Originally, I was going to use this title for a pithy list of challenges and opportunities related to the dissertation process for the Spring semester (which is, indeed, no disco). Upon reading feedback from my students for the Fall semester, I decided to take this title in a different direction, and that is expectations of work and readings in college. College is serious business, and while there are so many opportunities to enjoy in college, there is still a deeper meaning for why you have dedicated four years and many economic resources to undertaking this education. The title is not meant to be dismissive, but rather a unifying lyric for the amount of work it takes to get through it all. What you will find below is some honest and helpful advice to manage expectations for students entering the world of higher education for the first time. Sometimes it seems daunting, and even overwhelming, when faced with the syllabus and reading list for the first time. There are also some protocol lessons that you just do not realize as a newbie. Here are my best “lessons learned” to share with you:
Every year, I tell myself that the Spring semester is going to be so much quieter than the Fall. I tell myself I will set goals. I will take this time to reflect and prioritize. I will not get overwhelmed… And then, suddenly, it is April. Response papers need to be graded, graduation ceremonies to be planned, and my inbox is proliferated with conference announcements for interesting events going on nationwide. With those announcements come calls/requests for proposals to present, and eagerly, graduate students go into overdrive to assess their research and where it fits in to the conference theme. As I entered this phase of my semester, I was lucky enough to have some great possibilities to propose to conferences, many of which were products of a research partnership.
As I began preparing the proposals, it occurred to me that I had little idea on how to properly determine the author order. As I have gone through my professional career, I have seen different expectations for collaboration, ghost writing, and sharing of credit based on rank rather than the contribution to the research. Some projects have been an egalitarian experience with appropriate credit-share. Others have been more… let us say… inequitable. Up until now, I never gave it much thought past the idea that this is what is customary based on age, notability, rank, etc. What I failed to realize until I got further into the PhD process is that formalized guidelines do exist to help you figure out the complex puzzle of co-authorship.
Choosing a research topic and appropriate research methodology seems so straightforward in the textbooks. Identify an area in which you have an interest and one you can “live with” through the lengthy dissertation process. Read broadly in your area to detect gaps in the literature. Formulate a question that will help fill the aforementioned gap. Tailor the methodology to fit the research question(s). It all seems so logical and, well, linear. Recently, as an “in-process” dissertation writer, I was invited to speak to an online research methods class, on how I chose an area, identified research questions, and selected a methodology. Immediately, I felt a sense of what Stephen Brookfield terms “impostership.” What did I know about it? My process certainly hadn’t been straightforward or linear. Pictures, not words, came to mind. Multifaceted stones, hexagonal soccer balls, lush jungles, interlocking gears, and Ferris wheels represented the process far better than paths or stairs.
You may have heard the world is made up of atoms and molecules, but it’s really made up of stories. When you sit with an individual that’s been here, you can give quantitative data a qualitative overlay. – William Turner, 16th Century Scientist and Naturalist
As I mentioned last week, I have been working through a mountain of data that I believe I underestimated as I went in to this project. Having 10 participants for a pilot, I thought that it was going to be too small a sample size, or that it would not yield as much data as I needed. But humans are complex beings. Everyone has a story that at least spans the years they have lived, if not working in the complex histories of families and societies. So, from this one experience, I have many individuals with histories and perspectives that have yielded a ton of great work. So now, the question stands, is how to make sense of the rich qualitative data I’ve collected along with the quantitative that comes from pre-/post-surveys. I realized quickly that I was going to need to look to bolster my understanding of what unique challenges and opportunities mixed methods research poses.
As I work through a pile of data – interviews, documents, and yes, even some quantitative – it is slowly occurring to me that this is a lot to work through. During the collection phase, you fret and think about what happens if a participant drops out, or if they are not forthcoming with information, or if they do not complete your post-test. Upon completion, you sigh a big sigh of relief, and then start chugging away at what you have amassed. As I sat with my advisor today trying to sift through mountains of qualitative data, I started to feel overwhelmed at even the shortened profiles of participants that I created. There is a lot of information in each, and on top of that, I am looking to make connections to quantitative data in a way that shows a meaningful picture. And that’s where the white board came in…
Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting different aspects of the qualitative research process through a series of blog posts related to its challenges and rewards. As the original catalyst for this blog was a semester-long project on qualitative inquiry, it seems fitting that we conduct a special series of posts to further explore some of the findings of that study and continue our own learning.
While our original purpose was preparing for dissertations that would involve qualitative research, we also had a second goal that related to the reputation of qualitative. That purpose was to professionalize and sophisticate our qualitative practice to gain confidence in our work. Qualitative work is sometimes problematic for researchers because (depending on the field), it can be seen as secondary to quantitative. In the IRB process, one needs to be very clear and detailed as to how the qualitative process will be conducted. If you are friends with those in the engineering or the sciences, you sometimes get the “How exactly do you do analysis?” question. There is an assumption that qualitative research has no right answer, ergo it is not a valid hypothesis that can be proven with numbers. This constant comparison is not fair to either genre, but I think it highlights the possibility for more understanding of what qualitative is and how it can be leveraged to enhance research to tell the story behind the numbers.