Getting to the thesis research

Here I am, about a third of the way through my thesis year and I’m finally getting to the fun stuff, in that I’m actually doing research interviews as we hit the Christmas season. I’ll admit that, from the end of summer when I was really beginning to finalize my thesis proposal until now, I’ve felt disconnected from most things while doing this. I chose this road, so I’m not complaining, but it was a disconcerting change from year one.

In the Royal Roads University (RRU) MALAT program you bang through six courses in your first year, two of which happen during a six week pressure cooker that includes a two week residency. This is followed by four more courses over roughly another forty weeks, which include a lot of collaborative group work and enough discussion forum posts to choke a horse. While groups will use a variety of tools of mostly their own choosing to get through it, the lifeblood of the coursework are the Moodle discussion forums. Due to the schedule and pacing, you don’t have much time to think in year one and there’s always some assignment or activity coming up, which forces you to stay focused.

Contrast that with a year two thesis route, which is really all about how well you can determine what you need to do and when. While I always felt the thesis route would probably give me a more useful artefact after it was over, and I felt that doing a thesis would help me get better at research (my big goal for doing an MA in the first place), fatigue with what I view as an over-dependence on coursework discussion forums was the tipping point for me – I’m kind of self-directed and very much an autonomous learner. However, back to the disconnect.

Approvals

Getting to the point that I could actually begin research was no small task. In late summer I started revisiting the research proposal I’d done during my coursework last year, to round it into shape as an actual thesis proposal. It was probably a little heavy on lit review, compared with a proposal from a more seasoned researcher, but it was also extremely light on operational details and virtually devoid of anything that made it look like a case study, which is what I’ve chosen to do for my thesis research. This necessitated really getting familiar with case study methodology and a better understanding of qualitative research techniques. I’d say my actual research proposal was a very different document from the one I produced for marks last spring.

By the time I had a proposal that met with approval from the RRU program head it was well into October. That was approval one, but there was still the small issue of Research Ethics Board (REB) approval at both RRU and BCIT, as my research is situated in a department there. While RRU turned my application around in 1-2 weeks, the same cannot be said for BCIT. It’s somewhat immaterial now, but a ball was dropped somewhere along the way, as an expedited approval request took well over a month. In the big scheme of things it’s not the end of the world, but conducting interviews is considerably more involved than running a survey or other quantitative research. I view the process of recruitment as still another approval of sorts, as interview subjects have to want to do it and be genuinely interested in helping you do your research.

Instead of conducting interviews mid-term, what this has all meant is that I’ve had to try and get faculty interested in, and booked to do interviews at one of the worst possible times of the year. With a Christmas break looming, papers to mark, final exams and some serious fiscal and budget issues at BCIT, this piece has been challenging. Most interviews have been rescheduled at least once and I’ve still got one remaining after the Christmas break. More importantly, the idea of having my interviews transcribed before Christmas so I could start doing some data analysis over the break has given way to transcripts in January and data analysis well into February. The saving grace is that I should be able to take some Professional Development time off to do the bulk of my writing.

This period has been the big disconnect of which I spoke earlier. Other than some back-and-forth with my thesis supervisor and the RRU program head, I’ve really been cut loose and on my own. No second residency, no assignments, no timeline for posting to a blog or forum, no group Skype sessions, no writing with others in a synchronous Google Docs session. Just me, my books, my laptop and lots of uncertainty. Lots and lots of uncertainty.

A budding social researcher?

Now that I’m actually conducting interviews, though, I’m finding it very enjoyable. Prior to beginning I was on edge a bit. Will my interviews go well? Will I get the data that gets at my questions? Will my research fall flat on its face? I’m happy to say that I think my fears are dissipating. What I’m discovering is that my enjoyment of conversation is holding me in good stead as an interviewer. I’m sure my technique could use a lot of improvement, but as I’ve listened a couple times to each of my first two pilot interviews, I’ve found that the data is covering my questions and even in just three interviews I’m getting the sense that patterns I hadn’t anticipated will emerge. Each interview I’ve done has built on my previous one and the guide I’m using changes a bit each time. The direction one interview takes actually helps you ask better questions in subsequent interviews.

I’ve always been the kind of guy who wants to know why things happen, how people feel about them, and I feel that the experiences we have can tell us a lot about how to do things better. It’s been a large part of my work to this point as I build and design web sites and applications and I’m beginning to think that moving my career in more social research directions will suit me. Truth is, web usability and user experience research tends to be ethnographic in nature and I could really see qualitative research becoming more and more important to me personally and professionally.

I won’t get to the in-depth analysis until after all seven interviews are complete. In addition to the transcripts that I have by mid-January, there’s a fair bit of BCIT documentation I’ll have to acquire for both background and triangulation purposes. I may even need to look at a little more data collection, but I’m not sure yet.

What I am fairly certain of now, though, which I wasn’t as recently as a month ago, is that I will successfully complete this thing and that I will get what I expected out of the process. I’ll have a piece of research of which I’ll be proud, I’ll be better at analysis, I’ll be better at research and I’ll be a better writer. I’m pretty sure that’s what graduate studies are all about.

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