My Learning Journey

From nursing to a Doctorate in Higher and Adult Education and Beyond

I am a nurse.  This was the opening sentence for my first academic submission as part of my doctorate in adult and higher education.  It’s funny, looking back at some of that first writing, how whilst much has remained the same, so much more has changed for me personally and professionally. I still strongly identify with being a nurse…indeed so much of who I was as a clinically based nurse has informed my practice as an educator. Undertaking doctoral level studies gave me the space to expose that and reveal it to myself as well as highlighting the synergy between my nursing and education roles.  

As a postgraduate nurse educator I have the privilege of being part of a nurse and midwives continuing education journey. In fact, it is my student population who drove me specifically towards the doctorate in higher and adult education at Maynooth University in recognition that whilst I was a higher education educator, my students were part time learners whilst working fulltime and exhibiting many of the characteristics of adult learners. 

Nursing and midwifery are evolving professions with many practitioners taking on new expanded and advanced practice roles. In order for them to maximise their own and collective potential, continuing education is necessary. I am passionate about supporting nurses and midwives to do this and have been fortunate to be involved since 2006 in the rolling out of nurse and midwife prescribing in Ireland both through my educator role and as a member of the national steering group in the early years. At the time of undertaking my doctorate whilst there was much written about the benefits of nurse and midwife prescribing little was known about the individual experience of nurse and midwife prescribers and what it meant for their identity as a nurse or midwife. Undertaking the research was significant for me in terms of my own Continuous Professional Development during which I embodied my commitment to lifelong learning, essential to the practice of both nursing and education. 

One of the most challenging parts of the doctorate was the language around and understanding of epistemology and ontology. The intense head wrecking frustrations whilst trying to ‘position’ myself were new to me as someone who normally felt quite ‘in control’. Little did I know at the beginning that they were to become my constant companions! Naively though, I thought once I navigated the language, I’d be home and dry. My ‘positioning’ was challenged both externally but perhaps more significantly, internally. I had been professionally ‘brought up’ on absolute truths from the biomedical science sphere and to say my world was rocked is an understatement! I embraced a process of reflexivity and engagement with others which was strongly advocated within the Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University. This resulted in an awakening, an emergence of greater curiosity and ultimately a personal positioning which draws from different ontological and epistemological perspectives.  

Undertaking the doctorate has had a profound experience on me as a nurse researcher and nurse educator. The challenges though were very much outweighed by the benefits. The friendships that emerged from shared experiences was not something I had given much thought to prior to the doctorate but realise now were always going to be key to my completion. An emergence of a previously deeply buried conviction that interaction builds and influences experience and that it is how we experience that brings meaning to us. This research has enabled me to reconnect with the values underpinning nursing practice and is in a way an exercise in me affirming my commitment to them and to nursing itself. The benefits of the research have also been significant. Findings have led to broad recommendations in the area of education and further research, practice and policy some of which are being implemented. However, it is the knowledge and insight which I have gained through the process of undertaking the doctorate that have resulted in significant change in me as an educator and my day to day educational practices, and which are ultimately benefitting students. It is this I am most proud of. 

Huge support and collaboration were required to facilitate my doctoral studies. Professionally, from RCSI colleagues, Maynooth University Department of Adult and Community Education; clinically, from the participants in the research who gave so generously of their time; and personally, my family who made significant sacrifices to enable me to complete and defend during a pandemic. To all of you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

About the author… Chanel Watson is a lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the RCSI, she is responsible for the delivery of quality, relevant post graduate education to nurses/midwives working across a range of different clinical specialities. Her main teaching focus is around ethics, leadership and expanding practice. Since completing her doctorate she has been appointed as Acting Deputy Director of Academic Affairs with a focus on new programme development to meet the needs of practice in the ever changing landscape of healthcare and its delivery. Most recently Chanel has been appointed as co –supervisor to 2 PhD students



My Doctorate; An Insider-Outsider Viewpoint

Giving voice to Black and Middle Eastern student experiences of inclusion and belonging on campus

My name is Fionnuala Darby and I have been working in higher education for over twenty years. One of the best decisions I ever made professionally and personally was to embrace the Doctorate in Higher and Adult Education at Maynooth University (2016-2020). It is my pleasure to contribute to this blog on my experiences of returning to formal education as a student, while simultaneously working in education as a lecturer, and the insider-outsider viewpoint that these dual roles bestowed on me as a result.

I had reached a stage in my career where I felt that I was revolving instead of evolving as an educator. Taking on doctoral studies was the accelerator that I needed, while also being a natural step in my career progression. All the people that I encountered during the EdD  handed me a torch to reveal and challenge my meaning making systems. Our learning on the programme was social, participatory and involved mutual engagement with others in negotiating meaning. I devoured and savoured this pedagogical approach, a perfect fit for me and my personality.

For most of my life in a formal education setting, I have believed that knowledge is located in books and in more recent decades, knowledge has become more accessible to me through advances in the Internet. What I have come to realise is how important it is to unearth what constitutes knowledge with regard to how I learn, teach and research. I will never think the same again about who authorises knowing and dominant knowledge claims in the curriculum.

I undertook research at TU Dublin, my place of employment, on the experiences of our Black and Minority Ethnic students on campus. Many people have asked me why I chose to research this topic. In reality I found that the topic picked me!

Reflected on our campus is the ethnic and cultural diversity of the students that I encountered over the years because of the shifting demographics and patterns in our society and communities.

Limited research exists documenting the experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic students in Irish higher education. I wanted to give voice to these students and to hear about their experiences of inclusion and belonging on campus. The research was underpinned by developing a race consciousness from critical race theory.

From the research participants I learned the most and I continue to use my research to make our campus more inclusive. I am currently working on an initiative through the IMPACT Project at TU Dublin to diversify the curriculum by ‘building multistories’. Dr. Ebun Joseph, was the external examiner for my research. Ebun provided me with valuable insights for my work and engaged in a public conversation with me on her recent publication and how it integrates with my work. This event was hosted by the EDI Directorate at TU Dublin.

It takes courage and a change of mindset to unlearn-learn-relearn, but the rewards for me have been numerous. In cultivating my intellect, the doctorate studies keep me young and curious, rather than jaded and cynical as I endeavor to continue research on this topic.

In particular I would like to express my deep gratitude to many colleagues at TU Dublin for their support and encouragement. Reflecting on my career trajectory for this blog, with over two decades of experience, and having encountered thousands of learners along the way there is still much to learn, and that excites me.

TU Dublin Blanchardstown Campus

Biography of the author, Dr. Fionnuala Darby

As a Senior Lecturer with the School of Business, TU Dublin (Blanchardstown Campus), projects that I am currently involved with include the Campus Champion for unconscious bias, Team Lead on the IMPACT University wide project on the celebration of teaching and learning for student success, Team Member on the University’s Athena Swan Working Group and Research Champion for the School of Business at TU Dublin Blanchardstown Campus. I teach modules on Diversity in the Workplace, HRM and Organisational Behaviour. My recent doctorate research (EdD 2016-2020) focuses on inclusion and belonging in higher education for BME students. My ORCID is 0000-0002-5296-5416.

Enquiries to:

Dr Fionnuala Darby (@DarbyFionnuala) / Twitter