Written by Jed Winstanley, CARMS butterflyHonorary Research Assistant at the CARMS Project

In the previous ‘A Day in the Life of…’ blog post, three of the research assistants told me all about quantitative research and what it is like to work on the quantitative research arm of the CARMS Project. Seeing as the CARMS Project also involves qualitative research I wanted to find out more about this type of research and how it relates to the CARMS Project. Leanne Cook (L) works as a qualitative research assistant (RA) for the CARMS Project and very kindly agreed to sit down with me before the COVID-19 lockdown and answer some of my questions. Here’s what we discussed…

J: Leanne, please would you be able to start by giving a brief overview of yourself and how you came to work for the CARMS Project?

L: I’ve been working on CARMS for nearly two years now. I did a Clinical and Health Psychology Master’s here at the University of Manchester a few years ago. After that I worked and differed off for a bit like completely out of psychology then after a few months I felt like I wanted to do something that was like researching again, particularly because I really enjoyed my Master’s research. It was one of my favourite bits of the Master’s programme. So, I started looking for jobs that were at the university and sort of around Manchester that matched my experience and my interests. When I saw this one for CARMS it fit really well with the qualitative experience that I’ve got. Also, I wasn’t that keen on getting a quantitative RA role, like your standard RA role, because of my experience with qualitative. This post is particularly qualitative focused so it just fit really well.

J: It’s brilliant how that happens sometimes. Now can we just loop back, what is ‘qualitative’ and what do you mean by that term?

L: I suppose an easy distinction to make is that qualitative research is interested more in a person’s experience of something. So, in the context of CARMS, as well as doing the scales, measures and questionnaires and clinical interviews that can tell us statistically how people are feeling or what’s changed. The difference in qualitative research is that you can have conversations and people can tell us about their experience in their own words from their view. It’s a really nice way to like compliment all the quantitative research. It feels much more personal with much smaller numbers of participants and you interview people in various styles and then you can analyse in very different styles depending on what you’re looking for. But the key thing is you get to ask people about their experiences so they can tell you.

[Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash]

J: That’s really interesting. I imagine you get a lot of insight when talking about suicidality. Does that vary from person to person?

L: Yeah definitely, in all the interviews we will always talk about someone’s experience of suicide and what their experience has been like and I think it does really vary from person to person. Some people might not feel comfortable talking so much or they maybe haven’t experienced so much in the way of suicidal experiences so they won’t have as much to talk about. Whereas other people could talk for like a whole hour just about how it was and what happened and how they responded and what they’ve done. It’s really different. For every interview I go to I don’t know what we’re going to talk about. You have a set of questions but you have no idea where it’s going to go or what might come up.

J: Is the conversational aspect of qualitative research something you find particularly enjoyable?

L: I really enjoy sitting and talking with people, like having the time to have a conversation with someone. I suppose that’s what’s always drawn me to do qualitative research is that it’s a different angle, I suppose. You can just sit and talk and you can explore things a little bit more, which I really enjoy. It can definitely be really nerve wracking, like going to meet a stranger and asking them about really personal experiences but I think it’s where I’m most comfortable. I feel like that kind of having a chat suits me more. I think that’s what made me kind of go down this qualitative line rather than in a like a totally different direction.

J: I know I’ve spoken to a few people in my role as a support worker about self-harm and suicide and sometimes just having someone there to listen and feeling heard can be really therapeutic.

L: Yeah it’s a really important thing and there’s loads of research. One of the qualitative projects that we’re working on is looking at what it’s like for people to talk about suicide and suicidal experiences. I think people often say even just meeting with an RA and talking for like an hour or two is so therapeutic and it makes a massive difference.

J: I imagine that’s quite a fine balance. Is it something you found initially difficult to do talking about those really emotional experiences?

L: Yeah, I suppose the more interviews I’ve done the easier it becomes but it’s never an easy thing to do. It can be really upsetting for a participant and it can also upset you when you’re talking with someone. I suppose when I first started though I’d worked with a lot of people before who had diagnoses of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or had suicidal experiences before. Although it was initially nerve wracking, it was sort of something I felt like I had enough base experience to be able to learn how to do in the context of this role.

J: When I spoke with the quantitative researchers they said that one of the more difficult things was to sort of go in, do the research appointment, obviously talking about some potentially distressing content then just having to sort of back away. That’s something they mentioned can be quite tough.

