“The forum reflects the nature of participatory research about sensitive subjects”: Reflecting on the OVUN PhD student forum

Posted: Tue Dec, 2022

Author: Claire Soares. 5 min read


About the PhD student forum

In November 2021, the Safer Young Lives Research Centre (SYLRC) held its first PhD student forum session. This forum is one of several strands of work of the centre’s Our Voices University Network (OVUN). The OVUN forms one half of our ‘Our Voices III’ project which is focussed on the role of children and young people’s participation in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse. The purpose of the OVUN is to develop and share global knowledge to improve evidence about child sexual abuse, paying particular attention to participation and child-centred research.

We recognise that there is a wealth of knowledge about child sexual abuse that is held by those currently undertaking doctorate studies related to this topic. The idea of the forum was to create a space where doctoral students from different parts of the world, could come together and be part of that global knowledge sharing and understanding. Being in my second year of part-time doctoral study myself, I welcomed the opportunity to facilitate this forum.

This blog shares details about the format of the forum, the wonderful participants who make it what it is, and some of the key discussion points and reflections from the forum over the last year. The blog ends with a few kind words from one of our forum participants which highlights the value of creating a platform where doctoral students (myself included) can learn and develop together.

Format and approach

Following promotion of the forum via the OVUN, we welcomed 14 students at our first online session in November 2021. This inaugural session was focused on students meeting one another, exchanging details of research topics, and progress, and discussing as a group what the forum could most helpfully offer moving forward. From this first session, there was a clear appetite to simply have an informal space to hear about the research of others and exchange learning and experiences. Acknowledging the individuality of everyone’s specific topics, we also identified a number of cross-cutting themes that would be helpful to discuss as part of these sessions. For example, participation; researcher welfare; and the differing concepts, definitions, and jurisdictions related to this work.

We agreed on running two-hour sessions bi-monthly. Following the kick-off session in 2021, five (online) sessions have taken place in 2022. In our most recent session in December, we invited a special guest, Professor Pat Dolan (also a member of the OVUN leadership team) to give a presentation about his work on adolescence and empathy – a subject which has cross-cutting relevance to the group.

The first half of each session provides an opportunity for one or two students to present their research in more detail, and any particular challenges or achievements they want to focus on. This is followed by Q&A and discussion, with the remainder of the session typically focussed on a particular theme – or continued discussion of an issue arising from presentations. In this sense, while each session follows a similar format, it is delivered with a participative spirit – with flexibility to change and adapt and use the time in whatever way feels most helpful to the group on the day, to supporting learning and progression. Sessions are facilitated by myself with support from ‘Our Voices’ colleagues, Dr Claire Cody and Professor Jenny Pearce.

Participants and topics

22 doctoral students are signed up to the forum, with typically 4-7 in attendance at each session. The forum is open to doctoral students internationally, and while most members are based at UK universities, several are able to bring in international perspectives and experiences. We are working to try to extend membership in 2023 to further reflect issues faced by students working with universities from a wider geographical area.

Research topics of the group typically relate to child sexual abuse, with some focussed on topics of relevance to the child protection field more broadly. Topics include: boys who display sexually harmful behaviour; healing and recovery after child sexual abuse; perceptions and attitudes around child sexual exploitation in schools; the role of children and young people in preventing sexual violence; responses to forced marriage; online grooming; and access to justice.

Meet some of our participants:

Forum members v2

Reflections from our 2022 sessions

Through presenting their research and engaging in group discussion, participants have been able to learn more about different aspects of child sexual abuse and related issues. They have had the opportunity to raise elements of their study they are grappling with, ask questions, and exchange ideas and experiences.

The group have explored a range of issues across the sessions including:

  • Theoretical frameworks.
  • The recruitment of both young people and professionals – and factors/methods that can support or hinder the participation of different groups in research.
  • Young people’s participation in research specifically – including the process of developing youth-friendly materials, issues of consent, navigating ethics, and striking the balance of structure and flexibility when undertaking participatory work.
  • Compensation for research participants – and the different views and challenges around this in the context of doctoral research.
  • The additional challenges posed with doing fieldwork overseas – such as the need to translate research materials/transcripts, or the lack of local ethics processes and support.
  • Different approaches to using certain methods including surveys, online methods, and arts-based methods.
  • Managing confidentiality, anonymity, safeguarding and disclosures.
  • Researcher reflexivity and researcher welfare
  • Approaches to coding and analysis of different datasets – and what counts as data
  • The importance and (variable) use of language, terminology, and concepts and the different lenses (and practice experience) through which group members are looking at their topics.

While these issues are not distinct to doctoral studies, participants have been able to discuss how they manifest in this context.

