Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A day in the life of a 'Pracademic'

Guest post by Natalie Connor, PhD student and Healthy Communities Officer at Groundwork North East

It was at the Fifth Fuse Physical Activity Workshop in Durham a couple of months ago that Istvan Soos, a Reader in Sport and Exercise Sciences from the University of Sunderland introduced me to the term ‘Pracademic’. I had been trying to explain to a delegate what my role was and who I worked for, when Isvtan shouted across the room, "Natalie, you are a Pracademic!" I actually can’t believe it has taken me five years of being a PhD student before finally hearing this term. Cue frantic Googling of the term as soon as I got home, to find a plethora of information on the phrase, which even boasts an entry on the Urban Dictionary website from 2007. I am clearly way behind the times. But maybe it’s because I'm spending so much of my time delivering a PhD intervention that includes scrambling around outdoors in the dirt trying to get rid of some pesky weeds, or building a raised bed in the freezing cold, that the phrase hadn't had time to register.

So I wanted to give you a taste of what it is like to be someone who is still involved in working as a practitioner, as well as studying for a PhD, which qualifies me as a Pracademic.

Gardening selfie!

There are some cons to working out in the field as a practitioner:
  • Always looking like I've been dragged through a bush backwards; 
  • My blood must taste delicious as I am forever being bitten by ravenous midges; 
  • Rogue tomatoes that I find in the car boot two months after being picked; 
  • If I were stopped by the police, my boot containing spades, shovels, rope, duct tape and bin liners would look a little suspicious. Although the rogue tomatoes might actually help me explain myself here. 
Working on the ground delivering community projects can have a number of obstacles that perhaps are not encountered as much in the academic world: payment on result targets, political pressures and economic difficulties for the third sector to name a few. Occasionally, funding will become available at the very last minute. Although this may sound great, the time required to develop and then implement a robust service is lacking. In the academic world, it can sometimes take years to get funding through to deliver a research project. In that time frame, political and organisational objectives have often changed direction. Sometimes, things that sound great in theory are actually nigh on impossible to deliver, whether that’s due to lack of engagement within a community, resources or the lack of a particular skill set. On the other hand, sometimes programmes that are delivered aren't based on any real evidence or theory to justify them. So the two worlds need to come together to try to address these issues. Collaborative practice therefore is a necessity.


Not only are there practical and logistical barriers to navigate, but also the challenge of being an impartial researcher, when I am so heavily involved in the project being evaluated. I have found it very important to reflect after every single intervention session that I have delivered; to think about what has been said by participants, but also to think about what I have said. I need to ensure that I am recognising any potential bias on my part and be mindful of it. I also need to acknowledge that there could be the problem of participants not being completely honest, for fear of upsetting me due to the trusting relationships that have developed. I make sure that when I am collecting data, I remind the participants to be completely honest, as their honest answers are what will ultimately help to shape a better service in the future. I think these are the main issues that a Pracademic will face, but as long as we can continually reflect, and acknowledge that this could potentially affect data, we can do our best to prevent this from happening.

To balance all of this, there are some pretty amazing positives to working on the ground, which allow me to get a real insight into community life. Access to participants does not feel like a barrier to me, and is something that I know other researchers sometimes face. I am able to build a relationship with local people, who will then share their thoughts and views with me, as there is trust. I am not just seen as a researcher, but someone who is working for a local charity that is trying to make a difference to the participant’s local community. Carrying out research in the field means that there is a connection to what is happening in the real world. Getting ‘out there’ to deliver an intervention has been the easier part of this PhD, and for me, definitely the most enjoyable. I also seem to walk away with an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. Not a bad perk!

It has been a demanding journey so far as a Pracademic, filled with many ups and downs, many moments of self-doubt, and countless barriers that I've had to dig deep (got to get one pun in!) to overcome. But I’ll take rogue tomatoes in the boot of my car any day.

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