MASTERY - Managing Sensitive Topics in Teaching and Research Confidently

Project leads: Dr Sophie King-Hill and Dr Katharina Karcher

A painted image of a tree with different coloured hand prints depicting leaves

MASTERY seeks to change how we deal with ‘sensitive’ topics in academia. Topics that are commonly regarded as sensitive include violence and death, political activism, mental health, harmful sexual behaviors, and sexuality. Although it is widely known that sensitive topics can cause distress, academics receive no training on how to deal with their potential emotional impact. 

Films and social media threads containing potentially distressing material often begin with a trigger warning. However, the use of such warnings in research and teaching contexts is controversial. So, how do we introduce and teach material that may cause distress? And, what support should Universities offer to academics who are regularly exposed to such material? So far, research has barely addressed these crucial questions.

Our project thus breaks new ground. The planned activities will 1) create and implement immediate measures to improve the well-being of academic staff and students who are confronted with sensitive issues and 2) lay the foundations for long-term improvements in University teaching.

Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre

Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre

“Such a great day & evening with our international counterparts for the EUniWell - European University for Well-Being funded MASTERY project we are part of. Such a valuable meeting of minds from South Korea/Canada, Germany, Sweden, the UK & Italy.”

View a Summary of the Conference

Our toolkit entries

Takeaways and suggestions from working on the MASTERY project for the last year.


As can be seen in the Research Outputs and Impact (bottom of the webpage), we were able to achieve our aims and create both community and resources for researchers and students working with sensitive or disturbing subjects. After working on this project for the last year here are my main takeaways and some suggestions.

As mentioned in other entries in the MASTERY toolkit, reactions, life stages, and experiences vary but I liken this to teaching people how to use a first aid kit; people should have some basic knowledge of what tools are available and what is appropriate based on current needs. You should also know when the kit isn’t sufficient and more professional assistance is necessary. 

We need community and connection.

I think this has been my largest takeaway from the project. We can signpost people to online resources and try to offer suggestions for help, but the creation and maintenance of an engaged community goes a long way towards setting up a supportive network.

I recommend creating community networks for students to practice participating and running meetings. Topic generation, trust building, supportive communication, and constructive feedback are transferable skills that will assist them on both a personal and professional level. By incorporating this process as part of their research methodology, it normalizes it so they can utilize it according to their needs throughout their research careers.

Students, if it isn’t offered, start your own. Promote your group via your department and on social media. The greater the variety of voices, the more everyone can get from the community.

I also recommend a community of practice for researchers and teachers. There is interest from varying institutions and differing departments within them. Some would prefer content specialists from similar backgrounds, but I highly recommend interdisciplinary groups so that best practices and techniques can be shared across regions. I also recommend a ‘team leader’ for these groups that can also liaise with other leaders of groups. This would assist with future funding bids, reduce overlap, and allow for improved collaboration. 

Create a paid role to manage the organization, engagement, and promotion of services

The process and the needs of researcher wellbeing interlock like a honeycomb. Researchers, teachers, students, funding, ethics, grant writing, ethics, support, publications, methodology, REF, the list goes on. Rather than operating in silos, a connecting body needs to be present. To that end, a paid role is strongly recommended to establish a body of dedicated, involved people working in their specialties, to then maintain databases, be the ‘go-to’ contact, promote activities, and to create, maintain, and sustain an active network. 

We bring our whole selves to work, and although we try to compartmentalize, sometimes it doesn’t work, and that’s okay.

When working with emotionally demanding subject matter, be it research or teaching, we still occupy varying roles and skills that go beyond these employment / student roles. When asked how we’re doing, if focusing the answer on that researcher role, perhaps it is manageable, not fabulous, but manageable. When we reflect on all the other ‘things’ going on in our lives, sometimes, it’s not manageable.

Added together, the requirements of work and the necessities of life can be a lot, and perhaps at times too much to handle. And yes, the demands of research are tough for everyone but there is an additional element to emotionally demanding, sensitive subjects.

Knowing when to take breaks, when to ask for help (and being reminded that it is acceptable to ask for help), and when to step away are things we need to accept and implement for ourselves and one another. 

What once was manageable can become upsetting, and vice versa.

Related to the previous idea, sometimes the other ‘things’ in life can make work that once was manageable more upsetting. While it can be difficult to admit, we do have limits on our capacities and do need to shift and adjust, to allow for more time for ourselves.

Another possibility is that topics previously worked on, that caused no issue, are now seen from a different, troubling perspective that impacts the ability to be engaged with them. This can range from data collection, transcription, translation, writing, interviews, or even from literature reviews. There is great care and concern that goes into this work, at both a professional and personal level. At the same time, boundaries need to be created and maintained so that, should one choose to continue researching this area, they can at a level that is manageable for them. 

Not everyone will have the same reactions to the same content.

What might be upsetting for one person, will not have the same effect for another. This is a nice reminder of the individual contribution we each have and are able to make towards projects and for one another. 

Put a ‘Get Out’ clause into projects

This can be for support staff (translators, transcribers, research assistants), working on subject matter they are not accustomed to or do not feel comfortable dealing with. It requires more flexibility from the PIs but if arrangements are considered at the initial planning stages, workarounds can be implemented.

This can be for students researching topics that they no longer feel comfortable engaging in, so they can either change their contribution or topic completely without shame or negative repercussions. 

Add wellbeing support measures into funding requests and into ethics requirements

As can be seen in many of the other entries, support measures and time are consistently recommended throughout.  Time away from projects, time to engage in individual wellbeing activities, time for personal psychological services, and funding to support the initiatives.

I recommend that both time and funding be built into the projects as part of the grant application. I also recommend that ethics approval boards signpost researchers to resources and those on ethics review boards ask how researcher and support staff wellbeing will be considered in projects deemed emotionally demanding. 

There are different levels of action and support that can be taken, at varying stages of projects and throughout one's career. By having these resources available, I hope that conversations will continue, so that new insights can be collected and shared. Above all else, those who work in these areas, regardless of their titles, are supported and able to continue to help in the emotionally demanding topic areas they are so desperately needed.  

You don’t always have to bare your soul to feel better


Quite often when we are working on topics that are deemed sensitive one of the coping strategies advised by many professionals and researchers is to talk about how you feel. But what if that isn’t for you?

My research and work centres on the sexual behaviours of children and young people, from the healthy to the harmful. Coupled with this I study masculinity, misogyny and sibling sexual behaviour and abuse – amongst other things. I am vigilant about the triggers that some of my work could have for individuals, yet I am vocal about what needs to change to make a tangible difference to the lives of others and I am happy to talk freely and openly about what more has to be done within wider society.

Much of my work feels like it is framed within activism – and this is where I feel comfortable.

I have written about my work in many forms, such as papers, book chapters and blogs and taken part in podcasts/video shorts to translate the messages to wider audiences. I find doing this cathartic on many levels. Firstly, this helps get the message out there in terms of my findings, quite often the things I state may be deemed controversial by some societal groups. For example, my position that society has let young men and boys down and we need to do more and my advocacy for early relationships, sex and health education for children and young people. Whilst both positions are underpinned by robust research, they are often fraught with controversy.  The writing also means that the injustice in the topics don’t stay with me, and that by sharing them some release is felt. This plays into my activist position as a researcher – I am happy being vocal in uncomfortable spaces. And feel comfortable when listening to participants in my research when they are talking about topics that would offend or embarrass many others. This combination of activism and lack of discomfort stems from many years working in the third sector with disadvantaged young people, teenage parents and educating in sexual health settings.

Yet, despite my ability to negotiate these difficult topics, talking about my own feelings in relation to my work, in a public space, feels like an alien concept. Initially, this may look like there are clear boundaries between me and my work, however when explored further it is evident that my work is so much a part of me the boundaries between self and work are blurred. Which again, is something that I am comfortable with. As a researcher I ‘wear my heart on my sleeve’ – no matter how difficult the topic and my impact work is underpinned by activism, honesty, openness and a commitment to social justice.  This approach takes a lot of personal input and outward emotional investment.

Bearing that in mind, perhaps some things, like how we are feeling, have to stay sacred.

This demonstrates, quite clearly, that when looking after your own well-being the approach has to be individual. Suggestions are incredibly useful, but if they don’t fit with who you are then that is ok. Sharing how we feel may not be appropriate for some people and coping mechanisms differ. Everyone has a different tolerance and comfort zone when it comes to sharing information about themselves, especially in a public arena. This, in itself, may be the mechanism that helps people cope and to maintain their identity. The realm of sharing is individual some people take great solace in this – and others don’t. There is no one size fits all and as long as it works then either position is fine.

It is useful to have this awareness when considering the work we are doing. However, quite often being resilient is seen as an asset yet we would do well to remember that outwardly showing vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. But this does not work for everyone. 

I was doing just fine…. until I suddenly wasn’t


I’ve been working on violence and terrorism for my entire academic career. Driven by a critical hope for a less violent world, I have always seen it as a moral imperative to analyse violent events and relationships with an open mind and an open heart. 

Of course, that wasn’t always easy. For my PhD thesis, I interviewed former members of militant leftist and feminist groups in Germany. Some of these groups were classified as terrorist organisations by the German state. Some of my interviewees had spent years in prison, many others knew things that could lead to prison sentences for them and/or others. All were very reluctant to talk to researchers. Interviewing them was difficult, and I have had my fair share of rejections.

When people did agree to be interviewed, they usually asked me not to record the conversations. I told people that I’d be happy to meet wherever they felt comfortable to talk. One interviewee invited me to her home and had prepared vegan pumpkin soup. Another wanted to talk during a wild swim in a lake near Berlin. One interview introduced me to some of the best ice cream in Frankfurt, while another involved being battered by icy wind during a long walk along a riverbank in Cologne.

Thanks to my participant-led interview approach, I can now claim to be the only researcher to have tried Madgalena Kopp’s pumpkin soup. But, is that worth sidelining risk and safety protocols? Today, I tell my PhD students to make their own safety and wellbeing a key priority. Among other things this means discussing interview plans with supervisors and friends, as well as avoiding interview situations in private spaces and remote locations.

Interviewing people who are widely seen as terrorists is a balancing act. When I published my PhD in book form, some people accused me of romanticising the armed struggle of militant feminist and leftist groups in Germany. One academic (unsurprisingly a historian) even joked that I am probably a feminist terrorist myself. At the same time, I was attacked for not being politically involved enough to make any claims about this difficult part of German history.

Like other researchers involved in our EUniWell project, my experience taught me that sensitive topics are sensitive not purely because of the emotional stress that they can cause to participants and researchers during the research process. We found that topics can become (more) sensitive when research findings trigger strong political reactions.

In recent years, my research focus has moved to the experiences of survivors and victims. As part of an ERC-funded research project on urban terrorism in contemporary Europe, my team and I have interviewed survivors and victims from a range of countries about their experiences. This research confronted me with grief, loss, and pain in ways that I had not encountered before. But it has also been hugely inspiring and motivating.

I am based in a Modern Languages Department. My colleagues work on a broad range of topics stretching from representations of panthers in medieval German manuscripts to narratives of sexual violence in Algeria. We do not (yet) receive any training to cope with the emotional impact of sensitive research. Of course, how we cope with our work depends not just on the topics we work on but also on a range of other things in our lives. While this might sound obvious, I found it surprisingly difficult to accept that something that I had been researching for years suddenly began to affect me. 

I clearly remember the moment when I first felt overwhelmed by a sense of fear and hopelessness. I was on holiday with partner and my two young children. I rarely talk about details of my research with family and friends – I think that’s better for all. On this holiday, I read Dalal Mawad’s brilliant book All She Lost about women’s experiences of the Port explosion in Beirut in 2020 (and so much more). The powerful testimonies in this book are upsetting enough on their own, but for me they seem to have brought up a range of unprocessed emotions in relation to my research.

On the way to the beach with my four-year old daughter, she started talking about death. She did so with the curiosity and openness of a child at that age that is privileged enough not to grow up surrounded by war and violence. Usually, I love such conversations with my daughter. But, on that day I felt overwhelmed by a sense of dread and panic. I felt a strange certainty that something terrible would happen to her.

In the context of my research, I have seen again and again how traumatic it is for parents to lose a child, especially if their son or daughter dies a violent death. Statistically, the chance that this happens to a child in the UK are very small. But working on crime and terrorism necessarily confronts researchers with the experience of families who experience this horror and with the possibility of a violent death. Interestingly, many of the parents we interviewed for our research have become political activists to ensure that no other parent has to go experience this traumatic loss. Figen Murray, who lost her son Martyn in the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing is an inspiring example. She has successfully campaigned for ‘Martyn’s Law’ to improve the safety of events and venues.

Where does this leave me? Meeting people like Figen Murray is an incredible privilege and motivates me to continue working on this difficult topic. Our EUniWell project has provided me with some tools to manage the emotional impact of my research better. I now talk to peers about my work on a regular basis; I don’t take any research or research-related literature on holidays; I exercise regularly (even if I feel that I can’t fit it in); and I have learned to recognise when I need to take a break from my data. And now I am off to the gym!       

Find Your Folks


  • Siobhan O’Dwyer is Associate Professor of Social Care at the University of Birmingham.
TW:This article contains information about suicide and homicide. If you need support, please call The Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT to 85258. 


“Your work is too niche” 

“You’re wasting your time” 

“You should do something happier” 

These are just some of the things I’ve been told over the last 15 years as I’ve led research on suicide and homicide in people who care for family or friends who are disabled or have long-term illnesses (known as unpaid carers in the UK and family caregivers elsewhere).

My research seeks to understand why some carers think about ending their own life, or the life of the person they care for, and what can be done to support at-risk carers and prevent deaths by suicide and homicide.

It breaks my heart when people question the value of this work… because it’s not niche. In fact, there is evidence of suicidal and homicidal thoughts in carers around the globe, and homicide-suicides (in which a carer kills the person for whom they care and then themselves) are regularly reported in the news.

It’s also not a waste of time. Every week I receive emails from local authorities, charities, and other frontline health and social care providers, asking for advice on how they can identify and support at-risk carers, and prevent future deaths.

But I will admit that suicide and homicide are not happy topics to research. Every day I encounter things that are distressing, exhausting, and overwhelming, and my faith in humanity is constantly being tested.

Professor Steven Sabat once told me that our job as researchers is to “hold their tears” and there’s a note above my desk with a quote from Lidia Yuknavitch that says “it’s your job not to flinch”.  The knowledge that people have trusted me with their darkest experiences, and asked me to keep looking when others look away, has kept me going through many a difficult day. But what happens when you can’t hold any more tears? What happens when one more heartbreaking story makes you flinch?

In the early stages of my career I relied on a range of coping strategies. I exercised, spent time in nature, ate good food, travelled, spent time with friends and animals, lost myself in books and movies, and engaged in regular therapy, journaling, and meditation [see my Self-Care Manifesto for more on this].  I reminded myself that it was a privilege to use my platform to amplify the voices of those who are rarely heard. And I drew comfort from the words of carers, who said my research gave them permission to offload thoughts and feelings they had never felt safe to share with family, friends, or professionals.

But as the years have gone on and my programme of research has expanded, I’ve needed more to get me through. That’s because nearly every day now I’m talking to carers who have been abandoned by the system, forced to fight tooth and nail for even the tiniest bit of support, and left with no choice but to sacrifice their own wellbeing in order to support a sick or disabled parent, partner, or child. And when those carers are research participants, I’m responsible for ensuring their safety and sometimes have to make the difficult decision to breach their anonymity and confidentiality in order to protect the person for whom they care. I also spend long hours reading the cases of carers who have killed, sometimes with extreme violence or through horrific neglect, and always because they or the person they care for was failed by the health and social care system.

So what do you do when you can no longer shake it off with exercise, journalling, or dinner with friends? When you start to dread sitting at your computer because the work is just too hard, too heavy, too isolating?

In my most recent projects it’s become clear that the answer is: find your folks.  Build research teams full of kind, funny, like-minded people who are as committed to caring for each other as they are to doing high-quality research. Gather around you people who each offer a unique perspective or skill, the sum of which is greater than its parts. Create a community of colleagues who will step in when you need to step away, help you hold the tears, and remind you it’s human to flinch.

It's also been my experience that when you find your folks you also find workspaces that provide safety and succour. And these are rarely university offices or Zoom. For most of my projects, the best work has been done at kitchen tables or on couches, in comfortable clothes, with snacks, steaming mugs of tea, and the occasional dog or cat. In one of my teams, we start each meeting by emptying out our bags to reveal that day’s snack selection… and dance with delight when our Research Fellow, Lorna, has made her famous vegan fudge.

It can take time to find your folks, but trial and error is part of the process. Some researchers can’t cope with vulnerability (their own or other people’s), some are more interested in glory than the greater good, and some just don’t play well with others. But after encountering a few of the bad ones, you really appreciate the good ones when you find them.

I’m particularly grateful that the folks around me include carers, who have become co-investigators on the research. While I am an expert by profession, they are experts by experience. They make a unique and important contribution, ensuring that our research is safe, sensitive, rigorous, and designed to facilitate change in policy and practice. They challenge me, hug me, cry with me, laugh with me, tell me when I could do better, and whole-heartedly praise me when I’ve done well. One of the carers I work with said recently “I came to that first meeting and figured I’d never hear from you again, but four years later I’m still here!”

Of course people are allowed to walk away, and you may find that you need different folks for different projects. But the bonds forged through this kind of research are usually long-lasting. It’s also important to reciprocate and support your folks as much as they support you.

When I found my folks, I started to notice different voices. The ones that said… 

“Thank goodness for people like you, who make sure we are seen, heard, and matter!” 

“This is the project I’m most proud of” 

“I really appreciate the way you care for us and remind us to care for ourselves” 

They drowned out the voices of the doubters and the naysayers, gave me permission to put down the load I’d been carrying, and showed me I wasn’t alone on the journey. Doing research on sensitive topics is a calling – it’s not for everyone – but when you find your folks you’ll have everything you need to answer that call. 

When it isn’t ‘just’ research: intersections of the personal and professional


  • Dr Sarah Turner, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Linguistics, Centre for Arts, Memory & Communities, Coventry University. 

I’m Sarah, and I’m a cognitive linguist who’s interested in a) metaphor and b) death. This is not how I usually introduce myself, for reasons which I’m sure are self-apparent. It’s not so much death itself that I’m interested in, to be honest, but endings and beginnings, phase changes and watershed moments, those personal apocalypses that we all experience, and – most importantly – how we talk about it all. My usual professional bio explains that I engage in ‘the analysis of figurative language production to provide insights into physical, psychological and social experiences’, which can be roughly translated to: ‘how people talk about things that are difficult to talk about tells us a lot about how they’re experiencing those things, and if we know that, we can provide better support.’ I’ve been a part of two projects in this area, with more in the pipeline: first there was the Death before Birth project, looking at choices and communication following pregnancy loss and baby loss. Then there was a project funded by the True Colours Trust charity, on care and communication following the death of a child at any age.

The Death before Birth project ran from September 2016 – September 2018, and I joined the team as a postdoctoral research fellow. I spent my time working with transcripts of interviews with people who were describing their experiences of pregnancy and baby loss, and the grief that accompanied it. I’ll be reflecting on the experience of working on this project, and on the project that followed, throughout this post. But an experience is never just one discrete thing, and our perceptions of it are shaped by everything else going on in our reality. In January 2018, my (66-year-old, fit, healthy) mother woke up one morning with jaundice. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and she would die in hospice that December. Grief accompanied me in some form through the final months of my postdoctoral research, into my first permanent academic position, and into my co-investigator role in our next project on child death. It was brutally difficult at times, but it provided a new depth and tone to the research I was doing, and gave me a different perspective on myself, my life, and my work – and I can say that I’m grateful for that.

My focus in this post is to reflect on my experience of this intersection of the academic and the personal, and more generally, on how I approached the research. I am loath to give advice, because these things are so personal, and one size does not fit all. But, I hope you find something of value here, whatever you’re working on.


Both the projects I introduced above were interview-based. However, I didn’t conduct any of the interviews on the Death before Birth project; I was just working with the transcripts. When I started conducting interviews in our subsequent project, it became very clear to me how different the experience was. For me, conducting an interview is a privilege, where you enter into the experience of another on a more immediate level. You are invited into your participants’ lives; there is a sense of intimacy that is absent when you’re just faced with a transcript. This sense of privilege was heightened still further when it became apparent that interviewees frequently saw their participation as a way to honour who they had lost. I felt that I was being invited to participate in some way in a kind of memorial activity, which brought an added gravity to the experience.

At the same time, interviewing brings its challenges, at times demanding a high level of emotional regulation. As Carole Komaromy writes:

[The researcher] might need to suppress true feelings in order to produce the right emotional state in another person.  This could be by such things as encouraging a research participant to disclose information that might be difficult to hear and to be able to listen to in a non-judgemental way. (Komaromy 2020, p. 374)

Similarly, I found that there was a balance to be aware of between supportive emotional reflection on the one hand, and an unboundaried lack of objectivity on the other. I found it important to demonstrate openness, and to reflect emotions in a supportive way that encouraged further sharing. However, in so doing it was important not to cause participants to worry that their experiences were having an overly negative impact on my emotional state, and to self-censor as a result. I was very aware that my own recent experience of loss may have made it more likely that I could edge towards the latter end of the spectrum, perhaps even to the point of having my own grief triggered by the grief of others. I remained very mindful of that possibility during the interviews, and as far as I was aware, it never happened. 

