!

Posted by: jleventon | September 12, 2011

Running away from my thesis

I haven’t written for a while because I have been a little distracted with papers and job applications… and a lot of running.  I have run almost my entire life, and have been a competitive athlete throughout my twenties (1500/5000m on track with the occasional half marathon for fun).  I once said in #PhDChat that running defines me as much as my research.  But I did a track race shortly after submitting ‘The Thesis’ and was shocked at how just how unfit I was; I was being easily beaten by people I should have been showing a clean pair of heels to.  I felt like I was barely an athlete anymore because ‘The Thesis’ had taken over the running.

Pre-thesis, I saw running as a way to clarify my thoughts.  I have to put brain power into training. I have to concentrate on the terrain or on the pace, making sure I keep pushing through speed reps or am regulating the speed on longer runs; not too fast, but not to drift too much either.  When I turn on the training part of my brain, the academic bit of my brain is tidying itself up. When I sit back down at my desk, things I have been struggling with for hours suddenly seem to be filed in the right place and I get a lot done.

During ‘The Thesis’ I had no brain power left to turn on ‘training’ mode.  I could just about manage short, easy runs, but could not do anything hard and if the weather was bad I just didn’t go.

Pre-thesis, running helped me to plan work and remain focussed.  I don’t want to miss training because I have failed to finish something.  Like many people, I tend to break work into smaller tasks and schedule them.  Training twice per day provides a large amount of structure around which to create such a schedule.  Obviously in working with other people and doing fieldwork I have to remain flexible, but as a general way of shaping my days, this seems to work.

During ‘The Thesis’, because I wasn’t able to think about running in the same way anymore, I started to try to fit running around my thesis.  I would promise myself that I would go running when I wrote something worth writing. Unfortunately, I rarely felt like I had got to this point, and when I did it was usually in the small hours of the morning.

Its now three months since my defence.  I went through a period of just running and doing very little work (and no blogging, tweeting, etc).  During this period, I went away with my Czech training group to the High Tatras in Slovakia for the hardest week of training I have ever done and I followed it up with a month of intense training that left me exhausted.  Now I am back feeling busy but happily fitting in both work and running, with a bit of socialising too.  I am racing this weekend, so I guess I will find out just how much the balance has been restored!

Posted by: jleventon | July 25, 2011

A Bit of Self-Definition

I am surprised by the extent to which my current post-PhD job search is causing self reflection and critique.  During my PhD I did a fair amount of career planning, including skills training, aptitude tests, research on working environments and career trajectories, etc.  But its one thing to plan a career theoretically, and quite another thing to actually apply for jobs.  Its possible to have a career trajectory in mind, to know the steps for getting there and to be trained in skills for the job and skills for getting the job… but then you actually have to find and apply for an isolated position that forms a single part of that career trajectory.  It is down to the individual to figure out how this fixed term position or grant fits into their wider goals.  Which means that for me, moving from the theoretical to the real-world in my job search has meant thinking very carefully about how I fit into a given role, and how that role fits with me.

I theoretically planned that I would look anywhere in the world for work; but I have learned that I need to feel a little bit more settled in my location (at least for the moment).  I have spent the last few years moving around and dealing with the associated upheaval to both work and personal life. As a result I am not really tied to anywhere as I have not had the chance to put down deep roots.  My nomadic lifestyle has many positive points, not least that I like to travel, I have learned to adapt quickly and I have a range of contacts in various countries.  However, I have run out of steam a little bit.  I would like to be able to work without first learning a whole new culture and language.  I would like to be able to keep the friends I already have, and I am certainly not willing to go back to a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend!   So instead of taking an ‘anywhere in the world’ approach, I am taking the time to think about the longer term career implications of countries, and of how well I feel I can fit into the working environment and build up a life outside of work.

My theoretical career plan places my research trajectory within issues of environmental governance, particularly around explaining failures to create or act on policies; but when faced with actual job applications I have to be more specific.  Jobs usually do not only pertain to governance issues, but also to the specific environmental process (or set of processes) or to specific forms of governance system.  The types of problem that I work on now, or the governance contexts that I work within, could influence the type of researcher I am perceived as in the future, and therefore ongoing, future career opportunities.  I am therefore trying to understand how advertised jobs would fit in with my widest research goals.  Which means that I have had to think about what these are and articulate them (so much easier said than done), then I had to consider how previous work fits into this.  Now I am in a position to visualise how specific advertised jobs fit into this schema and can see for myself how they build upon the foundations I have already laid and which route they take towards my widest research goals.

Its just over a month since I finished my PhD, and in that space of time, my approach to job searching has greatly evolved into something very focussed.  In the same way that the advertising organisations have lists of essential and desirable attributes for their future employee, I now have a set of essential and desirable attributes for future employers.  I am very flexible, but I have come to learn that there are some criteria that I need to meet in order to be happy and to work (and live) well.  I realise that the choices of a recent PhD graduate in today’s economic climate are fairly limited, and that I will have to work hard to get any job.  But I think that makes it more important that I channel my energies into those positions that I actually really want, and that I will be dedicated to, rather than applying for everything indiscriminately in the hope that something sticks.  Fortunately, I am able to tide myself over while I take a bit of time to write papers and conduct my targeted job search… so I am not going hungry (yet).

Posted by: jleventon | June 21, 2011

Graduation – the end?

I attended my graduation ceremony last week, just three days after I defended my PhD thesis.  I pushed to get my defence done in time to graduate then; my university only does one ceremony a year, and I didn’t want to defend and then wait 12 months to graduate.  It was difficult to explain to anyone why it was so important to me.  Whether or not I did the ceremony now or next year made no difference to my status as a doctor.  Its a very long ceremony where I had to sit in a hot and airless room in Budapest in summer while wearing a synthetic full-length gown.  I knew that my parents couldn’t come and on the day I was utterly exhausted after writing the thesis, then completing pre-defence, corrections and final defence within six weeks of submission.  But I knew that I really needed to be at that graduation.

