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Dr. Helen Kara

helen5_whiteBGThe day begins with breakfast at my desk in my pyjamas and a lovely email from a reader, who sends me a picture of himself with my first research methods book, and tells me it helped him to get a good degree on top of a full-time job and caring for frail elderly parents. He wants to work towards a PhD and asks for my advice. It is a treat to get emails like this from readers, and I enjoy answering them, but I’m getting more of them these days and am going to need to start batching them to answer one evening each week or at the weekend. Luckily this one is easy now I’ve become an indie author as well as an indie researcher, so I congratulate him and signpost him to my new e-book Starting A PhD: All You Need To Know.

I’ve also had several emails in overnight about my trip next month to Calgary in Canada, where I’ll be working for two universities and the public library. One person wants a biog and headshot for their promo webpage which is easy to provide. Another wants to know when my slides will be ready to send over, so I send her a holding reply and make a note to get started on them really soon. And a professor I’ve never heard of emails to say she loves my second research methods book, and asks whether I might have time to meet her for coffee while I’m in Calgary. I check her out online and her research interests are similar to mine, so I email back to say I’d love to. It may lead to actual work – though in my experience most ‘coffee meetings’ don’t – but if nothing else, I should have an enjoyable hour chatting about research.

Then it’s time for a Skype meeting with a client, the chief executive of a national charity who is thinking about doing some research and wants to talk it over with me to get an independent view. He wants to gather evidence about the impact of service closures on some of society’s most vulnerable people, but knows that if his findings are as he expects, they are unlikely to make him popular in Whitehall. That could mean reduced funding for his organisation, which would lead to further reductions in services for the very people he works to help. It’s a complex situation, and we try to think right around the implications of doing, and not doing, the research he has in mind, as well as considering possible funding sources and research methods. After an hour’s chat we think we’ve sorted out the next steps he needs to take.

It’s 11 am and I haven’t earned any money yet, so it’s just as well my next job is some contract work. I don’t need to be out until 11.30, so I have time for a quick cuppa, shower and dress, shove some laundry in the machine, and throw together a sandwich for my lunch. Then I’m off to do a couple of interviews for a local evaluation of a community support service for older people with cancer. The first is a frail woman who lives by herself and is lonely and scared, even though her cancer is in remission. She weeps as she tells me how the volunteer befriender from the community support service, and a man from her church who takes her shopping on a Tuesday, are the only people she sees each week. I feel so sorry for her, wish I could befriend her myself, and hate my own brain for sneakily thinking what great data she’s providing. She asks for a hug when I leave, and waves from the doorway; I drive round the corner then stop for a few minutes till I can see where I’m going again.

My sandwich helps to steady me, then I’m off to my next interview, with a man whose cancer is terminal. He is cheerfully swigging rum and coke when I arrive, and tells me the booze goes really well with his medication; I figure toxicity is low on his list of things to worry about. His girlfriend is with him, shopping on eBay on her laptop, and she chips in from time to time, usually to take the mickey. They’re quite the double-act, and I can’t help laughing; luckily it pleases them when I do. They are determined to squeeze the maximum possible enjoyment out of the time they have left, and tell me how facing cancer makes the everyday seem special. They talk about the meals they enjoy – chips are a common feature – and playing poker online, watching antiques programmes on TV, and Sunday lunch in the local pub. They praise the community support service, even though they don’t use it much; they say knowing it’s there reduces anxiety and frees them up to enjoy their remaining time together. When I leave, they invite me, warmly, to drop in any time I’m passing. I thank them while knowing I won’t, which makes me reflect, as I often do, on whether it’s ethical to step into people’s lives, build a rapport with them, and then step straight back out again.

By the time I get home it’s 3 pm and I’m emotionally shredded, so I send a quick email to my client to let them know the interviews went well, change into t-shirt and leggings and march myself off to the gym for a swift workout before the evening rush. I’m showered and back at my desk by 4.15, and check in with Twitter where a reader has emailed to thank me for writing my new e-book as it has proved timely and helpful for her. I compose a couple of tweets of my own, and engage in some Twitter conversations, before I reply to her and retweet her tweet. Then I turn to an academic journal article I’m co-writing about the ethics of research presentation. It’s a topic that hasn’t been addressed much in the literature, so my co-author and I have had to read widely to work out what the key issues are, but that has made it a particularly interesting project.

By 6.30 I don’t feel I’ve got very far, so I stop and put some leftovers in the oven: half a mushroom and cheese tart I made yesterday, and some cooked new potatoes which I toss in olive oil with a sprinkling of salt. I hang up the clean laundry, do a bit of tidying, lay the table and steam some broccoli. While I’m pottering around being domestic, my mind is ticking away, and by the time I’m done I think I can see my way forward. At 7 pm my partner comes home and we catch up with each other’s news over dinner. Then I’m back at my computer with a cuppa for some more work on the journal article. An hour later, I have a shape for the discussion section that I’m happy with, which seems like a good place to stop.

It’s been a good day, interesting and varied, with some paid work which always helps. I do a fair bit of travelling for work, and I enjoy that too, but I think my home-based days are my favourite kind.


Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999. She writes books and articles on, and teaches, research methods. She is a Board member of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association with lead responsibility for ethics. Helen is a Visiting Fellow at the UK National Centre for Research Methods, and an Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham. You can find out more about her here and her popular blog is here

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