Managing research risks – riding the wave of #phdpandemic


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 to their process. The research goes ahead, just slightly differently.

But what usually goes wrong in research? The most common problems in the kind of research that I do are things like failing to recruit enough people or places, participants withdrawing or refusing permission for their data to be used at some point, research staff leaving in the middle of a project, one of the research investigators getting ill.

These kinds of hiccups are not surprising. They can be imagined, and then planned for. Then, if they do occur, it doesn’t come as a complete shock, and you already know what to do.

In the normal run of things researchers seeking funding often have to produce a risk management schedule. They have to anticipate things that might go wrong, things like those listed above, and decide whether these are a high, low or medium probability. Then they put a contingency plan in place. Then they go on.

But only 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 actually knew that this was going to be a thing, and that it would close down labs, projects, and perhaps even the PhD? But now it is on us.  Now is the time when risk management thinking becomes really real. What do we do?

Many universities are now asking their PhDers 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 PhDers 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 PhDers and supervisors as well as their universities.

If that’s the case, what to do? How does risk thinking work?

Some of questions that are helpful for PhDers 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 will nevertheless help me answer my research questions(s)? Will people and places be happy to have me 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? Will people/places start by wanting to be agreeable but are in reality likely to get sick of me getting in the way? If so, do I need to stop (see 1) or can I redesign in some way (see 3)?

3. Can I redesign my research in some way?

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 googledoc for some alt. methods possibilities.) And will people want to do it (see 2)?

Or will the redesign change my research question in some way? What? How? Is this really defensible? Will the resulting research be coherent? Will it just create a mess?

Do I need new ethical approval? How long will this take given that they are now working from home? What if the Ethics Committee say no to different methods (see 4 and 5)?

4. Do I need to put my research on hold for a bit?

How long can I realistically wait? If I can wait for a bit, what can I most usefully do in the meantime – analysis of current data, write a paper, write a chapter or two, catch up on some 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 to support me to wait? How can my supervisor help me to make this case?

Will things have changed by the time I can pick things up again? How might this affect the research? Will things have changed to the point where I need to do some rethinking (see 3)? What is the likelihood that I won’t get permission to continue when we get to whatever the new normal is?

What is the point where I have to say I need to stop altogether (see (5)?

5.  Do I need to abandon my research altogether?

If the answer is no, then – 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, then – Am I going to be able to start this exact same thing again? Will it be something different next time and if so what – and if so, 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 to do this? How can my supervisor help me to make this case? Does my supervisor have the time to do this now they are having to put all their teaching online?

Some tough choices to make.

I am sure that you can think of other things besides these – but it’s a start and, most importantly, you see how risk management thinking goes. And what it does.

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 is – rather than fall off and be swamped.

But of course, we need support to do that. Universities are gearing up alternative ways to provide that support now, so do check your home institution webpages.

But also we benefit from collegiality – our new #phdpandemic account @virtualnotviral is holding weekly chats about all things doctoral in unprecedented times – Chats begin on March 23, 9am GMT and 8pm, AEST.