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Saskia Van Kesteren is a MSc student at the Bartlett School of Planning. She reflects on her initial stages of her collaboration that she developed through the Community Noticeboard.

Please describe the steps you have taken to set up your collaboration. What has the process been like?

I found two research ideas on the community noticeboard that looked particularly interesting and relevant for my studies in urban planning. I spent some time thinking about how I could link those research ideas to my skills and knowledge and what kind of research collaboration might be possible. I then sent out an expression of interest to both of these organisations and had a meeting with them. During the meetings we discussed mainly what the organisation would like to get from the research and what I would be able to offer them to see whether there was a good match. After the meetings, both organisations expressed that they were open to working with me. The research plan I had for one of the organisations, a Community Centre, was a bit more concrete and exciting for me, so I decided to collaborate with them.

How much was your supervisor involved in this stage and how important (or not) was this involvement? 

My supervisor was not involved at this stage. I was matched with a supervisor at my home university only once I had established the collaboration and come up with a research question. I did have a meeting with my programme manager to discuss the suitability of both research ideas and the collaboration in general from the perspective of the programme. This didn’t really guide me in my choices, but it did give me the confidence to move forward.   

How easy was it to arrive at a research topic or question that suited you and also your organisation? What did that process look like?

There was already a rough research idea when we started collaborating because of the Community Centre’s post on the community noticeboard. However, it became clear to me that the Centre was interested in many different types of research. When I spent my first few hours there, I think I wrote down like fifteen potential research topics based on a conversation with the Centre Manager and observing the functioning of the Centre. That was a little bit overwhelming. I needed a few weeks to decide on a specific research topic and question during which I spent two half-days a week at the Centre and had many conversations with the Manager. Step by step it became more clear what was an interesting, relevant and realistic research topic. I’m very glad I gave myself the time to slowly figure that out.

What has been most exciting part of this process so far?

Mostly the learning and the new experiences. It has been really rewarding spending time at the Community Centre and getting an understanding of how it functions. I’ve also had many interesting conversations with staff and others related to the Centre. I have learned a lot which will enrich my research, but has also enriched me as a person and a future urban planner. I have also been challenged in new ways. I have gotten into new situations in which I was not sure what to do and felt insecure about my role and capabilities. However, through these experiences, I have grown and learned new things about myself and they have given me more confidence.  

What has been the most daunting or stressful?

It’s been challenging to bridge my academic world with the world of the Community Centre. I had gotten used to a certain way of working, which didn’t work very well in my collaboration with the Centre. I’ve had to be flexible and find ways of working that suit both of our worlds. For example, I tend to not schedule meetings at a precise time, but I let the Manager know that I’ll be at the Centre between this and this time and they can let me know when we can have a talk. Because things can always come up at the Centre and it’s quite an unpredictable environment. I’m also organizing my data collection in a different way that I would in a more academic context to allow for a bit more flexibility and informality. Of course, I do have to make sure this remains academically sound, so it’s a process of balancing and negation.

What are your hopes for the collaboration?

I hope that my data collection at the Centre will be experienced as non-intrusive and maybe even a positive set of conversations and reflections. It would be nice to create a positive research experience also for the Centre users, but this is not easy because the research is not directly of interest to them. I definitely hope to create a research output that is relevant to the Centre as a whole. I’m hoping the Centre can use it to showcase its impact and attract funding. I hope they will also see it as a source of reflection and learning. And of course, I hope the Centre and its staff will find this a positive experience and might work with other academics in the future.