101 Qualitative Dissertation Questions
These questions and answers correlate to pages in Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map from Beginning to End, Third Edition, which you have purchased.
As teachers of qualitative research and advisors of doctoral students, we have witnessed and experienced many of the frustrations of students confronted with the academic challenge of writing a dissertation. The questions below have been raised time and again in conversations with students and research colleagues. The intent of including these questions in the companion website for Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map From Beginning to End is that they will hopefully stimulate critical thinking, reflection, and dialogue, thereby motivating doctoral students or prospective doctoral students to seek and consult additional relevant texts and resources in order to delve deeper into the many issues raised. These questions might also be used to prompt discussion between doctoral students and their advisors.
One caveat in compiling this list of questions is to demystify the dissertation process but not to sacrifice intellectual rigor for the sake of simplification. Completing a qualitative dissertation indeed is a rigorous and demanding process, and understanding the process means grasping many complex and interrelated issues. As a second caveat, one must remember that while most institutions will approach the dissertation in common ways, at the same time there are differences in terms of the organization and presentation, as well as distinct differences in terms of what and how qualitative language and terminology are used. This book presents information as guidelines that are meant to be flexible per institutional expectations and requirements, and subject to modification depending on your institution, department, and program. As such, students should always consult with their advisors and committee members to ascertain specific or particular institutional or departmental requirements.
The questions and answers correspond to the book’s structure and are divided into eight parts:
Parts 1–2 cover conceptual information; that is, the thinking and planning aspects of the dissertation. Parts 3–6 cover the practical aspects involved in preparing to actually write the dissertation. Part 7 includes the detailed requirements related to each of the chapters that compose the dissertation. Part 8 provides the information that one needs regarding the various activities that occur after writing the dissertation.
- Part 1: Planning and Gearing Up
- Part 2: Choosing an Appropriate Qualitative Approach
- Part 3: Preparing and Writing the Proposal
- Part 4: Conducting the Research: Data Collection
- Part 5: Conducting the Research: Data Analysis
- Part 6: Conducting the Research: Interpretation and Synthesis
- Part 7: Writing Up and Presenting the Research
- Part 8: Planning for the Dissertation Defense and Beyond
- Part 9: Preparing For the Defense
Part 1: Planning and Gearing Up
1. How does qualitative research and quantitative research differ, and what are the defining features of qualitative research?
Rather than determine cause and effect, or predict or describe the distribution of an attribute among a population, qualitative researchers are interested in understanding how people interpret their experiences and how they construct their worlds. The two paradigms or orientations that inform qualitative research, namely Interpretivism and Critical Theory, place emphasis on seeking understanding of the meanings of human actions and experiences, and on generating accounts of meaning from the viewpoints of those involved. Both paradigms assume that reality is socially constructed and that there is no single observable reality, but rather multiple realities or interpretations. For more information regarding the key defining features of qualitative research, see pages 37–44; 53–55.
2. What is implied by “rigor” in qualitative research, and what does it mean to conduct a “rigorous” qualitative study?
Sound research requires a systematic and rigorous approach to the design and implementation of the study, the collection and analysis of data, and the interpretation and reporting of findings. Central to the rigor of qualitative research is whether participants’ perspectives have been authentically represented in the research process, and whether the findings are coherent in the sense that they “fit” the data and social context from which they were derived. Because rigor is about being very transparent, evaluating the quality of qualitative research includes criteria that are concerned with good practice in the conduct of the research (methodological rigor), as well as criteria related to the trustworthiness of interpretations made (interpretive rigor). For more information regarding rigor vis-à-vis qualitative research, refer to pages 162–164; 240–242.
3. Writing a qualitative dissertation is a long and iterative process. What exactly is this “process,” and what should a student expect?
Writing a dissertation is a process but not one that is neat and linear. This work is intellectually rigorous—requiring intensive thinking, preparation, and planning—and is very much a matter of having tenacity, perseverance, and patience. For most people, conducting research and writing a document such as this is a first-time endeavor, an undertaking for which there is little experience. For a broad overview of the qualitative dissertation process, see page 3.
4. How does one manage data in the most efficient and practical manner throughout the dissertation process?
As you proceed with your research, you will begin to gather and accumulate a diverse array of material that has potential relevance. You certainly do not want to lose any of your material, nor do you want to drown in it. Organizing and managing dissertation-related “stuff” right from the beginning is essential to getting on track and staying focused. For more information regarding data management strategies, see pages 19–20; 65–66.
5. How can I start thinking about planning my time and resources?
The ability to focus, problem-solve, and make informed decisions at every step of the way will bring your study to completion. Because the time commitment required is substantial, you will need to pace yourself from the beginning. For some practical strategies, suggestions, and tips, see pages 20–23.
6. What would be a realistic timeline in which to complete my dissertation, and how can I remain practical about this?
If you work on your dissertation only when you feel like it, the project will most likely never be completed. Scheduling your time allows you to develop a plan for writing, and also helps reduce the pressure associated with deadlines, as well as the tendency to procrastinate. Moreover, setting a schedule also helps integrate your writing into the rest of your life. There are some basic principles for developing an effective writing schedule, and these can be found on pages 35–36.
7. Journaling is said to be an integral aspect of the qualitative dissertation process. Why is this necessary?
Aside from keeping track of information, you also need to keep track of your thinking. One way to ensure that you preserve your reasoning and thinking and are able to spell out the development of your ideas, is to keep a research journal. The rationale for recording your thinking is explained on page 23.
8. What is the actual starting point of any qualitative dissertation?
The starting point for any research project, and indeed the first major challenge in conducting research, involves identifying and developing a sound topic. How to go about selecting a worthy and researchable topic and considering potential options is described on page 24.
