Dialogue with a Researcher

March  2017  Dr. Joan Anderson, PhD, RN, Professor Emerita, School of Nursing, Faculty Associate, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC

  1. What have you considered the highlights of your experience as a nurse researcher?

I am honored by your invitation to participate in this interview.  Thank you!  In late career it’s nice to have the opportunity to reflect on what I did; what I might have done differently; and, what I might yet do!


Doing research has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life!  Most of my research was conducted through ethnographic interviewing with people born in Canada, and those who had come to this country as immigrants or refugees.  This work was in collaboration with colleagues in the academy and in practice settings. I consider it a great privilege that participants in our research studies allowed us into their lives, and shared their narratives with us  — narratives that challenged many of our assumptions, and provided new insights into the meaning of health, illness, and healing. These deep conversations helped us to understand the concrete ways in which complex concepts, such as the social determinants of health, play out in everyday life, and shape the management of illness and experiences of suffering. They have huge implications for practice, and health and social policy decisions.


Knowledge translation has been an important part of our research.   Research, I believe, should be used for the greater social good, and I continue to explore ways of achieving this, recognizing that sustainable change requires long-term collaboration across different sectors.   Now, in late career, I have more time for reflection on what I did, and what I might yet do.  I am learning a lot about communicating in language that reaches across different sectors!   This means re-thinking the way I speak and write — important if our work is to be taken up and used. I am also learning from community leaders about the different ways in which we can influence policy decisions. For example, a community group I am affiliated with, invited a speaker who had worked, successfully, to change a significant policy that affects the lives of many Canadians.  He explained how he and his group worked in collaboration with “experts” in different fields relevant to the policy in question, to assemble data that helped them build a coherent and logical argument in convincing, accessible language; they then invited input from different stakeholders in the community to strengthen their argument.  An important step in the process was to work with politicians from different political parties, who provided feedback on their proposal. Ideas were crafted to present a “win” “win” situation.  Most importantly, they had “buy-in” from the politicians in their communities into the proposed policy change.  I learned from this that ordinary citizens can bring about significant policy change. We have to understand the process, and be willing to work with our elected leaders in language that reaches across different groups. We also need to show that what we are proposing is logical and significant within the broader political framing.  It is important to know how to combine the art of dialogue and negotiation, with science and evidence.


Another highlight of my academic journey was working with students, including those who were pursuing a research career.  This is where research and teaching intersect.  I learned a lot from the students whose research I supervised over the years – it was a reciprocal process that has enriched my life! They have gone on to become outstanding researchers, teachers and practitioners, and are leaders in their fields.  I get great joy from watching them excel in their careers! We continue to collaborate and learn from one another, as we think through a common vision for the future.


  1. Based on your research accomplishments, what advice would you offer nurse researchers in terms of strategies they may want to implement to be successful?

As a rule, I don’t give advice, but I can share some of my experiences.  I’d say that a starting point is engaging with a topic that you feel passionate about!  There were “down moments” in my career, but I kept going because I believed in what I was doing, and the ideas that I was trying to communicate.


On the practical side, I started with small grants that would lay the groundwork for more ambitious programs of research. As I look back on some of the first studies I did, I am amazed at how much I learned from them. I believe that it’s not the size of the grant that really matters, but the rigor of the research.  A small rigorous study, where you can immerse yourself in the data, is a good place to start. It’s also a good place from which to write, and to think through methodological and theoretical issues that can be explored in later work.


I tried to build inclusive research programs.  Collaboration and partnerships with health care professionals at the point of care, administrators and policy makers, as we are thinking through research questions, and designing projects, are crucial, for knowledge utilization. Key people in the communities in which we work can offer much guidance.  It goes without saying that including students in research – undergraduate and graduate — brings energy and new insights to our research, and provides learning opportunities for them. This is a great way to inspire a new generation of researchers.  Interdisciplinary collaboration is also key if we are to address the complex issues in health and health care today.


Never give up if your grant application isn’t funded, or if your paper is rejected.   We all know what it feels like to have a proposal or paper rejected after we have invested time and energy.   I tried not to take rejections personally but to use them as a learning experience. After a few days of feeling down, I got back on my feet, read the reviews, identified what I could learn from them, and tried, as best I could, to respond. I found working as part of a team helpful. This kind of support kept me going. Collectively, we usually figured out how best to move forward — Revise, and Resubmit!


Thanks again for inviting my input. On a final note, I think Canada should be proud of the outstanding nurse researchers in this country.  They have made an enormous contribution not only to the profession of nursing, but also, to health care delivery systems. As we move forward into the future, it will be important to continue to engage with clinicians at the point of care, administrators, policy makers, politicians, and civil society, to understand their priorities as we craft research questions, and develop research programs.  Such dialogue, we hope, will foster sustainable knowledge utilization, and equitable health and health care for all Canadians.


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