Thursday, 3 October 2013

Sociology in practice - the HIV and later life project

By Jessica Thorley  


In this post, one of our recent graduates reflects on her experiences of working on a research project at Keele.  


As my degree course was coming to an end, and after 22 years of simply moving from one educational institution to the next, I had no idea what to do next with my life.  I’d loved studying sociology, and knew that I wanted to follow this passion further, but I had no experience of what sociologists really ‘do’ in the real world: how does the classroom stuff translate to the outside world? How does a real research project actually work and what does it entail?  When I was appointed as a research assistant on the HIV and later life project, led by Dr Dana Rosenfeld, I was able to start to answer some of these questions.  

The best thing about my role was the way I was thrown straight into the deep end, whilst still supported every step of the way.  Within previous work experience placements I have undertaken my job role has simply consisted of ‘tea maker’ and ‘washer-upper’, with a little bit of ‘observer of other people doing stuff’- but here I was actively involved in the project.  It was very exciting to see a real research project in practice and feel that I was a part of it.  I had done a little primary research of my own within my undergraduate dissertation, but it was a big leap going from a project based on eight interviews to being involved in a two year project with around 150 participants!  All the team were really supportive and friendly, with Dana mentoring me throughout and always making the time to include me and explain things thoroughly. 

The skills that I developed and the opportunities I received through this internship were invaluable to me as a recent sociology graduate, giving me an insight into the world of social science research.  I was involved in data inputting, using NVivo to code interviews, helping create the end of project event brochure, listening in on media meetings and phone calls, and a little bit of data analysis.  I was able to watch and be a part of sociology in action – not just reading a text book but handling masses of data about people’s real lives and experiences.  One of the main things I learnt was about the importance of ethics and water-tight methodology to ensure participants voices are heard, respected and represented properly.  It showed me how essential methods training is (even if the modules are often a little dry!) and how methods can actually be really interesting when applied to real life projects.  I was also able to make some connections between theories I had learnt about during my degree and the data I was looking at, reassuring me that the stuff I have spent three years of my life on is relevant, and not just confined to classrooms and my dusty folders. 

Being part of this project has taught me so much about social science research and its key role in highlighting issues and raising awareness of invisible populations and problems. I have had a really exciting and fascinating summer, and the experience has boosted my self-confidence and interest in research, and made it seem a lot less daunting as a possible career choice. As a recent graduate, the freedom to do whatever you want can often leave you feeling a bit lost and unsure what direction to go down, but this internship has helped give me focus and inspiration. I now plan to go on to do a masters course next year, with the aim of entering a career in research and/or social policy.

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