9. Does my selected topic need to be original or unique?
A dissertation should be an original piece of research and should make a significant contribution to the field. However, it is important to remember that making an original contribution does not imply that there need be an enormous “breakthrough.” In social science research, the discovery of new facts is rarely an important or even challenging criterion. Rather, research is a process of searching or re-searching for new insights; it is about advancing knowledge or understanding of a practice or phenomenon. More information on going about selecting a topic is provided on page 27.
10. Once I have decided on an area of interest, how do I go about developing and refining a researchable topic?
Once you have identified a general area of interest, you will need to begin narrowing your topic. The process of developing a researchable topic is a process of idea generation—the movement from a general interest “out there” toward a more clearly refined idea around a researchable problem. More about this “narrowing” process is discussed on pages 28–30.
Part 2: Choosing an Appropriate Qualitative Approach
11. What are the most common traditions or genres of qualitative research, and what are the key differences between them?
There are numerous qualitative traditions or genres, each of which has ways of defining a research topic, critically engaging the literature on that topic, identifying significant research problems, designing the study, and collecting, analyzing, and presenting the data so that it will be most relevant and meaningful. Understanding the logic behind a research approach allows your study to be appropriately positioned within an inquiry tradition and also lays the foundation for supporting your study’s findings. Pages 44–45 offer a descriptive and critical overview of some of the most current qualitative traditions.
12. What are the key characteristics of Case Study methodology, and how do I conduct a case study?
As a form of qualitative research methodology, case study is an intensive description and analysis of a bounded social phenomenon (or multiple bounded phenomena)—be this a social unit or a system such as a program, institution, process, event, or concept. Case study is at the same time both a methodology (a type of design in qualitative inquiry) and an object of study. Case study is an exploratory form of inquiry that affords significant interaction with research participants, providing an in-depth picture of the unit of study. More information can be found on pages 46–47.
13. What is Ethnography and how is an ethnographic study conducted?
Ethnography, as both a method and a product, has multiple intellectual traditions located in diverse disciplines. The researcher studies a cultural or social group in its natural setting, closely examining customs and ways of life, with the aim of describing and interpreting cultural patterns of behavior, values, and practices. Rooted in cultural anthropology, ethnography involves extended observations of the group, most often through the researcher as a participant observer becoming immersed in the day-to-day lives of the participants. More information can be found on pages 47–48.
14. What is Phenomenology, and what are the characteristics of a phenomenological study?
Phenomenology is both a philosophy and a method, the purpose of which is to investigate the meaning of the lived experience of people to identify the core essence of human experience or phenomena as described by research participants. Phenomenology does not endeavor to develop a theory to explain the world; rather, the aim is to facilitate deeper insight to help us maintain greater contact within the world. Phenomenologists focus on describing what all participants have in common, the basic purpose of research being to reduce individual experiences with a phenomenon to a description of the universal essence. More information can be found on pages 48–49.
15. What is Grounded Theory, and what does a grounded theory study look like?
The purpose of grounded theory is to inductively generate theory that is grounded in, or emerges from, the data. A core component of grounded theory is to move beyond description and to have the researcher generate or discover a theory that is “grounded” in data from the field—especially in actions, interactions, and social processes. Research involves multiple recurrent stages of data collection and the refinement of abstract categories of information. More information can be found on pages 49–50.
16. What is Narrative Inquiry, and how does one go about conducting this type of research?
Narrative research has many forms, incorporates a variety of practices and applications, and is rooted in different social disciplines. As a method, narrative research begins with the experiences as expressed in lived and told stories of individuals or cultures. In this form of research, the researcher studies the lives of one or more individuals through the telling of stories, including poetry, play, or performance. Paramount to all narrative work is the centrality of relationship in the research process and recognition of the sacredness of the stories that participants share and trust within the research environment. Uncertainty and tension guide the work, and rather than produce conclusive findings, the process is intended to offer understanding and meaning. More information can be found on pages 50–51.
17. What is Action Research, and what is an action research study?
Action research is a systematic orientation toward inquiry that seeks effective solutions to complex problems that people confront in their communities and organizations. Especially valuable to those involved in professional, organizational, and community research, action research focuses on specific situations that people encounter by engaging them in collaborative relationships and working on developing localized solutions. Action research, being about collaborative and democratic practices, makes it essentially political because it aims to influence processes of change. Action research is an intervention because it promotes actual change. More information can be found on pages 51–52.
18. What are Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, and Critical Theory Research?
In the past two decades, a critical turn has taken place in the social sciences, humanities, and applied fields, with scholars challenging the historical assumptions of neutrality in inquiry, asserting that all research is fundamentally political. It is increasingly argued that research involves issues of power and that traditionally conducted social science research has silenced, marginalized, and oppressed groups in society by making them the passive objects of inquiry. Postmodernism views the world as complex and reality as transitional. In recognition of the socially constructed nature of the world, meaning rather than knowledge is sought because knowledge is seen as constrained by the discourses that were developed to protect powerful interests. Poststructuralism, with its emphasis on language, forms a subset of postmodernism. More information on these genres can be found on pages 52–53.
19. With all the different options available, how do I go about choosing an appropriate qualitative research approach for my study?
The choice of research approach is directly tied to one’s research problem and purpose. A research problem should not be modified to fit a particular research approach; nor can you assume a particular qualitative approach regardless of your research problem. Having decided on a qualitative research approach, you will proceed to appropriately design your study within the framework of one of the traditions or genres of qualitative inquiry. Thus, the components of the design process (e.g., the theoretical framework, research purpose, and methods of data collection and data analysis) reflect the principles and features that characterize that tradition. More information can be found on pages 55–56.
Part 3: Preparing and Writing the Proposal
20. What exactly is the dissertation proposal, and what is its function and purpose?
The proposal is an integral and very distinct segment of the dissertation process. It is a well-thought-out written action plan that identifies a narrowly defined problem; a purpose that describes how the problem will be addressed; research questions that are tied to the purpose and, when answered, will shed light on the problem; a review of the literature and relevant research to determine what is already known about the topic; and data collection and data analysis methods. More information regarding the content and process of the dissertation proposal can be found on pages 61–62.