The relationship between ‘research’ and ‘everything else’

In their toolkit entry, Rob Dickinson and Tom Cowin discuss how personal experiences can inform and motivate research, and how engaging in research can provide an outlet for associated emotions – and that this can be to the benefit of the research itself. This certainly coheres with my experiences, although I also agree with the importance of allowing time away from the topics (as hard, or impossible, as that might be with something like grief, when you are also living through it.)

I found myself ‘leaning in’ to the coherencies I encountered between my research and what I was experiencing in my non-work life, and seeing these coherencies as a positive. Shortly after the Death before Birth project concluded, the PI asked everyone on the team to write a short reflection on their experiences of working on the project. Part of my reflection read:

I really need there to be a sense of meaning and authenticity in at least some of the research I do. I need to feel emotionally invested in it and to find areas where my academic and personal lives can marry up to a certain degree. I've never lost a pregnancy so I can’t have that immediate identification with the project. But when Mum was diagnosed with cancer, I found great ‘tidiness’ in our project and what it brought to my experience. Engaging with the complexity and messiness of other people’s grief provided me with a lens through which to analyse my own; anticipatory at first, then not. […] The most intellectually rewarding aspect of the Death before Birth research for me has been the opportunity for that integration, and the chance to find a sense of wholeness in my experience.

I found it very helpful to approach my experience with a sense of curiosity, and to see the different ways in which grief had become part of my life as lenses through which to view all the others.

That being said, setting boundaries and taking time away from research were very important. I have always been very ‘boundaried’ in my work life; I don’t make a habit of working evenings or weekends unless there is a very good reason to do so, and I don’t have work-related correspondence coming to my personal phone. Having this attitude already made it easier to set boundaries between myself and the topic. I was also fortunate not to be spending 100% of my time on either of these projects, so I always had other projects and teaching commitments running alongside. The benefit of this became particularly apparent when I started lecturing at Coventry in the last few months of my mum’s life. I realised that my teaching and my relationships with my students gave me a healing space away from what was going on, without my needing to say or do anything special. I had mentioned in one of my classes, almost ‘in passing’, that my mother was very ill and unlikely to live much longer, but that was it. I don’t think my students knew just how much of an oasis they represented, and I remember them very fondly. 

A supportive network

Echoing the words of other toolkit contributors, I cannot overstate how important it is to have supportive people around you, be they colleagues or stakeholders. Having people who can relate first-hand to the experience of researching these topics is extremely supportive. On a personal level, too, I think I was spared a lot of the isolation that grief so often entails, because of my involvement with the research. After all, when everyone around you is talking about death and grief, even in a different context to how you are experiencing it, it is no longer ‘taboo’; you feel more comfortable sharing your own experiences if you feel you want to.

Having such a network also guards against the potential isolation that comes from working on a topic that others may consider ‘taboo’ or ‘sensitive’. As Amy Burrell reflects, people will ask why you have chosen to do the work you do. I have also had people comment that they ‘couldn’t’ do it, as if I was somehow unusual for being able to engage with these topics. Amy’s point about having people disclose related experiences when they learn about your research area is also one I can relate to, and on a similar note, people may assume that your interest in the topic stems from personal experience. I have been asked outright, in professional contexts, if I have experienced pregnancy loss or baby death. I have not, and while I don’t mind being asked, it is interesting to me how the normal boundaries of ‘appropriate’ questions seem to cease to apply. Perhaps it’s because these appropriacy norms come from the very stigmas and taboos that the research is trying to break down.  

The takeaways

If I were to summarise the most important things I’ve learned from the experiences I’ve been writing about here, they would be:

  • Maintain a network. It is best if you can build this network from people who are already involved with the project; you may be limited in how much you can talk to people external to the project bearing in mind ethics and confidentiality, but it can also be helpful to get some outside perspective through doing so. Note that it may also be of benefit to have people with whom you just won’t talk about these things. This can be a good ‘palate cleanser’!
  • Depending on the nature of your data, you may find either compartmentalising or adopting a more holistic approach works best. As I explained, my approach was quite a bit more ‘holistic’, but perhaps this was by necessity, given that I was confronted with some form of grief in all areas of my life...
  • …but either way, make sure you can put some distance between you and the data you’re working with. Set clear boundaries between your work and non-work life.
  • Remember that your research is not about you or your experience, but it’s OK (and perhaps encouraged!) for you to allow it to have an impact on you, too. Engaging in this type of research can provide perspectives and insights that can help you in your personal life, and giving space for an emotional connection to the research can make the stories you tell even more powerful. 
  • Perhaps most importantly, check in with yourself regularly. Ask yourself honestly: how am I doing? What do I need right now, and if it’s a break, what can I do to make sure I can take it? Whatever you do, prioritise your own health and wellbeing above everything else. That applies whatever the type of research you’re conducting, but it is perhaps even more important when the topics you’re engaging with could be considered sensitive or distressing.

Komaromy, C (2020). The performance of researching sensitive issues. Mortality, 25:3, 364-377. 

Trolleyology and the use of dilemmas to address sensitive topics in the classroom


  • Francesco Lavanga, PhD Student, University of Florence (Educational Sciences and Psychology - FORLILPSI) 

We live in an era of increasing global interconnection and interdependence. Understanding and respecting different perspectives, cultures and social models are soft skills that everybody needs to attempt to interpret a reality as complex as the one in which we operate. Classrooms, as places of learning, growth, and development of the human being, are fertile grounds for exploration and reflection on complex and sometimes controversial issues. Among these, 'sensitive topics' deserve special attention. 

A teacher who decides to address such topics assumes an important responsibility: that of guiding his or her students through a journey of reflection and understanding, while ensuring a safe and respectful environment for all. This article explores the whys and hows of integrating sensitive topics into education, emphasising the crucial role teachers play in preparing the younger generation to face, with an open mind and compassionate heart, the challenges of a changing world. 

From my experience as UNESCO of Florence team member I have been involved in many education projects that addressed sensitive topics such as religion. Using dilemmas in the classroom helped me to engage the students in the discussion more quickly and effectively. At the same time, it allowed me to limit the possible negative consequences of dealing with sensitive topics. This is because by developing examples seemingly far removed from personal circumstances (though actually very close), the students felt more comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions. 

What is trolleyology?

Trolleyology refers to the group of ethics dilemmas of the trolley developed by Philippa Foot (1967) and Judith J. Thomson (1976). It concerns a series of mental experiments centered on moral dilemmas. In one of the most famous versions, a person stands in front of a lever that can divert the tram onto two different tracks. On one track, five people are tied up and will surely perish if the tram continues on that track. On the other track, there is only one person. The question is: should we pull the lever to divert the tram, sacrificing one person to save five? Who do we save and who do we condemn? 

Why trolleyology in the classroom?

Although the tram dilemma may seem distant from students' everyday problems, it represents a powerful metaphor for exploring complex moral and ethical issues. In fact, trolleyology is also used in philosophy classes to introduce reflection on specific topics within the class group. Here's why:

  1. It develops critical thinking skills: the dilemma provides a fertile ground for discussion, prompting students to weigh the pros and cons of different actions and the ethical implications of each decision.
  2. It offers a "controlled educational environment': addressing complex issues through a mental experiment allows students to explore sensitive issues through an imaginary and detached situation.
  3. It promotes empathy: by comparing the different responses of their classmates, students can develop greater understanding and respect for the points of views of others. 

Dilemmas as a pedagogical tool

New scenarios can be devised to deal with a specific topic of interest and thus adapt them to one's own needs. Moral and ethical dilemmas can help students to:

Deal with sensitive topics: instead of avoiding difficult topics, dilemmas offer a way to address them directly, but in a context that limits the risk of trauma or distress.

Understand the complexity of the real world: decisions in real life are rarely black and white. Dilemmas help students to see the grey shades and develop a greater tolerance for ambiguity. 

It may be appropriate for the teacher to choose collaboratively, together with the class group, sensitive topics that could be dealt with. Subsequently, a survey can also be carried out to poll of students to choose a preference classification for potential topics with respect to potential topics to be covered. 

This practice must be supported by a good use of trigger warnings to be implemented each time a new topic is addressed. Trigger warnings are short notifications or alerts preceding content that might evoke strong or traumatic reactions in some individuals due to past experiences or particular sensitivities. These warnings are common in media contexts, especially online, and are designed to give people the opportunity to prepare themselves or decide whether to continue viewing, reading or listening to the content in question. To use them correctly, it is essential to be specific without becoming too detailed (to avoid causing the very reaction you are trying to prevent). 

Here following there are three tips to use trigger warnings in the classroom:

  1. Assess the necessity: first of all, ask yourself whether the content could realistically cause a traumatic or extremely negative reaction in some individuals. It is not necessary to use trigger warnings for every little detail, but rather for heavy or particularly sensitive topics.
  2. Be specific but concise: clearly state the nature of potentially disturbing content, e.g. 'references to violence' or 'descriptions of abuse'. Avoid excessive details that could in themselves be activating.
  3. Avoid overuse: while it is important to be sensitive, overuse of trigger warnings can diminish their effectiveness and potentially trivialise serious issues. Use common sense. 

Using trolleyology techniques and other dilemmas in the classroom, educators can equip students with the necessary tools to learn how to manage discussions with others. There is the possibility of developing conflicts withing the classroom that may cause contradictions, but this might be necessary to go beyond the simplification and polarization of thoughts and opinions. 

The redesigning of such dilemmas, integrated with other types of didactic strategies, can be useful in approaching sensitive topics. They can provide a valuable opportunity to debate about topics that require a great deal of attention to be dealt with, but which should not be excluded for this reason. After all, the school remains, together with the family environment, the privileged place for dialogue and confrontation. 

However, there is always a slight risk of hurting the sensitivity of students and this is part of the educational dynamics. For this reason, the teacher must pay attention to the way discussions take place, in order to maintain maximum respect for the other and openness to divergent thinking. 

In this sense, the teacher must be able to play the role of mediator and moderator of classroom debate, considering on one hand the social component and on the other hand the individual component of the discussion. Sensitivity to a specific topic is not always stable and can vary over time in the individual's perception processes. For this reason, the sensitivity to a topic depends on each different class group and the teacher has to identify signs of fragility within the communication dynamics that are generated from the educational context. 

#3 Concerns that remain with the Researcher: Personally, and Professionally


To understand more about how working with sensitive or distressing content can impact researchers, I conducted a deep reading of select literature. The ideas are summarized here in a three-part toolkit contribution. The first entry provided a summary of the institutional, academic, or professional issues included in the cited literature. The second entry is a summary about some of the physical and emotional reactions researchers have had from working with disturbing topics. The third entry is about concerns that remain with the researcher both professionally and personally. 

The intersectionality of the life of the researcher cannot be compartmentalised as simply as the social science term ‘impartial researcher’. There are three common themes that remain for these researchers: professionalism, positionality, and funding. In some instances, there is overlap between these categorisations. 


[Researchers] profiting from the suffering of others (Taylor, 2019, p. 191) 

Professionalism, both self-perceptions and barriers to, are presented in different ways within the papers. There is internal conflict regarding professional rewards, awards, and status attainment from others’ pain; “profiting from the suffering of others” (Taylor, 2019, p. 191). This is presented in different ways, such as the disturbing feelings from the conflicting role as a researcher (development of hypothesis, interpretation of data) whose career aspirations are positively influenced by research outcomes and the pain and suffering of others (Sherry, 2013). Or the ability to make a unique contribution in your field from the skills of research, via others’ personal hardships; ’this will make a great article’ (Sherry, 2013), along with the ability to maintain the required ‘emotional distance’ and be a detached observer to be an impartial researcher (Sherry, 2013). Hinders to career progression, via publication and public engagement, come in different forms. There are concerns of a lack of primary data (Brackenridge, 1999), publishing delays or rejections (Brackenridge, 1999), and a lack of collaborators (Brackenridge, 1999; Sherry, 2013).

There’s also a changing role of ‘insider but not insider status’ as trust within a community is built over time where participants share and are in vulnerable states with a researcher. There can be personal tension in boundary creation and maintenance as a desire to help as a person, not as a researcher, after data collection is complete (See Section 3.2), (Sherry, 2013). Concerns arise regarding the balance of roles, questions of competency, and potential for misrepresentation and ‘othering’ of the participants (Taylor, 2019).

This internal role conflict can be seen in the need for a continual separation of personal vs professional, and of fieldwork as a distinct, disconnected phase of a researcher’s life (Taylor, 2019). Experiences vary where Sikic Micanovic et al., (2020) state that any serious and meaningful commitment to provide support to participants would draw the researchers away from their work. Furthermore, not being trained in counselling or distress management affects the quality of their research (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020). This leads to a range of emotions and reactions (See toolkit entry #2 Physical and Emotional Reactions from Working with Sensitive Topics). There are mentions of silencing ‘emotion’ in some research fields, as it is viewed as an excessive display of powerlessness, lacks professionalism, because there is a masculine epistemology in the discipline (Taylor, 2019).

There are also political frustrations and ineffectiveness (Brackenridge, 1999). This includes pressure and/or being discredited because of political reasons, (government or professional organizations, or powerful community individuals), to remain silent about social impact of one’s research topic (Coles et al., 2014).

Conversely, Sherry, (2013) reports becoming mentally immune to individual stories of suffering and disadvantage, resulting in a ranking of levels of unpleasant experiences. While Taylor (2019), states feelings of incompetency from fear and insecurity, leading to change in research behaviour and observations. There was concern that taking breaks needed for mental health, from writing and transcribing, could result in potential loss of detail and loss of breakthroughs as a researcher (Taylor, 2019). 


The second category, positionality is included as some aspects will be forever present and unchangeable throughout one’s career (ethnicity) while others will increase or decrease in intensity depending on the topic and role. This is well explained by Doná, (2014) with the three types of researchers. First, the international researcher regarded as an outsider because of race, language, and status. This results in differing experiences as race and status are protective factors from ethnically motivated attacks, but feels more vulnerable politically motivated attacks, theft, robbery, and road accidents. This is seen in Taylor’s reference to being a white, European male within a position of privilege. This positionality influences power dynamics of his research context, while also negotiating his own role for recognition and affirmation as a researcher (2019). But international researchers also have permanent exit options which aids in resilience and coping abilities. This in turn impacts their professionalism and positionality to the research.

Next is the diasporic returnee whose psychological impact of their own ethnic identity and ability to cope with research material differs from the international researcher. Traumatisation in research relationships was visible in information selection and narrowing down to avoid personal emotions such as anger, pain, and guilt. “A physical outsider yet an emotional insider to the imagined spaces of ethnic violence” when friends and family were persecuted and killed (Doná, 2014, p. 162). Here, secondary, and vicarious trauma became ‘blurred’ processes which merged to form more complex traumas that changed aspects of positionality and interaction to the material.

The third researcher type is referred to as the survivor researcher who is affiliated with a group deemed as the perpetrators. It is burdensome when personal and social identity is closely associated with ethnic groups of victims and perpetrators. There are first-hand experiences of distressing events, combined with ethnicity, personal and professional backgrounds (Doná, 2014). They were able to empathise with both sides due to personal intersectionality of ethnicity, marriage, and parental status. While beneficial, they are also in a constant balance between these personal identifiers and roles. 


The third category was concern about funding. Minimal institutional support coupled with wealth disparity of one’s own institution compared to participants was confronting and generates feelings of self-doubt and lack of contributions to the field (Coles et al., 2014). Funding shortages, rejection of grants as research deemed unrelated, withdrawn access to participants by orgs for ‘fear of what might be uncovered’ (Brackenridge, 1999)

Solutions to the personal and professional concerns of researchers

There are minimal solutions suggested to resolve the concerns that remain with researchers regarding professional and personal aspects to their work. Brackenridge’s advice to identify who is at work (scientist, personal self, political self), seems the most encompassing (1999) (See toolkit entry #1 Institutional, Academia, or Professional Issues).

Interestingly, the graduate student, Taylor, offered the most specific steps and advice. This included self-reflective questioning and questioning by others, of the accuracy, validity, and reliability of work given one’s own personal reactions. Doing so would address the presumed reduced quality output due to compromised researcher objectivity (Taylor, 2019).

Regarding his own status and privilege as an international researcher, he embraced a position of ‘reverent learner’ interested in the ‘everyday’ of the residents, which also resulted in relationship development (Taylor, 2019, p. 189). Insights gained from his emotional reactions to his research context resulted in his own guilt as a narrative for maintaining researcher positionality. Emotion comparisons were used as benchmarking and empathy as attempts at understanding (Taylor, 2019). Lastly, he suggests reflexive humility. This “involved recognising the humanising function of fieldwork and seeking solidarity with fellow researchers in the interconnected struggles against forms of power that reproduce violence and exclusion against research subjects and researchers alike.” (Taylor, 2019, p. 194). 

Sherry (2013), suggest adding value to the participants’ experiences by offering information such as navigating higher education, or being a referee for an application. While these build trust and can deepen the relationship, it can become a proxy role of researcher as counsellor and without proper training for skills and self-protection, can be exhausting. 

For more information, please read the first and second toolkit entries of this series. The first toolkit entry covers some of the institutional, academic, and professional concerns researchers have from working with sensitive topics. The second toolkit entry covers some of the physical and emotional concerns researchers have from working with sensitive topics. 


Brackenridge, C. (1999). MANAGING MYSELF: Investigator Survival in Sensitive Research. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34(4), 399–410.

Coles, J., Astbury, J., Dartnall, E., & Limjerwala, S. (2014). A Qualitative Exploration of Researcher Trauma and Researchers’ Responses to Investigating Sexual Violence. Violence against Women, 20, 95–117.

Doná, G. (2014). Intersectional traumatisation. In Engaging Violence (pp. 151–177). Routledge.

Sherry, E. (2013). The vulnerable researcher: Facing the challenges of sensitive research. Qualitative Research Journal, 13(3), 278–288.

Sikes, P., & Hall, M. (2020). Too close for comfort?: Ethical considerations around safeguarding the emotional and mental wellbeing of researchers using auto/biographical approaches to investigate ‘sensitive’ topics. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 43(2), 163–172.

Sikic Micanovic, L., Stelko, S., & Sakic, S. (2020). Who else Needs Protection? Reflecting on Researcher Vulnerability in Sensitive Research. Societies, 10(1), Article 1.

Taylor, S. (2019). The long shadows cast by the field: Violence, trauma, and the ethnographic researcher. Fennia, 197(2) 

#2 Physical and Emotional Reactions from Working with Sensitive Topics


To understand more about how working with sensitive or distressing content can impact researchers, I conducted a deep reading of select literature. The ideas are summarized here in a three-part toolkit contribution. The first entry provided a summary of the institutional, academic, or professional issues included in the cited literature. The second entry is a summary about some of the physical and emotional reactions researchers have had from working with disturbing topics. The third entry is about concerns that remain with the researcher both professionally and personally.

While there is some overlap, it is not unexpected for individual responses to vary given the contexts, positionality, experiences, and range of exposures. In the case of exposure, all the researchers were exposed indirectly via their respondents’ telling of their experiences, including but not limited to, sexual abuse and violent sexual assault (Brackenridge, 1999; Coles et al., 2014; Doná, 2014), and physical violence or death of others (Sherry, 2013; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020; Taylor, 2019; Sikes & Hall, 2020).

The main direct exposure researchers faced was threats of harm such as violence (Doná, 2014; Sherry, 2013), threats to personal safety (Doná, 2014; Taylor, 2019), including abduction attempts (Coles et al., 2014), death threats, and the murder of friends (Taylor, 2019). Additional direct exposure included road accidents (Doná, 2014), harassment and lack of privacy (Brackenridge, 1999; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020). 

Physical and Emotional Outcomes from Direct and Indirect Exposure

A result of this direct and indirect exposure is a range of physical and emotional responses. Isolation was a prominent feature in the articles (Brackenridge, 1999; Doná, 2014; Sherry, 2013; Taylor, 2019), both physically being alone (Brackenridge, 1999; Sherry, 2013), and being afraid to live alone (Doná, 2014; Taylor, 2019). The need for confidentiality regarding disturbing details of the research (Brackenridge, 1999), and having no one to speak to about the feelings experienced (Sherry, 2013; Taylor, 2019), also contributed to the mental isolation. Being overwhelmed at the intensity of emotions, emotion regulation, and at times emotion suppression, required during interviews were also prominent features.

Avoidance as a coping mechanism was mentioned, where one felt unable to ask local colleagues about experiences and connections to violence (Doná, 2014). This lack of interaction and connect resulted in difficulty with being detached, dis-identification, and a lack of empathy with aggressors, along with stereotyping. 

Traumatisation in research relationships were visible in information selection and narrowing down to avoid emotions (anger, pain, guilt) (Doná, 2014). All the while, there was a continued expectation to go to work tomorrow (Sherry, 2013).

Other feelings included anger, anxiety, depression, fear, helplessness, paranoia, panic attacks, and doubting ones’ own sense of reality, and unease and over-reactions to seeing machetes, soldiers, and hearing fireworks (Brackenridge, 1999; Coles et al., 2014; Doná, 2014; Sikes & Hall, 2020; Sherry, 2013; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020; Taylor, 2019). There were also fears that turned into self-doubt and demoralization from continued exposure to the field work (Taylor, 2019).

Guilt came in different forms, such as thoughts of ‘this is more than I signed up for’ (Sherry, 2013) and feeling guilt about one’s own intense reactions to participants regular lived reality (Taylor, 2019). There was an institutional focus on ‘the product’ and reminders of [you’re] ‘almost done, you’re doing great’ but feelings of being unheard regarding personal toll of context. Leading to feelings of continuation because of guilt if was to ‘run away home’ (Taylor, 2019, p. 190)

Physical symptoms were also apparent such as energy and emotion fatigue, weight loss, tiredness, and exhaustion. This includes sleep disturbances like nocturia (nighttime urination), insomnia and nightmares. Other bodily reactions such as crying, shaking, difficulty concentrating, nausea and vomiting, pain, congestion, and flu-like symptoms were also reported.

Positive Outcomes

While the above mentioned physical and emotional reactions are deemed negative there were some positive changes and outcomes. There was compassion by way of sympathy and care for participants (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020; Taylor, 2019). Advocacy via breaking the silence and making a difference by helping others access services and sharing victims’ stories (with consent). As well, community engagement and involvement with workshops, and exhibitions to share findings and make recommendations. This was done to help raise the profile of local NGOs along with awareness of context specific issues. Sharing written accounts of research along with developing policy and programs were also deemed to be positive outcomes (Coles et al., 2014, Taylor, 2019).

  1. More personalized positive outcomes include:
  2. Enhanced confidence.
  3. Self-assurance to survive in difficult circumstances.
  4. People management.
  5. Strengthened commitment to social rights.
  6. Long-lasting friendships and strong bonds with ‘fictive family’.
  7. Increased understanding of research context.
  8. More tolerant of antagonism.
  9. Better coping with other’s traumatic stories.
  10. Greater appreciation of the value of life.
  11. Clearer distinguishing of ‘what matters’ vs ‘what appears to matter in life’ (Doná, 2014). 

Solutions to Physical and Emotional Reactions from Direct Exposure

The proposed solutions to address the emotional reactions and their physical side-effects vary by research need. Time was a prominent feature throughout the articles as were references to both utilizing debriefing sessions and professional counselling services. Limits on the number of interviews per week, time between interviews and for breaks, time delays between transcribing and analysing disturbing data (Doná, 2014; Sherry, 2013; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020).

Regarding time management segmented data collection with time for rest and non-topic related interaction. This includes multiple, weeklong breaks from projects, as well as trusting co-worker judgement regarding the temporary withholding of data when others on the team do not have the capacity to cope (Sikes & Hall, 2020). This should be integrated throughout all stages of research–process - fieldwork, data entry and analysis, report writing (Coles et al., 2014). Self-care via exercise, creative pursuits, food, faith or spirituality, time for journaling, time with friends, family, and community. Limits to media exposure such as news, films, tv, and internet that contained ‘bad things’ (Coles et al., 2014). 

Physical considerations include:

  1. Interview rooms with panic buttons and escape doors; buying and using hand sanitiser (Sherry, 2013),
  2. and open communication channels such as call-ins before/after interviews or a walk-along (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020).
  3. Paired research work, adaptations to self (blend in) to avoid attracting unnecessary attention (Coles et al., 2014).
  4. Registration with one’s own embassy and connection with local security such as a walkie-talkie connection with UN security team.
  5. Living arrangements are helpful, such as shared house with other expatriates who can become a fictive family to share concerns.
  6. Depending on finances, the ability to regularly leave the country to rest and recuperate is an option for some researchers (Doná, 2014).

Identification and Changes to Personal Limits

This combination of institutional and academic concerns, personal and professional concerns, along with physical and emotional outcomes from direct and indirect exposure, yielded, at least in some cases, an identification of personal limits and changes to those limits. These varied substantially among the authors, with some going into further details and explanations than others. There were changes to trust, and differing uses of silence and self-censorship (Doná, 2014). There were socially accepted changes such as the inclusion of alcohol as ‘compulsory’ necessity for relaxation (Sherry, 2013).

Other changes included self-identification and considerations to modify clothing and behavior based on gender and stature for personal safety. This was alongside intrusive thoughts and a changed worldview (Coles et al., 2014). There was a realization of a self-expected masculine work role and the inability to fulfill that persona; that a man should be confident and emotionally indifferent to complete a task (Taylor, 2019). There was a realization of getting ‘caught up in emotions’ while simultaneously being constrained in the role of ‘researcher’; wanting to help but feeling disappointment when participants do not take, want, or follow your advice, or you are unable to help (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020).

Other examples include insults, attempted blackmail, threat of legal action, hate mail, crank phone calls, isolation and ridicule by individuals and agencies, and blames of having incriminating ‘evidence’ resulting in personal legitimation crises. This resulted in changes in attitude, for good or bad, such as stance taking regarding maintaining privacy of data sources (and facing contempt of court charges), as well as a sense of needing to stay embedded in the community because of their needs for referrals and access to services (Brackenridge, 1999).

For more information, please read the first and third toolkit entries of this series. The previous toolkit entry covers some of the institutional, academic, and professional concerns researchers have from working with sensitive topics. The third toolkit entry introduces some of the remaining concerns the researchers shared and some proposed solutions. 


Brackenridge, C. (1999). MANAGING MYSELF: Investigator Survival in Sensitive Research. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34(4), 399–410.

Coles, J., Astbury, J., Dartnall, E., & Limjerwala, S. (2014). A Qualitative Exploration of Researcher Trauma and Researchers’ Responses to Investigating Sexual Violence. Violence against Women, 20, 95–117.

Doná, G. (2014). Intersectional traumatisation. In Engaging Violence (pp. 151–177). Routledge.

Sherry, E. (2013). The vulnerable researcher: Facing the challenges of sensitive research. Qualitative Research Journal, 13(3), 278–288.

Sikes, P., & Hall, M. (2020). Too close for comfort?: Ethical considerations around safeguarding the emotional and mental wellbeing of researchers using auto/biographical approaches to investigate ‘sensitive’ topics. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 43(2), 163–172.

Sikic Micanovic, L., Stelko, S., & Sakic, S. (2020). Who else Needs Protection? Reflecting on Researcher Vulnerability in Sensitive Research. Societies, 10(1), Article 1.

Taylor, S. (2019). The long shadows cast by the field: Violence, trauma, and the ethnographic researcher. Fennia, 197(2). 

#1 Institutional, Academia, or Professional Issues


To understand more about how working with sensitive or distressing content can impact researchers, I conducted a deep reading of select literature. The ideas are summarized here in a three-part toolkit contribution. The first entry provided a summary of the institutional, academic, or professional issues included in the cited literature. The second entry is a summary about some of the physical and emotional reactions researchers have had from working with disturbing topics. The third entry is about concerns that remain with the researcher both professionally and personally. 

The three main themes here are (i) lack of support and training, including organizational and environmental factors related to fieldwork along with debriefing opportunities; (ii) positionality; and (iii) public engagement. The themes found in these institutional, academic, and professional challenges are also found for researchers in other fields, showing how endemic the issues are for people. When considering the additional concerns that arise when dealing with sensitive topics, it becomes obvious that addressing these would have far reaching impact beyond the smaller subset of distressing topic investigators.  

The first common theme found in the articles involves the lack of scholarly codes of conduct throughout the various stages of the projects. There is a lack of support and training from project inception as methodologies and ethics forms, focus on participant vulnerability not researcher vulnerability; “Researcher risks were neglected at the outset” (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020, p. 1). Participant death, although infrequently occurring in the reviewed papers, is ranked as the most important to the researchers. In one paper, the focus of the project was interviewing loved ones of deceased veterans (Woodby et al., 2011). For two of the papers, participants, individuals associated with the research project, or individuals close to the researchers died (Sikes & Hall, 2020; Taylor, 2019). During their respective projects, ethical concerns and the emotional well-being of the researchers increased in prominence. 

Transcribers and support staff

Recognition of the role transcribers have, be they the main researchers or support staff, also needs addressing. While those involved know and expect to hear distressing stories, some reported being insufficiently prepared due to a lack of literature available on the topics (Sikes & Hall, 2020). The content of recordings requires in-depth, repeated listening of difficult or disturbing interviews to identify and share information relevant to policy and practices (Sikes & Hall, 2020, p. 166; Woodby et al., 2011). 

As interviews need to be listened to in a particular order, this linear sequencing of repeated exposure has a cumulative effect that increases the overall distress of those who need to transcribe (Woodby et al., 2011). This is especially true if the researchers’ and/or coders have a personal connection to the topic or if their participants died; interviews and transcribing “touched more deeply” (Sikes & Hall, 2020, p. 167). 

The vulnerability of people who provide technical and administrative support is not just a peripheral role, although may be deemed so in the research process (Sherry, 2013). The concern is that coding does not require the same in-person, emotion regulation that is necessary during interviews. There is also no possibility to intervene during the emotionally upsetting times during the interview which can lead to feelings of hopelessness (Woodby et al., 2011, p. 832/4). 

In addition, in the presence of fellow coders, there is the potential of self-critique from comparing one’s own abilities to others. This includes self-disappointment when comparing interview performance because of “perceived required levels of excellence within the field” (Woodby et al., 2011, p. 834). As this can apply to all types of research, it potentially indicates that there are additional layers of comparisons when working with emotionally demanding topics. 

Lack of Support and Training 

In some ethics approvals, there is a lack coverage for negative experiences, harm, or outcomes for researchers (Sherry, 2013). There is also no specific training, pre-field work, provided to students regarding the physical and emotional demands of field work (Taylor, 2019). It is difficult to predict or control fieldwork that is lengthy, intense, and dynamic. This ranges from endless waiting, to everyday occurrences, to moments/periods of great stress and fatigue. As fieldwork is not a controlled experiment, this lack of control can be difficult (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020). 

Organisational and environmental factors like location and engagement during fieldwork were of concern (Coles et al., 2014). There is lack of support from various home country and fieldwork location organisations (government, NGOs, legal, health and policing services, and universities). This was regarded as systematic neglect, lack of interest in offering, and lack of access to support services by communities and governments, for participants in respective locations (Coles et al., 2014). Potentially interrelated were issues with boundaries and roles for younger researchers who took on extended tasks that left insufficient time and resources for their roles as researchers (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020). There is also a lack of training or background in how to resolve conflict, establishing personal boundaries regarding researcher privacy protection, and about appropriate reactions to participant breakdown during interviews (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020). 

Debriefing opportunities for researchers were another concern (Sherry, 2013). Debriefings mainly focus on work completed as it related to theses and publications. While students are encouraged to ‘reflect and anticipate’ for health and safety risks, these are based on ‘generic university safety guidance’ like for natural disasters, disease exposure, or travel at night; there are no mental health or well-being provisions (Taylor, 2019). For early career researchers there might be self-imposed restrictions for fear of ‘crossing a line’ into a patient / therapeutic role that could make their supervisor uncomfortable (Taylor, 2019). 


A second prominent theme is that of positionality, including a lack of positionality in writing, and the positive and negative impacts on individual researchers. “I question the value of research with marginalised communities that claims to be objective” (Sherry, 2013, p. 286). While all of the authors reveal some basic information about themselves, Doná offers three classification types of researchers relevant to projects (2014).  

First, the ‘international researcher’, who has a different experience, responses, and range of safety nets compared to local colleagues, but who is also more informed about ethnic and regional politics and has ability to ignore them as a defence mechanism (2014). Second, the ‘diasporic returnee’, who dealt with the psychological impact of their own ethnic identity and ability to cope with research material. “A physical outsider yet an emotional insider to the imagined spaces of ethnic violence” when friends and family were persecuted and killed (Doná, 2014, p. 162). Third is the ‘survivor researcher affiliated with perpetrator group’ where ones’ personal and social identity is closely associated with the ethnic groups of victims and perpetrators (2014, p. 164). These researchers can empathise with both sides due to personal intersectionality of ethnicity, marriage, and parental status (Doná, 2014). 

Sikes and Hall present a different type of positionality, this time in relation to families and death (2020). The spouse of one of the researchers had the same medical condition as the participants in study and was the inspiration for the project. This provided an “insiders” perspective but also made it emotionally challenging to “relive” similar progressions of the disease as the participant families being interviewed. The second researcher had no first-hand experience with death but unfortunately had a personal loss during the project, thus, they navigated their own grief for the remainder of the study. The identification of these intersecting positionalities allows one to have a deeper insight into the questions asked and the framing of the interpretation of responses. It also relevant to the recognition of the individual nature of potential impact of distressing data on researchers. 

The third theme, that is mentioned in detail in Brackenridge’s 1999 work and would seem particularly relevant now, is public engagement. Brackenridge shares experiences of being pushed to reveal details that might identify, name, and / or shame participants. This included media harassment and misrepresentation of individuals all wanting access to data (1999). A more positive media engagement experience was had by Sikes and Hall but still considered the events to be “emotionally draining due to the content” (2020, p. 168). 

Solutions to Institutional, Academia, or Professional Issues 

Foreground the “importance of considering researcher vulnerability issues throughout the research process” (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020, p. 2). 

To address the neglected risks to researchers, a common theme is the need to protect the research team, especially the younger and less experienced. Workplace adjustments, such as working from home, or reduced hours when transcribing or reviewing data, to allow more time to ‘detach’ from the content are suggested (Sikes & Hall, 2020). This includes for graduate students, support staff such as transcribers and translators, and local collaborates on location for fieldwork. 

A self-reflection for ones’ own capacity to undertake such research should be done with the ability to change to a ‘safer’ /less upsetting research topic (guided by supervisors and managers) in a reflective, non-judgemental process (Coles et al., 2014). Once a project has started, researchers need to be able to protect their personal well-being, by having those needs take precedence, and have institutional support and funding support to stop working on a project (Sikes & Hall, 2020). 

There is a suggestion to identify and understand ‘who is at work’, meaning to try to separate the work into three aspects: the personal, the political, and the scientific. From there, identify the aims and objectives of each of these roles and how they interrelate with one another. Without quality (scientific) work, personal and political motivations cannot be achieved (Brackenridge, 1999). Positionality statements within the various stages of the research process are also suggested. Experiences differ based on positionality of each team member, with differing levels of known and unknown trigger points (Doná, 2014). Given the intimate nature of sexual assault and sexual abuse, Brackenridge suggests full disclosure to the participants to ensure one’s own positionality can be included in the write up of the findings (1999). 

Various training to address issues before and after the project 

Prioritise practical and funded support for training and professional debriefing. Funded, professional development courses about emotions and mental health about fieldwork; self-care isn’t enough (Taylor, 2019). Preparation before fieldwork engagement, including: 

  1. Sensitisation to topic (information outlining available services, survivors’ usual responses to sexual assault).
  2. Sensitisation to the location (conflict zones, death squads, war).
  3. Learning about oppression, oppressed group behaviour, vicarious trauma, and the normalcy of the process of feelings (Coles et al., 2014). There should also be research methods training for repeated material exposure. 

For role boundaries, foreground the researcher role, such as:

  1. Do not make unfulfillable promises.
  2. Balance out personal contributions.
  3. Avoid creating dependency relationships as the role is short-lived.
  4. Provide information but don’t assume responsibility for tasks.
  5. It is better to suggest options but not propose a ‘best option’ and to respect participants choices.
  6. It is okay to not help/be unable to help (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020).
  7. To help separate the personal from the researcher, it is useful to get a business phone number so personal ones are not used (Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020). 

Brackenridge created Researcher Rules for people and data steps, that can be used to create boundaries regarding roles. There is a step-by-step procedural process to identify manageable required tasks and a checklist of ethical care offered to participants. The rule headings are:

  1. Contact,
  2. Relationship,
  3. Trust,
  4. Listening,
  5. Merging findings,
  6. Follow-up. 

This can be used for data collection, analysis, and storage (Brackenridge, 1999). With ongoing research into similar topic areas and locations, it can also help to keep track of relationships and engagement levels with governments and organizations. 

Regarding debriefings, data collection reflections can serve as a self-debriefing, in addition to recording participant observations and theoretical memos (Sherry, 2013). Regular and mandatory debriefings, formal and informal via supervisors, colleagues, friends, and family members should be built into the project (Coles et al., 2014). In addition, psychotherapy, research management, education, and dissemination should also be a regular part of the research process (Coles et al., 2014). Clear channels of advice, mentorship, and peer support especially for minority groups (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability) also need to be thought through (Taylor, 2019). 

Creating ones’ own, informal support network, keeping an intermittent research diary, seeking counselling, and creating a network of allies has also been suggested (Brackenridge, 1999). Connecting with organisations and networks associated with similar topics was deemed especially helpful as the people were both supportive and informed (Sikes & Hall, 2020). Prioritise self-care in the field and afterwards; furlough during extended fieldwork and counselling upon return from fieldwork (Taylor, 2019). 

For support staff, a provision of summary notes about the nature of sensitive data should be included. This could be akin to a trigger warning for difficult stories, including things that might require multiple listening’s such as strong accents, and intellectual disabilities/mental illness. Assign tasks to transcribers “better equipped for the emotional labour of hearing the voices and stories of these vulnerable participants” (Sherry, 2013, p. 282). 

For public engagement, a set of personal guidelines were suggested by Brackenridge.

  1. No sharing of names or identifying features (athletes, coaches, sport type).
  2. Assess media coverage range vs stance.
  3. Self-surveillance of personal factors (lesbian). Self-reflection questions of potential own trigger points and if/how to deal with them (or not at all) (Brackenridge, 1999).  

Based on more positive experiences, some reiterate that the supportive environment of the participants wanting a formal voice provided by the researchers can help change the perceptions and experiences of participants. This can also help to inform policies and change them to offer more support (Sikes & Hall, 2020). 

The next toolkit entry covers some of the physical and emotional concerns researchers have from working with sensitive topics. The third toolkit entry introduces some of the remaining concerns the researchers shared and some proposed solutions. 


Brackenridge, C. (1999). MANAGING MYSELF: Investigator Survival in Sensitive Research. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34(4), 399–410.

Coles, J., Astbury, J., Dartnall, E., & Limjerwala, S. (2014). A Qualitative Exploration of Researcher Trauma and Researchers’ Responses to Investigating Sexual Violence. Violence against Women, 20, 95–117.

Doná, G. (2014). Intersectional traumatisation. In Engaging Violence (pp. 151–177). Routledge.

Sherry, E. (2013). The vulnerable researcher: Facing the challenges of sensitive research. Qualitative Research Journal, 13(3), 278–288.

Sikes, P., & Hall, M. (2020). Too close for comfort?: Ethical considerations around safeguarding the emotional and mental well-being of researchers using auto/biographical approaches to investigate ‘sensitive’ topics. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 43(2), 163–172.

Sikic Micanovic, L., Stelko, S., & Sakic, S. (2020). Who else Needs Protection? Reflecting on Researcher Vulnerability in Sensitive Research. Societies, 10(1), Article 1.

Taylor, S. (2019). The long shadows cast by the field: Violence, trauma, and the ethnographic researcher. Fennia, 197(2)

Woodby, L. L., Williams, B. R., Wittich, A. R., & Burgio, K. L. (2011). Expanding the Notion of Researcher Distress: The Cumulative Effects of Coding. Qualitative Health Research, 21(6), 830–838. 

Snap Judgments: Ethical Complexities in Photographing More-Than-Human Animals


Sarah, Michelle, and Kris are also co-founders of The Anthrozoology Podcast AnthrozooPod

The adage ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ underscores the profound ability of how an image can convey a wealth of information to an observer, that often surpasses the capacity of words alone. The decision of which image best conveys a message to an audience is a subjective process, rooted in the presenter’s personal experiences and the intended message they wish to convey.  However, the effects of the viewed image are also influenced by the viewer’s subjective experiences, and the intended message may not align with the message received. Furthermore, when an image features a representation of a living being, the potential consequences for that individual are often overlooked. Images possess the ability to captivate an audience and invoke an emotional response. In the realms of journalism and advocacy, striking and often shocking visuals are employed to engage readers and illuminate the plight of suffering beings. As researchers and educators, we face a critical question: do we need to do likewise? Should we? How can we navigate the fine line between drawing attention to important issues and the potential for inadvertently causing trauma to ourselves, the observers, and those captured in our images? 

Here we focus on ‘more-than-human' animals. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that comparable ethical principles also apply when it comes to distributing images portraying human suffering. As researchers we carry a collective responsibility to ourselves, our audiences, and the subjects or participants in our research endeavours, which compels us to exercise caution when using distressing images. Particularly when images portray scenes of suffering and death, it arguably becomes imperative to shield ourselves and other researchers from unnecessary trauma. This is especially so if our intended audience is already acquainted with a distressing reality. Continuing to expose individuals already engaged in improving a situation to distressing images is unnecessary and can lead to desensitization, burnout, and mental health challenges. Instead, it's crucial to strike a balance that respects their well-being and motivation while promoting effective problem-solving. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that individuals have varying sensitivities, and we must carefully consider both our target audience, the more-than-human animal being represented, and the rationale behind sharing such images. 

Drawing from four case studies rooted in our personal experiences, we address the pivotal question of whether to incorporate a particular image into our presentations, papers, or lectures. Our approach entails a comprehensive evaluation of the repercussions upon ourselves and other researchers, our audience, and the potential ramifications for the subjects in question. 

CASE studies 


Image 1: A Street-Living Cat’s Suffering - Image Altered to Reduce Unnecessary Audience Trauma

a street cat

Copyright: Anonymous Research Participant 

Q. What is the context? 

The image portrays a street-living cat in Saudi Arabia, visibly suffering from disease, malnutrition, dehydration, and an inability to care for her/himself. My initial use of this image for my dissertation resulted in me obscuring the original image somewhat to avoid unnecessary trauma to the reader. For this blog, I have obscured the image even further. However, my ultimate target audience encompasses various groups, including Saudi stakeholders with the power to drive change; individuals unaware of the issues cats face; those who adhere to the notion that cats belong on the streets; global animal rescuers, and supporters of rescue and rehoming efforts. Therefore, considering my objective of catalysing change, in presentations to those individuals, the original image will likely not undergo any significant alteration, as its primary aim remains to shed light on the dire conditions faced by street-living cats in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, I hope my research reaches out to other academics who then include the voices of these animals in their writings and considerations. Therefore, how images are portrayed within my work will entirely depend upon my immediate audience, taking into account expected cultural expectations and sensitivities for each presentation. 

Q. What is your point? 

The image serves to amplify the voice of street-living and abandoned cats in Saudi Arabia. Its purpose is multifaceted, it elicits empathy, incites action, and offers a realistic portrayal of the lived experiences of these animals. By presenting the stark reality, I aim to motivate change in the treatment and well-being of street-living cats. My ultimate goal is for these street-living voices to be heard and for those who can create a vast positive change in their lives, to do so.  

Q. What might be the impact on your audience? 

For those unaware of the situation, the image could evoke shock and disbelief, opening their eyes to a prevalent issue. Saudi stakeholders with influence might experience a desire to create positive change; some may be upset, while others could initially feel apathetic due to the scale and prevalence of the suffering. I am cognisant of the delicate balance of trying to highlight the desperate need for coordinated care and compassion to be afforded to street-living more-than-human animals, without provoking ire towards them through any insensitivity my presentations may unintentionally provoke towards cultural institutions. The image, depending upon how it is presented, has the power to provoke a range of emotional responses, potentially foster a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by street cats or unintentionally create conflict between stakeholders. 

Q. What is the impact on YOU (the researcher/advocate)? 

As the researcher and advocate behind this image, I find purpose in actively addressing the issue. I refuse to be simply a passive observer, and I try to take steps to make a difference. Given my exposure to similar distressing situations, I have developed a protective, empathetic shell that allows me to channel my emotions toward generating change. My familiarity with such scenarios and commitment to action, help me navigate the emotional toll. 

Q. What might be the outcome of sharing? 

Sharing this image can catalyse various outcomes. It may prompt individuals to take immediate action, such as reaching out to rescue organisations or supporting street-living cat guardianship initiatives. My ultimate hope is that it drives policy changes that improve the lives of street-living cats. This image brings the suffering cat into the spotlight, amplifying her or his story and representing countless other street-living cats facing similar challenges. By showcasing the reality, I contribute to the awareness of the cat’s plight and potentially expedite actions that lead to their rescue, rehabilitation, and improved quality of life. Beyond the individual, by giving a voice to abandoned cats through this image, I am contributing to a larger movement advocating for better treatment and understanding of more-than-human animals. 

Final musing 

Through this image, I intend to bridge the gap between awareness, research and action. It's a potent tool for change, enabling me to reach individuals who might otherwise remain unaware or unmoved. As a researcher and advocate, I try to foster empathy, drive change, and stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves. My 18 years of rescue efforts and 5 years of scholarly activism have the potential to continue to transform lives and inspire a collective shift in attitudes towards street-living more-than-human animals in need. 


Image 2:  A cat carrying a dead bird in their mouth

cat carrying a dead bird in its mouthThe image is a stock photo of a cat carrying a dead bird. I used this image in one of my research surveys to elicit responses from participants. Early on in my doctoral studies, I have also shown it in some of my academic talks (to researchers and students). I no longer do so. People don’t like it (based on survey responses) and it serves no purpose in academic talks, other than to get attention. 

Q. What is the context? 

I used this image in a survey to gauge responses from participants - for example, did they see a cat engaging in natural hunting behaviours or express concerns about predation by cats? In the survey this image was followed by a similar image, but with the cat carrying a rodent rather than a bird.  I also showed the image of the cat carrying a dead bird in academic talks given to students and researchers, primarily to gain attention. 

Q. What is your point? 

My point was to illustrate how people generally dislike the predation of birds but are more accepting of the predation of rodents. These findings were prominent themes that emerged from my analysis of discourses surrounding roaming cats. However, in hindsight, the point could be made without the image being shown in the presentation.     

Q. What might be the impact on your audience? 

Something I had not initially considered was how those who dislike cats may feel vindicated. For those who work in wildlife protection or related fields, such images might also be triggering as they represent a real problem in many areas where roaming cats are abundant. 

Q. What is the impact on YOU (the researcher/teacher)? 

This particular image did not impact me directly, but comments calling cats “evil” or “wanton murders” for engaging in natural predation habits did. 

Q. What might be the outcome of sharing? 

The image portrays the cat as a villain because of people’s affinity towards birds (or at least garden birds). I no longer see a positive outcome for sharing. Even if the image helps keep the attention of students, it can be counter-productive toward the tolerance of roaming cats. However, I still believe it has value in surveys such as the one described above.  

Final musing 

I no longer feel sharing this image (or similar) serves a purpose unless specifically talking about that particular survey design or conducting similar surveys. 


Image 3: (image not provided due to ethical concerns, but described below)

Description: Kajol Kali, one of my research participants, just before she died (photo sent to me a few months after I left the country). She is lying on her side in the mud, surrounded by trash. She is emaciated, and clearly in pain. 

Q. What is the context? 

I have only used this photo once in a presentation to a professional pachyderm caregiving group. While I initially did not wish to share it, because it shows very private suffering, I chose to in order to highlight the “hidden pain” that is faced by elephants working in tourism. 

Q. What is your point? 

There are four main misconceptions among US/EU/Canadian zookeepers. One is that captive elephant use is “traditional” in all Southeast Asian countries. The second is that any attempt to question elephant management methods is inherently neocolonial. The third is that the conditions and management of elephants in range states are consistent, meaning that Nepal is “just like” Thailand, India, or Myanmar. Fourth, what you see “in practice” is representative of what happens behind the scenes. None of these is true. 

Q. What might be the impact on your audience? 

The audience, hopefully, would find it disturbing as people who work daily with elephants and have a commitment to their flourishing. This is an elephant who has access to veterinary care and is known to NGOs, locals, etc. Interestingly, at least one viewer took it as a “shock value” PETA-type move (which was the opposite of my intention). 

Q. What is the impact on YOU (the researcher/teacher)? 

When I received the photo, I was horrified. There is no way to explain the depth of my anger, disappointment, sadness, feelings of loss, empathy for her suffering, etc. 

Q. What might be the outcome of sharing? 

That professionals question what they “know” or are told by other experts. Look behind the curtain and try to find the truth. I didn’t use this photo in front of activists–I did not want her to become a “battle cry” against evil owners, vets who couldn’t or wouldn’t help, or misinformed locals. I wanted her suffering to remind caregivers that their charges are more than just biological machines. 

Final musing 

Out of respect for Kajol, I removed the photo from the slide show before allowing it to be shared in the professional organisation’s conference proceedings. I did not want it to become internet fodder (although, an activist from Switzerland got the photo elsewhere and used it to promote funding), and did not want Kajol to be a “symbol” instead of a loving, suffering, individual. I am not sharing the photo here, simply a description of it for the same reason. 


Image 4: An infant palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) standing on the back of a tourist who poses next to a Hollywood-style sign that reads “Bali Cat Poo Chino”

An infant palm civet on the back of a tourist who poses next to a Hollywood-style sign that reads “Bali Cat Poo Chino” Underneath is some text saying 'This is not cute, this is cruelty'

This photo was taken from a tourist review written for the world's most popular tourist review site, The review was written for a popular tourist destination in Bali, wherein tourists can see how the famous civet coffee is produced. Civets are on display for tourists to feed coffee cherries to, and often there are civets available for civets to pose with. The photo is, therefore, within the public domain and so is freely available to see by anyone who looks at the reviews for that particular civet coffee tour. On the human face has not been anonymised. Neither is the photograph accompanied by the educational message in white text. 

Q. What is the context? 

I recently elected to use this photograph to illustrate the ease at which animal suffering can occur due to the human intention to take a photograph. In particular, I chose this photograph for a public social media campaign that my non-profit organisation The Civet Project is running in a bid to inform the public about the ethical and welfare consequences of posing with wildlife for photographs. To me, this image sums up not only the act of taking wildlife selfies and the lack of wildlife consent, but the framing of the image to include the Hollywood-style sign 'Bali Cat Poo Chino' also purveys the commodity fetishism at play within the product’s marketing. 

Q. What is your point? 

I initially sought to anonymise the human within the photograph on the basis that this person had not given me permission to use his (albeit publicly shared) image for this particular educational campaign. It was also fairly likely, as my research participants have often attested to, that this person may have been unaware of the implications of their actions for the animal involved. However, in anonymising the human, I believe the photograph then became even more provocative. By covering the facial features of the human, the audience is invited instead to concentrate their gaze on that of the civet. Thus, the civet's resistance to being handled is immediately placed at centre stage of the photograph. 

Q. What might be the impact on your audience? 

My intention in sharing this photograph was to invite the audience to question the ethics of wildlife selfies, and to reflect on their own experiences of handling or observing animals in contexts when consent may have been absent from the animal's perspective. 

Q. What is the impact on YOU (the researcher/teacher)? 

As a researcher who specialises in animal behaviour, I find these images distressing. Whilst I try to be conscious of and sensitive to the pitfalls of anthropomorphism in my work, I find images that capture animal stress to be powerful tools to bring in the animal perspective. 

Q. What might be the outcome of sharing? 

Whilst my hope with this image is that it ignites increased public engagement in animal ethics and awareness of animal consent, I fear images like this can be misinterpreted. Research has shown that tourists typically fail to recognise signs of poor animal welfare, and so sharing images of wildlife with humans, and in touristic settings, could further normalise such interactions. This is why I endeavour to address the content of the image with an embedded educational message, one which further asks the audience to stop, look, and reflect on what they are witnessing.

Discussion points 

Navigating Sensitive Topics: Balancing Ethics, Research, and Audience Impact 

In the realm of research involving more-than-human animals, there's a complex interplay between ethical considerations, the interests of researchers, and the reactions of the audience. This intricate web becomes even more intricate when we delve into the concept of "sensitive topics." What might be sensitive or triggering to an audience member might also have far-reaching consequences for the more-than-human animals under study, the researchers themselves, and the broader audience. It is important to consider the nuances of handling sensitive content, the potential impact on all stakeholders, and the delicate balance researchers must strike. 

Sensitivity's Multifaceted Impact: 

When it comes to more-than-human animals as research subjects, discussions often revolve around ethical treatment, consent, and privacy. Yet, the concept of sensitivity extends beyond these realms. In an age of information overload, certain topics or imagery can trigger emotional responses or even distress in audiences. These could range from explicit images of animal suffering to discussions on contentious topics such as animal testing, hunting, or captivity. 

Navigating Audience Responses: 

The audience's reaction to sensitive content is a key consideration. While it's crucial to treat the audience ethically and consider potential triggers, this approach must be balanced with the need to present reality as accurately as possible. For example, omitting distressing images might protect the audience, but it risks sanitising the truth about the challenges more-than-human animals face. This selective portrayal could inadvertently undermine the urgency of more-than-human animal welfare issues. It's a dilemma: how to create awareness without exploiting more-than-human animals in distress or potentially alienating a sensitive audience? 

Consequences for Research Subjects: 

Protecting more-than-human animals from distressing images or topics is essential, but it's equally crucial to protect them from undue harm by preserving their agency and dignity. Limiting the depiction of their reality to fit audience sensitivities might inadvertently rob them of their authentic experiences, turning them into objects of pity rather than participants in their own right. It's a tightrope walk, ensuring ethical treatment while avoiding skewed representation. 

Researchers' Balancing Act: 

Researchers bear the weight of these considerations. They must adhere to ethical guidelines while also grappling with the potential impact of their findings on the more-than human animals, the audience, and their own work. Moreover, researchers must contend with their own biases, i.e., the appeal of "cute" imagery or anecdotes that might inadvertently undermine the more-than-human animals' plight or the importance of their research. 

Acknowledging Distress: Bridging the Gap Between Human Sensitivities and More-Than-Human Animal Realities: 

In the realm of research involving more-than-human animals, it's easy to fall into the trap of viewing sensitive topics through the lens of human sensitivities alone. As human researchers and audiences react to research findings, it's imperative to recognise that what we consider distressing or sensitive might only scratch the surface of what truly affects more-than-human animals. 

Human Sensitivities vs. More-Than-Human Animal Realities: 

Research findings that tug at human heartstrings can be deeply distressing or emotionally charged. However, it's vital to realise that our emotional responses to these findings can inadvertently shape how we present the research. In an effort to shield ourselves from discomfort, we might sanitise data or withhold information, but this approach can blur the lines between reporting and storytelling, masking the truth of the more-than-human animals' experiences. 

The Hidden Dimension: More-Than-Human Animal Distress: 

While we grapple with our own reactions, we must remember that more-than-human animals are not immune to the distress caused by research methodologies. Intrusive observation, geolocation tracking, and even dissemination of distressing images can have profound impacts on more-than-human animals, disrupting their natural behaviours and infringing upon their right to privacy. What humans might consider "sensitive" topics might be the lived reality for these more-than-human animals. 

Recognising the Limits of Human Empathy: 

Empathy is a powerful tool for connecting with the world around us, but it has its limits. As humans, we might struggle to fully comprehend the emotional and cognitive experiences of other species. Our sensitivities might inadvertently lead us to underestimate the emotional range and resilience of more-than-human animals or overestimate their ability to tolerate distressing situations. 

Shifting the Focus: 

As researchers and as part of the audience, we must shift our focus from our own sensitivities to the well-being of the more-than-human animals under study. Striving for truthfulness and accuracy in research findings is paramount, even if it means facing uncomfortable realities. While we might consider certain images or topics too distressing for human consumption, we cannot allow our own discomfort to cloud the more-than-human-animals' lived experiences. 

Balancing Sensitivities: The More-Than-Human Animal-Centred Approach: 

Acknowledging the impact of sensitive content on more-than-human animals requires an animal-centred approach. This approach places the more-than-human animal’s well-being and agency at the forefront. It prompts us to consider what respectful representation and truthful portrayal look like for more-than-human and human participants. It compels us to find ways to communicate reality without exploiting or sanitising the more-than-human animals' experiences. 

Final Reflections: 

Research involving more-than-human animals holds a dual responsibility: to recognise and address the sensitivities of human researchers and audiences while honouring the truth of animal experiences. As we navigate the intricacies of sensitivity, it's essential to remember that our discomfort and distress are temporary, while the consequences for the more-than-human animals are far-reaching. By acknowledging the impact on both human and other-than-human participants, we can bridge the gap between human sensitivities and more-than-human animal realities, ultimately striving for a more authentic and compassionate approach to research dissemination. 

Researchers working with the criminal justice staff who are exposed to distressing content as a part of their work.


  • Dr Fazeelat Duran, Postdoctoral researcher, University of Birmingham
Content warning: In this blog, I am sharing a quote from our interviews with criminal justice staff. The quote contains sensitive content that might be distressing for you to hear.

 As we know, psychologists and other professionals are indirectly exposed to, and are at high risk of psychological distress arising from, the traumatic experiences of others, via hearing, watching, or reading accounts of these experiences as part of their daily work. Similarly, researching sensitive topics is demanding for researchers. They must be fully involved in the research life cycle; however, most are unaware of its detrimental impact on their mental health and well-being. 

Before I engage with the blog topic and share my experience, I will give an overview of our emotionally challenging project with criminal justice staff and the type of content we are exposed to during our research process. 

We (Dr. Duran and Professor Woodhams) have been working with law enforcement staff for the last ten years to improve their mental health and well-being. Their daily tasks involve full immersion in the details of crime (such as sexual assault, murder, genocide, child exploitation, extortion, acts of terrorism and many more). Some of them are exposed to the traumatic experiences of other people directly (police officers, detectives), whilst others have indirect exposure (analysts, secondary investigators).  

To date, I have conducted more than a hundred interviews with these high-risk professionals where they have shared their experiences of working with traumatic experiences of other people. I’ve always found listening to them emotionally challenging, some of the shared experiences made me feel sad and disgusted.  

A quote from an interview: 

I can’t talk for others, but for me, it’s not easy. Certain cases drain you emotionally and never leave you, e.g., a man is sexually assaulting a dog [interviewee voice showing negative emotions]. I must go through the material multiple times for the sake of analysis. We might have to watch the videos or read the account of abuse multiple times to analyse it to the best of our ability… Due to the nature of my work, I don’t allow my kids to sleep over at their friends, what a normal parent would do. Hmmm... I was working on a case where a young child was kidnapped and sexually abused [some details of case and type of material]. It's not easy for me to explain the reasons to them [kids].”   

  1. My role involves full involvement with the interview process i.e., from conducting interviews to disseminating findings. It is demanding for a researcher to work with the criminal justice staff's distressing experiences. Therefore, I have open conversations with my team and discuss strategies that could be useful for researchers working on sensitive topics. In this blog, I aim to share these strategies that could be used by researchers while working on a sensitive and emotionally challenging project:
  2. Before a project starts, researchers should conduct a ‘risk assessment to identify potential risks and hazards. This would help in mitigating potential risk factors and ensure the benefits of the research outweigh any risks. For example, what is the physical, psychological, geographical, and cultural risk? How will it be controlled? and any remaining risk. In case, risk assessment already been conducted for your project, make sure to go through it so that you have awareness of potential risk factors and update it if required. 
  3. Next is to conduct a ‘prep’ meeting with your team that would involve in depth discussion of the project, training them on understanding early signs of psychological distress and managing them effectively. Researchers will have a space to talk about possible ‘trigger warnings’, safe practices and make informed choices about how much involvement they (researchers) would be having with a particular project. For example, a researcher should understand the project content so that they are not shocked when they are exposed to it. They could discuss safe practices by making sure that the working areas are safe and comfortable. For instance, if someone is working with sensitive and distressing content, they would need to make sure that they are not contaminating people in their offices or home. 
  4. While the project is ongoing, having ‘regular meetings’ is another useful strategy as it creates a culture that cares for mental health. This opportunity allows the researchers to have detailed communications with their team and discuss concerns. Researchers could reflect on their experiences and identify potential coping strategies that their colleagues are using that might be useful for them too. However, a point to consider is not all are comfortable speaking in groups due to the fear of being judged. Therefore, there should be a confidential space for them to reflect on their experiences and share their challenges.   
  5. There should be a prospect for researchers to have monthly ‘one-to-one meetings’ (in-person/virtual) with external professionals like clinical psychologists. They would help them to identify the potential triggers and maintain adaptive coping strategies to lower their risk of psychological distress.  
  6. A 'wash-up’ meeting at the end of a project is recommended to give closure to the projects they are working on. Researchers are emotionally drained when they are working on a sensitive topic, a debriefing session will formally conclude a project by drawing a line between one project and another. This allows them to grow from the endeavour before moving on to the next project. This could include learning points, and what we would do differently in future projects. They could be conducted individually and/or in groups, and if required they could be facilitated by external professionals to enable the team to find meaning and closure to a specifically challenging project. 

To conclude, researchers need to use the above-mentioned strategies to build trust with their research team and collaborators, identify their scale of involvement in the project and maintain safety of their and others' mental health. Further, the training on understanding signs and symptoms of psychological distress (like stress, anxiety, depression) will make them aware of when to seek help and learn ways to stabilise and build resources to improve self-care and resilience. 

Why the hell do you want to work on that?


Content warning: this article includes references to violence (including sexual violence) and experiences of working with victims.

 I’ve always been fascinated by crime. Well, puzzles really. Putting clues together to work out “whodunnit” and reading about why people do what they do. I read so many murder mysteries and detective novels as a kid that it was only natural I would study psychology and then forensic behavioural science. I thought about joining the police when I left University, but instead got a job as an academic researcher. But it was a job with a difference. I was based in a police station and was working on applied projects. The topics were chosen by police colleagues, and I sat on monthly task groups feeding in our research findings and learning as much as I could about crime prevention. 

What I didn’t realise was that it was the beginning of a career where I would work on crimes as diverse as burglary, car crime (specifically tyre slashing), and violence. I’ve now worked on projects ranging from anti-social behaviour audits and evaluations of alcohol/drug treatment services to research on violence against sex workers, violence on public transport, robbery, drink spiking, child sexual abuse, and rape. My research has included reading survey responses from sex workers about the violence they have experienced and watching videos of people with learning disabilities describe being sexually assaulted. I’ve run focus groups with victims, conducted interviews in prison and probation services with acquisitive crime offenders, and looked at reams and reams of police recorded crime data. I’ve had situations where people break down and cry or threaten me with violence. I’ve seen people in helpless situations they can’t get out of and families on the brink of despair. It can be heart-breaking. So, why do I still do it? Well, quite simply, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think working in this area has changed me. Well, perhaps not changed but shaped. Regardless, it is now part of my identity, part of who I am. 

It's now over 20 years since I graduated from my undergraduate degree and, as I sat down with colleagues recently to write a paper on working with emotionally demanding material, I realised that I have come a long way since those first few years in the police station. I have worked on fascinating projects and have been lucky enough to work for employers who all value applied research and real-world impact. This has really made me feel like what I am doing is worthwhile, something which I realise now that others don’t always feel. But I also realise I have set boundaries for myself, built resilience, and implemented coping mechanisms all without even really knowing it. Reflecting on this recently, I realise I have put strategies in place for myself and that I have been supported to do this by friends, family, colleagues, and bosses. 

