Meet the trainer - Karen O'Reilly


In this blog piece we interview Karen O'Reilly, SRA trainer with over 20 years experience in teaching quantitative and qualitative methods. Karen takes us through the ups and downs of being a research methods teacher and gives advice on how to make the most of your SRA training course.

When, why and how did you become an independent trainer? 

I started to teach social research methods in 1996, when I first taught ethnography at the Essex summer school. Since then I have taught both quantitative and qualitative methods at four different UK universities and in Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Hong Kong, and regularly at summer schools in Switzerland and Essex.
I started to provide courses for the SRA in December 2015, first delivering courses in ethnography and in grounded theory, then over time taking on the delivery of courses in design, interviewing, focus groups, analysis, and writing.  Since 1996, I have continued to do research as well of course, often using ethnographic methods of participant observation, interviewing, group conversations, and increasingly creative methods and approaches. My research mainly focuses on migration, community, identity, and social practice theory. I absolutely love teaching research methods and especially delivering courses for the SRA. This is because the participants are usually fully engaged, excited to learn, and applying what they want to learn to real-world issues and concerns and existing projects.


Who comes to your SRA training (e.g. stage of career, roles, organisations) 

I also really enjoy the very diverse mix of participants on the courses. I never know who is going to come through the door. We have PhD students from across the disciplines, we have people working for charities and independent research organisations, we have people who are advanced in their careers and who want to learn some new approaches, we have professionals such as doctors, nurses and dentists, who want to learn skills to apply in research in their own fields. I get as much pleasure learning about their research interests as I do from delivering the training.

What types of research questions are best answered using qualitative methods? 

People who attend my courses have usually already identified that the research they are interested in is best suited to qualitative research (or to a combined approach).They want to understand complex issues, things that are difficult to talk about, sensitive topics, how people feel and think, and how this shapes their behaviour. They want to understand the processes behind people's actions, or to interpret what a phenomenon means to people in their daily lives. Many are concerned to understand feelings, emotions and actions so that they can suggest meaningful solutions to problems, or design practical interventions. 

What is your training style?

I like to think I deliver lively and interesting courses. I try to maintain a good balance between lecture-style delivery (me talking) and workshops, and give plenty of time for discussion. I feel fairly confident that I can respond to questions and issues as they arise now after doing this for almost 25 years. So, I like it best when I can train in dialogue with participants, addressing specific needs and concerns, and relating the training to their specific topics. 
Attendees get the most out of the training when they are applying it to a particular set of concerns or a specific field of research but we do also have participants who simply want to learn new skills to put in their toolkit. 


How can attendees get the best out of one of your sessions?

My main advice to attendees is to ask employers, managers or supervisors to ensure they can really set the day aside to concentrate. I feel sorry for people who have to spend the day dealing with many other tasks (usually via their phones), and find themselves tied up during the breaks. I do ask participants not to use their phones or deal with emails during the sessions. In short: leave your work on your desk, come and apply yourself for the day, and enjoy. 

What's better for analysis: Manual analysis, or software like Nvivo?

I don’t teach how to use qualitative analysis software but I would recommend people learn to use it if they can. But first of all you need to understand the logic of qualitative research and analysis. Software can help you manage the data but it won’t help you make sense of it. And you can be creative with play dough, drawing, talking, sharing, mind mapping and so on. I particularly enjoy wolking (working while walking). Qualitative analysis is time consuming, absorbing, challenging, and fun.


What is the worst/funniest thing that has happened during training?   

I’ve had my disasters and challenges.

Crises emerge at venues with regularity, but we normally get them resolved in time. Once, powerpoint refused to work and I had to show all the slides on adobe acrobat. I’ve been known to forget my laptop charger and had to borrow one from a participant. There are almost always two to three people who arrive late (blame the trains) so I now start with warm up workshops rather than plunge straight in with a lot of information. 

We once almost got snowed in. 

I always find it funny that participants are engaged and challenging, asking great questions, until about 4pm when I can see the general exhaustion in the room. I always have workshops after lunch now to keep people on their toes, but I can’t do anything about the end of the day. I am exhausted too by then! 

What is the most rewarding outcome from training you have delivered?

Training for the SRA is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my career. This is why I keep doing it even though I do find it exhausting. I try to keep up to date with new developments. There is a lot more creativity in research now and the use of digital media has opened up many new possibilities. The trouble I have is that the training days are already jam packed and fitting more in gets increasingly challenging. 

The other main challenge is dealing with the diversity in the room. I could have someone entirely new to social research and to qualitative methods in the same course as an expert who wants to brush-up. But we all learn from each other and I think one of the unexpected things participants get is meeting new and interesting people. I know some firm friendships and  positive collaborations have developed from SRA courses.


What are you working on right now? 

My present project is Brexit and Brits Abroad, funded by the ESRC, with Michaela Benson as PI. This has been running for two and a half years, designed to map the effects of the process as Brexit proceeds (so no guesses as to why it is a longitudinal project). It’s exciting and depressing and challenging. The most exciting aspect is the mix of methods we are using (participant observation, face to face and Skype interviews, email communications, a citizens panel, surveys, visual data, group interviews, and more) and the diverse outputs (reports for our participants, for government, for policy, academic papers, blogs, infographics, a video, photographic stories, podcasts, and more). 

I’m also working on an edited volume about International Labour Migration in Rural Areas. 

I also make silver and gold jewellery in my spare time (at Imaginaries Handmade Jewellery).


2020 - What are your new year's resolutions?

My New Year’s resolution has been the same for many years: don’t make New Year’s resolutions!


You can find a listing of all SRA courses here

Karen's next course, Interpreting and writing up your qualitative findings, takes place in London on January 31st.