With COVID-19 jeopardising research projects, you might think it's a bit late for risk assessments. Not according to Pat Thomson.
A lot of research doesn’t go to plan. Researchers encounter a few hiccups along the way and, in order to avoid problems, they make adjustments. The research goes ahead, just slightly differently.
Bumps and hiccups
The most common problems in the work I do are things like failing to recruit enough people, participants withdrawing or refusing permission for their data to be used, research staff leaving in the middle of a project, or one of the research investigators getting ill.
These kinds of hiccups are not surprising and can be planned for. That’s why, in the normal run of things, researchers seeking funding often have to produce a risk management schedule, anticipating things that might go wrong and deciding whether these are a high, low or medium probability. They put a contingency plan in place. Then they go on.
Very occasionally, a research project doesn’t get off the ground. Or it has to close down prematurely. Occasionally up until now, that is.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put down pandemic as a risk. Who knew that this was going to be a thing, and that it would close down labs, projects, and perhaps even a researcher’s entire PhD? Now is the time that risk management thinking becomes real. What do we do?
Many universities are now asking their PhD students to draw up risk management plans. This is not simply a bureaucratic exercise – if risk management plans are completed and handed in, they will give graduate school administrations some helpful information about the kinds and numbers of extensions, additional funding and support they might need to provide.
But considering risks has another benefit. Thinking the unthinkable means researchers and supervisors have to face up to today’s hard choices. Risk management teaches us that having a plan, and then another backup plan, are helpful. We don’t just sit around waiting to see what might happen, we don’t leave things to chance, unless we calculate that this is sensible. We decide how long to let things drift and the point at which we have to make a choice. So putting all this down on paper – and that’s the risk management process – might be a very helpful strategy for PhD students and supervisors as well as their universities.
How ‘risk thinking’ works
Some of questions that are helpful for PhD students to ask and discuss with supervisors are:
1. Even though I hadn’t planned to, can I stop my empirical work now?
How much data have I got already? Is the data substantive enough to answer my question? Does stopping now give me an opportunity to add in some desk work (see 4)? Is there a theoretical or conceptual resource I can use to do more with the data that I have?
2. Can I keep going with my empirical work?
Are these changed circumstances an opportunity to do something I hadn’t anticipated but that will nevertheless help me answer my research questions(s)? Will people and places be happy for me to continue or will my presence be an unwelcome intrusion? Even if they agree to keep on with the research is this an ethical ask at this point in time? If I find I’m getting in the way, do I need to stop (see 1) or can I redesign in some way (see 3)?
3. Can I redesign my research?
Can I switch to an alternative method or methods without altering my research question? Can I use online methods? Can I make an existing desk work section (using materials available at my desk such as media, archival sources, policy texts) a bigger part of the study? Is there a creative way to engage people that they might also find enjoyable and of benefit? (See Deborah Lupton’s helpful open-source Google doc for some alternative methods. Will people want to do it (see 2)?
Or will the redesign change my research question in some way? How? Will the resulting research be coherent?
Do I need new ethical approval? How long will this take given that people are now working from home? What if the ethics committee says no to different methods (see 4 and 5)?
4. Do I need to put my research on hold?
How long can I realistically wait? What can I most usefully do in the meantime? Perhaps an analysis of current data, writing a paper, writing a chapter or two, or catching up on key reading?
Do I need additional support (funding, permission) while I am waiting? How can I get support to do this? What does my institution and/or funder need to do? How can my supervisor help me to make this case?
Will things have changed by the time I pick things up again? How might this affect the research? Will I need to do some rethinking (see 3)? What is the likelihood that I won’t get permission to continue in future?
At what point might I need to stop altogether?
5. Do I need to abandon my research altogether?
If the answer is no, is there a point in the future when I can pick the research up again? What might I need to do in order to pick it up again?
If the answer is yes, will I be able to pick up something else and how can I start to prepare for that now (see 4)? How can I get support to do this? What does my institution and/or funder need to do to support me? How can my supervisor help me to make this case – and do they have the time to do this now?
Ride the wave
There are some tough choices to make but facing up to difficult circumstances and unpalatable decisions can be a way to take some control. Thinking through risks means we can ride the pandemic wave, no matter how bumpy it may be.
Check institution webpages to see how universities are gearing up alternative ways to provide support. Follow #phdpandemic on Twitter, and @virtualnotviral is holding weekly chats about all things doctoral in unprecedented times.