practical phd

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I recently did a virtual panel discussion with first year graduate students in my program.  It was a moment of realization that the constraints on research, particularly qualitative research, that we are currently experiencing due to coronavirus are even more extreme for first years.  Faculty and advanced graduate students have data and works-in-progress that they can work on over the summer, but many first year graduate students don’t have data and now don’t have the opportunity to collect data this summer.  Students who were planning on doing archival, ethnography, and interview research over the summer now have to decide whether they can pursue research this summer and, if so, how to go about it.  I want to share a few things to think about, but first, let me just say that it is okay if work doesn’t happen this summer.  Your mental and physical health needs to come first and foremost above all else.  Self-care is so much more important than any school work or research!  If you do have the space and time to think about and execute research, here are a few things to think about and discuss with your advisor.  

How committed are you to your original research plan?  

There are many ways to answer a research question.  It would be great to answer your question through the words of the people you interviewed, evidence from documents you retrieved from the depths of a dusty archive, or the connections and experiences you had living and observing the phenomenon you study.  But just because those activities aren’t possible doesn’t mean you can’t pursue a similar or related research question.  Just remember that you can always execute your original plan later.  Putting it on the back burner does not mean you’ll never get to do it.

Option 1 is to slightly modify your research plan by conducting it while socially isolating.  You can recruit interviewees through your networks on social media and conduct interviews on phone or online (Skype/Zoom/WebEx/etc.), or use digitized archival materials.  Going this route may mean a slightly different sample than you would have recruited otherwise, but every interview sample is unique to the recruitment strategy used in some way.  If you go this route, don’t forget to update your IRB application to reflect the new recruitment, collection, and recording options that you’re using.  

Option 2 is to redesign the project to answer the same or a similar question with a different kind of data.  Instead of conducting interviews, maybe you look at the same question with survey data or a digitized archive.  Start by looking to see what kinds of data are available online in repositories like ICPSR, Roper Data Center, Social Explorer, or your library’s databases and archives.  Many of these data sources and analyses will be useful in the longer run if you continue with the same topic for your dissertation.  For instance, qualitative researchers often use quantitative data to justify the study of their specific case whether that be a particular group or a specific geographic location.  If you’re nervous about doing quantitative research, remember that you can get useful information from simple analyses like descriptive statistics, correlations, and ordinary least squares regression analyses.  You don’t have to jump into multinomial regressions with fixed effects.  Start with what you’re comfortable with and understand.  As you get feedback on what you’ve done and where you should take the analysis, you can learn about new techniques.  

What other topics are you interested in?  

The change in access may mean lead you to decide to focus on a different research topic for now that would allow you to use electronically available data.  It never hurts to have more than one line of research going.  So go ahead and design a new project for that other topic you’re excited about that you can pursue virtually.  You can still pursue your original project as your main area of research at a later point.

Are there other program requirements you could work on this summer?  

Every Ph.D. program has multiple requirements, so what requirements could you work on during the summer instead of doing research?  This suggestion definitely involves talking to your advisor and the graduate director of your program to see if the program would let you pursue some requirements earlier than “normal.”  For instance, you might be able to negotiate starting a comprehensive or qualifying exam early, or doing an independent study for course credit.  These activities would free up some of your time later for being able to pursue field work or archival research.

These times call for creative measures, particularly for qualitative researchers.  If that means putting school on hold, that’s okay!  If you have the time and energy to push your school work and research forward, you have options.

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