21. How do I go about developing my proposal, and what are the key components of a qualitative dissertation proposal?
As mentioned at the outset of this book, and as you will be reminded throughout, while most institutions approach the proposal and dissertation in common ways, at the same time there are differences in terms of the organization and presentation, and distinct differences in terms of what and how qualitative language and terminology are used. This book presents information as guidelines that are meant to be flexible per institutional expectations and requirements, and subject to modification depending on your institution, department, and program. You will no doubt have to attend carefully to the variations that reflect the expectations and requirements of your particular institution. More information pertaining to the core elements of a qualitative proposal (introduction, literature review, and methodology) can be found on pages 63–65.
22. What are some additional elements that I should be aware of when preparing my proposal?
In addition to the three key parts of the proposal (introduction, literature review, methodology), there are some other elements that you will need to address, and information regarding these elements can be found on pages 65–66.
23. What is an elevator speech?
You may have heard the term "elevator speech." This refers to your ability to clearly and concisely answer the question "what is your study about?" A few points about an elevator speech and its relationship vis-a-vis your proposal are presented on page 66.
24. The idea of a “literature review” really scares me! There seems to be so much that is required! How do I even begin to think about it?
Literature review is a distinct form of academic writing, a skill that doctoral candidates must master to demonstrate knowledge of the literature landscape that surrounds any given dissertation research problem. Right from the beginning, the literature review is an essential, integral, and ongoing part of the research process. Producing good reviews is a test of your ability to manage the relevant texts and materials, analytically interpret ideas, and integrate and synthesize ideas and data with existing knowledge. Guidelines and suggestions regarding undertaking, managing, and operationalizing literature reviews are provided on pages 105–108.
25. What are some of the most important guidelines regarding academic writing?
A dissertation demonstrates your ability to write a coherent volume of intellectually demanding work. It involves the combination of performing research and writing about your research to describe and explain it. As a researcher/writer, knowing how to best express your ideas in written form to convey them to the reader becomes an essential skill. The dissertation requires a high level of scholarly writing, and as such you will have to get into the mode of writing for a particular audience, that is, the academic community. Further information regarding academic writing requirements is presented on pages 66–68.
26. What are the general format and style requirements for a qualitative dissertation?
A research report must consistently follow a selected system for format and style. Format refers to the general pattern of organization and arrangement of the report. Style refers to appropriate writing conventions and includes rules of grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation to be followed in preparing the report. Most colleges and universities require the use of a specific style—either their own or that in a published style manual. You will need to make inquiries regarding your particular department’s recommended style preference. Regardless of which style manual you use, you are expected to adhere to its rules meticulously. Further information regarding format and style is presented on pages 68–70.
27. What are some of the most important aspects of academic integrity, and what constitutes plagiarism?
The strength of your writing rests on your ability to refer to and incorporate the work of others. It is imperative, however, that you attribute recognition to all and any sources of information that you use. Integrity matters! There are few intellectual offenses more serious than plagiarism in academic and professional contexts. A charge of plagiarism can have severe consequences, including expulsion from a university or loss of a job, not to mention a writer’s loss of credibility and professional standing. Further information regarding academic integrity and strategies for avoiding plagiarism is presented on pages 71–73.
28. What is Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, and why is it necessary?
Any research designed to research human subjects, interact with human subjects, provide interventions for human subjects, obtain identifiable information about living subjects, or observe and record private behavior of human subjects, must come under the jurisdiction of the governing board of Institutional Research. Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) have emerged in accredited academic institutions of higher education as bureaucratic entities responsible for the regulation, governance, and enforcement of significant research ethics. While there are some variations across disciplines and national boundaries, IRB approval is a stamp of credibility backed by a legitimate academic institution. This credibility is valuable both for the researcher and for the research participants. Further information regarding application for IRB approval is discussed on pages 74–75.
Part 4: Conducting the Research: Data Collection
29. What are the differences between “methodology” and “research methods”?
Methodology determines how the researcher thinks about a study, how decisions about the study are made, and how researchers position themselves to engage firstly with participants and then with the data that are generated. The term methods commonly denote specific techniques, procedures, or tools used by the researcher to generate and analyze data. The methods that a qualitative researcher chooses are informed by both the research design and the research methodology so that there is a conceptual fit across all levels. More about methodology and methods, and the interrelationship between them, can be found on page 157.
30. What is meant by “methodological congruence”?
As the researcher, you actively create the link among problem, purpose, and approach through a process of reflecting on problem and purpose, focusing on researchable questions and considering how to best address these questions. Thinking along these lines affords a research study “methodological congruence.” In essence, the position of the researcher is the bridge between philosophy, methodology, and the application of methods. Thus, the alignment between the research question, chosen methodology and personal philosophy, and the ability of the researcher to be reflexive in relation to the research is critical to ensure congruence in the study that will be manifested in the products of the research. More information regarding the notion of methodological congruence can be found on pages 153–154.
31. What are the most commonly used methods of data collection in qualitative research?
Based on the research questions, specific data collection methods are chosen to gather the required information in the most appropriate and meaningful way. A solid rationale for the choice of methods used is crucial, as this indicates methodological congruence, and illustrates that the choice of methods is grounded in the study’s overall research design. Details pertaining to some of the most commonly used methods of data collection (e.g., interviews, focus groups, observation, critical incidents, surveys, and document review) can be found on pages 154–157.
32. What is meant by “triangulation” of methods, and how important is this?
Triangulation enhances the quality of data from multiple sources (e.g., people, events) in multiple ways (e.g., interviews, observations, document review) with the idea that this will illuminate different facets of situations and experiences, and help portray them in their entirety and complexity. More about triangulation strategies and the significance thereof in qualitative research can be found on page 154.
