What is a Masters by Research?
What is a Masters by Research (MRes)? In this blog post, Emily Ankers - who has just finished her MRes in the Carnegie School of Sport – tells us all about life as an MRes student and shares her top tips on tackling that 30,000 word thesis.
What the heck is a Masters by Research? A Masters by Research (MRes) is not like your traditional taught Masters - you don't do pre-set modules, assignments and exams. Your result comes from one massive, colossal research project that you carry out over the period of 12 months and write up as a juicy 30,000 word thesis. Or in my case, 32,036 words + 79 pages of Appendix.
Why did I struggle to keep it short? Because it was a HUGE piece of research. I am sitting on more data than I know what to do with that did not go into the final edit of the thesis. Within 12 months you cram in a systematic literature review, getting to grips with theories, methodology, epistemology (bleugh), researcher training, ethics application, data collection, data analysis, data synthesis and writing and editing of the thesis.
I did my MRes in the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beckett University. It is interdisciplinary in nature but draws heavily on sociology and history. When I came into my MRes I was not a sociologist by background but a historian. Now I would also consider myself a sociologist.
For context my thesis is titled 'Everyday' Women's Experiences of Rock Climbing (1970 - 2020). It involves discussions and conversations relating to changing representations of women in climbing print media over time, changes in how women experience climbing, how 'everyday' aspects of life impact on climbing experience and understanding and perceptions of femininity by everyday female climbers.
I didn't start writing this to talk about what I found out but to share what it was like to do an MRes and what an MRes consists of. My project was heavily sociological - a humanities way of doing things. Ultimately an MRes project will vary from subject to subject but a lot of the steps in how you do research are similar.
So what are those steps?
1. Preliminary Reading: trying to find out what research already exists, where are the gaps, what have other people commonly found...
2. Proposal: with support of one of my lovely supervisors, Dr. Carol Osborne helped me to craft a proposal that would get through the university applications process, with the root of the project idea (if so desired, I could do a post on how I went about applying).
3. Induction: oh how exciting, meeting other students, found out that there were actually some fellow MRes students in the same School as I (big shout out to Hamza and Jonny), getting familiar with the library etc... I was new to Leeds Beckett so finding my way around was part of the process (pre-Covid times).
4. Literature Searching: seriously what's what, this helped me form my plan and to understand what theories are out there. My final thesis referenced 117 secondary sources but I read a hell of a lot more than that throughout the year, literature searching isn't just limited to start of the project, you have to read as you go but you do a big chunk at the beginning.
5. Literature Review: what a mammoth task, does what it says on the tin.
6. Epistemology and Theory: reading about and learning about all of the different sociological theories and frameworks, an area very new to me. I hated this section because it was so challenging, useful though, I have to admit it. Unbelievably I'm in the process of writing a chapter on the value of a critical postfeminist approach (the value of it as a theory), oh how times have changed.
7. Methodology Planning: what theory are you going to use, what research questions are you going to answer, what data are you going to collect, how will you analyse it, how will you make sure that your chosen theory helps you to answer your research questions?
8. Ethical Considerations and Ethical Approval Application: as a researcher you have to consider how your study could have ethical implications and go through an extensive ethics application process with the university.
9. Data Collection: for me this included multiple visits to an archive (I spent 42.5 hours in the Mountain Heritage Trust reading room) and interviewing 15 participants via video/phone call.
10. Transcribing: I transcribed all interviews myself, this was the most time consuming part of the project.
11. Data Analysis: Okay so for the data collected at the archive I coded images that I had found in climbing magazines, assigning meaning or connotations to representations of female climbers. With the interview transcripts I went through and identified reoccurring patterns and ideas relating to the research questions and dominant themes of the research.
12. Planning the Writing: Okay so this is kind of a weird step because my Literature Review, my Methodology and Ethics, were all written as I went along. I also didn't do my Data Collection and Analysis in two fully separate stages, I was ahead with the Content Analysis so that was getting written as I was carrying out interviews. If that makes sense! You have to be pretty flexible and I found it really kept my motivation up if I could dip in and out of things, so that I wasn't doing the same thing for a long period of time.
13. Write Up! : This sounds like a lot of work, but actually like I said, quite a chunk was already written. I'd already done all the really hard work like trying to understand what epistemology means (still not 100% sure), data collection and analysis, it was just a case of writing up what I'd found using the lens I'd chosen (critical postfeminist).
14. Editing: oh joy, this was really difficult and made me never want to look at my thesis again. Editing is a brutal process, I found the read aloud function on Word very helpful indeed.
