On the other side of the desk

I wrote an earlier blog about my experience of doing a PhD as an embedded researcher (read the blog here, the research paper here, and a book chapter here).  With my traumas over I find myself on the other side of the desk as a supervisor to two PhD students whom are both doing their PhDs as embedded researchers.

It is symptomatic of embedded research that both students don’t want me to talk about their research for fear of upsetting the host organisation.  Happily this isn’t because they have devious, ulterior motives written into their research designs, with an example line from their research plan: ‘week 45: strip mine data from pupils and teachers and sell to whichever organisation buys NHS patient data’.  Rather, doing embedded research is small ‘p’ precarious, political, personal research.  So having me running my gums about the challenges they are facing would not be exactly politic.  Indeed, one student doesn’t want to identify himself/herself as an embedded researcher because this might change the way people in his/her research setting. Mum/ dad are literally the words.

Getting into the spirit of passing on my wisdom or at least explaining the particularly haggardly lines and scars on my face and very soul, I gave a class on doing embedded research as part of the MRes at ESRI. The slides are below:



In the slides I gave my tips on doing embedded research:

  • Start researching straight away!  No really, start researching straight away. The initiative will no doubt change and most likely finish between the year two fieldwork phase. Get going!
  • Do lots of research on lots of different things.  It won’t always be clear what your research is about, who and what is important or not.  I believed the people I was researching when they said the initiative was about cultural change.  It ended up being, in my view, about leadership so keep collecting data so you can change direction and have the empirical material to support your argument.
  • Identify (and re-negotiate) your relationship to the research commissioner, the organisation and everyone else.  As I said above, embedded research is personal and political so you need to work with your gate keeper but also acknowledge where this locates you in the organization so you aren’t seen as the bossman’s/ bosswoman’s spy.
  • Understand power relations.  See above.
  • Protect your privileged position.  First of all you don’t really have a privileged position, not really.  It is likely that someone powerful in the organization supports your work but apart from that you don’t really matter all that much. The trick is that not everyone knows this. In any event, learn to say ‘no’ if people keep asking you to do things that you don’t want to do.
  • Defend your thesis’ neutrality, offer micro-research. There is a chance that the individuals and organization supporting your research will want a fair-and-balanced appraisal of their initiative, what does and does not work. Equally likely however there is a danger that they will want positive puff-pieces to legitimate what they think works. Be very clear that the thesis is neutral and sacrosanct. You could negotiate micro-research projects that enable you to collect data and present it in accessible ways quickly to inform the initiative.
  • Be useful!
  • Play the long game!  The world is a fast moving place and in a lot of places people move on.  Pressures may lapse or views expressed off-the record can be returned to if key people move on. And they will 3 years is an eternity in most organizations. You are there for the long haul, relax and enjoy the ride.

If anyone else has any other advice or ideas I would love to hear them!

James Duggan


New publication

An edited book including contributions from several embedded researchers will be out soon:

Helen M Gunter, David Hall, and Colin Mills (eds) (2014) Education Policy Research: Design and Practice at a time of Rapid Reform. London: Bloomsbury.

The first part of the book is titled ‘Embedded researches’, and includes the following chapters:

1. Embedded research: contextualising managerialisation in a local authority, James R. Duggan (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK)
2. Student Action Researchfluidity and researcher identities, Patricia M. Davies (University of Manchester, UK)
3. Navigating research partnerships as a critical secretary, Harriet Rowley (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK)
4. School – university partnerships: border crossings as ‘a legal alien’, Maija Salokangas (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)

See more at:


And make sure you’ll get your copy!





Claire Forbes from the University of Manchester poses the question: what does being an embedded researcher truly entail. 





past tense: embedded; past participle: embedded

1. fix (an object) firmly and deeply in a surrounding mass.

“he had an operation to remove a nail embedded in his chest”

synonyms: implant, plant, set, fix, lodge, root, insert, place;
(OUP, 2014)

Eight months into my doctoral research, I have yet to really consider what I actually mean when I tell people that I am an ‘embedded’ researcher. Certainly, I have spent hours pondering my position, my role and my relationship with the school in which I am researching. The result? Seemingly endless internal monologues, in which I wrangle over unanswerable questions, such as how to negotiate the high wire that is too much involvement or too little; or how to gain trust whilst remaining impartial?  Yet, putting these conundrums aside for a moment, I would like to take the time to briefly explore what is meant by ‘embedded’ and how does this definition relate to my position, or how I see my position, at this early stage of my research career?


