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What can be learned about research from a doctoral program

Supporting the Profession Center for Women
November 26, 2018 Angela Hoffman

Hint: It’s not just research methods and data analysis!

Like many other things in life research is messy.  I was initially attracted to conducting research under the illusion that it takes a complicated experience and simplifies it, making it clearer and more linear. While this may be the true for some research studies it certainly has not been the case for mine, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  As I prepare to conduct a constructivist qualitative study on the identity development of students with experience in foster care, I have come to understand that sometimes research takes something complicated and further complicates it so that we may come to better understand lived experiences and the complexities of our world.

Throughout my doctoral journey I have been reminded to embrace the mess, to set aside my perfectionistic tendencies and in doing so to take time to pause, to be okay with the silence, and envelop myself in the uncomfortable. Engaging in research has becoming a daily practice in questioning that which is commonly assumed yet never uttered aloud, in honoring those who dynamically exist and resist yet are hidden by dominant discourse, and as the faculty in my courses say, “taking the implicit and making it explicit.”

Research is personal and it’s political (even when we may try to pretend it’s not). In alignment with taking the implicit and making it explicit, I would be remiss if I did not consider the ways in which I interact with and influence the research I am conducting. Otherwise known as positionality, my identities, lived experiences, beliefs, and values enter with me into the research process and uniquely position me in relation to my research study.  As a cisgender, pansexual, temporarily able-bodied, white woman with experience in foster care and a career as a student affairs scholar-practitioner, I come to understand the identity development of students with experience in foster care from this place. As I conduct this study I may have identities or experiences that are similar to or different from the participants and as such I may simultaneously hold both an insider and outsider status.

Whether I make it explicit or not, the reality is my positionality shapes the entire research process, ranging from what I choose to study, how the study is conducted, how I interact with participants, how they respond to me, how I interpret the data, and how I choose to report and share the findings.  As I write this I am reminded of the feminist dictum “the personal is political.” As it has been established that research is inherently personal, so it may also be political as our personal experiences are often shaped by existing political structures and public policy. As I approach this study I strive to be aware of the ways in which the knowledge co-created with participants through this study may support the creation of critically informed policy that may have liberatory effects for supporting students with experience in foster care through higher education.

Research is better when done in community. I don’t know where I would be without my network of scholars.  While my doctoral cohort members are scattered all across the nation I appreciate that we come together each week for class, greeting one another through our “Brady Brunch” screen (otherwise known as Zoom web conferencing) through which our classes take place. Sometimes we log in early or stay after class just to catch up with one another and other times will send each other a quick GroupMe message to lend support or lament a particularly challenging aspect of our journey to becoming researchers and scholars.

The truth is I’m a better researcher when I’m in community with others. This summer I read a tweet that said, “when scholars become ‘me’ focused rather than ‘we’ focused we all suffer and our fields become more and more vain and disconnected.” This reminded me of the importance of “we-search”, engaging in research across topic areas with community, for community, and in community to determine how our research might contribute to collective efforts toward liberation. My scholarly community helps me think about my research from different perspectives and identify the complex intersections between my research and the world.  For those looking to build a research community, NASPA’s Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Knowledge Community and NASPA’s Journals offer another pathway to establishing such a network of support.

There is strength and support along the way.

Lastly, the research journey is rigorous and it is not without challenge but it is important to keep in mind that your findings just might change a part of higher education policy or praxis, as we know it.  I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from fantastic faculty who demonstrate the art of research, the importance of research collaboration, and the capacity for grace for self and others. With that, I will leave you with the words of Dr. Susana Muñoz the Higher Education Leadership Ph.D. Program Coordinator at Colorado State University who I am fortunate to have had as an instructor some of my courses and as an advisor guiding me through doctoral studies.  She ends each of our class sessions with the closing wisdom, “Be kind to yourself; be kind to each other. Take care of yourself; take care of each other.” As a community of scholars together we can find strength and support on our shared research journey.

Bio: Angela Hoffman is learner, educator, and scholar-practitioner.  Currently serving as the Assistant Director of Orientation Programs at Michigan Technological University, Angela experienced foster care as a youth and has committed her educational and personal pursuits to increasing postsecondary access and degree attainment for students who do not experience the support of a secure family network.  Angela is pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership through Colorado State University and is involved with the NASPA Community on Homelessness and Foster Care. Twitter: angehoffma