An Analytic Memo to My Fellow Novice Researchers

Please note, this analytic memo is not in APA format! The findings haven’t been verified or tested for trustworthiness!! There is no methods section and there are no research questions!!! And, it’s written from the perspective of a novice qualitative researcher/ EdD student!!!!

This analytic memo is dedicated to all my EdD colleagues around the world, and particularly at NEU.

 

My beautiful wife and daughter AKA my support system AKA the poor people who have to live with a doctoral student.

Having completed my EdD coursework I stand now on the threshold of embarking into the bold world of doctoral researcher. Here are a few key insights regarding qualitative research design that I will carry with me on my adventure:

1)   Alignment. The most effective way to conduct research is to make sure that everything is aligned. The research orientation, research purpose, research questions, research methodology, and data analysis—these things need to relate to one another. The linchpin in this equation is the research questions. If questions aren’t clear, measurable, and appropriate, then the entire research design may fall apart at any time. I may find myself months into data analysis wondering how I’ve gotten so far from my initial intent, and not for the better. Best to avoid research that ends up being nothing more than rearranging lounge chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

2)   The importance of rich data. Impoverished data will lead to impoverished research. Rich data won’t necessarily lead to rich research, but it is a necessary precondition. Rich data means thinking through the issues of data generation and storage. If my research is in the form of interviews then I need to pilot interview questions so that I can acquire the data I need. I also need to become adept at conducting open ended/ semi formal interviews. It is very unlikely that I will acquire rich data if I only read the questions on the interview protocol, never looking up from my interview template, sweating at the thought of going off script. I’ve got to be open to exploring a topic or theme that emerges during the organic unfolding of the conversation.

3)   The role of the research participant. Rather than a simple subject/ object relationship between researcher and research participant where I, the researcher (subject) poke and prod at the research participant (object) until I render said object totally lifeless, there are many different possibilities in terms of the relationship between researcher and participant. Most intriguing to me at this moment is that of co-researcher, more of an I-Thou relationship if you will, rather than an I-It relationship. When I think of the research I want to conduct, I envision my participants bringing a spirit of curiosity to the research. I want my participants to join with me in a collective attempt at shedding light on the research problem. It has been my experience that all creative and complex processes ( I guess research qualifies) are enhanced through collaboration. A collaborative relationship between researcher and research subject requires the researcher to recognize the humanity of their research subject. Otherwise we could refer to research participants as research objects, rather than research subjects.

4)   The role of the researcher. There is no doubt that the researcher is the primary instrument of data collection and data analysis. The most important factor in the research design is the researcher. A good researcher must be reflective, humble, curious, honest, and motivated. A good researcher must think through issues of epistemology, bias, coercion, and ethics. These aren’t easy topics, but they are fascinating ones! Having thought through these issues, the researcher must think through them again! If the researcher sucks, so goes the research.

5)   The cost of research. Becoming a researcher and conducting research isn’t cheap. Coding software costs more than an all-inclusive stay in Cancun. While there’s not much that can be done to reduce the cost, at least initially, it’s a good thing to know, and something that emerging researchers should be made aware of so they can avoid springing one unwelcome bill after another on their unsuspecting spouses, thereby testing the limits of spousal devotion! It’s helpful to remind your wife that you can’t take a vacation this year because of the coding software you had to purchase to do your doctoral work! The cost of research also extends beyond the financial to the time factor. Right now I’ve got a babysitter watching my 18 month old daughter on a beautiful Sunday morning. That could be me, but instead I’m committed to becoming a researcher! It’s no walk on the beach.

6)   Entropy. It’s wholly possible that the research project slowly gets weaker and weaker as it unfolds. Clarity becomes confusion, rich data becomes poor analysis, and promising design becomes unverifiable rubbish. The researcher must be on constant guard against this process. The researcher might not even recognize the entropic process as it’s kind of the nature of all reality, and therefore subtle at times. It is tempting to allow time to elapse between recording an interview and transcribing it, between transcription and analysis. It is tempting to rush through open coding or push it off until a more convenient time. Research requires good habits, resolve, and focus. Otherwise it will slowly wither and die, like everything else in the universe: the plant you keep meaning to water, the push ups you keep meaning to do, the trip to Cancun you keep planning to take!

7)   It’s all about the methods. I now understand why researchers are interested in reading the methods section of an article before they look at the findings. It’s helpful to know if the findings are based on a pile of malarkey. Unfortunately the methods section of the article often reads like the fine print at the back of the user’s guide.

8)   Iterate this! Research is an iterative process. Most people don’t even know what iterative means, but researchers must. As much as one may strive to align all the aspects of the research design and methodology and strive to code data properly on the first pass, the reality is that the researcher can expect to visit and revisit everything from core assumptions to research questions to codes and categories. The trick of research is knowing when the iterative process looks more like a hamster on the wheel than a vehicle for pushing research to excellence. If, as a researcher, you don’t often ask yourself, “What was I thinking?” then you’ve neglected your iterative duty!

9)   The analytic memo. Write analytic memos. They’ll save you a bunch of time and are very therapeutic. The analytic memo is kind of like a rant or a brain dump. The great thing about analytic memos is that, unlike most rants and brain dumps, these are considered an integral part of good research. The truth is, when you revisit last month’s dumps they actually help you remember what you were thinking. Considering the fact that our brains are also undergoing that entropic process (see #6) it’s a good thing to distribute some of your sweet cognition to your word processor lest your insights wash away like last summer’s sand castle on the beach in Cancun that you never visited.

10) Support system. If you’ve got one, find some way to put down your stack of reading and your copy of Creswell, and let them know you appreciate them. I know this may be hard to do as you’re likely several hundred pages behind, but please don’t make the tried and true mistake of assuming that getting an ‘A’ on your next paper is the same as showing your loved ones that you appreciate the many sacrifices they’re making so that you can continue to be a “student” even though you’re a grown man/woman.

11) Love it or leave it. If you’re not in it to win it. If you don’t really love it. If you’re trying to be something or someone you don’t really care to be. If that’s the case. Do us all a favor. Do yourself a favor. Quit now! Research is like pop music. There’s already enough garbage to go around. If research isn’t something you love, then don’t bother. If you’re content with putting up a poor performance and then having some slimy producer come in an auto-tune your work to some sort of superficial digital perfection, save yourself the trouble and take that much deserved vacation!

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