Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Vulnerable Researcher: Some Unanticipated Challenges of Doctoral Fieldwork

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Vulnerable Researcher: Some Unanticipated Challenges of Doctoral Fieldwork

Article excerpt

Graduate students who choose to undertake the rigours of doctoral research do so for a variety of reasons, but for many it is a first and necessary step towards acquiring future academic employment. In the current hiring environment in which those who seek academic employment in the social sciences exceed the number of available jobs, a great deal depends on the quality of one's doctoral dissertation and subsequent potential to generate research publications. Yet for those whose research is motivated, in full or in part, by a commitment to environmental and/or social justice, there is another aspect of performance measurement to be grappled with as part of a doctoral research project. Starting from a critical, and in our cases feminist, research perspective, required that explicit attention be paid to the ethical nature of the research project, particularly when research participants are involved.

Finding an appropriate balance between the requirements of ethical research and the requirements of academic success can be challenging, particularly for novice researchers. For example, while peer-reviewed publication of research findings is the sine qua non of academic research, and considered a critical factor in securing postdoctoral academic employment, publication of sensitive findings may conflict with requests for participant confidentiality. In some cases participants may request that researchers withhold publication of results for a period of time so as not to undermine local initiatives. In particularly sensitive cases, participants may request that researchers not publish the findings at all, leaving researchers in a compromised position in terms of their professional advancement. We contend that this tension can situate doctoral researchers in a position of unexpected professional vulnerability--potentially jeopardizing the timely completion of their degree and subsequent ability to succeed in the academic arena. We argue that issues of researcher vulnerability must be made visible so that these tensions can be explicitly addressed--theoretically and practically--as part of the doctoral research process.

Those engaging in doctoral work are often assumed to be in positions of privilege, especially when the research involves vulnerable and/or marginalized populations. Yet doctoral students are also, in many ways, highly vulnerable themselves. Successful and timely completion of a doctoral degree is often dependent on factors largely outside the researcher's immediate control, including adequate funding, and sufficient departmental and supervisory support. For those attempting to engage in participatory, community-based research, the availability of fieldwork (including identification of a relevant, timely, and topical issue as well as a community willing to participate in the research) is a minimum prerequisite for success. Moreover, doctoral candidates tend also to be younger and/or less experienced scholars, many of whom are likely unaware of their professional vulnerability as researchers. As novice investigators, they may be more likely to undertake the type of research that will leave them in a vulnerable position. Given that we found ourselves, in various ways, both powerful and vulnerable in the course of our doctoral research, we did our best to "work the hyphens" (Fine, 1994, p. 70) between these two positions in our attempts to engage in meaningful, ethical, and academically rigorous research.

While we were both successful in completing our doctoral dissertations, we were surprised by the degree of professional vulnerability each of us experienced during the research process, and equally surprised to find little methodological or theoretical guidance within the existing research literature. Researcher vulnerability in general, and doctoral researcher vulnerability in particular, remains an un(der)-researched area--one seldom addressed in the literature. This paper attempts to address this gap by making visible aspects of researcher vulnerability as a means of problematizing current discussions about the complex (and shifting) nature of power relations within qualitative research theory and practice. …

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