My motivation for being there was that I needed a full-stop to the PhD.  Finishing a degree can be fairly anti-climatic.  For my undergraduate degree, I worked hard, got through exams, then 2 weeks later the result was pinned on a wall in a corridor. It wasn’t until we all, as a class, entered the graduation hall dressed in robes, that I actually felt any sense of achievement. For my Master’s degree, I handed in my thesis, then moved to Hungary and started my PhD.  My mum opened my results and phoned to tell me.   I wasn’t able to attend the graduation ceremony, and I don’t feel like I ever really took the time to celebrate or acknowledge the completion of that phase of my life.  Maybe something about the ceremony and the tradition changes something in my head and lets me feel like its over.  Maybe its the idea that there is a brief moment of collective recognition for an achievement.  Or maybe its just the fact that there is a day, a definite date instead of a petering out, to which you can mentally assign the end of the degree, and therefore a day on which you can finally breathe out and begin to feel like its all behind you.

Certainly, my PhD graduation goes down in my mental scrapbook as one of the most emotional days of my life.  Receiving my results at the end of my defence was an odd experience.  An audience member remarked afterwards that I hadn’t smiled and I just looked kind of numb.  Which is appropriate as thats how I felt.  The next couple of days were frantic as I completed administrative tasks and entertained my brother in Budapest.  Then suddenly it was graduation day, which I was pleased to be sharing with four other colleagues from my department.  We did class photos, drank champagne in the Gresham Palace and nervously lined up together for the academic procession onto the stage.  Standing on the stage, being hooded by the professors and collecting my diploma was an intense experience for me, and it did provide the moment at which I started feeling elation that I have completed a PhD.  But to my surprise, the moments of realisation and celebration didn’t end there.  When I got home to the Czech Republic and my friends and almost-family held a party to celebrate, I felt it all over again.  And I think the feeling has translated into a drive and renewed motivation to write up my planned papers, get them published, and find a job in which to continue my research, which despite the tribulations of completing a PhD, I do love.  So it feels a little like the graduation formed only one of the dots on an ellipsis (PhD… to be continued), rather than the full stop I was expecting.

P.S.  I applied for a job this week using the title Dr and that felt good!

The answer to a very good question from a committee member in my thesis pre-defence, which I passed (phew).

This blog post is prompted by a question on my interdisciplinary work environment that I was asked in my thesis pre-defence.  My committee gave me some nice things to think over.  In particular, I was asked about my involvement in a wider research network during the PhD research; the AquaTRAIN network consisted of 15 PhD and post-doc researchers in 15 European institutions, researching every aspect of the problem of naturally-occurring arsenic in groundwater.  I was the official social scientist amongst 14 epidemiologists, geochemists and biochemists and my role in the network was to look at policy implications of research findings.  The PhD topic that I created was to explain non-implementation of EU policies relating to the control of health impacts from arsenic in groundwater.  The main question raised at my pre-defence in relation to the network was over how I thought being a member had impacted upon my research. I have given it some thought, and this blog post presents my answer.

Working in a network has provided me with access to a wealth of knowledge and expertise.  I learned about dose-response curves in epidemiology; biomarkers of arsenic exposure; environmental controls on arsenic mobility in soils; and much more besides.  In short, if I needed to find out any information about the source, pathway and exposure components of the problem of geogenic arsenic in groundwater, I had access to people who knew and were willing to tell (or give me a paper to read).  In this way, the network contributed to providing the foundation knowledge I needed to access different disciplines.

The network also provided me with the opportunity to think critically about the knowledge I was accessing. I had opportunities to observe the working processes of peers in other fields, and therefore gained insight into how knowledge is constructed in their discipline. Through joint workshops, I even did some water sampling, learned about soil analysis, did some GIS analysis and chemical modeling. By understanding the construction processes, I can better understand the strengths and limitations in results, how they fit together and barriers to integration.  In this way, the network contributed to the skills I needed to integrate different disciplines.

My communication skills were often tested through my involvement in the network.  I gave conference presentations on my own work to an audience comprising physical scientists. I found that if I pitched it too hard, and used language from my discipline, no-one understood what I was trying to say.  But if I pitched it too easy, they considered that it wasn’t academic work and it was harder to convince them that it was worth listening.  On a more local scale, this dilemma existed in discussions within the network; I found I was tailoring my language or presenting my points using concepts or comparisons with the physical disciplines in order to be understood.  Being understood while maintaining academic respect was essential in shaping research output, discussing points and in having other people understand how my work fitted into theirs. I am not saying that I am perfect at such communication (I’ll recount horror stories one day), but in providing me with practice, the network has contributed to my ability to use my acquired skills and knowledge in order to implement and disseminate research.

So to answer the original question of how the network impacted upon my research, the answer is that it became integral to the research.  The findings of my thesis highlight that non-implementation of policies is caused by failings in the causal theories and the administration of policies, and that these occur at multiple points in the governance system.  Reaching these findings was only possible because of the big-picture, holistic approach that I took in my research.  I studied the entire governance system including all policy actors, the written policies, the outcomes they prompted and their justification.   I could not have taken this approach if I had not been able to engage with, and draw on, the diverse range of physical science that is incorporated into water policies.  Therefore, while the research itself was independent and had a methodology which stands alone, my ability to design and execute it was vastly enriched by my involvement within the interdisciplinary network.  With this answer in mind, I tweaked my thesis conclusions a little; in the section where I discuss future requirements in implementation research, I also argue for a problem-focussed network approach as a way of meeting these requirements.

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