33. What are some of the most important considerations when writing up the methods section?
To show that you have done a critical reading of the literature, and to acknowledge that data collection methods are not without some advantages, your discussion should be sufficiently detailed. More information pertaining to these necessary details is presented on page 158.
34. The idea of “researcher as instrument” is often portrayed as problematic. How do I best understand this phenomenon, and how can I go about defending this perspective to those who see qualitative research as limited and subjective?
“Researcher as instrument” raises important ethical, accountability, and social justice issues, including inter-subjectivity, power, positioning, and voice. Importantly, the reflexive researcher understands that all research is value-bound and that a reflective stance is therefore imperative; that is, reflexivity implies the explicit self-consciousness on the part of the researcher, including social, political, and value positions. Reflexivity is defined as the researcher’s conscious awareness of her or his cognitive and emotional filters comprising their experiences, world-views, and biases that may influence their interpretation of participants’ perceptions. More information on this key qualitative research issue can be found on pages 54–55; 242–243.
Part 5: Conducting the Research: Data Analysis
35. What is qualitative data analysis really all about?
Qualitative data analysis is the process of bringing order, structure, and meaning to the masses of data you have collected. Although there are stages dedicated to formal analysis, analysis is an inherent and ongoing part of the research and writing process. Many students become overwhelmed at this point of the dissertation process, having completed or still being immersed in data collection and faced with mounds and mounds of “stuff” and unsure about what needs to be done first. Indeed, there can be a really vast amount of data that need to be transcribed, organized, and reduced. More on qualitative data analysis can be found on pages 187–189.
36. What advice is there for student researchers to best prepare themselves for the huge task of data analysis?
The data generated by qualitative methods are voluminous, and the sheer quantity of raw data can indeed be quite daunting. The best piece of advice I can offer is that if data are to be thoroughly analyzed, they must be well organized. Attention to detail in managing data is important at every stage of the research process. This notion becomes all too clear when it is time to write up the research. Strategies regarding data management in preparation for data analysis are presented on pages 189–190.
37. What does it mean to develop an “analytic mindset”?
Qualitative research does not purport to be objective nor is this a goal of qualitative research. However, to be rigorous, qualitative research does strive to be transparent, and to openly and clearly document and communicate all decisions taken throughout the research process. This must become an integral part of your thinking and mindset. More about ways of maintaining transparency, and hence ensuring the rigor of your study, is discussed on pages 158–159; 188–189.
38. There are many different ways to go about doing qualitative data analysis. How do I decide on the best approach for my specific study?
Different qualitative research traditions or genres promote specific strategies for data analysis. Whatever approach you choose to use should be suited to the research tradition that you have adopted. In addition, the preference of your advisor and your department will of course need to be taken into consideration. Different analytic strategies are discussed on pages 190–193.
39. What are “codes,” and what are their role and function in the qualitative data analysis process?
Much is made about coding as a fundamental skill for qualitative analysis. Although there is really nothing that mysterious about it, the literature on data analysis and coding in particular is voluminous, and the vast amount of information can certainly be overwhelming. Details pertaining to codes and the overall coding process are provided on pages 197–199.
40. What is the procedure for coding data?
The reason you have spent so much time and energy talking to participants is to find out what their experience is and to endeavor to understand it from their perspective. You, as the researcher, will be exercising judgment as to what you think is significant in each interview transcript. Some passages may stand out because they are striking to you in some way. Others may stand out because they are contradictory and seem inconsistent with your conceptual framework. In this regard, you must be vigilant in not only seeking material that supports your own opinions but also remaining open to the unexpected. All of the aspects of coding your material are presented on pages 201–202.
41. What do you do once you have coded your data?
Once you have coded your material, you are ready to categorize your units of information. What is imperative is that your coding scheme and conceptual framework continue to remain flexible. All aspects of the process of assigning your codes to categories are presented on pages 202–204.
42. What is content analysis, and how does it differ from coding?
In traditional content analysis studies, counting the number of times a particular set of codes occurs is an important measure in assessing the frequency of items or phenomena. However, in the qualitative analysis process, frequency of occurrence is not necessarily an indicator of significance. The analytic approaches for most coding methods do not ask you to count; they ask you to ponder, speculate, assess, integrate, and synthesize. Qualitative analysis therefore goes way beyond simply counting. See pages 199–200 for further discussion on this distinction.
43. There is a lot of talk around computer software analysis programs? What types are available, and are these preferable than conducting a manual “old fashioned” analysis of my data?
If you choose to make use of computer aided software, then searching for the most appropriate program is important so that it directly supports and is usable in terms of your study’s research design and methodology. Information regarding the most common software currently in use, including benefits and limitations, is provided on pages 205–207.
Part 6: Conducting the Research: Interpretation and Synthesis
44. How does “data analysis” differ from “interpretation of findings”?
By way of data analysis, you are forming a record of frequently occurring phenomena or patterns of behavior. Once you have established patterns, these patterns need to be explained. This is where interpretation of findings comes into play. Whereas the chapter of data analysis presents the findings of your research by organizing data from various sources into categories to produce a readable narrative, the purpose of the chapter dealing with interpretation of findings is to provide interpretative insights into your study’s findings. You now have an opportunity to communicate to others what you think your findings mean and integrate your findings with literature, research, and practice. More about this is discussed on pages 233–236.
45. What essentially is “interpretation” in qualitative research? How do I go about interpreting what I have found?
Qualitative research begins with questions, and its ultimate purpose is learning. To inform the questions, the researcher collects data. Data are like building blocks that, when grouped into patterns, become information, which in turn, when applied or used, becomes knowledge. The challenge of qualitative analysis lies in making sense of large amounts of data—reducing raw data, identifying what is significant, and constructing a framework for communicating the meaning of your findings. This is discussed on pages 240–243.
