Graduation Spring 2016: Teacher becomes student (Part 2)

This post was contributed by Dr Frank Watt, who this week graduated from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Sharing the platform with Dr Watt on the day was his PhD supervisor Professor Patrick Tissington, Head of the department. Not just that, he was also a previous employee of Dr Watt’s! Yesterday, Professor Tissington told his side of the story (read his blog entry here). Today, it’s Frank’s turn.

Dr Frank Watt

Dr Frank Watt

After gaining two masters degrees, I guess I could have been satisfied with academic achievement and left studying behind. For me however, the challenge of successfully completing a PhD was more than tempting, it would satisfy a personal desire or need. I could put it down to ambition, taking on something big or even sheer curiosity but, it was simply a love of research and learning and I really wanted to do it; no, I mean I really wanted to do it.

Having completed 33 years in the fire and rescue service I was able to retire and move on to do something else. So timing was perfect. The work associated with a PhD would perhaps fill the void created by not having to meet the demands of being an Assistant Chief Fire Office.

I enrolled at Aston University in early October 2008 with Patrick Tissington as my main supervisor. This was more complex than a than it would seem as Patrick, now Professor Tissington, was my student in all things fire service when undertaking his PhD during a secondment to the Fire Service College in Moreton in Marsh. The role reversal appeared to work as we had already established rules for working together only this time it would be me on the receiving end of feedback and timely reminders that a piece of work was overdue!

The following couple of years were mainly focussed on looking for a subject area that provided a gap in knowledge and sufficient contribution to research at PhD level. There were quite a few false trails but whilst attending a review meeting with Patrick, the conversation wandered into discussing efficacy at self and group level and there it was, the focus of my research. With my background in commanding natural hazard emergencies and developing pre and post disaster plans I was always curious as to how or if members of a community could contribute to deployed professional resources. By extending the concept of efficacy to community level would it be possible to measure the likelihood of a community getting involved in preparing for a natural hazard event.

Just as I was in the moment so to speak, I had a bit of a wobble. A very dear friend collapsed and died in front of me and despite my life saving efforts I was unable to help him. Thirty three years dealing with deaths and injuries had not it seemed prepared me for such an event. It would be six months before I could concentrate and return to my research. At this point, it may seem callous of me to suggest that ‘life happens, deal with it’, but that’s exactly how it is. People including you will be affected by deaths, births, marriages, divorces and all the other events that can and will occur during the time it takes to complete a PhD. I was fortunate as according to a 360 degree psychometric, I have a high degree of tenacity and personal resilience that kept me going.

Sometime later Dr P. Tissington became a professor here at Birkbeck and I was to follow. Now that I had moved and settled into the Birkbeck way my research started to gather momentum. I reached out to friends and family to test their responses to my research. Using social networks and a landing page for my questionnaire, I was able to tap into any number of sources including organisations that were involved in communities and risk planning.

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

One of the major successes was securing over 500 responses from residents living in high risk flood zones. This data provided me the quantitative results that both supported my qualitative results and the research rationale as a whole, leaving rather smug. However in my rush to submit my thesis in order to comply with a self-imposed deadline, I was careless in my writing and did not meet the high quality level demanded in order to gain a Birkbeck PhD and although passing the Viva, I was left with a substantial rework of the submission. This coincided with the selling of our family house and moving into a motorhome.

In all the upheaval I still managed to submit an amended thesis which was accepted allowing me to graduate in April 2016 some 7 years, 7 months after filling in a PhD application form in Patrick’s office. On reflection my research was at times a labour of love, a mill stone round my neck and all consuming. I believe I appeared selfish in my focuss to achieve and I apologise to my wife family and friends for any offence or discomfort caused.

The written element occurred anywhere I found time to sit down with my laptop, iPad, phone or just plain pencil and paper. I wrote substantial pieces on trains, planes and sat on the playas or waiting for the weather to clear whilst climbing in Scotland. The mantra must be ‘write, write and write some more’. During the seven years I have climbed 178 mountains, cycled 1000 kilometres across Spain and competed in many triathlons and endurance events, but my research which was never very far away was without doubt my most difficult undertaking.

My last observation would be, procrastination was my enemy, tenacity and resilience were my friends. I’d be glad to introduce you to my friends.

(Read part 1 of this story)

Watch below to see Prof Tissington and Dr Watt speaking after the spring graduation ceremony

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