Volunteering as a PGR representative on the Human Research Ethics Committee was an unexpected highlight of my time as a Doctoral Student at the Open University. Applying for ethics approval for PhD and other academic research can be daunting but is an integral part of the research process. For me, working in HREC was an eyeopener in demystifying what now seems a much more straightforward framework for how research is conducted and in highlighting how as researchers we bring integrity to and protect ourselves and others as part of that work. Overall, the experience of being a PGR student representative proved invaluable to me and my own development as a researcher. I have gained new skills and insights into HREC processes and the people behind them as well as gaining greater confidence as a researcher and in my own expertise.
When I joined HREC, I attended an induction session where the work and the supportive and welcoming team were introduced. (Soon after I joined, new PGR volunteers were also allocated mentors from the team). Over the next month I was copied in on HREC applications and the feedback from other specialist members of the team, without having to comment on applications myself. Once I had a better idea of how I could best contribute to the process, I started to provide my own comments and feedback. Being one of three reviewers meant that although we were following the same guidelines (outlined in a checklist of what we should be looking for when reviewing HREC application forms), each of us picked up on different aspects of the applications which were then forwarded to the Chair for further consideration. I, for example, have experience of working in tricky situations internationally, and was able to comment usefully on some of the challenges of working internationally.
Being part of the HREC team meant receiving one or two applications a month to review. Along with two other reviewers I was given a two-week period to add my comments and to ensure that the guidelines were met. To my surprise I found that the hour and a half that I would generally spend on reviewing applications would often be a welcome relief from my own PhD work. It also helped me feel part of a wider research community, where everyone is facing similar challenges. Indeed, one of the highlights of the work was having sight of some of the wide array of OU research proposals that are regularly submitted to HREC. As a result, I now have a better understanding of the range of topics which are covered and the methods which are used in OU based research.
Now that I have completed my PhD in Development Policy and Practice and am continuing my association with the OU as a Research Associate in Religious Studies, I continue to apply the skills that I gained from being a part of HREC. Not only have I gained the confidence to do ethics applications for other academic research projects, but I am now also much more aware (and appreciative!) of the OU community, teams and committees which enable our research to take place.