As facilitator of the forum, I have observed the value of participants presenting their work to a peer group; how talking about it aloud in this space can develop or clarify thinking, and spark conversation and new considerations. In this sense, the reciprocal nature of the forum offers something different to formal supervision – the main source of support for doctoral students. Participants themselves have commented on how helpful it is to have the peer support of other researchers who are researching similar topics. This is particularly true for those undertaking PhDs in universities where there isn’t a core group of researchers working in this field. For these students, the loneliness of the PhD journey may feel more acute. Participants have reflected on how the opportunity to talk about their work, receive feedback on it, and be asked questions about it, helps them to think through their rationale for certain decisions and further their thinking about how they communicate and deliver their ideas. As one participant commented:

“It’s just really nice to be in a virtual room with people, and you’re just sparking my brain really.”

It’s been a pleasure to have met and convened such a thoughtful and talented group over the last year, to hear about the interesting and important work being done that will no doubt make a valuable contribution to our collective knowledge about child sexual abuse – and wider related fields.

A few words from one of our participants

PhD candidate, Lynne Cairns, has kindly shared a few words about her experience of the OVUN PhD forum:

About me

I’m Lynne, I’m in my second year of an ESRC funded PhD through NINEDTP, at Durham University (via Dundee, Scotland!). I started my PhD almost twenty years to the day that I started my first job as a Social Worker. I’ve worked in secure and residential child care and was Senior Practitioner in a Barnardo’s service working with children, young people and their families who had experienced abuse and/or displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) for over thirteen years. I also have qualifications in child protection, counselling and psychoanalytic observation but I have undoubtedly learned the most from the children, young people and adults in their life I have had the privilege of working with.

My research topic

My research project is trying to look differently at Harmful Sexual Behaviour displayed by young people. Research tends to focus on individual factors and risks which, in turn, generate individual responses when there are worries and concerns about sexual behaviour. There is also very little research that gives attention to young people’s perspectives and experiences. I am learning that this can be connected to how we socially construct ‘childhood’, particular splits between deserving/undeserving, innocent/deviant, at risk/as risk, which shape our child welfare and justice systems. HSB can generate lots of strong feelings including worries about future behaviours in adulthood. Yet, we know from research that most young people who display do not continue to display harmful behaviours into adulthood and also that many are themselves ‘risky’ but also navigating harms in their own life.

My ideas for my PhD come from questions I was left with from working with young people who have displayed HSB especially wondering if we pay enough attention to all aspects of their lives at the expense of a narrow risk focus. My project involves working with a small number of boys who have displayed HSB to map their everyday lives and I’m interested in how and where they feel safe, at risk and what they think adults could do differently to increase safety for young people. I think young people, including those who are ‘risky’, have important pieces of the puzzle and we can’t continue to ignore them and their rights to participate in matters which affect them, including research.

I joined the OVUN PhD forum because…

I used many of the resources from the Our Voices network as I was developing my PhD proposal so I jumped at the chance to join the PhD forum. Sometimes studying a PhD can feel a bit lonely, especially as I’ve always worked as part of a team, and I was drawn to the idea of a network I could be a part of with people looking at and learning about similar issues.

What the PhD forum has given me

I love being a part of the OVUN PhD forum which is a testament to the people who participate and especially Claire Soares and Claire Cody who facilitate a safe, supportive and hopeful space. In many ways, thinking about sexual violence and abuse is familiar as I worked for so long with people whose lives have been affected by it in different ways. Yet being a learner/researcher feels very different and this is why safety in the forum means so much to me. Rather than being a space where we all have certainty and control over our work, the forum reflects the nature of participatory research about sensitive subjects which requires privileging voices we rarely hear, learning in a different way and getting more comfortable with the dilemmas and tensions that are never prettily packaged up.

Sexual abuse and violence is a deeply distressing social issue and I feel a sense of responsibility towards the young people I hope to engage with and also those I will never meet but are affected by these issues. The network creates a space with others where we can think together about similar sensitive social issues. I particularly appreciate the international focus of the forum. I think this is particularly important for me, from the UK context, to expand my understanding of the cultural dimensions including hegemonies of knowledge around childhood, rights and violence. This feels critically important in the context of our intersecting projects as it is about using our power, positions and knowledge in ways that allow others to be heard to learn new perspectives on how we can prevent harm and abuse. This is why the work of Our Voices and OVUN feels brave as, to me, it is really inspiring and motivating to see them work against the tide of ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing’. I always look forward to the meetings and have not only learned so much from everyone in the group but I also feel my confidence growing.

Moving forward I’d like to…

I like the balance between facilitation and encouraging us as a group to contribute to the agenda.

I appreciate the commitment and space given to us and hope that it continues.

PhD student forum 2023

It is clear that the OVUN PhD forum has provided a valuable space for researchers to come together, to share progress, challenges, experiences, and ideas. We look forward to continuing these sessions in 2023 and supporting this talented group of researchers on their journeys.

If you would like to get involved – or are supervising someone who might be interested, please email: claire.soares@beds.ac.uk