How my research changed my life

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. He uses metaphor analysis to arrive at an understanding the students’ conceptions.

A tightly closed rosebud, full of promise
Rosebud by aussiegall on Flickr

Research changes the researcher. It’s not only a matter of gaining more knowledge – doing research changes the researcher as a person. That might be obvious, but why and how does it change the person?

Doing research is an emotional as well as an intellectual occupation. It involves feelings, as well as thinking. We make every effort to keep our feelings from influencing the results but we can’t keep ourselves from being affected personally by the work and results of the research.

Because of the nature of my PhD, I am writing my thesis in the form of a story about my research, including how it has changed me. My research uses metaphor analysis to understand students’ conceptions as expressed in an on-line survey in which they answered questions about their research. I extract the metaphors and then consider what they tell me about the people who answered the survey and their conceptions. Metaphors are very useful in this way as they express some of the personality of the person and provide insights into their thinking.

Searching for metaphors in my survey responses has heightened my sensitivity to them. I am now more aware of them in my own speech and writing and those of other people. This has changed my own ways of talking and writing because I feel the need to control my own use of metaphors.

When talking to other people or reading their work I take more notice of the metaphors they use. I will often think ahead in the sentence to see what metaphors are likely to appear. This can sometimes interfere with my understanding as I am concentrating on the metaphors more than the sense of the sentence. I find this particularly galling when reading fiction – I find myself critiquing the author’s use of metaphors and suggesting, in my mind, alternatives that could have been used and which might have given a more picturesque or colourful view and better understanding of the topic. I am certainly more sensitive to the colour added to the sentence by the metaphors, but I am also, with part of my mind, analysing the person’s use of metaphors and trying to attribute meaning to it.

In my own writing and speaking I tend to look ahead and notice if any metaphors are on the horizon. I then often make an effort to avoid using them for fear that I am revealing something about myself that I don’t want to give away. I find that this happens both in my academic and non-academic communications. I know that the metaphors reveal the user’s inner thoughts and emotions, as they have done in the survey responses. It is not so much that I want to hide my inner thoughts as a desire not to let out too much of myself for public view, since I am very much an introvert and private person. It sometimes makes my writing or speaking a little stilted as I try to quickly rephrase the sentence to avoid the metaphor. Sometimes I have to allow myself to consciously insert a metaphor so that the sentence makes sense or so that meaning and colour is added to it. And sometimes I use metaphors because I feel the need to aid my audience’s understanding of what I’m trying to say.

This change in me also reflects a change in my attitude to the participants in my research. I have come to realise how valuable they are to me. Without them I would have no data to analyse, but I now see them as people rather than just sources of data. The act of observing my participants and analysing the data they provide has changed my attitude towards them.

If you think about your own research and its implications you will find that you have been changed by it. If it is obvious that observation changes the observed then it should also be obvious that it changes the observer. How have you been changed by your research? Hopefully, for the better.


  1. Nice article. During my undergrad research project, I quickly realised that not everyone involved cared equally about our reading intervention. There were different levels of commitment and interest from: others in my project group, teachers at the school in which we were working, and our participants (primary school children). For instance, one girl was absolutely distraught to find out that her dance class clashed with our scheduled reading lessons (obviously, she wanted to do the former). Coincidentally, another revelation was that these children were little people with wishes and desires of their own (as condescending as that sounds). In short, no one is ever as psyched about research as the researcher. And participants are not subjects. They are people whose wonderful idiosyncrasies bring your thesis to life.


    • Yes, I think that that is important that we consider out participants as people. In the heat of research it is too easy to forget that. We must also remember that without our participants we would have no datya to analyse and thus no research or results. In fact, we would have nothing to do without them. I know that in my research, realising that in my data there was a lot of colour and personality that largely disappeared in my analysis. I thus worked into my thesis an analysis of the ‘peronality’ in the responses. When I presented an illustration of the colour and personality that is often ignored in texts at a conference it went down very well.
      Rod Pitcher


  2. Hi Rod, Found your article very inspiring. I am looking into how being a researcher changes student perceptions about and behaviour towards each other in lessons. Have you published any work on impact of being a researcher? Geraldine


    • Thanks Geraldine.
      I haven’t done any work on how research changes perceptions. This posting was just a one-off that I thought about at the time. My work has been about conceptions of research and the use of metaphor analysis in finding them. I’ve also done a lot on how metaphors add colour what people say. Sorry I can’t help you.


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