Not to scare you, but whilst the idea of a placement year can be really empowering and exciting, it can also be absolutely terrifying. The extent of the unknown about your placement year will obviously depend on what your placement is, where it is and who else will be there. But for me, going into an environment I had no prior experience in in a new country all by myself, it’s safe to say I had more than a few butterflies.
Now looking back on my placement I know that those nerves were a good thing, because they made me work extra hard throughout my placement to make the most of all the many new experiences I had. But I also found that linking the newness of the present with the familiar comfortability of the past was very useful in helping me to continue to feel more at ease whilst exploring all of this novelty. And surprisingly one of the ways I managed to do this was by focusing on my dissertation from very early on.
Going into my placement I knew that I had to collect data for my dissertation this year, and so I wanted to be ahead of the game with this one. I knew lots of my friends were going into research placements and so could rely on the studies they would be carrying out on placement to inform their dissertation studies. However for me, this was not the case. As my placement was not research-based I knew I would have to work more independently to come up with, design and run my dissertation study.
The calm before the storm
So once I knew that I had secured my placement I sat down and began my research. I knew my placement was with a homeless organisation, and as such 'homelessness' was one of the words I typed into the Google Scholar search bar, along with ‘psychology’, ‘mental health’, ‘mental wellbeing’ and ‘culture’. And whilst I got a good lot of preliminary reading and understanding from this research, it wasn’t until I actually began my placement that I had a comprehensive idea to use for my dissertation study.
In my previous blog on dissertations I mentioned the importance of asking questions at work and reflecting on your own experiences in order to come up with what you want to do for your dissertation. And again I shall repeat this idea, because it was exactly what gave me my dissertation question. Whilst I was the only student from my university attending my placement I was by no means the only psychology student to be working as a volunteer for Dublin Simon. In fact all three of my current housemates are psychology students from the University of Ulster, and as such they too are using their placement experiences to inform certain university assignments. As well as this, previous students who had been on placement as volunteers have also returned here as full time staff. Speaking to these other students and staff was so crucial for me, as they were able to inform me of their own ideas and research conducted within this very organisation. And though I had come across this particular idea in my preliminary research, it was actually through one of these conversations that the idea of Psychologically Informed Environments was properly introduced to me.
And thus it was through these conversations, researching these fresh ideas and reflecting on my own experiences at work that I was finally able to come up with my dissertation question.
How have COVID-19 restrictions impacted staff-client relations within a homelessness service?
I had done the research and I was now confident that exploring the effects of COVID-19 on an aspect of homelessness services verified as crucial through psychological research and interventions was what I wanted to do. My first task of deciding what my research was to be about was done, now it was time to move on to step two: choosing a dissertation supervisor.
Supervisors are superheroes
Fortunately when it comes to dissertations the psychology department is also very on the ball. When I initially told my placement tutor at Bath of my dissertation plan she was able to tell me straight away which lecturer she thought would be the best to supervise my dissertation project. Shortly after we were emailed round a form to fill out with our top choices for who we wanted our supervisor to be and why. I spent a while scrolling through the list of names and qualifications but every time it was the same person that I saw as being the most qualified to assist me. And unsurprisingly this happened to be the same person my placement supervisor had told me about. So naturally I put their name first and wrote my short piece on why I would like them to be my supervisor. Not long after we submitted this form a big document of all the students and their supervisors was sent round and mine happened to be my first choice.
So my advice for choosing a supervisor is to do your research and to speak to other members of your department’s staff as they are more likely to know what interests and experiences each potential supervisor has to offer.
Then after a meeting with my dissertation supervisor where I laid out what I wanted to do for my dissertation (with justification) I moved on to what was probably the longest and most arduous aspect of my dissertation journey so far: gaining ethical approval.
