My Experience of Doing Research as an Undergraduate!

It is official, both the publications that myself and team submitted as part of the research team I have been involved in for the past 2 years, have been accepted! The first was confirmed without any changes and was published in the September 2020 issue of MIDIRS; the second required two revisions and then got the tick of approval. I am still waiting to hear when it will be published, but it will be in Midwifery, some point in the near future, and is already accessible and available electronically! 

Today, I wanted to share a little summary of my personal experience of doing research as an undergraduate. The first paper shares the experiences of the group as a whole, but doesn't necessarily capture everything, nor unique, individual perspectives so I thought it would be a great way to share my story and hopefully encourage others to get involved in research in the future. 

The process began with through an email which advertised the entire project as a CASCADE Funded research opportunity for midwifery students, under the full title of: Introducing midwifery students to the world of research: building the basis for evidence based practice future leaders. I've always loved research and as soon as I saw the opportunity, it was something I wanted to be involved in. I did however have a couple of questions as I was still in my first year of Midwifery studies and wanted to ensure I would be able to complete both simultaneously, without either suffering. I was quickly satiated and reassured that the amount of participation and commitment would be discussed to prevent students being overloaded. 

For the expression of interest, I had to submit a statement of interest, explaining why I would like to be involved in the project and then discuss which project I would prefer the most, as there was a choice of two. I discussed how I had been involved in research prior, through my Extended Project Qualification and how I felt it would be great to be involved in physical research from such an early stage. I spoke about myself, in terms of how my characteristics would support the project. Finally, I finished with how I thought the project of my preference would benefit my professional practice, subject awareness and the families I care for in the future. 

Ultimately, my application was successful and we then started the research. We were invited to an introductory meeting, where we discussed the commitments and plan of action, as well as meeting the other students involved. They ended up splitting the project between 6 students, 4 on one project and 2 on the other, divided by cohort, so there was just 2 on the project I worked on. To be honest, I was so glad for this because even though there was a full on workload, the biggest difficulty was meeting everyone in the project team at the same time. Had it have been any bigger, I think we would have struggled to ever meet up in full. 

Our project was a few months behind the other project at the start, due to ethical approval processes and funding, so those aspects had already begun when we joined the project. We then waited until after Christmas to officially start, however we did have a couple of entire project team lessons, on basic research skills and expectations. 

When everything was good to go, we had meetings to discuss how we were going to run the focus groups, how to advertise and wrote our question guide. We hoped for 40 students in total, and felt 2 sites, with 2 focus groups at each would be the most successful and time efficient method. We also wanted to ensure participants had the freedom to speak, so despite having specific questions we needed to cover to meet the objectives of the project, we wanted it to be an open conversation to a certain extent. In the end, we made the decision to have our project lead facilitate our first two focus groups, with myself and the other student, co-facilitating one each, then I led the third focus group, whilst she led the second. 

I really enjoyed the experience of facilitating the focus groups and found it taught me a lot in terms of communication skills and being able to read the subtilties in the room. Using these skills to guide the conversation is something I will defintely take forward into my future research projects and career. It was a great learning lesson and I was glad I was able to witness first hand, how our project lead did this. Even though I had been a participant of focus groups before, it's a completely different experience when looking at it from the alternative viewpoint. It also allowed me to recognise first hand, how the logistics and ethical considerations come into play, by ensuring understanding and gaining consent...aka paperwork.

We recorded all four focus groups in full, thankfully hiring a professional to transcribe. This saved us a lot of time and I was very grateful. However, what I didn't realise was that we still had to go through these to ensure accuracy and fill in any gaps, which couldn't be guaranteed by the transcriber, however was easier for us to write as we were present. Luckily, we each took one focus group from each site, rather that doing all four each. 

We did touch base with the larger group a couple of times during this process, and I'd actually forgotten until looking back at pictures that we did two mini presentations on the process thus far. 

