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URSS Diary: the use of social media as a research tool

This summer, I received funding to do a URSS (Undergraduate Research Support Scheme) project on autistic undergraduate students’ experiences of mental health at UK universities. As I write this article, my project remains incomplete (I still need to write up), but I have finished my interviews and made a research poster based on my findings. With my final year of university looming, the end of my project is approaching: I’ll soon be able to say that I’ve completed URSS. So what advice would I give to a student who’s doing URSS?

For me, perhaps the most important thing to have in mind throughout the research process is that your research isn’t necessarily going to go to plan – and that’s OK. Before I embarked upon my URSS project, I knew that research is ‘messy’, particularly research involving human participants. As a Sociology student, I was taught about this when I studied social research methods modules in the first two years of my degree.

Perhaps the most important thing to have in mind throughout the research process is that your research isn’t necessarily going to go to plan – and that’s OK

When I say that research is ‘messy’, what I mean is that it doesn’t adhere to the tidy plans that we set out for ourselves. There are delays; participants give irrelevant responses to your questions; they ghost you; they die, etc. etc. (NB: generally these things don’t all happen – but if you’re really unlucky, they might). And writing up, something we often regard as the end stage of research, is actually an iterative process. Research isn’t linear.

However, being armed with all of this knowledge cannot fully protect you from the visceral reality of ‘the unexpected’. Case in point: my URSS officially began in July. I had hoped to get into gear as soon as possible. Instead, I had an unproductive, albeit stressful month, most of which I spent waiting to hear back from an organisation I had contacted to arrange the recruitment of interviewees. My attempts at chasing up were unsuccessful, and I felt anxious about sending too many emails, lest I be viewed as a pest.

Being armed with all of this knowledge cannot fully protect you from the visceral reality of ‘the unexpected’

Perhaps I would have been able to deal better with the situation if Britain wasn’t in the midst of a sweltering heatwave, but I felt suffocated by the overbearing heat, and my brain was too foggy for me to get much background reading done. To be frank, July was a bit of a nightmare.

But finally, on the 29 of July – a few days before the end of the heatwave – I had a breakthrough: the organisation I was waiting to hear from finally replied. Motivated by the news, I made a ‘call for participants’ Tweet. 18 hours later, it had been shared 41 times. I cannot overemphasise how useful social media can be as a social research tool. It enabled me to achieve more in a day than I had so far in that entire month. And it was onwards and upwards from there.

I cannot overemphasise how useful social media can be as a social research too

But not only does my experience show how powerful social media is, but it demonstrates how the research process can feel incredibly inconsistent. You may experience long periods where it feels as though nothing happens. You’ll feel unmotivated, even depressed, as a result, and you’ll wonder if your research will ever get done. But generally, it does, albeit not necessarily how you planned it out in your head. The setbacks and the self-doubt are normal: you’ll power through.

After reading about the difficulties I experienced, you may worry about whether URSS is for you. But they should by no means be taken as an indictment of the scheme: it enabled me to research a topic I am passionate about without the pressure that comes with assessed academic work, and for that, I am extremely grateful.

But not only does my experience show how powerful social media is, but it demonstrates how the research process can feel incredibly inconsistent

My point is this: research is full of the unexpected. Give yourself plenty of extra time to get things done when you plan, remember that you’re not a bad researcher if things don’t go exactly how you intended – and last but not least, have fun!

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