The effort of ethics
When I say that getting all the ethical approval I needed took months, I am not exaggerating. And not only did the time frame of gaining ethical approval cause difficulties for me, but the actual content and changes I had to make to my study to get this approval was also deeply challenging, as well as frustrating at times. When I first got round to actually creating my study and writing my ethical approval up, I had it in my mind I would be conducting interviews. So after about a month of working on this I sent all I had done to my placement organisation to see what they thought and was greeted with an email that told me that all the work I had done was essentially pointless as they could not facilitate these interviews and thus I’d have to do a survey to collect my data instead. This was the first challenge I faced with my ethical approval, and one of the worst. I had put tonnes of energy and time and effort into making interview schedules, writing up consent forms, information sheets and my debrief just to be told that I’d have to fundamentally change the structure of my study. But I took it in my stride and modified the work I had already done to make a survey where I could still collect similar information from. After getting my survey sorted I then turned back to what I needed to ensure I could allow it to be conducted to begin with. My ethics.
Whilst other students seemed to have this big shiny loophole where they could get ethical approval from their placement organisation first and then collect their data and apply for ethical approval with secondary data at Bath, my placement organisation actually required ethical approval from my university before they could even consider my ethics application. Fortunately though there was not too much going on at my placement at this time and my long shifts actually meant I had time to complete my placement duties and work on my ethics approval while I was at work. So a while later, after emailing back and forth with my dissertation supervisor, I finally completed my ethics form for Bath and sent it along. After the next ethics committee meeting occurred I got an email from them just to change one thing and after I had changed that and sent it along I finally got the email confirming my ethical approval from Bath. Then I set to work to complete my placement organisation’s own ethics form. About a week or so later I had finished the work, sent it along and then had to just sit back, relax and wait for them to reply. The actual reply from Dublin Simon also took longer than I had anticipated as the person I was communicating with was on annual leave. But eventually she returned and my ethics was at long last approved.
Clearly my journey to gaining ethical approval was a bit tumultuous, and as such I’d like to offer some beads of advice for anyone about to embark on a similar journey. First of all, start early. Despite the fact that it took me a really long time to get my ethical approval and that I managed to miss certain cut off dates multiple times, my placement does not end till August and as such I still have the time to run my study even with it beginning so late. But if your placement does end sooner, make sure you start this process with lots of time to spare. Also, check, double check and triple check the cut off dates for ethical committee meetings and be sure to set yourself reminders for these dates, missing deadlines can be a really infuriating set back. Also, stay in touch with and build up a good relationship with your dissertation supervisor. This is the person who is not just supervising your dissertation, but who will be marking it as well. So keeping them in the loop and seeking advice from them is really important. And finally, give yourself time to plan and write all of the different sections of your ethics up. The forms are typically quite long and require a lot of detail and dedication from you, so be sure you have time scheduled to fill this out. Also be prepared to make changes and adjustments, even if you think your study is flawless you never know what may come up. If you feel overwhelmed about managing your time for all of this, I’d encourage you to speak to your manager and see if they can find a time and place for you to just sit down and complete this work. It’s really important to ensure you get your ethics done as you cannot run any study without ethics approved first.
Let's get this show on the road
And now finally, after all of that done, it was time to begin participant recruitment. Again, this was not as smooth a process as I had anticipated. It can feel a bit weird too, to be asking people to do this favour for you and even having to send multiple emails to people who keep forgetting to participate. But it is necessary to get participants if you want a decent sample size and a good amount of data to analyse. I found that not just emailing but also talking in person with people about my study was encouraging to help remind them to participate and also to spark more interest so they would think about their responses more. So keep the buzz going about your study and hopefully more participants will find their way to you.
So now I am currently still collecting data, and hope to do so up till the end of my placement. I’ve been checking up on the data I’ve currently got just to see how it is going and what themes I can already see emerging from the data. And although the process of getting to this point was not easy, the fact that this is a study I am passionate about definitely helped motivate me to get all of these different tasks done. I am now looking forward to shutting off my study and to get to writing up the actual dissertation, which I hope to start at the beginning of my final year.
Be sure to have time, the mental capacity and flexibility to get your dissertation off the ground and you should be fine. If you do have any questions about dissertations and the whole dissertation process (especially on placement), please feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP.