Revisiting my PhD (part 1) – My chance to find the findings other people hadn’t found

When I started my PhD this is what I thought I'd feel like by the end of itIt’s been too long since I did a proper blog post for a few reasons, but probably mostly to do with procrastination. But here I am again and I’ve decided to give a brief introduction to my PhD  and current research interests, or as I like to say, what I have been doing with the last four years of my life. In the interests of keeping posts reasonably short I’ll probably cover this in a series of posts but my reasons for writing about my PhD are twofold: (1) to give me a chance to reflect on the whole process from inception to completion which will be useful for me as I’ll be having my PhD viva reasonably soon (i.e. a meeting where I will need to orally defend my work in front of two examiners); and (2) so readers will have a better understanding of my interests so they (you) will be better informed to make a decision on whether what I write is likely to appeal to your interests.

So, the last four years I’ve been working on a PhD which has recently been completed and given the snappy title of “Semantic representations of English verbs and their influence on psycholinguistic performance in healthy and language-impaired speakers“. So what does this actually mean and why did I decide to do this?

I’ll first start by explaining the why

When I was studying for a Master’s in Language Pathology (i.e. a speech and language qualification course) at Newcastle University, UK, I became intrigued with the findings in previous research that suggested that verbs are quite tricky to work with in therapy, particularly when working with adults with acquired communication disorders (i.e. aphasia). When we (i.e. speech and language therapists) provide therapy, ideally we aim to promote generalisation. This basically is the term for improvement that is not directly related to items or skills worked on in the therapy itself. For example, if therapy works on improving someone’s ability to say the word “apple” and indeed following therapy this is observed, this is generally and item-specific improvement. In other words, the item that has been explicitly treated has improved. If following therapy, the person’s ability to say “banana” also improves (i.e. a word that is not treated in therapy) then we’d say this is an example of generalised improvement across items. Similarly, if therapy aims to improves someone’s ability to say single words in isolation (e.g. measured by asking e to name pictures) we may also be interested to know whether someone’s ability to say words within sentences also improves. If this indeed happens, this would be an example of generalisation across skills (or tasks/behaviours). Soooooo, the finding that I was particularly intrigued with was that it’s often possible to observe generalised improvements when therapy treats nouns (i.e. words for objects; e.g. hammer, monkey, tomato; e.g. Boyle & Coelho, 1995) but this does not appear to happen when treating verbs (i.e. words for actions; e.g. cooking, running, smashing; e.g. Raymer & Ellsworth, 2002). I.e. treating nouns can lead to improvements in other nouns, but treating verbs does not lead to improvements in other verbs.

So this was all quite puzzling and to be honest, I was convinced that generalisation should be possible but that previous research must have been doing something ‘wrong’. Previous research must have been doing the wrong kind of therapy or choosing the wrong kinds of verbs to actually use in therapy. Therefore, at the outset, I saw my PhD as the vehicle in which to work out how to get generalisation happening between verbs. When I had decided this then I just had the small matter of working out how I was going to do it.

Oh such a cliffhanger ending


About chrissp1980
Currently a lecturer in speech pathology in North Queensland, Australia. I'm lecturing in acquired disorders of speech and language and also attempting to enthuse students in conducting clinically-relevant projects using principles of Evidence-Based Practice. Wish me luck!

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