Put simply, being ‘embedded’ is being ‘placed’ within an organisation. You are based there, you conduct your research there but you are not really part of the organisation ; you are not an employee or a community member. Rather, you are at once an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’, familiar but strange, connected yet separate.  When I applied for my PhD, I was a full time teacher and had recently completed my Masters in Education part time. As a practitioner-researcher, I felt that I was used to juggling the role of teacher and researcher, as well as reflecting upon these conflicting identities reflexively and sensitively. ‘Embedded’ research, I thought, would enable me to capitalise on all the benefits of being an ‘insider’ and none of the limitations. I would be well placed to comprehend local realities and well positioned to gain trust from a variety of stake holders, but there would be no danger of subjectivity or bias. As an ‘embedded researcher’, my stance would encompass traditional ‘insider-outsider’ research perspectives and offer something new.


And I was right, largely.

‘Embedded’ research has afforded me privileged access to a network of tacit knowledge and local expertise that I would have found extremely difficult to come by otherwise. As a passionate teacher, I always enjoyed being part of a school community and I still enjoy that privilege, only I balance it with lectures, seminars, supervisions and the occasional long, lazy coffee break with fellow PhD students!


However, I was not fully prepared for the ‘uncomfortableness’ of ‘embedded’ research. Although bridging traditional research perspectives brings numerous benefits, it does leave you feeling a little uneasy, a notion that I can only really describe as ‘halfway between’. Halfway between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, halfway between school and university, halfway between a range of stakeholders, all with differing agenda. It is a strange and unsettling feeling at first. Eight months on, I am getting used to the awkwardness of always being ‘halfway between’ and am actually rather enjoying it. What had been a rather disquieting sense of being ‘neither here, nor there’, has altered. As I have got to know the school and community context, refined my research questions, developed my proposal and grown in confidence, I have gradually come to see my role as akin to a butterfly, fluttering here and there, noting what I find interesting or could prove useful. Alternatively, I could just as validly be seen as the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’! Either way, I am in motion, not static or entrenched, but listening, watching and all the time learning.


So, I am coming to the conclusion that whilst ‘embedded’ research is firmly ‘placed’ within and ‘focussed’ upon an institution, as the dictionary definition might suggest, the ‘embedded’ researcher is far from ‘fixed’, but rather ‘fluid’ and ‘free’. Of course, this raises other issues, tensions and conflicts but isn’t it precisely these dilemmas that intrigue and nourish us as researchers?




Hi all,


I recently came across some reading that I thought could be well worth sharing with fellow embedded researchers, and others interested in such approach to researcher.


Firstly Janne Malfroy’s article (2011) regarding the impacts of university-industry partnerships to doctoral programs points out some tensions embedded research arrangements create on higher education pedagogy and institutional practice. This article provides observations on what it’s like to supervise embedded researchers. Although the article reports of work conducted in Australia, it resonates strongly with some observations embedded researchers working in the UK have made:


Malfroy, J. (2011) The impact of university–industry research on doctoral programs and practices, Studies in Higher Education36(5), 571-584.


Secondly, an article by Minna Salminen-Karlsson and Lillemor Wallgren (2008) also discusses the embedded research supervisory relationship. They provide an interesting account on the ways in which supervision arrangements between the academic and the industrial supervisor are negotiated:


Salminen-Karlsson, M., & Wallgren, L. (2008) The interaction of academic and industrial supervisors in graduate education, Higher Education56(1), 77-93.


Finally,  for all embedded researchers who receive funding from the organization they are embedded in, Cheek (2005) provides some possibly helpful considerations in the following book chapter:


Cheek, J. (2005) The practice and politics of funded qualitative research, in N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds.) The Sage handbook of qualitative research, 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA.; London; New Delhi: Sage, pp. 387-410.


If you have any reading suggestions that you think could be helpful, please let us know.


Happy reading,




Sam Baars from the University of Manchester raises questions regarding positionality and ownership of Embedded Research:


When your PhD is funded by an airport, certain things take a little getting used to. Firstly, your morning train ride will be shared with a lot of happy holidaymakers, which can be difficult to stomach when your destination isn’t a sunny one and your interview schedule for the day’s fieldwork isn’t finished. Secondly, there’s the ever-present possibility that the meeting you’re heading for might be cancelled at the last minute due to an Icelandic volcanic eruption or an unattended suitcase at Terminal 1. Thirdly, and by far most importantly, there’s the nagging question of who your research is for – a question that all embedded researchers must at some point grapple with.


Ultimately, every piece of academic research has a number of stakeholders: the funding council, university award or partner organisation that paid for it; the academic(s) conducting it; the participants who helped to generate the data behind it; the broader academic community that will receive the new knowledge it generates, and anyone in any way involved with a policy, service or piece of legislation that might change as a result of its findings. The paradox of doing a PhD is that a famously solitary activity does, in fact, involve a lot of people.