46. How and in what ways does analysis of findings differ among the various qualitative research traditions?
Analytical approaches are linked to particular forms of data collection and are underpinned by specific conceptual and philosophical traditions. These differences are discussed on page 238.
47. How and in what ways does interpretation of findings differ among the various qualitative research traditions?
Just as there are clear analytic distinctions among traditions or genres demanding that the researcher will have to think about data analysis in a particular way, so are interpretation and representation strategies specific to each tradition. These differences are discussed on page 241.
48. How do I prepare myself for analysis and interpretation?
You might ask yourself what the chapter on interpretation of findings is really all about and what it should constitute. Since findings are not to be taken at face value, how does one go about seeking the deeper meanings behind the findings? What is really involved? And how does one get started? How to begin thinking about your analysis and interpretation is presented on page 236.
49. How do I begin to go about analyzing and interpreting my findings?
You are most likely asking yourself what the chapter on analysis of findings is really all about and what it should constitute. How does one get started, and what is really involved? You may want to structure your thinking according to three interrelated activities: (a) Seeking significant patterns and themes among the findings, (b) making use of description and interpretation, and (c) providing some sort of synthesis or integration. More about these activities and how to go about “peeling back” the many layers in order to explain the meaning behind your findings is provided on pages 236–244.
50. What are the limitations of my credibility in the analytic and interpretive process? After all, I bring my own perspectives and experiences, and hence assumptions, subjectivity and biases!
Whereas in quantitative research the role of the researcher is detached with the aim of being as objective as possible, in qualitative research, the researcher is personally involved, believing that research is always value-bound. Factors that enhance the credibility of a qualitative study are discussed on page 244.
51. A lot is made about the notion of “synthesis.” What are the implications of synthesizing findings in qualitative research?
Qualitative research involves moving from a holistic perspective to individual parts (analysis) and then back to a holistic look at the data (synthesis). Whereas the findings chapter splits apart and separates out pieces and chunks of data to tell the “story of the research,” the analysis chapter is an attempt to reconstruct a holistic understanding of your study. Analysis is intended to ultimately depict an integrated picture. More details are presented on pages 243–244.
Part 7: Writing Up and Presenting the Research
You will notice that the questions in Part 7 below are organized around particular standard dissertation chapters. Please be aware that different institutions have different expectations and requirements with regard to the structure and flow of dissertation chapters. Students will need to consult with their advisors in this regard.
7.1 Introduction to the Study
52. What is the overall purpose of Chapter One (the study’s Introduction), and what are the key components of this chapter?
The first chapter of your dissertation is the most critical, and everything that follows hinges on how well this chapter is constructed. The introductory chapter therefore sets the stage for the study; it also makes a case for the significance of the problem, contextualizes the study, and provides an introduction to its basic components—most specifically, directing the reader to the research problem, research purpose, and research questions. This first chapter of the dissertation also forms part of the proposal. The various elements that comprise this chapter are discussed on pages 9–10; 85.
53. How do I move from identifying a research topic to developing and articulating a viable research problem?
The sooner you can begin to narrow your research interests (topic) and identify and develop a topical focus (research problem), the better. Beginning researchers often confuse a topic with a research problem. A topic refers to a general area of interest. A research problem is more specific; it seeks to understand some aspect of the general topic. More on how to begin narrowing down a research topic and developing a clear research problem is discussed on pages 86–88.
54. What is the research problem, and how does this inform the development of research purpose and research questions?
At the heart of a dissertation is the articulation of the research problem. This is the place where most committee members go first to understand and assess the merits of a proposal or a dissertation. More on the research problem and how it informs the research questions is discussed on pages 88–91.
55. How do I go about developing and honing my research problem statement?
The problem statement serves a foundational role in that it communicates what is the formal reason for engaging in the dissertation in the first place. The problem statement is the discrepancy between what we already know and what we want to know. The problem statement also illustrates why we care; that is, why your study should be conducted. More details about what constitute a viable problem statement, and how to go about assessing viability, is discussed on pages 87–89.
56. What is the purpose statement, and how do I articulate this?
Once you have identified your own narrowly defined topic and concise problem statement, you are ready to formulate your purpose statement. The purpose statement is the major objective or intent of the study; it enables the reader to understand the central thrust of the research. More about the purpose statement and how to go about developing this is discussed on pages 88–90.
57. How do I develop and articulate effective and relevant research questions?
The research questions are directly tied to the research purpose. Answering the questions must accomplish the study’s purpose and contribute to shedding light on and addressing the problem. One must be able to trace all the ideas in the research questions back through the purpose statement to the problem statement; this underscores that you must ask relevant and effective questions. Details regarding how to craft research questions are included in pages 90–92.
58. What are some other additional elements that need to be included in the introductory chapter?
The first chapter of your dissertation (and of your proposal) introduces and describes the critical components that set in place a research study: problem, purpose, and research questions. In addition, there are some other associated elements or subsections. It should be noted that there may be some variations in required subheadings depending on individual programs and/or universities, and you should be sure to check for this. An outline of typical subheadings that compose Chapter One is presented on pages 92–94.
7.2 The Literature Review Chapter
59. What is the function and purpose of the literature review chapter in the qualitative dissertation?
The literature review is a sophisticated form of research in its own right that requires a great deal of research skill and insight. You are expected to identify appropriate topics or issues, justify why these are the appropriate choice for addressing the research problem, search for and retrieve the appropriate literature, analyze and critique the literature, create new understandings of the topic through synthesis, and develop a conceptual framework that will provide the underlying structure for your study. More on the function and purpose of the literature review chapter is presented on pages 104–105.
60. What is the scope of the literature review chapter in the dissertation? In other words, how extensive is the review meant to be?