Data analysis was the next step and by far, the hardest and biggest bane of my life. I hated every second of it and it felt like it was never ending. As we had such great focus groups, we had so much data and ended up analysing by thematic analysis, involving themes and codes. I felt that we didn't have much guidance at the start of this, and as a result it was a slow and painful process. We didn't really understand what or how to do what was being asked. After we mentioned it to a different member of staff, she sent a template of what the other team were using and it was so helpful. From there the process went a little quicker, however, we still slogged away. It was hard to do it separately because we needed to ensure agreement between the themes, but also finding time to do that, whilst we were both on placement in different locations, was a struggle. I think if I'd have done it alone, it actually would have been quicker, because we were constantly debating the themes as we had different opinions, but the results would not have been as rigorous. 

The other consideration I never really expected was the timeline. The second site wanted to wait until after assessments, and as such, that delayed the project by a couple of months. Instead of waiting and pausing the project completely, we ended up continuing with the data we had already collected and then fitting the other data in and slightly altering the analysis if needed. This made the second data analysis round much quicker, as we had already had experience and a system set up. 

For the majority of the data analysis, we as students were just left to do our own thing. Once we felt we were completed, we had a meeting with our project lead where we discussed overarching themes, and altered the names of some themes. We discussed some ideas and then after a couple weeks, came back to finalise them, meeting as students in between and to condense the number of themes. If I'm honest, I was quite happy with the original themes and a lot of the changes (albeit small) ended up being 2 against 1, with me as the 1. I think, if we didn't have a time limit and and end goal, the themes could have changed constantly! Every time we looked at them, someone wanted to change something. 

Once the themes were confirmed, the next step was to disseminate the data. The main goal was to get the research published. This was a long and lengthy process, but luckily, the entire time divided the workload evenly. The students, myself included, were to write the data analysis section, the application to midwifery was written by another team member and the introduction section (which was written as part of the project proposal) was written by the team leader. The final conclusions was a team effort, with involvement from all members. The wider project team also reviewed the paper prior to submission. We then had to make a couple of changes during the submission paper, as discussed earlier, until it was final submitted. 

About half way through this publication writing process, we also all participated in a focus group, as students. Throughout the process, due to personal circumstances, two students had left (one very early and one just after data collection) but they were still involved in the feedback session as their responses may influence future implications. The hope is that, due to our experience, more funding can be found in the future to further involve students as undergraduates in research. 

Of course, we also wanted to present the work alongside the publication. We actually presented via posters at both International Day of Midwife and Nurse in 2019, prior to data analysis being finalised, mainly discussing the general project. Then we presented a draft version to our cohort, at our Student Led Conference, before doing a real presentation at the RCM Conference (both Education and Research) and VIDM (Virtual International Day of the Midwife). We also applied for another, but were unsuccessful, however I think we did well to get 2 out of 3 submissions! 

Overall, I think being involved in the research project as an undergraduate has been a really amazing experience. It has given me a true insight into the research process and the logistics of it all, with unexpected considerations. Whilst it's given me motivation to continue my research career, it's also given me an awareness of aspects I do dislike, but I can appreciate the benefits and weaknesses of each method. I think this knowledge helped me a lot with my two research modules which were completed after commencing the project, especially the research proposal in my third year. I did feel like we as students, were left alone a lot more than anticipated and originally discussed, which was a shame when we had a lot of other pressures. I often felt like the project lead was too busy for us and unlike the other project, I didn't find we had as much guidance...but then again, this had it's own positives as it forced us to work on our leadership and communication skills, practice courage and learn independently. 

When I was presenting at the RCM Conferences, I talked to a lot of other midwives, and specifically lecturers, with all of them very interested in my experience, and taking it forward into their own university programmes. If you ever get the opportunity to be involved as an undergraduate, I would strongly recommend jumping at the chance, but me mindful of obligations and time restrictions you may have. You can be involved in research in so many ways, and even if you're just a participant in a focus group, it really does help the bigger picture!