“I wish I knew what I know now” – Tips for novice qualitative researchers
Are you interested in conducting qualitative research, but you don’t know where to begin?
Qualitative research offers wonderful possibilities for making sense of society and human behavior, but we understand that coming to grips with qualitative research methodology and analysis tools can be daunting. To help novice qualitative researchers, we share some practical advice for novice qualitative researchers here.
This advice stems from our 15+ years of experience teaching qualitative research and ATLAS.ti (a computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software, or CAQDAS), and in particular, we draw from our recently published study on teaching qualitative research and ATLAS.ti to undergraduate university students.
A note on the difference between learning qualitative research and learning to use a CAQDAS
Learning qualitative research entails learning about different methodologies and strategies for collecting and analyzing qualitative data. There are vast possibilities for making sense of qualitative data, but qualitative research is all about interpreting this rich, detailed information and putting an organising framework the data to conduct rigorous research and help convey your findings to others. It is certainly understandable that novices struggle with learning how to conduct qualitative research, because there are no “formulas” for analyzing qualitative data; rather, qualitative researchers engage in critical reflection to dig into their data and interpret emerging patterns. It is not necessary to use CAQDAS to conduct qualitative research, because CAQDAS is simply a tool that researchers can take advantage of to facilitate their organisation and data analysis. Given the interpretative nature of qualitative research, learning to conduct qualitative studies is often likened to learning a “craft,” which is best done by actually doing research.
Learning to use a CAQDAS primarily consists of learning how to add data to a project and analyze and code the data. Beyond that, CAQDAS offer many tools for querying data (such as exploring code frequencies across data sources or examining which codes are appearing together, and so on) in addition to features that permit the creation of power visualisations (such as creating semantic networks to display the overarching story of your analysis). If you are using CAQDAS in a collaborative project, you may have to learn how to use some additional features for teamwork (such as setting up usernames, sharing and merging projects, and calculating intercoder agreement). At the end of the day, though, learning how to do something in a CAQDAS is relatively straightforward, and how-to instructions can be found in the software manuals and video tutorials. Where novice researchers often struggle, however, is with figuring out why a particular feature should be used or how the CAQDAS can help them answer their research question(s).
Some practical tips for learning qualitative research and CAQDAS
1. Foster your qualitative sensibility and remember that CAQDAS will not “do the analysis” for you.
There is a common misconception that CAQDAS can automatically analyze our data and provide the answers to our research question(s). However, CAQDAS is simply a tool, and it is up to the researcher to identify relevant data segments, attach codes, and make sense of all the data. A qualitative sensibility refers to researchers’ open-minded, reflexive, and critical approach to the research; in other words, a qualitative sensibility entails being curious about what you see and probing your data to develop meaningful interpretations of how your data can help answer your research question(s). This is also why we always emphasise the importance of writing in memos throughout the research process — any time an idea or question crosses your mind, jot it down in a memo! By forcing ourselves to write down our thoughts and reflections, we will develop a much deeper understanding of what is going on in our data.
Click here to see our video on “How can I develop my qualitative sensibility?”
2. Start using your chosen CAQDAS as early as possible.
Many people tend to wait until they have conducted all of their interviews, transcribed the data, and are ready to begin coding it to create their first CAQDAS project. However, CAQDAS is perfectly suited to facilitate the entire research process – from brainstorming your research question and deciding how to design your study to conducting your literature review! Moreover, your understanding of how to use your chosen CAQDAS will drastically improve as you try your own hand at it with material that is of personal interest to you. That is why we emphasise the value of using CAQDAS first for the literature review, so that you can already familiarise yourself with the software. By the time you have your qualitative data collected and ready for analysis, you will already have a better understanding (and more confidence!) to use the software for your data analysis.
Click here to attend our free webinar on how to use ATLAS.ti for the literature review!
3. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes! But do save back-up copies.
It is understandable to initially feel nervous about doing something “wrong” and somehow causing damage to your project. Fortunately, most software today has an “undo” button, so we do not need to become paralysed by fear. On the other hand, it is always a good idea to save back-up copies of projects (e.g., in ATLAS.ti, this consists of saving an exported bundle of the project). That way, you can save your project in your Cloud storage, external hard drive, or wherever you prefer, and you will always be able to retrieve your project. This will help protect against accidental data loss (e.g., if something spills on your computer), but it is also a good to save back-up copies in case you want to try something new in your project (like merging or deleting large numbers of codes) so you can freely experiment and rest assured that, if need be, you can always go back to that saved back-up copy.
Want to learn more about ATLAS.ti and qualitative research? Click here to see all of our courses!
Kalpokaite, N., & Radivojevic, I. (2020). “I wish I knew what I know now”: Exploring Psychology Undergraduate Students’ Experiences When Learning About Qualitative Research and CAQDAS. The Qualitative Report, 25(7), 1817-1840. Retrieved from https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol25/iss7/6