The major purpose of reviewing the literature is to determine what has already been done that relates to your topic. This knowledge not only prevents you from unintentionally duplicating research that has already been conducted, but it also affords you the understanding and insight needed to situate your topic within an existing framework. Therefore, a thorough search and reading of related literature is, in a very real sense, part of your own academic development—part of becoming an “expert” in your chosen field of inquiry. Given all of this, you might be asking, “What is the scope of a literature review, and how extensive will this review need to be?” These questions are responded to on pages 105–108.
61. How do I start preparing for the literature review?
Thinking about the entire literature review may be overwhelming and intimidating. Instead of viewing it as one big whole, try to think of it as a series of steps—and steps within those steps—and prepare to tackle each topic one by one, setting small achievable goals within each topic area. The different stages of the literature review process, and all the key elements involved in digesting scholarly sources, are discussed on pages 108–118.
62. What is the idea of “synthesis” vis-à-vis the literature review? And how is synthesis different from summary?
Synthesis and summary are strategies that are used in reading, review, and research. Both are important skills or techniques in making sense of what one is reading, and each one plays an important role in the qualitative research process. However, they are very different activities. Each has a different purpose, process, and outcome. This is discussed on pages 121–122.
63. What should I know about and be aware of with regard web/online resources?
Although not always scholarly, the Internet will more than likely be your initial starting point for topic ideas and information. However, anyone anywhere can put information on the web, so any information from the Internet should be cited with caution. Remember that using the Internet to find academic information takes a lot of hard work to carefully evaluate and determine if a web resource is a reliable, authoritative, or even a scholarly information resource. Criteria for evaluating the credibility, accuracy, currency, and legitimacy of web resources are discussed on pages 113–114.
64. How do I present my literature review in the dissertation?
Qualitative researchers use existing literature to guide their studies in various ways depending on the type of study being conducted. There are also differences regarding the purpose and process for presenting the review of the literature with respect to each of the research traditions. Guidelines for presenting a literature review are discussed on pages 122–124.
65. So much is made of the conceptual framework. What is it, and how can I start thinking about this?
Graduate students often lack a clear understanding of the nature of the conceptual framework; what it is, its purpose, where it is derived from, how it is developed, how it is used, and what effect it has on research. Thus, they find themselves at a loss in the process of developing a conceptual framework. Moreover, oftentimes experienced researchers and advisors encounter challenges in guiding candidates as to what constitutes a rigorous and meaningful conceptual framework. As such, the structure and function of a conceptual framework continues to mystify and frustrate. More information on this is presented on pages 124–127.
66. What are the role, function, and application of the conceptual framework in the dissertation?
The conceptual framework plays a central role throughout the entire research process, and, most important, in the final analysis. A well-conceived conceptual framework is influenced by and at the same time influences the research process at all levels and at all stages. There are a set of distinct roles and functions of the conceptual framework in a qualitative dissertation, and these are discussed on pages 127–128.
67. What is the essential value of the dissertation’s conceptual framework? And are there any limitations associated with a conceptual framework?
The conceptual or theoretical framework strengthens your study in many ways, and there are also some caveats to be aware of. The value and limitations are explained on pages 128–130.
68. How do I go about developing and presenting my study’s conceptual framework? Does this have to be an elaborate diagram?
In acknowledging the conceptual framework as an integral element of the research process, as a qualitative researcher, you need to know how to develop and create a conceptual or theoretical framework and where to introduce this in the dissertation. The term is somewhat an abstract notion, conjuring up a “model” or “diagram” of some sort. Moreover, there is no uniform and consistent definition, and discussions in the literature around conceptual frameworks are not clear or precise. Strategies for developing the conceptual framework and ideas for presenting it in the dissertation are discussed on pages 130–132.
7.3 The Methodology Chapter
69. What is the purpose of the Methodology chapter?
The Methodology chapter of the dissertation presents the research design and the specific procedures used in conducting your study. In this chapter, you will show the reader that you understand the methodological implications of the choices you have made and, in particular, that you have thought carefully about the linkages between your study’s purpose and research questions, and the research approach and research methods that you have selected. More details regarding the purpose of this chapter are presented on pages 143–145.
70. What are the key components of the Methodology chapter?
The dissertation’s methodology chapter covers a lot of ground. In this chapter, you will document each step that you have taken in designing and conducting the study. This chapter situates the study within a particular methodological tradition and provides a detailed description of all aspects of the design and procedures of the study. While your headings and subheadings in this chapter are contingent on your particular university’s requirements, make sure your sections are in a logical sequence and what you write is comprehensive, clear, precise, and sufficiently detailed. An overview of the elements that would constitute a comprehensive and sound methodology chapter is presented on pages 11–12; 146–147.
71. What is the research sample, and how is this different from the research population?
The research sample is a subset of the population. Identifying your research sample, and the method you used to select that sample, provides the reader with some sense of the scope of your study. In addition, your study’s credibility relies on the quality of procedures you have used to select the research participants. Further information regarding qualitative research samples is provided on page 147.
72. How do I go about selecting my research sample, and how large does it need to be?
In qualitative research, selection of the research sample is purposeful. The logic of purposeful sampling lies in selecting information-rich cases, with the objective of yielding insight and understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. This method is in contrast to the random sampling procedures that characterize quantitative research, which is based on statistical probability theory. Further information regarding purposeful sampling and sample size is discussed on pages 148–149.
73. What kinds of information am I going to need from the research site and research sample?
Four areas of information are typically needed for most qualitative studies: contextual, perceptual, demographic, and theoretical. Additional details regarding the types of information needed, and how to go about collecting that information, are discussed on pages 149–151.
74. What is “research design,” and what are the implications of the choice of research design for my study?
Engaging in research involves choosing a study design that corresponds with your study’s problem, purpose, research questions, choice of site, and research sample. This calls to the fore the concept of methodological congruence, whereby all the study’s components are interconnected and interrelated so that the study itself is a cohesive whole rather than the sum of fragmented or isolated parts. You will also need to consider whether the design is a comfortable match with your worldview and your skills. How to go about developing the research design of your study and the criteria to take into consideration in doing so are presented on pages 151–152.
