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6.2 Reflections on personal development as a practitioner-researcher

I feel that I have gained extensively in skills and confidence from completing a PhD, and have developed across all four of the domains suggested by the Vitae professional development framework (Vitae, 2011). Being a member of several professional organisations, and also wishing to develop my career as a practitioner-researcher I am particularly aware of the need for continuous professional development. My professional membership of organisations relating to my previous educational qualifications depends on me maintaining my CPD for the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC), and Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), which both require 50 hours over 2 years and completion of professional development plans. My PhD technically meets all of these needs quantitatively, but I am always seeking to develop my skills further, particularly in relation to the integration of my academic and professional practice. I am also a member of the Association of Illustrators (AoI) and Society for All Artists (SAA), who although they do not require formal recording of CPD are relevant organisations reflecting my creative interests and as such I will utilise work from my PhD to contribute to my overall professional portfolio, which as it is a rather unique set of skills I therefore embrace the following philosophy:

“What matters to us is not the form or origin of CPD, but its content and the relationship back to your professional needs... CPD can be almost

anything, so use your imagination” (Institute of Historic Building

Conservation, 2009, p.4).


Similarly I believe strongly that “practitioner research may be understood as a lifelong journey of professional development that not only takes place in formal settings, such as schools and universities, but particularly in informal and non-formal settings” (Heikkinen, de Jong and Vanderlinde, 2016, p.5) therefore in working with community groups and observing work which took place as part of the Paisley 2021 team, the PhD process has enabled me to gain skills beyond research, benefiting my interpersonal and personal confidence through the managing of the project and the relationships which are required for practice-based research. Using many different forms of creative activity helped to explain and explore the culture of Renfrewshire whilst appealing to different audiences. It also allowed me to use my diverse creative skills portfolio as part of academic framework, where practice benefits research and research informs practice.


Gomm (2004) is highly critical of practice-based research, asserting that “applying the term research to what would otherwise be called community work…turns what practitioners would ordinarily do as practice into research... this usually turns out to be research which looks very much like practitioners doing their thing and studying it at the same time” (Gomm, 20014, p.293). As a practice-based PhD researcher, I crossed institutional boundaries and teams, operating independently of the local authority I was located within, but able to use the resources both within and outwith my host organisations, which is a competence encouraged by Vitae in several competencies relating to partnership working, personal effectiveness and communication in working with others (Vitae, 2011).


Moulding and forming my identity as a practitioner-researcher has been a valuable part of the PhD process, involving reflecting on my own approach and its applicability within academia. I would argue that I am a practitioner-researcher, rather than a researcher-practitioner; I feel the need to engage in practice but practice alone does not allow me to contribute to debate around policy and theory development, yet research alone would not allow me to engage in work with communities or industry and thus have a potential larger impact. My training as a reflective practitioner (Hillier, 2005, Minton, 2005) means that I also have a natural tendency to engage in a reflective feedback loop which leads me towards wanting to evaluate my practice improve my practice for the benefit of myself and those I work with, and engage in continuous professional development to further improve. Writing based around the discipline

of education has a great deal of literature discussing the definitions of practitioner-researcher, and my previous academic studies no doubt influence my self-identification as such. If “a practitioner is someone who belongs to a community of other practitioners, like a parishioner belongs to a parish” (Heikkinen, de Jong and Vanderlinde, 2016, p.5), I identify as belonging to a community of cultural heritage practitioners, specialising in creative engagement techniques.


As a reflective practitioner I bring a sense of awareness that my own practice does not reflect the wider picture of culture within an area. As a researcher with a background rooted in heritage, there is a risk that I may have a tendency to focus on cultural assets which fall more within this area, for example historic buildings. I have a personal interest in sport and leisure, and a visual arts leaning in my creative practice, which means I am naturally more aware of assets which fall within these categories. In order for my research to more fully represent the extent of cultural activity within the area I have ensured that I methodically researched each type of culture, to avoid a bias towards any one category.


Explaining the context and purpose of my PhD required practice and developed over time, in engaging with university competitions and activities such as three minute thesis and conference presentations assisted in this. Working on a practice-based thesis is similar to working as an entrepreneur as one is often faced with questions as to “what is your PhD about” and crafting a suitable response to this became an art, similar to the pitching of business ideas. One has to explain the context of one’s research and the desired aims of practice when requesting access to community groups, and the language used is often different when discussing with different persons, the language of cultural engagement and regeneration is often confusing for non-specialists yet to craft a thesis one has to utilise the approved academic language and ground one’s arguments in the appropriate theoretical and methodological context. As a contribution to my own professional practice I have completed a 2000 word summary of the PhD and submitted this for stage two accreditation of the PAS SP=EED process (PAS, 2018), concretising my experience of writing for different audiences as discussed in chapter 2 the work has been informed by the PAS toolkit.


