Undergraduate student Zoe Phillips tells us about her first forays into the world of public health research.
I joined DECIPHer at the start of August for an eight week research placement as part of the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP). The project I’ve been working on aims to explore the attitudes of 13-15-year-olds in relation to some of the government’s ‘Frank’ drugs prevention resources and messages. I’ve been working with focus groups of young people to help select the most appropriate and engaging drugs-related messages that young people in year 9 will be most interested in. These will then be piloted and used to educate influential ‘peer leaders’ in schools, to see if they can diffuse this information to their peers to complement other youth-focussed drug prevention and harm reduction activities.
In the days before I started my work placement, I got the feeling that most people get before starting something new – nerves. This was my first experience in an academic workplace so I had no idea what to expect, how to act or if I would meet the expectations of my new colleagues.
However, I soon discovered that the atmosphere at DECIPHer is relaxed and everyone seems to get along well. It was completely different to any work environment I had experienced before – here, the people are actually nice to each other! I found that everyone was really approachable, and support was always there if I was struggling with anything.
During my time at DECIPHer, I was given the freedom to work independently and at my own pace, organising my own time and tasks. At first it was a little hard to get used to as I’m used to being instructed what to do all the time in university and in other jobs, but now I’m quite happy to work independently and find this way I tend to get more done.
Before I started I didn’t think I would be capable of doing half the things I have done at DECIPHer – everything from designing materials and exercises to be used in focus groups, to transcribing a full interview recording and analysing it.
In the first few weeks I researched what drugs were most prevalent in the 13-15 age range and familiarised myself with the ‘Talk to Frank’ website. I extracted drugs-related messages and stories from the website that addressed the types of drugs that I found to be the most prevalent among 13-15 year olds, to feature in the focus group materials. Following that, I contacted youth centres and existing contacts in an attempt to recruit young people to take part in the focus groups.
Before my first focus group I felt a little nervous as, again, I didn’t know what to expect. As the participants were aged between 13 and 15, I worried that they might act up during the interview, and wondered if this would affect the data collected. Luckily, though, it all went fine – it turns out teenagers are happy to talk if they’re being bribed with vouchers!
After I had conducted the focus groups, I transcribed the data and analysed it to identify key themes. To help me with this, I listened to the recording of a pilot focus group conducted earlier with ALPHA (DECIPHer’s advisory group of young people). As well as generating detailed data that we could use to develop focus group materials, this was really useful for me as an inexperienced researcher – listening to how the focus groups were conducted, and the prompts and questions used, helped me prepare.
Although I’d carried out research tasks as part of my university course, I found that this is very different to conducting research in a work environment. For example, even though I have conducted my own practice interviews at university, these were with friends, meaning the interviews were not conducted as professionally as they could have been – notably, they involved lots of giggling because my friends couldn’t take me seriously. This contrasts quite significantly with my research at DECIPHer, where the focus groups were conducted with people with whom I wasn’t familiar, and who took me seriously as a researcher. Another difference between the two experiences is my attitude – knowing that the work I’m doing now has a significant research purpose and will be used by someone other than me has probably pushed me to work that extra bit harder.
I’d recommend to other students that they look into opportunities for research placements. Mine has built on the foundations of research knowledge and experience that my university work has provided, and given me a head start for my dissertation this year. Even though the research placement ends at the end of September, I will be continuing with the project for my dissertation as I have found the project topic so interesting. An additional benefit of a research placement is that it is paid which has enabled me to really focus on my work without having to worry about money and costs.
I first applied for the research placement because I wanted to put what I had learned in university into practice and I thought the experience was something significant to put on my CV. I hadn’t really considered a job in research before but this has opened me up to the possibility. My ideal job would be something which differs from day to day and where I am constantly learning new things, and my experience at DECIPHer has shown me that a job in research constantly teaches you new things and is full of variety.