As coronavirus spread globally in early 2020 and it started to become clear that Australia would be significantly affected, some UQ PhD candidates and their supervisors were thrown into planning on how to adjust their projects within the new restrictions. Danielle Jeffery was one of these candidates. She is pursuing a PhD at the School of Education in Spanish language studies.

Danielle and her supervisors were anticipating a rescope on her project from the end of February. As the government rushed to gain control of the situation, Ms Jeffery needed to wait on the Department of Education for guidance as her project involved visiting and collecting data at schools.

Read our Q&A with Danielle below about how she and her advisors approached the rescoping of her project:

How did you and your supervisors approach the idea of rescoping?

My supervisors and I were on alert for a potential rescope from the end of February. I also indicated that I had a back-up option should things come to that, so we were all aware of what may come. March was a bit of a waiting game as I had already confirmed a number of teachers who were willing to participate in my original Action Research study and was just waiting on Principals to sign off on it. While I was waiting, the situation with COVID-19 was becoming increasingly serious and finally the Department of Education advised that all research on school sites would be postponed indefinitely. Luckily, I had been able to think over potential options in early March and was working on a paper with another RHD student which included a method I could incorporate called scroll-back interviews. I did need to do my own research regarding this method as my supervisors had not used it. However, it is quite straight-forward, and they were open and accommodating. The main consideration for how COVID-19 would impact the new method was whether the interviews would be conducted online or face-to-face which we simply addressed by asking permission for both in my ethics application. In addition, I had been planning the original study and realised it probably wasn’t the best approach anyway and that my idea for rescoping made much more sense. In the end, we didn’t really have a choice but to rescope, as the Department of Education postponed research on school sites, and I was not comfortable with returning in 2020 knowing schools would be catching up on missed/disrupted schooling.

What were your key considerations when working on rescoping this project?

My biggest concern was the additional burden my original project would place on my participants if I were to wait it out and resume my research later in the year. I was very uncomfortable with asking participants to take part in action research after schools were closed down and they were catching up from lost face-to-face hours. Ultimately, we made the decision to rescope in order to avoid overburdening participants in 2020. My ethics application is still valid for the original project should I wish to revisit it later, but I don’t think this will be the case. Another consideration was doing another ethics application for a rescope. Knowing how long it can take, we hoped to be able to put through an amendment to fast-track the process. In addition, we also considered the methods/methodologies I already had some knowledge and experience of to minimise the learning curve when introducing them to my project. My timeline was also considered as I have mid-candidature in July. If my rescoping were major, it would have been very difficult to progress to mid-candidature on-time.

Have you seen a significant change in your project? What are the key adjustments that you have made?

The change to the project does not feel too significant although it is very different. The reason it does not feel so significant is most likely because I have been working on a number of papers using the methods and methodologies I have now incorporated. However, some of these might have been less familiar to my supervisors but not so much that they were impossible to use.

The biggest adjustments were:

  • Workload. I had to increase my workload to maintain sufficient progress for my upcoming milestone. I had to wait 4-5 months to begin writing my methodology chapter which I had planned to start in Jan/Feb. As the impact of COVID-19 was looming at this time, I put off starting this chapter in anticipation of a rescope (although hoping it wouldn’t come to that). By the end of April when I had resubmitted ethics and recruited again, I wasn’t really able to start writing it until May. I also had a very quick and enthusiastic response to my call for participants meaning I conducted and transcribed almost all the interviews in May. My teaching commitments also doubled during this time to account for going online, rewriting curricula and marking assessments that were pushed back. It was great to get my interviews done so quickly and I am lucky to have done so, but it was still quite stressful as it happened much quicker than I expected.
  • Incorporating new methods and methodologies. When I rescoped my project to include the scroll-back interviews, I was also able to incorporate a method/methodology (decolonial critical discourse analysis) that I had recently used in a paper. While this was not an issue once I had written my methodology chapter, having to explain it and pitch it to my supervisors in a very short time frame before I had the chance to complete my research was extremely stressful. Although they were very accommodating and open to my ideas, I still felt pressure to be able to communicate my ideas in more detail than I felt I had time to prepare for. All the changes to method also mean a reframing of my methodology requiring deep engagement with the literature in a short time frame. I think my project now looks great and I am very happy with it, but it involved an incredible amount of work and deep thinking at a time when I was completely overwhelmed with teaching, marking, interviewing, transcribing and also worrying about my future work security.

Do you feel you have gained some benefit from this process?

Yes. Despite how incredibly stressful and overwhelming it was, I feel my project is much, much stronger, and that I would never have been able to design it in this way if it were not for the circumstances. I’ve also learned to advocate for methods I think are worthwhile and gained confidence in my own ability to do so. I have also benefitted from learning multiple methods even though I may not have been able to completely implement all of them.

What was the most challenging aspect of the process?

The most challenging aspect was working on my initial project knowing it would most likely been discontinued and therefore the work I had put in wasted and then having to re-write everything in a very short time frame.

Do you have any advice for other candidates and their advisory teams? Any resources or publications you would point people to in order to help them on their journey?

My advice would be to ensure that you are working on smaller side projects with different methods requiring minimal effort in regards to ethics (this seems to be a good option for projects working towards a paper anyway) but perhaps a similar theoretical framework as your thesis. This way it is fairly straight-forward to alter the method and incorporate your thesis topic and theoretical framework. It also means that you will already have a lot of the background literature on different methods, possibly not at the level of detail needed but still a solid head start.

I haven’t got any additional publications or resources but the most helpful strategy for me has been attending a number of conferences where I was able to see presentations on a range of methods. I actually got the idea for my rescoping from a conference presentation I saw in December 2019.