Prior to commencing at ECU, I had reached a point in my career, where I wanted a change. Research interested me, had even motivated me previously to complete two Masters degrees on a part-time basis, one in occupational health and safety and another in environmental science.
Then I noticed an advertisement in the West Australian seeking a PhD candidate for an ARC Industry Linkage grant to undertake an ethnographic investigation into the culture and communication skills of transit officers on the metropolitan trains. The project aimed to determine whether there was a link between that culture, those skills and accident/incident causation. If such a link was found, the project would then attempt to develop strategies to reduce that risk of injury. My previous background in occupational safety and health in the transport industry fitted the required criteria for the project, and so I began my PhD journey.
Like all PhD students, I spent the early phase of my PhD examining the problem, reviewing the relevant background literature, refreshing my knowledge on ethnographic research to determine the way forward, and presenting it all in a suitable format for the proposal presentation.
The transit officers had often said that anyone wanting to understand their working environment (including the provocation and violence that they experience) needed to work alongside them. I took up this challenge and joined a new school of trainee transit officers to undertake their three-month training program. After completing the program, I spent a month in the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) monitoring room. This gave me an overview of the activities on the metropolitan rail system at night. I then spent four months working alongside the transit officers, working their hours and shifts until the last trains had finished. The information I gained during that time informed the questions that I later asked in the 45 interviews, that I conducted with transit officers, supervisors and managers.
The final component of my field work was examining what ‘best practice’ means at both a national and international level in transit officer work. This led me to RailCorp in Sydney, the Transit Police in Britain, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Boston, Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco.
Many people thought I was mad working on the trains, stations and platforms at the hours I did, in the areas I did it at. Looking back, may be they were right. However, I learnt the impact of the term ‘going native’. I became one of the transit officers, feeling their pride in a ‘job well done’, and also feeling their concern about the injustices in systems both within and external to the organisation. I just hope that I do their story justice, by portraying the difficult and often violent working environment that they have to deal with.
At the beginning of the road, I often wondered if I had made the right decision by starting on a PhD. I seemed to have such a long, lonely journey ahead of me. Now in my final year and looking back, it appears to have been such a short time. I have met so many wonderful, interesting and stimulating people along the way and travelled to places, that I probably would never otherwise have visited.