So, I thought it might be helpful to share a few insights about working on emotionally demanding topics. It is tempting to give you a really academic list of things but, for me, often it is the more informal advice or the things that are not always written down that I have found to be the most helpful. First, I’ll outline a few of unexpected things that have come up for me working in on sensitive topics. Then I’ll give you a list of the tactics that work for me. They might not all be your cup of tea but hopefully you’ll find something useful. 

Challenges (and other things to bear in mind) 

  • People will think you are weird. This one is ok for me as I am relatively unconventional in other parts of my life (and so used to being different), but you will get some people who are completely weirded out by what you do. I’ve had people who refuse to talk to me about work at all. Then you have the ones that want grisly details. I tend to avoid talking about work outside of work to be honest.
  • Men can be intimidated by it – when I was single there were quite a few dates that went awry when they realised that I was a Dr and a forensic psychologist. It’s worth mentioning these things early (and the fact you have a male best mate if that applies to you) to weed out the guys who can’t hack having a partner who works on the weird stuff.
  • The material can be really nasty, especially when this reminds you of someone or somewhere you are familiar with and love.
  • You’ll need to be vetted and sometimes your partner will also need to be vetted; this can feel quite intrusive, especially when they ask about your finances.
  • You might need to have injections – sometimes this is because research takes you to lovely places abroad to work and other times it is because you are interviewing a community where there is an increased risk of you being exposed to blood borne diseases.
  • Be prepared for people to disclose things to you. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told something quite unexpectedly. Often people worry they will upset someone if they disclose what has happened to them and they can feel safer talking to someone who works on sensitive topics already. (I should add I don’t mind this at all, it just surprised me how often it would happen).


  • Doing a Mental Health First Aid course (see courses ) and familiarising yourself with local support services (and employer disclosure protocols where applicable) is helpful to prepare for unexpected disclosures (and look after your own mental health). Also, if someone does disclose something upsetting to you, make time to sit down and reflect on how you are feeling. Acknowledge if it upset you and take the time to recover.
  • It is ok to not start a project, or finish it, if it is not for you.
  • Set boundaries – easier said than done but, if you can master it, will definitely help you. This is not just about saying no or workload but also what you will work on and where you will work. For example, there are some things I don’t work on (e.g., animal abuse) or types of data I either don’t look at or minimise my exposure to (e.g., crime scene photos). I also tailor my working environment to the task at hand. Some things I can do at home (e.g., writing papers) but others (e.g., looking at distressing material) I try to do away from home. I don’t want those things contaminating my personal space.
  • Know yourself. Do not try to work on distressing material on days that you know will be difficult. For me, anniversaries of losing a loved one are not a day to look at distressing material.
  • If you are offered counselling, take it.
  • Talk to your loved ones about how you feel. Not the nitty gritty of cases but how you are feeling. I tell my husband if I am having a “blue day”. This is important to keep lines of communication open and so that people don’t feel your mood is their fault.
  • Surround yourself with things that make you happy. I’ve got to admit I got this one from Penelope Garcia on “Criminal Minds” but it works for me. I have lots of mini wooden animals, stuffed toys, and bright pictures and colours in my office. When things get tough, I pick up a stuffed monkey or look at a photo of my cats and I feel better. I’ve also appointed my 3 cats as morale officers who must cuddle me (in exchange for treats of course) whenever I need to take my mind off things. 

I’d like to finish with a few general tips… 

  • Log off for lunch. This means you actually take a break. (I know you are sceptical of this one but give it a try!)
  • Do not have work email come to your personal phone. Just don’t. A wise man once said to me “You know I think you are wonderful Amy but there are very few things that have to be done by you right now. Most things can wait or someone else can pick it up”. This is a mantra I live by these days, and I definitely feel less stressed. It helps put things into perspective.
  • To do lists = awesome. If you are part time on several projects, divide into mini lists by project. 

The last thing to remember is that you are not alone. Lots of us are working in spaces and places which are difficult. Reach out to others and share your experiences. This is a hard job to do and it’s ok to find it hard. Just don’t do it alone – there is lots of support available.

Read our recent paper in Communications Psychology - Being prepared for emotionally demanding research (open access)

The benefits of middle management peer supervision in social work settings


  • Gianna Forward

Why do social workers do what they do?

My personal view is that we do the job we do because we have a desire to make a change, to enable and to ultimately have a positive impact of children, adults, families and communities, for the greater good.  But in general, it is a wish to help others.

I don’t think we take the time to really look at what we do as social workers. 

The role itself not only involves significant direct work with our service users, but also is about assessing risk, safeguarding, assessing to enable change, to support people to access services which would enrich their lives, to work alongside other agencies to ensure every vulnerable person has what they need to achieve, thrive, be happy and healthy.  To work with stakeholders and evidence our practice, to complete reports, to evidence why we need a resource, to request funding, to be reactive to immediate need, yet objective enough to ensure we are looking at a problem holistically. To analyse data, empower, advocate, meet services key performance indicators, ensuring visits are in date and timescales and deadlines are met, ensure we are working within the legal framework. To negotiate with a multiple array of different people, professionals and services.  And mainly to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society have what they need and that they are safe. But we are doing so under media and internal/external scrutiny and judgement, whilst also facing emotional and physical risk from the work we do, all the while managing with what sometimes feels to be only a notebook and pen.

I’ve always wondered how we keep ourselves safe, sane, and emotionally ‘together’ when it comes to working in social care.  We hear the worst, the most traumatic, upsetting, and distressing information about young vulnerable children, adults, and families every day.  We get up, we carry on, we normalise, we are de-sensitised.... but are we?  Does it not chip away at us, little by little, the result being we apparently become hardened, ‘resilient’, ‘empathic’– or do we?

The empathic, caring nature of my personality is what made me want to help people, to make things better. My sense of injustice for those who were struggling drove me all those years ago, when I thought I could save the world, and would argue and fight for the rights of others. This is also what could burn me out. And I don’t mean physically, I am still functioning, I’m good at my job, I make balanced decisions and I continue to support others.  I mean emotionally. The emotional side of me seems to have such a high threshold- it takes a lot more to upset me to get to my core.

The problem with working in this environment is that yes, we might become hardened, but that’s because we build up a wall, a protective barrier, to stop us crumbling, to stop us breaking. The parallels with the children and families we work with, are all too familiar.  Just like them we are resilient, we compartmentalise to enable us to function, get up, get dressed, attach, go to school, work, have friendships, but so many of us are burning out, off sick with stress, feeling incapable, feeling overwhelmed, and it feels like no one can make things better for us.  When dealing with that of the human psyche, it's us that need to develop those self-care skills: to enable us to process and delve deep into the impact of working in this area and how it impacts every element of us.  Rightly so, we must be accountable for our own emotional wellbeing, because hearing what we hear, seeing what we see isn’t going away and if anything, it’s going to get tougher.

We are the strength for so many so what keeps us strong emotionally.

As a manager we are very good at promoting the well-being of our staff, ensuring they have time to reflect, spend time with peers to share worries and fears.  However, I have recognised since moving into middle management that although myself and my peers have excellent and supportive service managers, there are some things we don’t always feel we can share, (for fear of being considered as failures maybe?)  This is why I suggested that there needed to be more space for middle managers to de-brief, share our worries, fears and knowledge and expertise with our fellow managers.  Since covid there was a lot more isolated working, people weren't able to just walk over and have a cup of tea and a de-brief, so I think generally we started to neglect our own wellbeing and emotional needs.  So, in our service we have now set up peer supervision for the middle manager. 

The managers sit between the frontline staff and the senior managers; we are the negotiators, the voice for our workers and the ones who communicate change, service information and often the ones who must deliver difficult news to our staff.

The peer supervision for middle managers is relatively new.  I was surprised when we set it up as to how big the uptake was.  But clearly a gap had been identified and the managers wanted and needed a safe space to be able to talk about the day-to-day issues they were facing.  By having this space, the hope was that we would feel better skilled to manage difficulties, more supported by colleagues, and able to share the load of what we manage daily. That includes with our carers and children, but also our workers, and the service needs.   By coming together, we wanted to find a way of navigating all of this so that we could be more solution focused, and to avoid emotional burnout.

The structure of peer supervision is relatively loose, for each session a theme is planned, covering things such as: managing challenging conversations; the impact of performance issues of staff and how it impacts those that supervise them; how we manage our own wellbeing when trying to supervise and support several staff members, as well as families and children.  There is free space for everyone to share their current and real situations and struggles.  Then colleagues’ chip in and offer advice from their own experiences.  The level of empathy and understanding shown is invaluable. 

As a manager we always have this sense of imposter syndrome, are we doing things, right?  Could we have done this differently?  Was that decision the right one?  Sharing these elements of self-doubt with peers is incredible in that we all at some point feel exactly the same.  The sense of relief that comes about when being vulnerable, in a safe space with others, without fear of judgement is having a profound effect on me. It is bringing me closer to other managers. It is forging relationships both professionally and personally. The shared common factor that is emerging, is that we are human, we make mistakes, we are struggling, but the responses are ‘that’s ok’, we are doing the best that we can with the knowledge we have at any given moment.

Curiosity of self in my view is key to help us manage and function in our roles.

We need to take time to reflect and unpick the actual impact of what we know and hear. What do we bring with us when we are supporting our workers?  When they are telling us their deepest fears or traumas of a child and family. We need to give ourselves time to talk about what we heard, how we felt, does it resonate with our own experiences, and have we dealt with our own formative experiences? 

In peer supervision we share useful tools, training, and resources. We also inadvertently come together to make plans of ways to make things better for us as managers. We have the space to off load, but we all can be solution focused. Things don’t feel so helpless, or so much of a struggle- I am finding it is giving me hope.

This curiosity that comes from peer supervision session enables us to realise our limitations, to acknowledge that we are affected and that that’s ok. It’s what we do with that uncomfortable feeling or experience that matters.

Although still in its infancy, the feedback received about peer supervision sessions, has been nothing but positive.  We book in sessions monthly and try and work around everyone's availability as we noticed that was an issue where not everyone could attend.  Managers tend to try and make attendance a priority.  Feedback from managers has been:

“I don’t feel so isolated in my thoughts and worries, coming together has made me feel more part of a team, and I feel safe to share things I might not always feel confident in doing”

“It's nice to know others feel the same way I do”

“I am getting to know the other managers in a way I might not have been able to being on a different side of the county”

It's all ok

It all will be ok, when we accept, we cannot always undo the pain and hurt experienced by others. We can't always get things right and we need to put the big stick down that we constantly berate ourselves with.  We are also human and with that comes so many degrees of limitations.  We have to accept we may not always be seen by staff as the nice guys. We have to deliver difficult news and have challenging conversations. But, by working together and finding a better way to communicate, such as by utilising others’ experiences through peer supervision, there is always hope for positive change.

Having the safe space to keep us afloat and ‘emotionally together’ we hope will reduce stress and burnout, as well as increase our motivation and skills so that we are better placed to support our staff to do the invaluable job we all do.  In essence, the result of being kinder to ourselves as the middle manager-by reaching out and using the safe spaces we are creating enables us to be kinder, more empathic, and stronger in our support of others.  This benefits the service users, the relationships with others, and also improves service delivery as there will be a happier workforce with more resilience to manage the challenges, we all face.

Travels tips and suggestions – additional tips that goes beyond tourism but stop short of extreme or security risk areas


  • Joanne McCuaig, Research Associate, MASTERY 2022-2023

This is a supplement to any institutional forms, regulations, suggestions from places of employment or governments and is to be used in conjunction, not in replacement of that system.

As readers will vary in demographics, both personally and professionally (including research focus and destination location), this is a broad range of suggestions. These come from my personal experience of living and traveling internationally for the last two decades. Accordingly, some of this may not apply to your context or the areas you are going. These are meant to assist you with generating your own relevant list of things to possibly consider that may not be covered by institutional requirements. These are not guarantees and should not be taken as such. 

A few general pieces of advice that I’ve gathered over the years:

The only thing that you must have is a passport and money – the rest are items that can be replaced. If things are too sentimental, leave them at home in a secure location.

When looking for a restaurant and you’re unsure about cleanliness and hygiene, look at the floors – clean floors can indicate more focus on hygiene (but not a guarantee!).

Everyone gets food poisoning at some point in time. Remember that getting it out of your body is better than trying to keep it in. Make sure someone knows that you are sick. Have clean water on hand to stay hydrated and food that won’t upset your digestive system. The BRAT approach works well: bananas, rice, apples, or toast are starting points (location permitting).

The local price vs the foreigner price – sometimes government regulated, other times just the way things go; even if you are with a ‘local’ you may still be charged the foreigner price. Be mindful how you approach this given your status and the perceived economic wealth you possess relative to the host nation.

If you are a visible minority, potentially you will be stared at, openly talked about, have your picture taken (with or without your permission).

Related to the above, find out what types of clothing are acceptable locally. Many places are conservative and may have cultural norms regarding clothing.

Learn some basic first aid and focus on things like how wounds heal vs infections. Some places will have medical facilities that cater to international residents, but they generally are very expensive so find out what your insurance will cover, and what you yourself can afford. 

  • Garbage: if staying short or long term, find out how to properly dispose of garbage. Do you need special bags? Are there particular times or locations to dispose of different types of garbage? 
  • Directions: depending on location and accessibility, translation apps and maps accessible offline. Depending on local safety concerns (if it is not safe, perhaps don’t do this), have your accommodations address written down in the local language to help you if you are lost – keep this in a separate place from your keys.  NOTE if you get pickpocketed, and they get your keys, then they have access to your accommodations and personal items. 
  • Shoes: break in any new shoes prior to departure so that you know they are comfortable and will last the duration of the trip. If you have large feet, you may not be able to find replacements locally, or the price will be impractical. Also, take a reusable plastic bag for wet shoes.

Bathrooms / toilets / handwashing / disposal:

What is the local plumbing situation?

Can you flush toilet paper?

How do you dispose of feminine hygiene products?

Are the toilets single use (urinal and toilet in the same room, with / without a door that locks?)

Take small packets of tissue or toilet paper in your bag – be informed of disposal procedures. If there’s a garbage can next to the toilet, potentially toilet paper can’t be flushed.

Take a small hand towel (thin, fits in a pocket), to dry your hands.

Cut up and save the end pieces of bars of soap to carry with you in a small container in case there’s no soap. 

Documents: passports, visa, vaccination records, itineraries,

Country research: Learn some of the local language, its history, and culture.

  • Weather and climate (vaccinations; health measures such as climate appropriate clothing and /or accessories; supplies or equipment: mosquito repellent, nets, after bite cream)
  • Culture and customs (food – try to eat the nation’s food, in your own country so you can get accustomed; cultural expectations for clothing; )

Money: accepted local and international currencies and payment methods (cash? Credit cards?)

Transportation: How will you get around? Are there local motorcycles that you’ll be expected to ride as a passenger? Does your clothing and shoes allow you to be comfortable doing so? What about the weather – the rainy season, snow, heat?

Embassy or Consulates: Register before you go; know the location of the in-country offices; keep copies of your passport (photocopies and electronic both with you and in safe location in home nations where someone can access them).

Talking about distressing data, sensitive topics, and researcher well-being: Where are all the men?


  • Robert Lawson, Associate Professor in Sociolinguistics, Birmingham City University 

One trend in contemporary academic research has been the proliferation of projects on difficult, sensitive, distressing, or potentially upsetting topics, from work on manifestations of violence against women and girls through to research on sexual abuse, rape, mental health, discrimination, sexuality, and more. Not only do these topics often have overt articulations of sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and supremacist ideologies, but regular and repeated exposure to such content has been cited as a risk factor for researcher well-being (Dickson-Swift et al. 2009; Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2016; Fenge et al. 2019).

While some disciplines (such as psychology and criminology) have well established guidelines for supporting researchers working on difficult or distressing topics, others are arguably behind the curve. My own discipline of linguistics is one such case in point, a reality partly due to linguistics’ intellectual lineage of focusing on the form and function of language as it’s used in context, and partly due to linguists’ concern with the language used by (and in) ‘benign’ communities (e.g. schools, workplaces, friendship groups).

In recent years, however, there has been a shift to tackle the more insalubrious and harmful elements of off-line and online life. Daria Dayter and Sofia Rüdiger have written about working with ‘unlikeable subjects’ (focusing specifically on pick-up/seduction artists), while others have worked on data derived from incel communities, men’s rights activists, male separatists, representations of sexual violence, and male supremacist content. As an academic who researches different aspects of language and masculinity, I’ve written about a range of sexist, misogynistic, and violent manosphere content, some of which has been difficult to analyse, process, and write up. 

This shift in the research landscape of linguistics hasn’t been accompanied, however, by a concordant uptick in institutional investment around researcher well-being. A current project I’m working on investigates what kind of institutional support is available to researchers working with distressing data and how this support is integrated into undergraduate, postgraduate, and early career training. While some institutions have clearly defined processes and procedures, provision appears to be patchy and inconsistent and often relies more on informal peer networks than trained counsellor support.

What I’ve also been struck by, though, is the relative paucity of men involved in initiatives focused on researcher well-being. For example, the conversations I’ve had with colleagues at other universities about mental health support and provisions for researcher well-being have almost exclusively been with women, while most of the work on researcher well-being in the last 20 years has been carried out by women (as evidenced by the articles I’ve cited in this blog post). Similarly, the MASTERY meetings (Managing Sensitive Topics in Teaching and Research Confidently), specifically designed as a cross-institutional network for researchers working with distressing data, mostly involves women and very few men (although it’s fair to note that with the international dimension of the group, non-participation may also be influenced by availability and time zone restrictions).

It seems that emotional and pastoral support of the kind promoted by the MASTERY network (and elsewhere) is heavily weighted towards women being involved rather than men, a trend which unfortunately dovetails with existing patterns of gendered labour in academia. Looking at data from the USA, Guarino and Borden (2017: 690) found “strong evidence that, on average, women faculty perform more service than male faculty in academia, and that the service differential is driven particularly by participation in internal rather than external service” (see also O’Meara et al. 2019: 750). Dengate et al. (2021) found a similar result in their analysis of gender inequalities among Natural Sciences and Engineering Professors in Canada. They note that women disproportionately take on more service commitments, including university-level internal responsibilities (e.g. serving on recruitment panels or evaluation and promotion committees, reviewing student admissions and scholarships awards, and contributing to the development, marketing, and supervision of degree programmes), as well as external markers of service which contribute to the discipline and to local, regional, national, and international communities (see also Guarino and Borden 2017: 673).

It is reasonable to suggest that supporting other researchers constitutes a form of what Heijstra et al. (2017) class as ‘academic housework’ (see also Heijstra, Steinthorsdóttir and Einarsdóttir 2017). This term covers a variety of non-research-based responsibilities, including “tasks relating to giving back to the community, administrative and committee work, gender equality initiatives and various teaching and research-related activities such as student interactions and the organization of conferences” (Heijstra et al. 2017: 206). We can speculate about the reasons for the lack of men participating in the “emotional service work [which] forms part of what has been referred to as natural chores of academia’” (Heijstra et al. 2017: page), as a number of researcher have already done (e.g. Hanasono et al. 2019), but such a reality is perhaps surprising in the context of increasing calls for men to open up about mental health difficulties and to talk more about the struggles they face. For example, one of the guiding principles of men’s charity Vent is to “provide a safe space where everyone, but especially men and boys, can express themselves”, a priority echoed by organisations like MenTalk, Andy’s Man Club, and Directions for Men.

While this emotional service work obviously happens in men’s personal lives, it appears to not have made its way into academic circles, an incongruity which becomes even more pronounced when we know that men are actively conducting research on distressing topics. To that end, the MASTERY network has been invaluable to me as I’ve reflected on the wider context of institutional support and systems of peer mentoring available to scholars and I know that it would have been even more useful as I was writing my book and tackling some of the more extreme manosphere and alt-right content. I would argue that men’s voices in these discussions is much needed, if only to help them deal with the kinds of risks that distressing data represents. Moreover, men’s experiences, positionalities, and lived trajectories can helpfully inform broader dialogue among colleagues about engaging with sensitive topics in different ways. Having more male academics contribute to the kinds of discussions centred on researcher well-being and risk would be, I believe, a positive change in the landscape of emotional service work and I hope that this blog post goes some way towards encouraging more engagement and participation by men in this context, opening new avenues for dialogue, mutual support, and community building. 


Dengate, J., Farenhorst, A., Peter, T. and Franz-Odendaal, T., 2021. Gender inequality in research and service amongst natural sciences and engineering professors in Canada. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 13(1): 23–42.

Dickson-Swift, V., James, E.L., Kippen, S. and Liamputtong, P., 2009. Researching sensitive topics: Qualitative research as emotion work. Qualitative Research, 9(1): 61–79.

Fenge, L.A., Oakley, L., Taylor, B. and Beer, S., 2019. The impact of sensitive research on the researcher: Preparedness and positionality. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18: p.1609406919893161.

Guarino, C.M. and Borden, V.M., 2017. Faculty service loads and gender: Are women taking care of the academic family? Research in Higher Education, 58: 672–694.

Hanasono, L. K., Broido, E. M., Yacobucci, M. M., Root, K. V., Peña, S., and O'Neil, D. A. 2019. Secret service: Revealing gender biases in the visibility and value of faculty service. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 12(1): 85–98.

Heijstra, T.M., Steinthorsdóttir, F.S. and Einarsdóttir, T., 2017. Academic career making and the double-edged role of academic housework. Gender and Education, 29(6): 764–780.

Heijstra, T.M., Einarsdóttir, Þ., Pétursdóttir, G.M. and Steinþórsdóttir, F.S., 2017. Testing the concept of academic housework in a European setting: Part of academic career-making or gendered barrier to the top? European Educational Research Journal, 16(2-3): 200–214.