75. What are the key ethical considerations in conducting qualitative research?
In any research study, ethical issues relating to the protection of the participants are of vital concern. As researchers, we are morally bound to conduct our research in a manner that minimizes potential harm to those involved in the study. For the most part, issues of ethics focus on establishing safeguards that will protect the rights of participants and include informed consent, on protecting participants from harm, and on ensuring confidentiality. As a qualitative researcher, you need to remain attentive throughout your study to the researcher–participant relationship, which is determined by roles, status, and cultural norms. Central issues with regard to ethics in qualitative research are discussed on pages 161–162.
76. How do I best understand issues of “trustworthiness” or “legitimation” regarding qualitative research?
Qualitative research is based to a large degree on reflection and interpretation. The researcher as instrument brings her or his experience and perspective to the table. Qualitative research does not purport to be objective, nor is this a goal of qualitative research. However, to be rigorous, qualitative research does strive to be transparent and to openly, legitimately, and clearly document and communicate all decisions taken throughout the research process. Issues of trustworthiness in qualitative research (credibility, dependability, and confirmability) and how these compare with quantitative research criteria are discussed on pages 162–163.
77. How can I better understand conflicting reports about the generalizability of qualitative research?
Although generalizability is not the intended goal of qualitative research, what must be addressed is the issue of transferability; that is, the ways in which your reader determines whether and to what extent some of the elements of your study can be used as a way to understand similar elements of another context. Exactly what transferability implies and how to account for transferability in your qualitative study are discussed on page 164.
78. What is meant by “limitations” and “delimitations” in a qualitative research study, and what is the difference between these two concepts?
Limitations of the study are the characteristics of design or methodology that expose the conditions that may weaken the study. Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and are those characteristics that define and clarify the conceptual boundaries of your research. More about limitations and delimitations and how to account for these in your study is discussed on pages 164–166.
7.4. Analyzing Data and Reporting Findings
79. What constitutes the dissertation’s findings analysis chapter?
In this chapter, you present the analysis of your raw data, which are your findings. You have now moved beyond data to information. The challenge of qualitative analysis lies in making sense of large amounts of data, identifying what is significant, and constructing a framework for communicating the essence of what the data reveal. This chapter lays the foundation for the analysis, conclusions, and recommendations that will appear in subsequent chapters. Factors to take into consideration when preparing and writing this chapter, as well as a suggested outline, are provided on pages 13; 187–189.
80. What is the procedure involved in qualitative data analysis, and what is the role of the conceptual framework?
Data analysis demands a heightened awareness of the data and an open mind to recurring and common threads, some of which may be subtle. The process can be repetitious, tedious, and time consuming. While there is a somewhat systematic and stepwise procedure to prepare and analyze the data, the interrelationship among these steps is not necessarily linear. The phases involved in data analysis and the integral function of your conceptual framework are presented on pages 193–197.
81. How are research findings to be presented in a qualitative dissertation?
As the researcher, your goal is to tell a story that should be vivid and interesting, while also accurate and credible. In your report, the events, the people, and their words and actions are made explicit so that readers can experience the situation in a similar way to the researcher, as well as experience the world of the research participants.
Qualitative analysis is a creative and ongoing process that requires thoughtful judgments about what is significant and meaningful in the data. General guidelines for presenting this chapter are presented on pages 207–208.
82. What does this mean to present findings by way of quotation categories, and how do I go about doing this?
In qualitative research, interviewing is usually the major source of the data needed for understanding the phenomenon under study. The findings of qualitative research are typically reported in a narrative manner. Reports of qualitative studies usually include extensive samples of quotations from participants, and these provide the detail and substantiate the story that you are telling. An overwhelming question facing any researcher embarking on the write-up of the research report is, “Where do I begin to tell my story?” The various steps involved in this process are discussed on pages 208–212.
83. What is meant by thematic presentation of findings?
While the standard form of presenting quotes in qualitative research is to weave the quotes into your narrative, this is not the only form. Quotes can also be presented within charts, tables, or figures, with the overall goal to convey the story-line of your research according to the most predominant themes. More about this way of presenting findings can be found on pages 212–213.
7.5 Analysis and Interpretation of Findings
84. What is the role and function of the analysis and synthesis chapter?
The previous chapter of the dissertation involved the analysis of data to produce the study’s findings. Organizing, preparing, and presenting the findings of your research is a somewhat objective exercise; the researcher is, in this instance, a reporter of information. This chapter involves the analysis, interpretation, and synthesis of those findings. Both chapters involve analytic decisions, and these two chapters together should convince a reader that you, the researcher, are sufficiently knowledgeable about the interlocking analytic processes that constitute qualitative research. Further details pertaining to this chapter’s place in the dissertation are provided in pages 13–14; 233–236.
85. What does it mean to seek patterns and themes?
Qualitative analysis is essentially about searching for patterns and themes; that is, the trends that you see emerging from among your findings. Now again, when you are analyzing your findings, you look for themes once again—this time not in raw data but in the findings that have emerged. Bear in mind that analytical approaches are linked to particular forms of data collection and are underpinned by specific conceptual and philosophical traditions. Each tradition provides a perspective on reality that is specific to that tradition. More on this is discussed on pages 238–240.
86. Once I have established patterns and themes, how do I go on to describe and interpret my study’s findings?
A qualitative dissertation should not only provide sufficient description to allow the reader to understand the basis for an interpretation but also provide meaningful interpretation to allow the reader to appreciate the description. An interpretive reading of your data involves constructing a version of what you think the findings mean or represent or what you think you can infer from the findings. Interpretation, in effect, moves the whole analytic process to a higher level. Guidelines for interpreting your material are presented on pages 240–243.