As an issue with live projects is that longevity of impacts may be difficult to study, (noted by Garcia (2009) who emphasises that cultural impact writings at the time of her study were lacking in longditudinal studies) it is beneficial to reflect on the relationships which one makes and sustains as part of the research; formalising this by writing papers and engaging in

conferences is also part of the PhD process and can help share such learnings. One is making a contribution to knowledge through original research, and also presenting work in varied ways; I have recently presented at a national industry conference for heritage professionals, encouraging the use of different communication techniques and digital storytelling methods to promote “Our Shared Heritage”, and accepted an invitation to speak at “Pub PhD” which is a local event organised by researchers but open to the general public (held at a pub or café). Within the context of a modern educational institution there is pressure to provide “accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment” (Research Excellence Framework, 2017), and similarly in a community funding context one has to report back on objectives set and achieved which means that some contracts and projects may be temporary and personnel may change, particularly in a cultural context, demonstrated in this analysis of Linz 2009:


“These results go hand in hand with a wealth of experiences arising… an intensive relationship with Linz and its culture. The people who have worked for the Culture Capital will take these experiences away with them and apply them in other contexts” (Linz 2009 European Capital of Culture,

2009, p.80)]


As a full time PhD student, the luxury of being immersed in a project for three years is something which should not be taken for granted, however as the PhD is a learning experience in itself, and the persons whom one come into contact with throughout the process are many and varied (particularly when engaging in a community context) it is useful to take time to reflect on the many contacts which one makes and the knowledge which one is privilege to. When considering the ethical aspects of research (as outlined in section 2.5) a clear explanation of research aims is needed, with language which is accessible for the participants. I found it useful to consult with other PhD students who were broadly within my field of practice regarding their experiences of this; as demonstrated in work by Janson and Howard (2004), support from other students within and outwith my own institution was useful for informal feedback and sharing of development, forming a community of mutually supportive practice.


The output of a researcher and their successful integration into a project team requires skill and negotiation of the politics of that organisation, and the development of positive relationships among the project partners. Working with communities requires the skills to

access the right persons, and work with open heartedness and ethical integrity with clear communication and the ability to deal with a range of abilities and interests. Not all researchers have skills in community development and outreach; in my own instance I was able to bring my background within community engagement and creative skills together to successfully act as an independent researcher to undertake the creative tasks which complemented the theoretical aspects of my academic work to form the practice-based PhD. My own skillset and background is fairly polymathic in that town planning, urban conservation, education and creative media practice will not be in the collective portfolio of many researchers, neither will the professional experience of working in the public sector, civil service, charity and freelance sectors. At one time I felt that I could not bring together these attributes together, however as outlined within the thesis and approach to practice- based research (section 2.3.1), these diverse areas have complemented each other and formed a thesis from a practitioner-researcher point of view which represent a unique contribution to knowledge; binding together with the common clews of the fields of geography, creative practice and town planning mixed with techniques in cultural planning, community engagement and digital humanities (c.f. Little et al., 2013, p.27). In this sense the PhD process has taught me that within the cultural arena I can cross and co-connect these worlds successfully, acting as a guardian (collector of cultural assets, both professionally and personally), connector (helping join people and resources together through networking and practice-based projects) and a nomad (I do not constrain my activity to one geographical area or venue) (Holden, 2015).


The experience of managing a PhD brings networking skills and time management skills which are directly transferrable to project management, particularly in an academic role or within the creative industries context where bidding for funding to support projects is necessary. Research by Perry (2015) examined the habits of arts professionals and found that they needed complex networking skills to act as “cultural intermediaries” as they saw their work as “not (being) defined by sector, or industry, but through the positioning of the intermediary ‘in between’ culture and community” (Perry, Smith and Warren, 2015, p.6).

The practice based elements of the research fit in well with this analogy; as a researcher I was operating within parts of the academic, government and community contexts, carrying out artistic activities whilst endeavouring to express sides of these in forms suitable for communication within and across each of these multiple life-worlds, echoing the work of Hawkins (2015, p.247).

In working with communities, I concur with the advice that “reaching out to other people, supporting and helping them and their communities, and in doing so offering one’s skills, expertise, warmth and friendship, is in itself an art and that from reaching out to others there are reciprocal gains for one’s wellbeing through taking part in it” (Royal Society for Public Health, 2013, p.104). I very much enjoyed the practice-based research, and this sits well with my ethos as a practitioner-researcher to give back to the community and the academic research fields. I found that organising access to the required community groups was not problematic, due to the nature of the professional connections which I gained through the research, concurring with the view of Lowndes et al (1997) on the benefits of adopting a networked approach to local government, which helps break down the gatekeeper effect seen by some researchers (Dobbs and Moore, 2002, Bullen, 2010, p.149, Welsh Government, 2014, p.26, Perry, Smith and Warren, 2015, p.4); everyone I have asked to assist in my access to groups, and the participants themselves have willingly taken part and not questioned the value of the research. I have begun an initial process of developing the PhD research through presentation at masterclasses Pecha Kucha evenings with the Creative Renfrewshire Network and seeking opportunities for related development, as explored in section 6.4.