Okay so they are the steps, but what was my experience of actually doing them?
This year has been a bit weird, granted, I completed over half of my MRes from home in my office. Not the exciting zipping around to meet and interview different people that I had imagined. To complete a research degree to schedule, heightened by the pandemic, you have to be incredibly motivated. I like to tick things off my list, in fact I find it really hard when I don't understand things or if I can't tick things off my to-do list immediately.
In a large scale research study, even things like ticking off "transcribe participant three interview" takes a while. To put it into context, it would take me six hours to transcribe 60 minutes on a reasonably good day. On a rushed, I need to finish this, day, I would be transcribing full pelt from 8am to 8pm to get one transcript done in a day. One interview transcript in an entire study is a tiny piece to the puzzle, just to give a sense of scale. Okay so I had to break things down a lot, or, assign morning to this task, afternoon to another and not worry too much about how much I actually completed.
This also goes for reading academic texts. It's not realistic to say I'll read one article today, because you can read pieces by different authors at different rates and you'll find some more challenging than others. I'm pretty good at reading academic texts now, but I've recently been looking at some new ideas and I spent a whole day reading 20 pages this week and then I was lying down for about three hours because my brain was so frazzled. That's just how it goes sometimes!
On a similar line, I've had to learn that I won't understand everything straight away and my ideas won't click into place immediately. So right now I'm trying to come up with a methodology for a proposal, and I'm trying to fit it to a set theory, and I'm not quite cracking it yet. So I'm literally writing this blog post while my brain works on that in the background and that's fine.
I set up a women’s climbing magazine called Beta Magazine whilst carrying out my research
Something I've found really useful is to have something else going on (if you have the privilege of brain space, time, money) to do that. I set up a women's climbing and outdoors magazine called Beta Magazine whilst carrying out my research and I've really benefitted from channelling some of my energy and worries into that, so that not everything was focused on my MRes. Especially working in lockdown, it would have been pretty detrimental to my mental health to have soley focused on my MRes study.
What you can expect from an MRes
I'll finish by rounding up what you can expect from an MRes based on my experience if you're considering doing one.
Throw yourself into life as a postgraduate researcher
So it depends what university you go to but at Leeds Beckett you get thrown into the postgraduate research world and that means attending workshops, seminars, meetings, conferences alongside PhD researchers. That was a bit intimidating at first but I just made sure I was open that I was an MRes student and reminded myself that I might not understand what these complex ideas being discussed might mean and I didn't need to understand them immediately. All PhD students that I have worked alongside have been incredibly supportive and interested in what I was doing.
You need to be self-disciplined
You really do need to be self-disciplined. When I did my undergraduate degree I would go climbing or to the gym during the day, I would go for coffee with friends or nip into the city. Doing my MRes I've kept week days as work days and I've (mostly) managed to have my weekends as time off. There have been a few occasions where I was rushing to meet deadlines but overall, treating my MRes as a job worked really well.
Learn to be organised
You need to be organised, or learn to be organised. It depends on your subject area and methodology but I was in communication with many different people, so I needed to keep track of who I was meeting with, when, why. I needed to keep track of what I'd read so far, which author said what, or used which theory. I needed to keep on top of seminars and workshops that I was responsible for booking onto myself and getting myself there.
Listen to feedback
You need to be able to take feedback. It can be really hard when you're told, scrap this bit, it doesn't work, after you spent a long time trying to get your head around an idea and writing it up. This is the nature of academic work, everything will always be questioned and in flux, you might come across one idea and it will completely flip your study on its head. I would just say it's really helpful to know that there are lots of ideas, frameworks and theories that exist, none are right, none are wrong (well, that's not always true) but being comfortable with knowing you could potentially change your mind or another idea could be on offer is a great tool.
A great introduction to the world of research
An MRes is a great introduction to the world of research, especially if you're considering a PhD but you're not sure. It is incredibly hard work but it's also really satisfying to hold a book in your hand that you wrote (my MRes isn't an actual book, I got a hard back bound copy). The impact and knowledge exchange that comes from an MRes can be huge too. I now have the knowledge and understanding of how to be critical that makes me suitable to be a member of organisations and groups where I can actively make suggestions and contributions towards improving certain issues within climbing. I can also appreciate how much I don't know yet and that motivates me to keep finding out new information.
The more you learn, the more you realise you don't know, classic. You need to be passionate about what you're researching to keep that motivation going but if you really believe in what you're doing, you're in business.