In the case of embedded research, the presence of the first and last set of stakeholders – the people paying for it, and the people affected in concrete terms by its outcomes – is particularly apparent: a partner organisation has invested resources in you, and in return they will normally be expecting some kind of outcome tailored to their own strategic goals. In my case as a PhD researcher, the airport provided the lion’s share of my annual studentship and, in return, my research had to be focused on the local area. There could not have been fewer strings attached. I had no problem identifying a research question that was focused on the local area, engaged with my own academic interests and had relevance in contemporary policy debates: how are young people’s occupational aspirations shaped by the areas they live in? But how did this research question align with the airport’s own agenda? In what sense was this research for my funder? After all, I owed my opportunity to pursue a PhD to the airport, and this was supposed to be a piece of embedded research.


During initial meetings at the airport it became clear that one of their primary goals as a large local employer and sponsor of a nearby secondary school was to raise the qualifications and skills of the local population, in order to create a more viable local pool of labour. I was almost taken aback at the airport’s candidness here: of course, they were interested in such a goal for its inherent value to the local population, but ultimately they had a lot to gain from any intervention that would help to raise the educational attainment, aspirations, qualifications and skills of the people living on their doorstep. Given this strategic goal, it’s not difficult to see how my research may contribute to local initiatives focused on the sorts of jobs young people in the area aspire to do when they’re older. However, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in touch with the airport – a truly ‘embedded’ relationship was never realised, and after the first 12 months my PhD developed independently of my funder. While academics would probably hail this as an instance of the proper independence of academia from business interests, I’m left with a sense of doubt: have I conducted a mutually beneficial piece of research? Has my research been for my funder? I will find out soon enough, when I meet with representatives from the airport for my final funders meeting – by which point my PhD will be a fait accompli and the opportunity for collaboration will be gone. I have no doubt that my PhD has been of benefit to me and to the policy context in which it is situated, and I can prove the relevance of my findings to the airport’s strategic goals. But the question of whether my research has been for my funder in any meaningful sense is far less certain.

We have just updated our list of researchers and added new biographies, please check it out!

The new additions include projects  located in, for example, academy schools, museums, and within the co-operative movement. Sounds like there’s some really exciting work going on.

Really looking forward to hearing more about these, as well as other embedded research projects in near future.


All the best with your research everybody


Some reflections from James Duggan, Manchester Metropolitan University ,on how to recover if things fall apart during research:   


Beginning a PhD is always a daunting experience as you first sit down to read a towering pile of books and enter into a dialogue that’s gone on through the ages in hushed tones in hallowed halls.  Beginning a PhD as an embedded researcher is, by my reckoning, scarier still because your study is contingent on the continuation of the initiative you are studying, people staying in post, and generally the world going on as normal, which in these days is a lot to ask.


The difference between my dreams of doing of a PhD and the seat-of-the-pants reality came into collision at the end of my first year. As for my dream, it is perhaps surprising for an anti-elitist but I have always wanted one of those Oxbridge chats with a professor, in high-backed chairs, beside a fire, port in hand, as we discuss what I might do after graduation.  I would suggest becoming a philosopher.  She would suggest I might do something practical like making jam.  What about a sociologist… or futurologist… or one of those people who writes fake reviews for businesses online? I would reply between her embarrassed headshakes.


The closest I came to such a conversation however was while in a conference centre bar and being handed a beer by one of my supervisors as he told me, Haven’t you heard? Nick didn’t get the job, so he’s leaving. Henry’s handed in his resignation. So he’s off. It’s all a bit of a mess… Cracking data for you though. This was June 2009 and I was to start my PhD fieldwork in September on an initiative called the Stockborough Challenge. Nick was the senior manager championing the project. Henry was the director of the Stockborough Challenge.  The initiative I was meant to research for my PhD had effectively ended before my fieldwork began.  Cracking data, cracked dreams. At first I was pretty downbeat about the whole thing but due to the benefits of being an embedded researcher, specifically being a nominal employee of the organisation I was researching, and a bit of luck I was able to find the space and goodwill of the professionals in Stockborough to pursue a more interesting line of research, one that brought together research, policy and practice.


My findings are a subject for further posts. At this point I simply offer the advice to people embarking on embedded research that things might fall apart at some point but in the cracks you can find what you need to write your thesis.

For starters, you may wish to read James Duggan’s post on embedded research, which was published in Manchester Metropolitan University,  Education and Social Research Institute’s (ESRI) blog. Enjoy!


Welcome to the Embedded Researcher network blog. This site was set up to provide a platform of discussion in which Embedded Researchers and anybody interested  in such research arrangement may  share ideas, information and news. If you got interested and wish to hear more please get in touch, we are very keen to hear of our  fellow “Embedded Researchers”.


Maija Salokangas, Trinity College Dublin



Ruth McGinity, the University of Manchester



James Duggan, Manchester Metropolitan University