L: I think it’s that something that I struggle with as well. That’s a really hard thing about research in general, that you can’t do anything. The thing that you’re doing to help is doing the research and talking to the person and passing on the information that you need to but I can’t really help them anyways beyond that which I think is really hard. I suppose the difference with my job is that I’ll interview someone then I might spend days or weeks analysing an interview so you spend a lot more time on it than the other RAs. They do their assessments and then they move on to the next person to do their assessments so there’s not as much continuity with the actual person. Whereas I have to like to stick with the data for such a long time and really like go over every single thing that the person said. It’s a much more in-depth thing than just going in to interview them and that’s it.

J: Of course. So I imagine like there’s quite a propensity to really get inside someone’s head if you’re sort of living through their words when describing what they’re experiencing.

L: The point of qualitative research is that you can get a really nuanced perspective so you really begin to understand what that person is saying. You look for things that they’ve said as well as things they haven’t said or things that might be implied or times when they may be struggling to get their words out. All of that is really interesting because it tells you loads about what’s going on for that person and what their experience has been like. I’ll spend days on end going over like one transcript over and over and over. You pick at every single every word, you look at every line, the context of the whole thing. It can be a really lengthy process to try and best represent that group of people and to truly understand what it’s like for them.

J: That’s really interesting. So how do you personally deal with all of that? Like going through that process and analysing and listening to some potentially distressing content over and over again.

L: Quite a lot of supervision. Yvonne Awenat is my clinical supervisor. She’s really, really good and she gives me a lot of time and space. After every interview we have like a little chat about it, usually over the phone, and we always talk about like how it went and if anything came up that maybe I want to talk about. I think that’s really handy in the moment. Daily I try and be really careful how I plan my time because I know that like, say interviewing someone in the morning and then coming back and analysing data all afternoon is really, really heavy. It’s a lot to do. I do also try and reflect on what an interview was like and then try and reflect that when I’m analysing. I’ll keep notes to remind myself what I’m thinking about, maybe what things it brings up or what makes something appear in my head to try to process stuff and try and like understand my point of view. I might be feeling tired or feeling really rubbish and I know that’ll have an impact on how I interview or how I analyse data so I try and be really mindful about what’s going on with me and how that impacted my work or how my work impacted me which is easier said than done. I think it’s important just to acknowledge that and talk about it with your supervisor or with your colleagues, you need to do something with that information or feeling.


[Photo by STIL on Unsplash]

J: I imagine that’s something you acquire with practice. Again, it’s not going to be ‘one-size-fits-all’ like someone might be saying something that could resonate a lot more with you for whatever reason. Now, I’d like to backtrack a little bit and pick up on where you were saying how you’re feeling can sometimes impact how you interview or how you interpret something. Is that common to qualitative research? I was wondering if there’s like a subjective aspect to it?

L: I think with qualitative research, one thing that’s really important is that you acknowledge yourself and your role and when you meet with someone what their impression of you is and what your impression of them is. All of that feeds into what happens in the interview, when you talk or when you analyse something. I do think that is common across research. I do think there’s still an interaction between what’s going on to you and what happened. For example, if you’re having a bit of a difficult day or you’re a bit tired it’s probably not the best time to go and do a qualitative interview. Also, you’re asking someone to give you loads of information about a distressing time in their life. You need the capacity to be able to do them justice, to be able to give them the time and the attention and to be good in a conversation. Yeah, I think there’s a big element of reflection in qualitative research and getting a feel of what your position is and how that impacts all elements of the data is super important.

J: That’s what I think is brilliant about CARMS, that you’ve got the mixture of qualitative and quantitative. You’re looking at all of the different aspects of a person’s experience all in like one sort of big trial. It’s brilliant. Onto the final question now… What would a typical day at work or a typical week at work look like for you?

L: The days really vary depending on what I’m working on. I suppose normally I come in, have a quick check of my emails and like set up my day. I’ll have a few meetings, to maybe meet with my supervisor Sarah Peters. She oversees the qualitative branch of CARMS so we meet quite regularly. We might talk about some analysis I’ve been working on or we might look at a draft of a paper that I’ve written or it might just be a general check-in. That’s like a regular part of my week. Then sometimes I go out interviewing people, sometimes I’m analysing data, sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m just sat having a good think about everything. But the days aren’t ever the same, but they’re a similar kind of routine. I tend to have mornings where I do my emails and kind of get the bulk of my work done and then in the afternoon I tend to go for like admin-based work or I’ll listen to transcripts, or read some papers or I’ll re-draft something.

J: A lot of variety from the sounds of it and juggling lots of different things at once?

L: Yes that’s definitely a key characteristic!

J: Brilliant. Well that’s everything I’ve got so thank you very much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to help me out with this blog post!


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