7.6 Conclusions and Recommendations Chapter
87. Formulating the study’s conclusions and recommendations constitute the final chapter of the dissertation. What should I be aware of regarding this chapter?
The final chapter of the dissertation presents a set of concluding statements and recommendations. By way of the conclusions, the story of your research is wrapped up, bringing it to its logical finale. Recommendations are the application of those conclusions. Writing conclusions and providing recommendations will draw on your ability to be a critical and, at the same time, creative thinker. Characteristics of worthy conclusions and recommendations are presented on pages 15; 269–270.
88. How do I begin thinking about developing trustworthy conclusions?
When you were developing the study’s key findings, you engaged in critical thinking and reflection about all the potential deeper meanings behind these findings. As such, you were able to brainstorm a number of possible interpretations that explained your findings. In generating conclusions, you now need to go back to your findings and interpretations. A process to stimulate thinking about developing conclusions and making sure that your findings, interpretations, and conclusions are all aligned is presented on pages 270–271.
89. How do I write up my study’s conclusions?
As a general rule of thumb, you should provide at least one conclusion for each finding. However, the process is not altogether linear, and so it is possible that one conclusion can (but does not always) cut across more than one finding. It is important to bear in mind when thinking about and formulating each of your conclusions that they must be logically tied to one another. More about writing conclusions, as well as a tool for generating conclusions, is presented on pages 271–272.
90. How can I go about I developing actionable recommendations?
Recommendations follow your findings and conclusions. They are the application of those conclusions. A tool for generating the study’s recommendations is presented on pages 272–273.
91. How do I write up my recommendations?
You make recommendations based on your own experiences in conducting the research, as well as in any other professional capacity. Recommendations can have implications for policy and practice, as well as for further research. Further details pertaining to providing recommendations are presented on page 273.
Part 8: Planning for the Dissertation Defense and Beyond
92. Will I have an opportunity to reflect on my research and findings?
Most certainly! As you near the end of your study, you may want to pause and reflect on the long qualitative journey you have undertaken. You may include this reflection in the last chapter, following your conclusions and recommendations. Suggestions about this piece of the dissertation are provided on pages 273–274.
93. Why is alignment such an important component to consider, and why should this be revisited as I near completion of the dissertation?
You will have known throughout your research about the importance of alignment among the first three core critical elements: problem, purpose, and research questions. As you reach the final stages of writing your dissertation, it is crucial that you once again make certain that all the necessary elements that constitute your dissertation are aligned with one another. This will ensure that your study is tight and that you have taken an important step in ensuring methodological integrity; this is extremely important for the defense when, among other things, the methodological integrity of your research is finely scrutinized. More about alignment is presented on pages 283–284.
94. How do I craft my study’s title?
The title of your dissertation should catch the readers’ attention while at the same time properly informing them of the main focus of your study. Crafting an effective title is an iterative and ongoing exercise. A title has many uses. Most important, it should accurately reflect your work. More details about the title are provided on pages 284–285.
95. How do I prepare an Abstract?
Writing a good abstract requires that you explain what you did and what you found in simple, direct language. The abstract needs to be dense with information but also readable, well organized, concise and specific, focused, and coherent. Abstracts can differ in terms of style and word count. It is suggested that you consult with your advisor, departmental regulations, and the relevant style manual regarding abstract requirements. More about the abstract is provided on pages 285–289.
Part 9: Preparing For the Defense
96. What is the essential purpose of the dissertation defense?
The defense, in effect, moves your dissertation from the private domain into the arena of public discourse, providing you with some sense of closure. Actual procedures for conducting the meeting and the formalities involved are discussed on pages 302–303.
97. What is the process for selecting a defense committee?
Be aware that each university or college has a different system regarding dissertation committee structure and the process of preparing for that structure. Each institution has its own way of going about setting up the defense meeting, and it is recommended that you consult with your institution’s office of doctoral studies with regard to the correct procedures and protocol. Some general guidelines are provided on pages 300–301.
98. How can I best prepare myself for this milestone event, and what are some beneficial pre-defense strategies that I should know about?
Because this is the culminating aspect of a rigorous, traditional, and long-standing ritual, you are likely to approach the defense with some sense of anxiety. This is certainly understandable! Therefore, the more you can frame the defense as an opportunity to present your research publicly and the more you take a proactive position, the better the experience is likely to be. Guidelines toward this end are provided on pages 302–306.
99. Following the defense and all necessary revisions to my dissertation, what opportunities can I pursue regarding publishing my research?
The dissertation process comes to a definitive end when the final document is submitted and the doctoral degree is awarded. At this juncture, you might consider looking beyond the dissertation and think of how you can share what you have researched with a broader audience than the academic community. Publishing your findings is a way to contribute to the ongoing knowledge base and work toward advancing your professional career. Details regarding publishing your research are provided on pages 308–309.
100. Following the defense and all necessary revisions to my dissertation, what opportunities can I pursue regarding presenting my research?
In addition to publications, completion of the dissertation provides you with opportunities to present your study in other academic settings and research forums, such as graduate seminars and professional associations. Details regarding presenting your research are provided on page 310.
101. It is sometimes said that “the best dissertation is a DONE dissertation.” However, how does one actually evaluate the quality of a qualitative dissertation?
I have no doubt that you will ask yourself whether there are key criteria or pointers that can help you determine the quality of your work as you navigate this long and intense journey. The short answer to this question is yes! Once you have some idea of the core elements that are required for the various sections of your dissertation, an evaluation rubric is included for your convenience on pages 316–325. Please be sure to use this rubric as a broad set of guidelines only in checking your work at different points along the way and in assessing or evaluating the quality of your work overall once completed. Hopefully this tool will be useful to you in determining where limitations may lie and where improvements can be made.