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Linda talks about her PhD: 'I like to climb and pick coconuts'

Linda Plowright-Pepper

PhD researcher Linda came to academia late in her career. For over a decade she was Chief Executive of a national charity which trained young people to become sports leaders and get people active. She's now a researcher with the OU, looking in to how young people experience activity. The title of this piece is a quote from one of Linda’s co-researchers, who was inventing his own world of adventures as he played.


“I’d always thought I would love to do a Doctorate but if I’m honest I don’t think I ever thought I would. Then circumstances just came together. I’d recently taken a module with the OU on researching with children and young people where the final assignment for the course was to prepare a proposal for further research.

"By that time I had been a Chief Exec for over a decade. I was discussing succession planning with my Board. I didn’t have any reason to leave because I loved the job, but I believed that there should be someone with better ideas, new ideas coming up.

"I didn't think I'd stand a chance!"

"Purely by chance, I saw the applications for CREET scholarships at the OU. CREET is the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology and every year they award a number of scholarships for fully funded PhDs. Collectively, there are a broad range of subjects that we are researching, all with a key link into education and educational research. I applied using the proposal from the module I’d studied and it was successful; I didn’t think I would have a chance!

"My area of PhD research is how children, primarily those aged 7-11 in middle childhood, experience physical activity.

"We have a situation in England, as in a lot of Westernised societies, where the level of activity is low and is declining and there are health issues becoming associated with that. Professionally I’ve spent my life managing community sport and recreation. I’ve been part of a large cohort of people who have put lots of money into trying to secure this challenge and we haven’t succeeded. I felt we needed to take a different look at what we were doing.

Inspired by work experiences

"I was inspired by my charity work where, at our peak, we were training over 200,000 youngsters to become sports leaders. Young people are so wise and have such a lot to offer; I could see their power and their capabilities are brilliant.

"So my research has two key strands. One is accessing and really nurturing all those abilities that young people have, to actually show us adults what it is like. The other strand is to think differently about physical activity- to say that maybe it’s not all about competition which potentially puts people off being active.


My co-researchers had equal responsibility

"I think that it is probable that young people understand their experiences of physical activity better than we adults do, so I have nine co-researchers, all aged 7 to 11. They’ve worked with me, with an equal responsibility, around the research to guide it where they feel it should be guided.

"They’ve collected a whole load of data- over 1000 photos and more than 200 hours of video. They’ve invited me to go and see everything from football to forest school to Brownies. They’ve then been involved in looking at their data. We’ve carried out mind-mapping activities where they have created groupings of their data and we’ve done a thematic analysis together.

"I used their headings to do an even more in-depth look at their results. They have come up with nuanced descriptions of their experiences in physical activity than we’re focusing on in terms of public policy. For example, they’re headlining things like using their creativity and their imagination; enjoying connecting with their family and not just socialising or getting active with their friends.

"My co-researchers have been fabulous; they’re very very wise and understand their own lives. I can’t generalise, as they are only a small group, but it’s opening up other channels of potential research and it’s been really exciting.

Next steps

"I am hoping that these research findings can contribute to existing research. A number of them are supporting new research about fun and enjoyment. I am also hoping is that I can prepare some papers and feed these into some of the practitioner and policymaker domains, to add to a growing body of research which might potentially impact on policy and practice.

"Once my PhD is finished, I’m hoping to take on a Research Assistant role, and continue developing work with young people and their research capability because it is so exciting.

"I’m hoping to develop the work on the two strands of my PhD. The physical activity is important, but as important is recognising children’s capabilities.

"I am making connections with The Open University’s Children’s Research Centre. They have a particular way of looking at children’s research with the children actually leading it and learning research skills. My method is slightly different, but it is very compatible.

A non-traditional route to academia

"I’ve not approached academia in a traditional way. I’m 62, so I’m ancient! I was secure within my professional world and don’t have the same confidence as an academic as I had in my professional life.  Moving from practitioner to academic has been quite challenging, particularly gaining the confidence to stand up amongst my new peers and have academic conversations. Imposter syndrome has been very real.

"I’ve found the personal discipline of the subject area the most challenging though; the discipline of actually stopping and writing up the results. Working with the co-researchers is so inspiring that you can go on and on and on collecting data. I am afraid if I’ve ever got a choice then it will be to do the research!

"I thought I knew The Open University because I had seven years as a distance OU student so I had very high expectations. I have to say they were exceeded in terms of the learning environment, it’s very vibrant. There’s always help and support available or somebody that is interested in your particular angle on a topic.

"I’ve loved the camaraderie of PhD students and other colleagues around you. There’s a whole sense of a family around you and that’s how I feel having come to The Open University as a full-time student.

"As an OU PhD student you’re in a middle ground between a student and a member of staff. You’re based mainly on campus and are treated immediately that you enter this establishment as a full-time student, as an academic in the making. The generosity with which you are welcomed into that family is beyond reproach, it’s excellent. The support network that you have is amazing.


Read more about Research within the Faculty of WELS.

Read more about Research Degrees at the OU.  

Read more about CREET scholarships.

Read more about Linda's story on OU News

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