Kiyimba, N. and O’Reilly, M., 2016. An exploration of the possibility for secondary traumatic stress among transcriptionists: A grounded theory approach. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 13(1): 92–108.

O’Meara, K., Lennartz, C.J., Kuvaeva, A., Jaeger, A. and Misra, J., 2019. Department conditions and practices associated with faculty workload satisfaction and perceptions of equity. The Journal of Higher Education, 90(5): 744–772.

Someone has said your research ‘sucks’ so what can you do?


  • Hasan Salim Patel, Deputy Director of Brand and Communications, Birmingham Newman University

Public engagement within universities has become the norm as many academics who engage in research and teaching are also increasingly getting their work noticed, seen, and debated within the academic walls of the university.

Whether it is disseminating the research through a press campaign, engagement through social media campaigns, presenting public lectures, being part of a panel discussion and debate, or writing an article for a news outlet, website, or just generally in the public domain – these are all tools to use to get the message, narrative, and argument in the public discourse. 

Why the need to engage?

According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website, 'there are a number of purposes that public engagement activity can serve: these can be described as 'inspiring, consulting and collaborating.'

If you are a researcher, public engagement can be of benefit in terms of developing your own and others’ skills, raising your profile, and enhancing your research. RCUK published a useful guide called 'What’s in it for me?' and Vitae’s The engaging researcher provides guidance too. 

Benefits of Public Engagement 

Public engagement for academics can offer various benefits here are some of the key advantages:

  • Knowledge Dissemination and sharing: Public engagement allows academics to share their research findings, expertise, and knowledge with a broader audience outside of their academic peers. This helps bridge the gap between academia and the public, making research more accessible and understandable.
  • Impact and Relevance: Engaging with the public can increase the impact and relevance of academic work. It helps researchers connect their findings to real-world issues and challenges, demonstrating the practical applications of their research. This can come in handy when the research is part of the REF impact score as it is ranked and measured through evidence.
  • Wider Reach: Engaging with the public, whether through media, public talks, or social media, allows academics to reach a much larger audience than they would through traditional academic channels alone. This can lead to greater visibility and recognition.
  • Community Building: Public engagement can foster a sense of community between academics and the public. It creates opportunities for meaningful interactions, dialogues, and collaborations with individuals from various backgrounds.
  • Improved Communication Skills: Engaging with non-experts’ forces academics to refine their communication skills. Breaking down complex concepts into simple lay terms helps improve their ability to explain their research to various audiences, including policymakers, journalists, and the public.
  • Inspiration for Research: Engaging with the public can expose academics to new perspectives and ideas, potentially inspiring new research directions or helping to frame existing research in novel ways.
  • Credibility and Trust: Public engagement can enhance an academic's credibility and trustworthiness. When researchers actively engage with the public and address concerns or questions, it can contribute to building trust in the scientific community.
  • Policy Influence: Engaged academics have a better chance of influencing public policies and decisions. Policymakers often seek expert input, and academics who are known for their public engagement are more likely to be invited to contribute.
  • Personal Fulfilment: Many academics find public engagement personally fulfilling. Seeing the positive impact of their work on individuals' lives and society at large can be deeply rewarding.
  • Diverse Perspectives: Engaging with a broader audience exposes academics to a range of perspectives and viewpoints, encouraging more inclusive and well-rounded research outcomes.

Overall, public engagement is a two-way street that benefits both academics and society. It enables researchers to contribute to the public's understanding of complex issues and empowers the public to make informed decisions based on evidence-based information. 

But what if you receive negative feedback

The fear many academics face is online social media trolling from people hiding behind fake accounts. Social media has acquired a reputation for being a forum that has become highly polarised and argumentative. Whereas most academic social media is good natured, it can also be plagued by bad actors.

There is a fine line between someone constructively providing feedback and someone who has the intention of destroying reputations – it is a case of knowing what a troll is and what is just feedback.

Nevertheless, dealing with negative feedback from any form of public engagement in research and teaching can be challenging, but it's also an opportunity for growth and improvement. 

Steps to handle negative feedback

Stay Calm and Objective: It's natural to feel defensive when receiving negative feedback but try to remain calm and view the feedback objectively. Separate your emotions from the feedback and focus on understanding the specific points being raised.

If you are on the receiving end of social media hate and are facing online trolling, then the following suggestions could help: 

  • Trolls want you to engage with them and their content to raise their own visibility. So, to reduce harm to you and others, you should resist the urge to respond. In this situation, winning or losing is about you “winning the argument” (as is the norm within academic circles). For a troll, winning or losing is about how many people see their agenda.
  • When a troll targets you, they do it to abuse, so block them immediately; this will ensure that they cannot tweet at you ever again and remove mentions of them from your notifications. It is remarkable how few people you must block to stop a troll storm in its tracks. It will stop their small networks from being able to target you again in future.
  • If you receive several tweets in a short period of time, temporarily switch off app notifications on your mobile devices; this will protect you from unplanned exposure to troll hate.
  • Trolls love reaction so do not post saying that you are being targeted; this will simply invite further abuse and hate and a troll storm.
  • Even after blocking abuse and switching off notifications, you will still have to deal with having been abused in the first place, so it is important to get space from social media. 

Things to do next once you have dealt with the initial rush of posts do the following:


If you feel a message, you have received is defamatory or might contain criminal content, e.g., incitement of violence or harassment, then record it. The best way to do this is to take a screenshot. Make sure to capture the time, date, and sender.


Posts can be reported to the social media company directly from the interface. Do so in the first instance. If the post is potentially criminal, then keep a record and seek advice on whether and how to report it to the police or to discuss it with the University lawyers.

Refer and Recruit Help

Finally, you are not on your own. Refer to your line management and your university communications team who are there to provide support, advice, and resources along with the Communications and Reputation team. They are there with their experience and expertise in online hate, social media tactics, and trolls who are there to help.

How to deal with negative feedback which is constructive

However, not all forms of negative feedback are linked to online trolling and there could be legitimate forms of feedback that can be seen as negative.

Listen and Understand: If it is a written form of feedback then take the time to read or listen to the feedback carefully. Try to understand the concerns or criticisms being expressed. This is an opportunity to gain insight into how your work is being perceived by others.

Maintain an Open Mind: Stay open to feedback and new ideas. Public engagement often involves diverse perspectives, and being receptive to different viewpoints can enrich your work.

Seek Clarification: If the feedback is unclear or vague, consider reaching out to the individual (however, look at their profile if they have one and research on who they are). If they are a peer or someone who is known in the public domain and has a verified profile, then there is no harm in asking for more details. This can help you fully grasp the issues they are raising.

Don't Take It Personally: Remember that negative feedback is about your work, not you as a person, and you can quite easily be seen as not being trolled. In this case, do ensure you try and detach yourself emotionally from the criticism and approach it as a chance to learn and improve.

Identify Valid Points: Analyse the feedback to identify any valid points or areas where you could genuinely make improvements. You should be able to differentiate from constructive criticism and outright trolling.

Acknowledge and Respond: If appropriate, respond to the feedback, acknowledging the concerns raised. You don't necessarily have to defend yourself but demonstrating that you've taken the feedback seriously can help build goodwill.

Reflect on Intent and Goals: Revisit the goals of your research and teaching engagement. Are you effectively communicating your intentions? Are your methods aligned with your objectives? Use the feedback to align your efforts with your intended outcomes.

Seek Input from Colleagues: Share the feedback with colleagues, mentors, or peers. They might provide additional perspectives and advice on how to address the concerns raised.

Focus on the Positive: While negative feedback can be disheartening, don't forget to focus on the positive aspects of your work as well. Celebrate your successes and the impact you're making.

Develop Resilience: Over time, you'll encounter various types of feedback, both positive and negative. Developing resilience and the ability to bounce back from criticism is an important skill.

Learn to ignore: If the feedback isn’t substantial and just a general disagreement, then there is no harm in agreeing to disagree – while at the same time understanding that ignoring any criticism is based on legitimate reasons then you can just ignore it.

Remember that even the most accomplished academics receive negative feedback at times. It's a natural part of the learning and growth process. By approaching negative feedback with a positive mindset, you can turn it into a valuable tool for refining your research and teaching endeavours. 

How to use expressive writing to help process and deal with distressing research topics.


  • Christina Christou PhD researcher in the English Language and Linguistics Department, University of Birmingham

I am a therapist who incorporates creative expressive mediums such as art and expressive writing to help my clients make sense of their thoughts and emotions. Expressive writing includes writing poetry, prose, journalling, unsent letters and story writing. My research is exploring how people use expressive mediums to reflect, process and reassess their difficult situations and emotions. I am interested in the types of metaphors and figurative language used within and throughout the different mediums and how they overlap and change as people work through their emotions.

There is extensive research in using expressive writing to express emotions around a traumatic event. The initial expressive writing paradigm research by Social Psychologist James W. Pennebaker, involved undergraduates writing for four consecutive days for 15 mins at a time about a traumatic experience. There were two groups, one wrote about a trauma whilst the other wrote about trivial topics. The findings revealed that people writing about a trauma they had not talked about before, helped them not only to process their emotions, but also helped them with their physical health (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986).

Expressive writing has been found to be helpful not only in writing about a trauma but for helping individuals process difficult situations and distressing topics. The idea is that as the individual puts pen to paper and writes about the feeling around the topic, there is some sense making and some clarity. Pennebaker (2000), found that constructing stories is a natural human process that helps an individual to understand their experiences.

There have been many studies since the initial study, using the expressive writing paradigm, in different contexts. Examples are, in school performance (Frattaroli et al., 2011), women’s narratives in breast cancer phases (Martino et al, 2015) and the effects on an eating disordered population (Gamber et al.,2013). Even though there is no one reason for the effectiveness of writing, Pennebaker and Chung (2011) suggest that the effects of translating emotions into language gives meaning once written down.

The following are some examples of how expressive writing can be used as a tool to reflect and process your emotions when researching distressing topics. 

1. Unsent letters

An unsent letter can be used to write to the research, to a participant, to the topic, to a part of yourself etc. The idea behind unsent letter writing is that you have the opportunity to express all your thoughts and feelings directed to the person or topic.

For example, when I collected the data from my participants, I felt that I was too close to the emotions and wanted to separate myself from a therapist role (some of the participants were past clients and some were colleagues). So, I wrote a letter addressing it to the participants as ‘friends.

Dear ‘friends’

We are not friends, but I feel I know parts of you that maybe only a friend should know. I feel a responsibility to honour those parts of your stories that may never have been told, or told in such a way that have touched my soul…

Ater writing the letter, I found some clarity in how I wanted to analyse the data. I also had an understanding that my role as researcher had merged with therapist. This prompted me to incorporate some self-care protocols. 

2. Journalling

The journal is widely used in research, especially in qualitative research as a reflexive tool. In the same way, journalling can help you make sense of difficult emotions surrounding collecting distressing data.

You can write to yourself or to your diary, including thoughts, feelings and a particular event or situation. For example, 

Dear Diary,

I am really struggling with this research, I feel emotional every time my participants tell me what has happened to them…

What is the point of writing this down? Well, it does not make the situation any better, the facts remain the same, but it helps you to express and process the emotions by writing it down. You could talk about the distressing emotions with someone, but that is not always possible. By writing things down there a clarity and a connection with what is going on for you. By acknowledging the impact of how the process is affecting you, it may prompt you to talk to someone about it, take time out or do things differently.

3. Poetry

Writing poetry can help some individuals make sense of abstract ideas and emotions. For example, I wrote a poem about the distressing data I was collecting. As I wrote it down I could see that I was acknowledging my discomfort, and how I was managing with self-care.

You came to me, and you made me squirm.
I did not know what to do but I had to learn,
What it was you were trying to say.

So, I stuck with it,
Making time to play,
Stretching and taking care of me.

I wrote and asked questions of what I wanted to see.
I finally realised, it was ok to be confused and upset.
I just needed an outlet,
To express, process and reset. 

4. Story writing

As part of my research, one of the activities that the participants had to complete was to write a story from a story sentence. They had to write about a hypothetical character in the 3rd person. What is interesting about this technique is that even though the participants were writing about someone else, they were the character. They were able to find solutions and coping strategies for their dilemma by writing about someone else. Writing in the 3rd person about someone else puts some distance between yourself and the problem, allowing the creative mind to come up with solutions. For example,

Jane was walking through a dark wood and she came across a deep hole. She did not know how to cross it; it was dark, damp and slippery.

She decided to go back to her friends and ask for help. This was too much for her to do alone. 

Expressive writing is not for everyone, especially as researchers are expected to write in a different way, with a structured layout. If you are curious about what it can do for you, have a go, play around with the different tools, make them work for you. There is no wrong or right way, and it gives you freedom to express yourself with no restrictions. 


Frattaroli, J., Thomas, M. and Lyubomirsky, S., 2011. Opening up in the classroom: effects of expressive writing on graduate school entrance exam performance. Emotion11(3), p.691.

Gamber, A.M., Lane-Loney, S. and Levine, M.P., 2013. Effects and linguistic analysis of written traumatic emotional disclosure in an eating-disordered population. The Permanente Journal17(1), p.16.

Martino, M.L., Onorato, R. and Freda, M.F., 2015. Linguistic markers of processing trauma experience in women’s written narratives during different breast cancer phases: Implications for clinical interventions. Europe's Journal of Psychology11(4), p.651.

Pennebaker, J.W. and Beall, S.K., 1986. Confronting a traumatic event: toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of abnormal psychology95(3), p.274.

Pennebaker, J.W., 2000. Telling stories: The health benefits of narrative. Literature and medicine19(1), pp.3-18.

Pennebaker, J.W. and Chung, C.K., 2011. Expressive writing: Connections to physical and mental health. 

Difficult research, fieldwork and the mental health of researchers


For the past thirty years most of my research has been carried out in difficult environments in post-conflict reconstruction and international development. I have worked in political landscapes as diverse as Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Nepal and Colombia. I work closely with current and former combatants, militaries, police and child soldiers, as well as victims. It is not for everyone, and, as I have come to realise, it is also not ‘normal’.

Working in environments like this and with other researchers, including PhD students, I have come to recognise that the academy is not good at discussing the impact of difficult research like this on their own mental health. Indeed, we are largely silent on the effects of research on ourselves.

This came to the fore recently when a PhD student of mine was showing signs of stress and so myself and their co-supervisor effectively ordered them to take a holiday. It occurred to me that as a supervisor I probably don’t do this enough.

In my field, fieldwork is closely related to approaches within anthropology where fieldwork is part of your academic identity. This is coupled with an underlying assumption that you have to be an Indiana Jones type to enjoy legitimacy. Many researchers use mixed methods approaches to analyse underlying processes of international development.  Qualitative approaches require sometimes prolonged periods of work in the field. Indeed, this is the reason why many people choose to study the subject. This strange mixture of praxis and establishing one’s reputation can lead to a rather macho approach to fieldwork, where those who are successful embrace the experience whereas having issues in the field is somehow translated as ‘failure’.

The first point to make here is to return to my comment at the beginning about this not being ‘normal’. It is certainly not normal to work in the sort of environments that I work in. For a start it can take additional training, including hostile environment training. For a while I also carried a blood type card in my wallet in case I was injured, was qualified as a battlefield first aider (blocking bullet wounds) and learning how to react when kidnapped. None of this is associated with academic training.

Having read back through this paragraph I am very aware of my own positionality here. The fact that I had a blood card freaked my sons out, but I never gave it much thought. However, my students took it much more seriously and I have spent a long time explaining why this is not normal and why not doing this type of research is not a failure – it is just not for everyone. You have to be able to compartmentalise in a particular way. The emotional strain of managing stress at this level, in some environments, takes its toll; I have a group of people who I have worked with who all exhibit some signs of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

We are generally trained to regard our contribution to knowledge as the most important element of our work, but we are all also human. We relate to other humans, we make friends, we empathise, and we sympathise.  All of this can be emotionally draining when we are also immersed in intensive periods of fieldwork, including interviews with distressed, annoyed or traumatised people in extremely stressful situations. What no-one tells you about qualitative research is that it is immensely rewarding but also emotionally draining when you sit opposite to someone telling you about a traumatic life event.

All of this is exacerbated by poring over transcripts and reinforcing disturbing stores in a state of substantive isolation. Fieldwork in different contexts may also induce culture shock associated with unfamiliar environments and also, perhaps, a realisation that this is not quite as glamorous as one may have thought. Many researchers operate alone despite support of supervisors and other researchers who may be physically removed.

To sum up, fieldwork can be truly exhausting physically and emotionally, the question is, what can we do about it?

  1. Fieldwork is not for everyone. Try it and if you don’t enjoy it, you are not a failure. Do something else. People like me are weird. It is not deliberate, it just happened like that. When I first went to nations in Africa, I had no idea what to expect and why should I expect you to be any different? There is a lot that I wished I had known before I went for the first time, but almost nothing that could be trained. In many ways there is a large amount of learning on the job here. 
  2. An important point here is that you should not be learning alone. It is too easy for supervisors to abdicate responsibility when a PhD researcher is doing fieldwork. As a supervisor you should be proactive and be in touch. I hold my hands up to say that this realisation has come late to me, but it is important for the researcher. It is much easier now that it used to be. Email and text, as well as the ability to call on Zoom, for example, mean that you are never that far away. 
  3. We do not prepare our early career researchers well enough before they go. We have a system of risk and mitigation planning that is often seen as form-filling, but it is important in terms of physical security when overseas. Having an emergency plan, emergency contacts and any procedures like registering with an Embassy all sound bureaucratic from the safety of an office in Birmingham but are necessary if working in risky environments. There should also be guidelines on how often there is contact with supervisors and a designated number that is available in the event of anything happening. 
  4. The emotional wellbeing and associated mental health issues are, in some ways, more difficult to deal with. In most disciplines this is not included in the academic literature. Negative reactions to fieldwork can last for a long time and be unpredictable. Such reactions need to be normalised, brought out in conversation and regarded as legitimate reactions. It is OK to articulate these problems and OK to seek help. It is not OK to think that there is some kind of macho rule about maintaining a stiff upper lip. 
  5. As institutions, universities need to think about better and more accessible support for researchers working on sensitive issues. Many universities have counselling services, but some of these do not really relate to some of the contexts we work in. The starting point for this is open discussion between researchers working on difficult subjects and mutual support. Realising that you are not alone is a critical early step. 

Finally, ‘how do you cope with it?’ is one of the most frequent questions I get asked (along with how do you keep going? But that is another story). For me, I am lucky to have a friendship group that I have worked with for many years, and we talk about this between us. As this is a supportive group, even with being very tough (both the people and the topics) there is no stigma attached when discussing difficult aspects of fieldwork, including mental health. Secondly, I disconnect. Playing games and immersing myself in books or computer games is a fantastic escape. Thirdly, I have a supportive family that does not take me too seriously, which prevents me from taking myself too seriously. For me, humour is a coping mechanism. After all, laughing stops you reacting in different ways.

Navigating Participant Deaths During Research


A lit candle on a black background

Within this piece, I aim to broach the sensitive topic of participant death during a research study. These thoughts will draw from my own experiences working in different areas of mental health research with clinical samples. These experiences have provided me with firsthand insight into the challenges and considerations that arise when a participant passes away during the course of a study.

Personal Experiences and Reflections

As researchers, rapport building is an invaluable skill, influencing most aspects of the research process. Its impact is far-reaching, creating significant advantages across various stages, from effectively recruiting participants, to engaging them in data collection, ensuring their sustained involvement throughout longitudinal studies, and in supporting more robust data analysis through a deeper understanding of their experiences. The ability to develop this connection with participants enhances the quality of our research and fosters a collaborative environment. However, sometimes it goes unnoticed that this rapport develops both ways, leading to potential emotional impacts of the relationship on the researcher, as well as the participant.

As a researcher, I have personally been confronted with the profound reality of a participant death during a research project, in the field of mental health. Whilst the nature of this work exposes us to individuals facing significant life challenges, the occurrence of a death is not likely to be an expected outcome of the research, and therefore, as in my case, how it affects staff may not have been considered at all. When I was first told a research participant I had worked with died, I was shocked.

I had recruited this individual over several visits, to make sure they understood the complex study and were comfortable participating. I had then had a data collection appointment with them in their home, which lasted around two hours. I had conversations with them, learnt about their likes and dislikes, about their relationships, about the history of their mental health. I had perhaps spoken with them about areas of their lives they had never revealed to anyone else. Therefore, whilst our involvement in one another’s lives was far from substantial, I felt I had gained a small but significant insight into someone else’s world.

Their sudden loss impacted me deeply, evoking a mixture of emotions. I felt a sense of sadness that they had departed the world without achieving the goals and aspirations they had shared with me. I felt a sense of loss that the opportunity to visit them and learn more about their life had been abruptly taken away. I felt disappointed they didn’t get to fully take part in a study they had been enthusiastic about participating in. I felt fear that a similar event could happen to another participant. I felt confused about what to do, and who to turn to in the situation. And amidst all of this, I felt a wave of self-doubt, where I questioned how deeply I could truly grieve for someone I only knew briefly, and whose life I was not a part of.


