Reflections on Qualitative II: Tips I Would Share with My Former Self | Rachel E. Smith

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After completing the Qualitative Research Methods sequence, I walked away with two conclusions I did not anticipate: I enjoy qualitative research, and I want to take the optional Qualitative III course. These conclusions surprised me because I approached the qualitative sequence with trepidation. I was weary of the lack of structure I assumed was characteristic of qualitative research. I learned, however, that qualitative research is structured—just in a way that is different than quantitative research. Qualitative research allows you to adjust your research process to accommodate what your participants and data unexpectedly reveal. 

With this experience behind me, I want to share the tips I would have wanted someone to tell my former self when she was beginning the Qualitative Research Methods sequence. 

Understand the difference between a conceptual framework and a theoretical framework.

Sometimes, scholars conflate theoretical framework and conceptual framework. They also define the terms differently, which makes finding the appropriate theoretical lens and crafting this section of the manuscript difficult. A conceptual framework is a synthesis of multiple frameworks and theories that provides context for your research study (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Conceptual frameworks are common in social science research because most social science theories do not adapt to all contexts. Therefore, researchers combine ideas that support their research question(s). In contrast, a theoretical framework is one pre-existing theory that provides context (Creswell, 2018).

When you consider the theoretical framework that will ground your research, consider your philosophical worldview first (i.e., positivism, constructivism, transformative, pragmatism) (Creswell & Creswell, 2018) because the worldview through which you approach your research project will 1) determine the theoretical framework you depend on, 2) reveal whether you need a conceptual framework, and 3) determine the methodology you use to answer the research question(s). For example, if your research is transformative, meaning that it will be used to shape the social contexts of research participants and similar groups, critical theory and/or its various forms will be your theoretical or conceptual framework. 

Make a schedule and pace yourself. 

The journey to the final manuscript is long, but you won’t run out of time if you make a schedule and set personal deadlines. To make a schedule, start by reviewing the deadlines in the syllabus and think about the amount of content you need to analyze. Decide if the deadlines in the syllabus provide you with enough time to get work done and create personal deadlines that are a week or two ahead of schedule. Then, record the personal and actual deadlines in your planner. 

Even if you establish a strong plan, there will be days when transcribing and coding feel like a burden. I learned that doing something is better than doing nothing. On those days, I transcribed or coded for an hour just to make progress. In time, those hours accumulated. 

Don’t compare your pace with your peers’ pace. 

Some people will work faster than you, and others will work slower. That’s okay and is expected because each research project is different. Just stick with the schedule you created and make up your mind to be the tortoise rather than the hare: transcribe and code a little every day. 

Engage your participants early. 

Securing participants can be one of the most challenging steps in the research process because you cannot predict what people will do. To ensure you stay on schedule, contact your participants early. Before the end of Qualitative I, you should submit your IRB paperwork, and hopefully, receive approval before Christmas. As soon as you receive approval, you can contact participants. After Christmas and before mid-January is an ideal time to reach out to participants who work in K-12 and higher education because they’re on holiday break. 

If you have to schedule a lot of participants, set up a free appointment scheduler, such as Calendly, which allows participants to book an interview independently, adds the appointment to your calendar, and notifies you if a participant cancels a meeting.  

Transcribe by hand if you can

Most likely, interviews will be your primary source of data, and it is up to you to transcribe them. I transcribed many, but not all, of the transcripts by hand. Although this process is time consuming, it allowed me to multitask: I pre-coded the data and got to know my participants’ voices very well. As I transcribed, I wrote memos and used comment bubbles to record themes and codes.

There are times, however, when manual transcription is not feasible, and you will need external resources to save time. If you interview via Zoom, it can generate a very rough transcript. I used Zoom transcripts for about half of the interviews I completed. Then, I checked and reformatted them in about half the time it took to create a transcript from scratch. Paid transcription services will transcribe an entire recording, but there are downsides. First, you will be less familiar with the data compared with doing the work yourself. Second, hours of data will cost several hundred dollars. 

Consider how to mask your participants.

In qualitative research, it is important that your research participants cannot be identified. This task can be challenging if your participants are members of a small, bounded population. In my research study, I decided to use a gender-neutral name and they/them pronouns for each participant. I learned that the participants were more concerned with anonymity than the name I selected and the pronouns I used. Once I came to this conclusion, I googled gender-neutral baby names, picked my favorites, and added the pseudonyms to my participant database (an Excel document I created) so I would not get confused. 

Member checking. 

It is best practice to send the participants the manuscript so they can provide feedback and corrections. Because the final manuscript was long, I highlighted the section that was most relevant to each participant and sent a customized email that directed them to the highlighted text. This step creates more work for you, but your participants will appreciate the time you saved them. 

Use Dedoose or another coding software.

Dedoose is to qualitative research as SPSS is to statistics: if you’re interviewing more participants and analyzing more data than you could organize easily in Microsoft Excel, you should use a qualitative data analysis software like Dedoose. One of the best aspects of Dedoose is that it is web-based: I could access my data anywhere if the software was downloaded onto the computer. Dedoose isn’t the only software available. Saldaña (2021) provides a list of computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS). He recommends that researchers test the software first (you can often receive a free trial) before committing. 

Many CAQDAS are not free. Dedoose costs about $15 a month, but it was an excellent investment. I interviewed 10 people and did not want to spend time figuring out the best way to organize the data in Excel when I knew that Dedoose would do a better job—especially if I needed to backtrack and make a lot of changes to my codes. For example, if you change one code, Dedoose will change every iteration of it automatically, which saved me a lot of time when I failed to “follow my gut.”

Follow your gut. 

One of the most significant elements of qualitative data analysis is maintaining fidelity to the data: you must go where the data leads you—even if the path you’re discovering is not the way you want to go (or seems like a more time-consuming route). I learned this lesson the hard way. 

When I completed the first round of interview coding, my gut said, “Code for the binary pattern you’re observing.” 

Did I do that? Of course not. 

Eventually, I had to recode everything because I decided not to on the first go-around. I could have saved hours if I followed my gut weeks before. 

Research a topic you care about. 

This final tip seems like an obvious one, but it is very important. In Qualitative II, you will spend hours creating processes, interviewing participants, transcribing, coding, and synthesizing. This process will feel like academic torture if you hate the topic and realize it does not contribute to your research interests. Take time to research and select a topic that is meaningful to you.

If you allow the process of qualitative research to refine you, you will look back and realize that you are not the same student who began the course sequence a few months prior. You will think more critically. You will gain problem-solving skills. You will improve your interview techniques. You will adapt your writing skills to fit a different genre of research. And, most importantly, you will gain confidence as a researcher that you will take into the dissertation phase. 

The dissertation process is longer and more arduous than the qualitative research course sequence, and while I am not there yet, I imagine the similarities are strong: make a schedule, pace yourself, do not compare yourself with your peers, work hour by hour, and follow the process that unfolds. Eventually, you will complete the journey, and while it will be challenging, you will gain endurance and become a better student and researcher because of it.

“If you allow the process of qualitative research to refine you, you will look back and realize that you are not the same student who began the course sequence a few months prior.” 

References

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches(5th ed.). Sage. 

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook. Sage.

Saldaña, J. (2021). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (4th ed.). Sage. 


Rachel Smith is a third-year student in the Ph.D. in Educational, Policy, Planning, and Leadership in the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. She is focusing on higher education accreditation.