An important step for me was discussing the event with my peer researchers. We had little guidance or policy on what to do, other than reporting it as a serious adverse event. Event reporting is common in clinical trials and involves informing regulatory authorities or those monitoring trial practices of any significant negative event during the study. There is then an independent investigation by these authorities into the event, and this may result in measures to improve trial safety. Unfortunately, there was no specific protocol in place on how researchers should deal with their participant dying, and no discussions were held with any senior staff after the event occurred. However, as researchers we took it upon ourselves to share our feelings in a safe space, recognising each other’s emotions and validating our responses. This debriefing session felt like an entirely necessary part of the grieving process for me.

Another striking aspect of my journey was discovering the term ‘disenfranchised grief’. This concept resonated with my circumstances, highlighting a type of grief that may not be openly acknowledged, or socially validated. Given the nature of our connection to participants in the research context, loss may not be recognised outside of the study in the same way as the death of someone close like friends or family. This lack of grief recognition limits the available support and understanding accessible to researchers.

I think recognising and understanding this concept of disenfranchised grief that could be associated with participant deaths in research, may be a crucial step in the field. By recognising and understanding that researchers may experience grief if a participant dies during or after a research study, we can foster an environment that encourages seeking appropriate support and help. It is also vital to establish systems that prompt researchers to reflect on and discuss grief openly, in formal debriefing sessions within research projects, that create spaces for dialogue about the impact of participant deaths on emotional wellbeing.

Whilst these policy and institutional changes are necessary, individual researchers can also take certain steps to cope with grief in the meantime. Researchers can seek out support from others following the death of a participant. This may be from peers, supervisors or other colleagues, but could also extend to professional help from their GP, counselling services, or charities/organisations that deal with grief, such as Cruse. Researchers may also benefit from taking the time to reflect on their emotions and thoughts through journaling, artistic expression, or meditation and mindfulness exercises. Finally, researchers should consider the importance of self-care during the grieving process and ensure that they are spending time on their emotional and physical well-being, engaging in activities that help them to feel relaxed and recharged.

Overall, I feel that participant death in research is an overlooked and under addressed aspect of the field, where we can promote a more compassionate approach. I hope to witness meaningful changes in the resources and policies provided in this area in the future, creating positive environments where researchers can feel supported during challenging times. By raising awareness, promoting open dialogue, and implementing support systems, we can cultivate a future that prioritises the emotional well-being of researchers.

Please see my most recent preprint on The Journey of Engaging with Self-harm and Suicide Content Online: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study. 

Let’s Discuss Academic Isolation and How to Mitigate It


Dr Marcia Christina Ferreira, Essex Business School, The University of Essex. 

Universities are established as centres for communal learning and education. Nonetheless, academic isolation’s negative impact on researchers is frequently overlooked (Sibai, Figueredo and Ferreira 2019). Academic isolation is characterised by a perceived involuntary separation from the academic field researchers aim to belong, associated with a perceived lack of agency in terms of engagement with the research community (Belkhir et al. 2019). It is especially challenging for early-career researchers (ECRs), such as PhD students, post-docs, and junior faculty members hindering their ability to become successful senior researchers (Bristow, Robinson, & Ratle, 2017); and potentially driving them to leave their research careers (Ponjuan, Conley, & Trower, 2011). Academic isolation also has detrimental consequences for researchers’ well-being and mental health, generating enduring feelings of alienation and significantly increasing the risks of burnout (Guthrie et al., 2017; Urbina-Garcia, 2020). 

Understandably, concerns about academic isolation gained traction during the Covid pandemic, but this problem precedes it. One 9-year-old survey already pointed out a grim picture of academic isolation in UK universities, with 46% of academic researchers feeling lonely at work. This survey also confirmed that feelings of isolation disproportionally impact ECRs with 64% of PhD candidates reporting such feelings. The pandemic expectedly exacerbated academic isolation problems, but its direct impact on academics’ well-being, along with excessive workload and expectations, has now reached mid-career levels with senior researchers leaving academia in droves

It is encouraging to see that certain universities and funding agencies have begun to prioritise academic well-being. These institutions are taking a more comprehensive approach moving beyond initiatives that act upon negative outcomes, such as stress and depression, to support initiatives that address the antecedents impacting researchers’ well-being. For example, fostering healthier workplaces by reducing bullying and harassment as well as supporting long-term activities that make academics feel more connected. Like the event Researcher Wellbeing When Working with Difficult Materials held annually by the University of Sussex’s Research Ethics, Integrity, and Governance team, where I had the pleasure to present. 

My collaborative research on academic isolation, developed with colleagues from ten universities around the world, contributes to initiatives that promote researchers’ inclusion in their research communities. Our group is closed to new members, but we hope that sharing experiences will encourage ECRs across Europe to create their own independent groups, taking the first steps to mitigate their academic isolation. 

For four years, we conducted an auto-ethnographic study looking into the detrimental consequences of academic isolation on our well-being and professional development. We discovered that academic isolation is multi-dimensional. Some ECRs feel geographically isolated from main research centres (e.g., outside North America and Europe), while others feel socially isolated when they cannot make meaningful relationships with other researchers in their fields. Few ECRs feel culturally isolated when unfamiliar with the field’s norms, values, and common understandings. Technical isolation also happens when ECRs feel they lack field-relevant methods and techniques to conduct rigorous and publishable research valued by their fields. 

These four dimensions are interrelated, with most researchers perceiving a combination of them. This means that the more dimensions one experiences, the more intense their isolation. Hence identifying one’s dimensions of isolation is the first step toward understanding the constraints ECRs face in the field. 

Here are some self-reflective questions to assist researchers in identifying their academic isolation types: 

1. What research community do I (wish to) belong to?
    E.g., critical financial accounting, biomedical informatics, gender studies, or critical marketing 

2. What dimensions of academic isolation am I currently subjected to?
     I.e., geographic, relational, cultural, and/or technical. 

3. How do I experience each dimension of isolation?
    E.g., intensity, frequency, duration. 

4. Why do I want to become more integrated into this research community?
     Describe what you hope to achieve from better integration with a research community. 

Once academic isolation types are identified, researchers can take the necessary steps to purposefully mitigate them. This can be done by actively pursuing better integration into the research fields through academic bricolage—the various ways in which researchers improvise using available resources to work around constraints. These improvised practices can be organized into four groups—intellectual, network, communication, and socio-material—and performed at different levels: within the field, across fields, or collectively. Researchers then can combine multiple academic bricolage practices to mitigate the constraints associated with their field’s peripheral positions allowing them to better integrate into the research community. 

The table below outlines the four main categories, but I won’t be able to address each practice here, so please refer to our publication

Academic Bricolage Practices:

How it fosters integration:

Intellectual: disassembling and reassembling past experiences in to understand and respond to new situations

Gives you intellectual autonomy and productivity

Network: combining network and relations at hand

Develop socio-cultural bonds

Communication: using communicative resources creatively

Develops your visibility in your research community

Socio-material: an enabling practice that facilitates and influences the effectiveness of the other three practices in mitigating isolation.

Throughout our research, we found ECRs were networking widely or making a point of attending regular social events to gain more visibility in their field. We also found that some researchers went out of their way to create online social groups and training clubs by inviting senior academics to present at their online seminars. Researchers also joined large teams on research projects as a way of fighting isolation. 

Individual-level initiatives, however, must be combined with governance practices that provide ECRs with numerous entrance points into the community while allowing them to cultivate diverse identities and responsibilities within it. One notable initiative is the Research Incubator Programme which funds PhD workshops across Europe for affiliated universities to EUniWell Alliance and has provided this forum for us to explore academic isolation. 

Ultimately academic isolation is a perceived lack of agency because researchers feel they are involuntarily separated from their research fields. As academic careers become more globalised, researchers find themselves increasingly competing against each other, which often worsens their feelings of isolation. Pressure to perform also led researchers to disengage from potentially energising research collaborations for fear that this might damage their productivity, driving them even deeper into isolation. Our research demonstrates how understanding academic isolation empowers researchers to take proactive steps to overcome their isolated position by creatively combining available resources to work around field-level constraints. By doing so, these researchers significantly reduce the negative impact of academic isolation on their well-being, career development, and longevity in the field. 


Belkhir, M., Brouard, M., Brunk, K. H., Dalmoro, M., Ferreira, M. C., Figueiredo, B., Huff A., Scaraboto D., Sibai O., & Smith A. N. (2019) “Isolation in globalizing academic fields: A collaborative autoethnography of early career researchers.” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 18 (2), 261–285. 

Bristow, A., Robinson, S. and Ratle, O. (2017) “Being an early-career CMS academic in the context of insecurity and ‘excellence’: The dialectics of resistance and compliance.Organization Studies, 38(9), pp.1185-1207. 

Fischer, M. (2009) “Defending Collegiality.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41:3, 20-25. 

Gewin, V. (2022) “Has the'great resignation'hit academia?Nature, pp.211-213. 

Guthrie, S., Lichten, C., Van Belle, J., Ball, S., Knack, A. & Hofman, J. (2017) “Understanding mental health in the research environment,” Research report RR-2022-RS. RAND Europe. 

Ponjuan, L., Conley, V. M., & Trower, C. (2011) “Career stage differences in pre-tenure track faculty perceptions of professional and personal relationships with colleagues.The Journal of Higher Education, 82: 317–346. 

Shaw, C. (2014) “Overworked and isolated - work pressure fuels mental illness in academia”. The Guardian. 8 May 2014. 

Sibai, O., Figueiredo, B. & Ferreira, M. C. (2019) “Overworked and isolated: the rising epidemic of loneliness in academia.” The Conversation. 

Urbina‐Garcia, A. (2020) “What do we know about university academics' mental health? A systematic literature review.” Stress and Health, 36(5), pp.563-585. 

Williams, T. (2023) “How do academics’ pay and conditions compare with other sectors?” Times Higher Education. 23 May 2022. 


Navigating Distressing Experiences in Global Health Research: Insights from Debriefing Approaches


Trigger Warning: This blog post contains sensitive content that discusses the topic of newborn baby deaths in a medical facility. It may evoke emotional distress, grief, or discomfort for those who have experienced similar situations or have personal connections to this subject matter. mastery2

“I am working the night shift. It’s 3am a young lady walks in with her baby in her arms. She is extremely distressed. She gave birth at a healthcare facility about 5km away a few hours ago. The baby developed breathing difficulties after birth, so the facility staff called an ambulance. The ambulance dropped the lady and her guardian at the gate of the Central Hospital. The hospital is a sprawling set of buildings, and Chatinkha is situated at the opposite end of the hospital, making the walk after giving birth long and slow. By the time the lady located the unit, her baby has stopped breathing. She handed over a silent baby. We tried to resuscitate but it was not possible. I went to check on her and find out how she was getting home. Mothers want to take their babies home if they have passed. “The minibuses [the transport most people use] won’t transport mothers in this situation. She explained she was going to walk her. She wrapped her baby into a piece of chitenje [piece of cloth] and set off. As I left the hospital that morning, I could not move on from the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and sadness for the mothers who must endure so much.” [HM fieldnotes May 2019] 

This powerful quote is taken from a paper we published based on an ethnographic study conducted in a neonatal unit in Blantyre, Malawi. The study explored the implementation of infection prevention and control (IPC) policies in the unit. On the face of it, understanding hand hygiene practices does not seem like a sensitive research topic. But like many aspects of research, context matters. 

Undertaking the study in an extremely resource-limited context had a profound impact on what was being studied. Layered on top of this was the use of ethnographic methods, particularly in a healthcare setting, which can mean researchers witness distressing situations. The study combined participant observation with in-depth interviews with hospital employees (including doctors, nurses, and cleaners) and carers of babies being treated in the unit, who were often the mothers or relatives of the babies. 

In this blog post, we aim to provide insights into how we navigated the complex and often emotionally challenging research project. Let us provide some context about "us." Helen Mangochi is a qualitative researcher with 26 years of nursing and midwifery experience in Blantyre, Malawi. This project was the first ethnographic study she had undertaken. Ellie MacPherson was a qualitative researcher who was based in Southern Africa for more than a decade. At the time of the study, we were both employed by the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Programme (MLW), a large international research organisation that predominantly conducts clinical research, and is funded by international donors, including Wellcome. 

While the research study was designed with input from a wider team, the day-to-day implementation of data collection was our responsibility. From the start of the project, we recognised the importance of building in training and reflection. In the literature on qualitative research, debriefing has been found to be a useful approach to enhancing trustworthiness, particularly in Global Health projects.[1]  We agreed to hold weekly debriefing sessions to ensure we had space to reflect on the progress of data collection and support the analysis. Looking back, we now realise how important and emotionally charged these sessions would become. 

Here are some reflections on using debriefing as an approach to navigating a distressing research topic: 

  1. Separate teaching from debriefing: In the early sessions, we reviewed the data collection tools and addressed logistical challenges. While Ellie provided teaching slides initially, the focus shifted to discussing the collected data as the study progressed. The conversations ranged from mundane matters like securing petty cash for tea and biscuits, to the ethical challenges of engaging with overworked staff members. We found that keeping formal methods training separate from debriefing sessions worked better.
  2. Hold the space: Although we had met before starting the project, we didn't know each other well. For the debriefing sessions, we fixed a meeting time and tried to ensure they were in person. Committing to the weekly meetings created a supportive space for each other and the project. Meeting in person allowed us to build trust and establish a deeper connection. We discovered that they were less successful when we attempted virtual meetings via WhatsApp or Zoom.
  3. It is okay to cry: We shed many tears during the sessions. Babies referred to the unit were often very sick, and Helen worked side-by-side with staff who had extremely limited resources. Babies regularly died, and Helen would share these heart-wrenching experiences, feeling frustrated at times that more could be done for the babies and their mothers. Ellie, having had a son in neonatal intensive care, also found the unfairness of the challenges faced by women deeply affecting. Reflecting on the deep injustice of the situation and the need for change became a powerful driver for us during the research. Crying is an authentic and reflexive response to the emotional intensity of the research process, particularly when bearing witness to such intense human suffering. Allowing space to cry, also allowed space to process these huge emotional responses.  
  4. Have professionally trained psychological support available: Although neither Helen nor Ellie had professional training in counselling before the study began, Ellie identified a local psychologist as a potential resource. While we ultimately didn't require their services, knowing that professional support was available if needed was important for our well-being.
  5. Create psychological safety: Helen had not previously used participant observation, and Ellie had not previously worked in a neonatal unit. From the earliest briefings, we agreed that there were no silly questions and no wrong answers. We fostered an environment where we could freely ask each other questions and respected each other's responses. If something did not go as well during data collection, we would brainstorm together and consider alternative approaches. This positive and supportive space led to more honest and constructive conversations. 

Engaging in ethnographic research in healthcare contexts, especially within environments of deep resource constraints, means researchers may witness deeply harrowing situations. We believe that using a reflective debriefing approach can help researchers process their emotions rather than bottling them up.  

[1] McMahon, Shannon A., and Peter J. Winch. "Systematic debriefing after qualitative encounters: an essential analysis step in applied qualitative research." BMJ global health 3.5 (2018): e000837.

Key Learnings from the first year of the Researcher Wellbeing Group


  • Sarah Warbis, PhD Researcher and Co-founder of the Researcher Wellbeing Group, University of Bath.
  • Sam Hooker, PhD Researcher and Co-founder of the Researcher Wellbeing Group, University of Bath.

Who We Are

I’m Sarah. I’m in the second year of my PhD at the University of Bath, exploring how we can encourage bystanders to intervene when witnessing a sexual assault. More specifically, I’m investigating the role of strategies used to restore a belief in a just world, like victim blaming, in intervention intentions. With a background in social psychology, I turned my efforts to using virtual reality in my PhD, using filmed virtual reality as a methodological tool to give participants a realistic and immersive idea of what it’s like to witness a sexual assault. As well as the usual phases of research where we might expect secondary trauma to present a risk, such as during literature reviews and data analysis, my use of filmed virtual reality also presented a new risk. Creating the films used in my research involved firstly creating scripts which realistically reflected harassment and assault experienced by real victims, so I needed to look into the specifics of these, resulting in many days where I just had to stop working for my own wellbeing. And secondly, I then had to direct these scenes with student actors, making me feel responsible for protecting their wellbeing too. This unique experience was part of the reason I felt there needed to be more support for researchers of traumatic subjects.

I’m Sam. I’m also in the second year of my PhD at the University of Bath. I’m looking into what the experience of caring for the dead at home is like for family members or friends of the deceased. This will be done via exploration of the narratives they tell of the time and is very inductive, meaning it is driven by what the participants bring to the research. Researching around death isn’t as morbid as people might expect and can be very life affirming. That being said, it can be very emotionally heavy at times. Death comes to us all. Mortality is a topic we all have some first-hand experience with.  In my case, both of my paternal grandparents have died since I started the PhD. Balancing looking after myself while grieving and doing the PhD, where every paper I read is a reminder of that grief, has been challenging at times. Giving myself space and time away from the topic has been important for me. Going forward into the interviews I know that I will need to consider my own wellbeing alongside that of my participants. Having people to talk to and supportive spaces is an important part of this.

What We’ve Done

In the first year of our PhDs, we (Sarah and Sam) crossed paths on a few occasions, both attending one-off training sessions on researcher wellbeing and secondary trauma. Despite these individual training days being very helpful, it quickly became clear to both of us that there were no regular, reoccurring opportunities to discuss sensitive research and the toll it was having on us, feeling instead like universities were taking a “trial by fire” approach. So, we took it upon ourselves to set up a group, creating a safe space for early career researchers (ECRs; including PhD researchers) to talk openly and regularly among peers about how our research was affecting us all. The group launched in October 2022, focusing on ECRs at the University of Bath, and was quickly expanded in January 2023 to welcome ECRs from other universities, as it became clear that this gap in support was not an issue unique to Bath. Since its founding, we have run online monthly sessions, including a mixture of open discussions and guest talks from more experienced researchers. All of this has offered crucial support for researchers, helping us all to feel less alone in our experiences.

What We’ve Learnt So Far

Now that it’s coming to the end of the first year of the Researcher Wellbeing Group, it’s important to reflect on some of our key learnings from the sessions:

Prevention is key – It’s much easier to prevent secondary trauma than to treat it. So, when you’re starting a sensitive project, you need to plan ahead in your ethics applications and risk forms. This could be thinking about what stages of the research might be particularly distressing, or whether you have any personal experiences which could be triggered by the project. Another aspect of prevention might be learning more about things like secondary trauma and compassion fatigue through training courses, so you are better equipped to spot warning signs and develop coping strategies.

Set boundaries – As well as a general life skill, setting boundaries is particularly crucial when working on distressing topics. It might involve limiting the number of hours you work on an upsetting task, like analysing transcripts, per day. Or for those working from home, it might involve packing away your laptop at the end of the working day instead of leaving it on your desk (or closing the door to the room you work in), so that you aren’t reminded of your work when you’re meant to be switched off. And despite their best intentions when family or friends say “I saw a documentary about your research topic the other day. You should really watch it!”, setting boundaries might also come in the form of not looking at topics related to your work outside of working hours. And lastly, for those with a clinical background conducting research directly speaking to vulnerable groups, it can be really hard to, but very important to, draw clear boundaries with where your role ends. As much as you might want to help participants, you are there as a researcher, and not as a therapist. But this doesn’t mean you can’t help with signposting support from elsewhere.  

It's ok to be human – A lot of us feel going into researching traumatic subjects that we must be professional, and by this, we often think we need to be objective and emotionless. But this should not be the case. We are human. Humans have emotions. Humans are rarely objective. It is okay to be upset by things a victim tells you. It’s okay to cry after a long day where perhaps you overdid it. It’s okay to take a mental health day, or just to stop reading transcripts for a while until you are feeling better. It’s okay to ask for help if you need more support. These things are not weaknesses and do not make you unprofessional.

Check in with yourself and others – It’s a good idea to keep an eye on how you’re coping with your research on a regular basis, as well as checking in with any other members of your research team (especially if you are supervising them). There are several ways you can do this. Firstly, through clinical supervision. In your preparation for a project, try to budget for a clinical supervisor either in your grant application or by making a case for this with your PhD funder, so that you’ll have a trained member of the project team whose job is to look out for your wellbeing. Another way to check in with yourself is by regularly completing a scale like the Compassion Satisfaction and Fatigue (ProQOL) scale, designed to capture compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. By completing this on a regular basis (however often is necessary for that task) you can see if you are developing any symptoms and how they are changing over time. And lastly, checking in with yourself and others can be as simple as going for a coffee with your supervisor, or asking yourself how you’re feeling while doing a particular task. Whatever form it takes, checking in is an important preventative tool to keep an eye on things before they get out of hand.

Focus on your motivation – When the inevitable in our line of work does happen and you get upset about your subject, it’s important to remind yourself why you are doing this research. What’s the thing that’s driving you to research this subject? For a lot of people in sensitive research areas, this motivation is often that we want to help people. But it might instead be that you find the subject really interesting and want to answer questions. Work out what motivates you and use this on the days when you need a pick me up; a reminder that it’s all worth it.

Talk about it –Hopefully we’re ending on an obvious one, but one of the best ways you can support yourself is by speaking to other people in the same boat. A lot of other researchers are probably going through the same thing. Without trying to seem like a shameless plug, this is why we set up the Researcher Wellbeing Group, so that we can support each other and feel less alone in the experiences we are having with our work. So, join our group! Or make your own! Or speak to your supervisor, or peers or family. Any option is fine, just make sure you’re talking to someone else about how your work is making you feel. But if you would like to join a fantastic group of ECRs all going through similar experiences, you can do so by emailing us at .

So, to summarise, prevention is key, set boundaries, be human, check in, focus on your motivation and talk about it.

group of adults standing in a circle with hands joined together in the centre

Researching the Far-Right: Tips and Tricks for Maintaining Wellbeing and Addressing Bias


  • Rob Dickinson, University of Sussex. PhD Candidate - Primary Care and Public Health, Research Assistant - InterRAI project at BSMS, Founder - Far-right Radicalisation in Alternative Media Sources (FRAMES) project.
  • Tom Cowin, University of Sussex . 

As the Far-Right continues to significantly influence contemporary politics and threaten inter- and intra-national stability and minority groups, there is an understandable (and needed!) accelerating interest in investigating research questions to better understand and combat the very real threat represented by the contemporary Far-Right. These research topics can include contemporary conservatism of any sort, the ‘ManOsphere’, the incel movement, anti-feminist movements, neo-naziism, and a wide variety of others. These topics offer many advantages to researchers: they are inherently interesting and compelling research; there is much opportunity for originality as they tend to be quite under-studied; and they effectively answer one of the hardest questions inherent in all research - “Why is this important to research?”. However, topics like this also offer a variety of unique challenges: they are inherently demotivating and uncomfortable to engage with; they will likely garner critique and potential harassment from the Far-Right; and generating impact out of the research is extremely difficult. This document is intended for anyone who identifies their work (or work they’re considering) as focused on the Far-Right, but can also apply effectively to any other work on distressing or triggering topics. In this document, we will give advice and tips for those either working in or considering work in this area, as well as some broader discussion of how identity and privilege factor into this work. 

The advice present in this document comes out of the lived experiences of Rob Dickinson and Tom Cowin in their individual work on the Far-Right but particularly out of their shared work as founders of the Far-Right Radicalisation in Alternative Media Sources (FRAMES) Project. Founded in 2020, the FRAMES Project has so far focused on the Prager University Foundation as a central hub and producer of Far-Right propaganda and chief influence in the rightward radicalisation of Americans. After introducing PragerU to academia in our first paper, we have gone on to produce several other blog posts, contribute to a podcast, inform a delightful Youtube video explaining our work better than we ever could, create a second paper on PragerU’s role within the ongoing Critical Race Theory (CRT) moral panic in the United States, and gather a 10-person cohort of academics and Youtubers currently working on the first book ever written about PragerU. 

Alongside this shared work, Rob’s individual research focuses on Far-Right misinformation, particularly regarding COVID and the Anti-Vaxxer movement, as well as previous work in the areas of global inequality, extreme poverty, modern slavery, and historical (and contemporary) colonialism, imperialism, neoliberalism, and necropolitics. Rob clearly tends towards distressing topics. Tom works on a slightly earlier period, examining the rise and mainstreaming of the Tea Party, and the contrasting fate of its contemporary protest movement, Occupy Wall Street. Tom mobilises stigma power, hegemony and discourse analysis to try and understand the interplay between the extreme and the mainstream. 

Approaching the Content 

1. Focus on your passions 

There is a reason you have chosen to engage with this work. Reflect on your motivations for investigating these topics, and hold onto that motivation. Allow your passion, anger, personal experiences, or whatever else might motivate you to do just that.

2. Remember, you’re part of a community 

Even if you have not yet begun engaging in this research, your interest in it means that you are already a part of a larger community investigating these topics and working against the Far-Right and the oppression that extreme conservatism and contemporary capitalism force onto us all. Hold onto that feeling of solidarity and togetherness. If you can, find a research partner! Talk to people in your life about this work and allow them to comfort you. This work will be draining and difficult and at times painful. The people around you personally and the larger research community you are now a part of (Rob and Tom included!) are your greatest resource for support.

3. If it doesn’t work out for you, that’s ok! 

As you begin to perform this work, you may realise it is not for you. It may be simply too uncomfortable or distressing, produce anxieties or  burn you out. In any of those cases, or for any reason, it is OK to stop. Remember, there is a community working on these topics and a whole variety of ways to engage with the collective work going to improve our communities and address societal oppression and the Far-Right. Research is neither the easiest nor most effective form of activism. If it does not work for you, or stops working for you, consider alternative ways to get involved. 

4. Acknowledge your biases

It is always tempting as a researcher to pretend that objectivity is possible, and that bias is something that can be prevented. Unfortunately, the reality is that biases are always present in research, and the motivation for research performed is itself a bias. In the case of studying the Far-Right, it is essential to recognise and acknowledge your biases. As researchers, Tom and I are unabashedly biased against the Far-Right and we hope that all involved in this research are as well. We can work rigorously toward performing high-quality research and not letting our biases affect the validity of our results, but we are also unapologetically positioned against the Far-Right. 

Combatting Far-Right radicalisation and misinformation are central goals of our research, and hopefully the goal of anyone investigating these topics. In the case of other distressing topics (i.e. modern slavery) you will receive no pushback for this bias against your topic, but in the case of the Far-Right, you can expect to have your bias questioned. Therefore, make sure to address this issue in your introduction or methodology. 

Working with the Content 

5. Have a plan 

Before diving into distressing content, develop a plan for what you will do, how it will function, and how you will attempt to maintain your wellbeing as a researcher. Ideally find a partner or community to team up with in your exposure to this content. Be strategic and proactive in how you enter into this content area and to what content you expose yourself. 

6. Set clear boundaries 

Being able to disengage from this work is essential, and understanding where your boundaries are is key to doing so. Consider choosing these preemptively. What are your boundaries around talking about this content with your support network? Are you at risk of burning out? Or triggering topics you need to stay away from? These are some examples, but there are many more to consider. Self-reflection is an essential skill when pursuing these lines of inquiry. 

7. Minimise number of exposures 

If you are investigating Far-Right content, keep your exposure to a minimum. Look at what is required and then stop. If you need a second or third viewing, do so, but know when to stop. In all possible ways, minimise your exposure. 

8. Minimise type of exposure 

If you are investigating Far-Right content, on future viewings consider muting videos or accessing transcriptions. If looking at large data sets of text, allow your research programmes to sort through the content instead of yourself, and just do the tests required to check the programmes work correctly. 

9. Take breaks! 

This applies to all work, but is still relevant and worth reminding here. Our brains only hold so much attention span. We all need breaks. When the content we are investigating makes us distressed or uncomfortable, we need more breaks than normal. Take them! This is perhaps the single most important tool against burnout. Take a 15 minute break between viewings of content, or even a 3 month break between papers if you need it. 

Writing about the Content 

10. Expect heavy criticism

All research can garner criticism, but when studying the Far-Right, authors must expect heavy criticism and plenty of it. It is far easier for the Far-Right to delegitimise your work than actually address any relevant arguments you make, and they are likely to attempt exactly that. The easiest way to prevent or proactively respond to these criticisms is to predict what they will be and address them in your work before publication. Be even more careful than usual about validity concerns, potential lines of criticism, and attempts to delegitimise or invalidate your work, because the thing you are studying wants your work to accomplish nothing. 

11. Prevent the misrepresenting of your work 

The alternative strategy the Far-Right might take to lessen the impact of your research is to twist it, manipulating the language you have used and framing your work as either neutral or even positive regarding the Far-Right. Similar to acknowledging your bias, it is essential when performing this work to think very carefully about the language you use and how it might be misrepresented. This is far, far easier to address preemptively than reactively, and must be taken into account during the writing and editing stages of your research outputs. If it is possible for the Far-Right to present your research as anything other than entirely opposed to their work, they will. Do not allow this. 

Miscellaneous Tips and Tricks 

12. Resetting your advertising algorithms 

If you blow your social media algorithms all to hell (which you will!) and get stuck with insufferable far-right advertising from all corners, try googling ‘best online mattress company’ or ‘new dining set’ or even just talking about furniture and mattresses aloud. This will almost always ensure at least a few weeks of harmless furniture advertisements. Using a VPN can be incredibly useful here - though be aware it can impact your research (you might get different search results if YouTube thinks you’re in Canada, for example!). 

13. Don’t get distracted 

The advantage of working on the Far-Right or other distressing topics is that they are inherently interesting! However, this also means that it is easy to get distracted by a new line of inquiry or research question and lose focus. Keep your research as narrow as it needs to be (quite narrow) and keep an ever-expanding list of paper ideas and new things you’ve found that interest you. It will keep your current work as focused as it needs to be (very focused) while simultaneously providing you with excellent ideas for follow-up work or ideas to pass on to others. 

14. Understand and prepare for potential harassment  

The Far-Right is not a pleasant community to engage with. An unpleasant reality of researching this topic is the potential for harassment of the researchers involved and even possibly their families or loved ones. Obviously this is something we all hope will never happen, but is an undeniable risk of performing this work, and one that anyone engaging in it should be well aware of beforehand. Tom and I both have very limited social media presences for this reason, and have talked with our friends and family about this risk and how we would want to deal with it if it does happen. As with many of the tips here, this is something to prepare for preventatively and proactively instead of reactively. 

The Role of Identity and Privilege 

15. Consider focusing your research on oppressed identities that you do not have 

Privilege is a definite resource in this work. Researching the oppression of identities you do not have allows a level of separation between your personal experiences and the societal oppression or hatred being investigated. This can allow for an easier time maintaining wellbeing as a researcher. Further, this approach can allow for heightened intersectionality in the analysis performed while still allowing personal experiences of oppression to inform or contrast against other forms of oppression. 

The authors of this piece are cis white men with parental wealth as a safety net. This is a fact, and something that we believe allows us to dive into these topics with less impact on our wellbeing than others might experience. Consider studying the oppression of those with different identities than your own, but always be aware that your own positionality and privilege will mean that you miss some things and emphasise others. That’s ok though - remember that objectivity is impossible! For researchers with privileged identities, the study of oppression and hatred against identities we do not have can be a form of allyship, and in the end, building communities of solidarity are the best defense we have against the far-right.

16. Alternatively, let your personal experiences inform your research 

For some, the personal oppression they experience may catalyze their motivation for this work. In that case, consider this an opportunity to channel anger, frustration, anxiety, and other potentially unhelpful or unpleasant emotions into practical research. In this way, research like this can provide an outlet. There is no doubt that research is improved when informed by personal experience. However, be extremely careful when pursuing this approach that you still allow sufficient time and opportunity to disengage from these topics. Personal oppression can drive feelings of hopelessness or helplessness which can be extremely de-motivating and painful. Research can be a way to deal with those feelings, but it can also accentuate them.

Doing research on sensitive issues – could there actually be a perk?


  • Manuela Nilsson, Associate Professor in Peace and Development Studies, Linnaeus University, Sweden.

I do research on peacebuilding in post-peace accord environments with continued high levels of violence. In my field research, I come across many stories about violence, kidnappings, killings, mass killings, torture, and displacement. My informants’ stories fill me with pain, disbelief, frustration, despair, pity, and empathy. They are hard to listen to and I share those emotions with other researchers doing their investigations on sensitive issues. The bottom line is that doing research on sensitive issues is complicated and always trying, and I just wanted to have that said before I engage with my own blog topic.  

Is there a perk with doing research on sensitive issues? When I do mine, I hope to produce articles that reach those people that possess the power to produce change, to create justice, healing and reconciliation - which is most often a rather optimistic objective.  I also write to create community among those many victims of armed conflict and violence, to give them a voice, to show them they are not alone – of course, they do know the latter, but often they have never had anyone interested in their own stories and they are often grateful for someone to listen. I of course do not call all that a perk. But for me, there IS a perk in doing research on sensitive issues: you are often provided the opportunity to do something that might actually bring a tiny bit of relief to the suffering of your informant groups. 

Now of course all of you believers in the neutral, objective researcher who never meddles with his or her research environment will cry to heaven and stop reading. Please just hear me out. I belong to those who never believed in what is called the objective researcher. We are human beings with lots of filters building up in front of our eyes while we grow up, study and start working. By the time we are going into the field, we are no longer neutral and objective – and why should we? We are researchers. For me personally, research has to aim at producing change, which is often rejected as normative and unscientific. However, once you have worked in the environments in which I do my research - or have lived in some of them for many years, like I have - you cannot remain neutral anymore. You are human, after all, and human tragedy touches you, and it should. This is not impairing my research. I still do my writing as objectively as I possibly can, I keep as much analytical distance as I can, and I continue to teach my students in the many qualitative research methods courses I have done throughout my long teaching career that they need to be keenly aware of their own prejudices, stereotypical thinking and predispositions and keep those at bay in their writing as much as they possibly can. 

The perk I am talking about is what comes after doing the research. When I lived and worked in Nicaragua during the 1990s and early 2000s, after the country had undergone years of civil war and was suffering through a long peacebuilding period, and I was in the field for data collection, I often ended up with pockets full of little slips of paper. They said “please help bring water to this village” or “can you make the government give me my land back?”. I could not do either. I often felt terribly powerless when my informants in Colombia, after having forsaken a day’s income to come and tell me their stories so that I could further my research career, would ask me “what are you going to do now? How can you help us?” My honest answer always was “I will do my very best to get this information you gave me out there so that those who actually have the power to do something about your situation can read it and start thinking.” This is not a good answer for people who need immediate solutions to their many problems. 

But there were other pieces of paper, those who asked, “can we get a library in our village?” or pleaded “we need basketball equipment” so that their youth could engage in healthier pastimes than getting involved in paramilitary groups, or they simply stated, “our school has no tables and chairs.” Those I could help with. So, I assembled a group of my students and with the help of the university for which I worked and the good offices of the Organization of American States that was (and in a way still is) in charge of the peacebuilding process in Nicaragua and provided safe passages for us, we got to work. We collected basketball equipment and together with the villagers constructed a rudimentary basketball field. We painted a room that the mayor of a small village in the Nicaraguan mountains gave us in the town administration building and equipped it with bookshelves we built and books we collected from neighbors and friends and other university colleagues back in Managua and one glorious weekend had an opening ceremony that drew the entire village to the little town square. We brought old but still functional tables and chairs that our university had long replaced with more modern equipment and brought them to a remote rural village so that pupils no longer had to sit and write on the dirt floors. During the summer vacations, student groups who had accompanied me earlier into the field and experienced the dismal situation in many rural areas, far away from their capital safe haven, helped out in local radio stations and built houses side by side with the village residents. It was a win-win solution. It opened the eyes of these young students from mostly wealthy families in the capital to the painful realities of their own country and provided a first opportunity for the village inhabitants to open a dialogue with the younger Nicaraguan generation who finally had found its way to their villages and wanted to help. 

My experiences are not unique, many of my colleagues who do peacebuilding research have similar experiences. Some even think of giving back to the communities before organizing the research and as an indispensable part of the latter. My friends Mery and Marta, for example, colleagues from Colombia, always include a ‘giving-back’ element into their research design. Their projects are much more practically oriented, as they as researchers are actually living in, and therefore affected by, a post-accord violent environment. Doing research without practical impact is unthinkable to them. For example, when collecting data on disappeared people in the countryside, they afterwards designed a system to register all disappeared persons in a more systematic way in order to facilitate the search process. Another researcher, Miguel, underlined the ethical dilemma of high expectations placed by informants on investigators, particularly in terms of job or visa opportunities to find a new life in another country. He also highlighted the ‘researcher fatigue’ phenomenon in some communities that see researchers come and go but hardly ever experience a return for their input. A peace process researcher, Pedro, actually went into the jungle to advise guerrilla groups on peace negotiation techniques that provided a less conflict-prone process. He later could observe the success of his self-imposed mission when one of the two groups he advised actually managed to sign a peace agreement with the government. All of those researchers brought students with them into the post-research process to create a future generation of researchers conscious about the reality of their countries and the necessity to make their research applied, thereby overcoming the urban-rural divide so common in conflict areas. 

We all agreed: it is a myth that researchers can stay objective and aloof, only observing and reporting what is going on. That, sure, is part of our research, the first part of our experience process. The post-research part, however, was what really counted for us all, even if we admit that it also had to do with feeling better about ourselves after having received from our informants what we needed to further our own careers. Giving back felt good. 

Now you could counter that that is not a perk of doing research on sensitive issues but simple charity work. You are mistaken. Without going into the field and seeing what is going on in those areas in which we collect data on sensitive issues none of us might have been sufficiently moved, frustrated, agitated, sad and motivated to actually do something. Granted, this is of course not for everyone who does research on sensitive issues. But it is the perk that keeps me doing it. 

Dr. Manuela Nilsson is Associate Professor and chair of the Peace and Development Unit at Linnaeus University in Sweden. Her research and publications focus on peace processes and post-conflict peacebuilding, particularly in Central and South America. Nilsson was actively involved in the Nicaraguan post-conflict reconstruction process and was trained in conflict transformation by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Her current research projects focus on police community relations, the role of the military in post-peace accord Colombia and international collaboration in the Colombian peacebuilding process. 

David Russell (Community Safety & Justice Manager, Midlothian Council): Practice considerations in the management of complex or sensitive cases
Steph Keeble (Director Birmingham LGBT): Trauma in the LGBTQ+ community

Research objectives

  1. Identify and promote measures to improve the well-being of researchers and students working on sensitive issues,
  2. Create tools and resources that can be used by teachers to introduce and discuss sensitive topics in a safe and inclusive manner when teaching. 

Research outputs and impact

Our project will have three concrete results:

1. A transnational support network to connect academics and postgraduate students working on sensitive issues. 

The MASTERY project, Managing Sensitive Topics in Teaching and Research Confidently sought to change how we deal with ‘sensitive’ topics in academia. We specifically aimed at identifying and promoting measures to improve the well-being of researchers and students working on sensitive issues and to create tools and resources that can be used by teachers to introduce and discuss sensitive topics in a safe and inclusive manner when teaching. In 15 months, we held 13 international drop-in meetings, featuring 6 guest speakers, with attendees from 5 EUniWell institutions and 23 new institutions across Europe, North America, and Asia, representing 75+ individuals. We organized an online workshop, a hybrid conference, and we have forthcoming publications (scoping review and survey). Furthermore, we have created a transnational support network to connect academics and postgraduate students working on sensitive issues. We are excited to share how our work has also led to synergies and impact between existing EUniWell partners and new institutions.

2. Two jointly authored articles. 

  • A qualitative scoping review of 55 articles that utilize researcher self-reflection to process negative mental health outcomes that occurred because of working with distressing subject matter (under review). Our recommendations include using a reflexive approach beyond its application as a research methodology and to add to one's own self-care schedule.
  • Our international survey across disciplines is currently open. We are looking into both STEM and HASS researchers, teachers, and students who self-identify as working with distressing topics. We’re investigating the impact the subject matter and public engagement of their topics has had on them; the resources offered and accessed at their institutions; and the positive outcomes of the work they do.  

3. A digital tool kit with expert advice in the form of short videos and hands-on advice for researchers and teachers. 

  • Our toolkit includes so far 20+ entries from 13 different institutions, coming from students, academics, and public employees offering explanations of the distressing aspects of their work, and physical and mental health suggestions to improve wellbeing. Topics range from travel tips to increase researcher security, writing techniques to help deal with distressing research topics, navigating participant deaths during research, academic isolation, experiences from researcher wellbeing groups to tricks to maintain wellbeing and address bias when researching the far-right and how doing research on sensitive issues might actually impact your social engagement outside your research bubble, to name but a few.
  • Workshop with 3 invited guest speakers sharing insights and suggestions and hands-on advice for researchers and teachers. Practice considerations in the management of complex or sensitive cases; Reset your Mind and Body – Practical tools to deal with traumatic experience in the workplace; and Trauma in the LGBTQ+ community.
  • 13 Monthly drop-in meetings. Topics included: challenges, change, boundaries, vulnerabilities, and positive outcomes; gender and sexuality; parenting and caregiving; narrative therapy; travel tips; transferable skills; and next steps going forward.   

The project’s different activities attracted a wide range of new as well as experienced researchers. Together, they shared experiences of doing research about sensitive issues from a range of disciplines and lengths of experience. Participants, regardless of field, found commonality when sharing about personal experiences. By creating this community, we have offered opportunities to reframe decisions or outcomes that have arisen from having the time and space to share. Many shared that they do not have other opportunities to do so.

Given the wide range of distressing work that people are involved with it can be difficult to process and to allow others the space to share their ‘uncomfortable experiences’. We hope that the involvement of participants and our toolkits improves their research experiences. To engage, reframe, and reflect in ways that support them to continue their important work. 

Research team

Other resources

  1. Researcher Resilience, Community of Practice RRCoP – online meetings held every two months to discuss research practices for students and ECRs working with sensitive and distressing data. 

  2. Report on 8th BAAL SIG Seminar: "Focus on the Researcher: Dealing with Distressing Data" (by Kate Barber, Cardiff University).

  3. Vicarious trauma: a guide for doctoral students.

  4. Emotionally Demanding Research Network Scotland.

  5. Webinar: How to stay well while doing qualitative research.

  6. Webinar: How to stay well while doing qualitative research: Self-care protocols.

  7. Tips for Viewing and Verifying Potentially Distressing Open-source Information; Amnesty International.

  1. There are Researcher Distress Protocols in this Ethical Considerations Associated with Qualitative Research Methods article from UK Statistics Authority.

  2. Strategies for Do-no-harm in Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) from the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

10.  Strategies and tips from Dr. Helen Kara (video) along with open access article links about self-care and researcher wellbeing

11. Research on topics such as child sexual abuse can be emotionally demanding for researchers in ways that surpass many other lines of work. Burrell et al. draw on their own experience to offer recommendations that may help increase researchers’ resilience to these challenges.

Partner organisations and sponsors

  • Sponsor: EUniwell
    Partner institutions: Linnaeus, Florence, Leiden

February 2023 Mastery Conference Team

February 2023 Mastery Conference