What does a qualitative dissertation look like for a quantitative grad student?
July 31, 2009 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Defended the MA, it's on its way to being published. Great! Dissertation chair wants me to continue with the project, adding a qualitative/comparative component. Uh oh.

My social science master's thesis was a large-N quantitative study using existing data sets. I found some interesting and unexpected things, particularly in a single country. Now my dissertation advisor thinks I should focus on that for a dissertation and maybe do a comparative study with a nearby country for at least part of the dissertation.

One problem -- I don't really know how to do that. I have high-intermediate language skills for the countries in question (and will have another year under my belt after this upcoming academic year), but I don't really know what this kind of project would look like. It's not really historical (it deals with events in 2003) so it's not a matter of "getting into the archives". The availability of information for these countries is usually pretty poor (they're in the developing world and have poor or out-of-date webpages) so it's not as if I can just check out their library's web page and see what kind of data/sources they have.

Where do I start? How does one begin a qualitative/comparative project? How do I decide who to talk to if web information is pretty poor? My advisor is telling me to apply for grants to travel. Funding agencies won't fund my travel there unless I have a pretty specific project proposal, including what data sources I want to use, who I want to interview, etc. I have never done qualitative work before and I'm lost!

Anonymous because this is tremendously embarrassing. If you need more information, here's a throwaway email: qualclueless@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total)
Can you talk to the people who compiled the data sets you used for your master's thesis? What about NGOs?
posted by oinopaponton at 8:37 AM on July 31, 2009

Asking your advisor isn't an option?
posted by small_ruminant at 8:38 AM on July 31, 2009

Well for starters, comparative doesn't necessarily equal qualitative. You can do comparative studies that use quantitative methodologies. I am a firm believer that the method should be driven by the question(s) you are asking: if you are seeking to understand the why or how of a phenomenon, that often lends itself to qualitative inquiry, whereas investigating relationships between variables, or trying to determine the effect of one phenomenon on another often leads to quantitative examination.

Also, the term "qualitative project" is rather imprecise. There are a variety of ways to gather qualitative data (interviewing, focus groups, participant observation, etc.) and different ways of analyzing said data (discourse analysis, grounded theory, qualitative content analysis, etc.). Is your dissertation advisor really saying that you should go out and do a new study with zero training in qualitative methods? This seems extremely irresponsible to me.

I wonder if your advisor is using the term "qualitative" to mean something other than qualitative inquiry. I know that in the advertising/marketing world they use qualitative research to describe research that looks at the "qualities" of a given population, i.e. Ratings research that shows the number of people watching a given show is said to be "quantitative," whereas ratings research that shows the "qualities" of the audience (psychographics, shopping habits, etc.) would be said to be "qualitative research," even though the data are gathered and analyzed quantitatively.

If your advisor is using the second definition of qualitative, then what he/she seems to want you to do is somehow assess the different qualities of country B and compare them to country A, which would still seem to me to be some sort of statistical research.

And yes, you should be asking your advisor first & foremost.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:44 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Won't you do some course-work or qualitative exams or something in the first year or two of your PhD? You could take a methods course. If your department doesn't have a qualitative one, check out the anthropology department. Also check out your subject librarian, who can probably help you find the most relevant fieldwork manuals.

One way that people in my department often start is by doing a "pilot project". This basically means going to the country or countries in question and figuring out what kind of resources are available. So, say it was a development project that happened in 2003, then you pitch your pilot project as going to find out who worked on it, who benefited from it, and to assess what different types of documents and access are available. This would be a fairly cheap and short project, and it really is just to get a good sense of what information you can get and how feasible it is to get there.

Then, based on that, you can make some decisions: were there a bunch of government/organizational documents? Did you meet some people who worked on the project or benefited from it? Then you can say that you'll analyse the documents and interview those people. People who've done pilot projects are so much more able to get grants than people who haven't that my department regularly funds as much and as many as possible for their students. Your school might offer something similar, and these kinds of proposals are usually much less demanding than for large external grants.

Even if you can't go for a short trip, you probably already have a lot of the intellectual tools you need to get started. What question are you going to ask? What would help you answer that question? Start from there, imagine ideal scenarios and assess the feasibility later. Use qualitative methods manuals to get different ideas about what you might be able to do and what might be best suited to your project.

Two more things: First, you shouldn't feel embarrassed about this. I couldn't do a large N quantitative study proposal right now if my life depended on it! You've invested your time mastering in a particular skill and there's no shame in the fact that you aren't fluent in a different, vaguely related skill.

Second, don't embark on a PhD project that you hate, or are profoundly ambivalent towards. If you're excited about what your professor has suggested and you just feel anxious about *how* you're going to do it, that's fine. You can learn the skills you need. But if you really don't want to do it, or you feel like it's uninteresting or like you don't want to travel or something like that, talk to your professor about it. It's hard enough to finish a PhD with a project you love, let alone with one that you don't. Also, if you and your prof aren't on the same page with what this project is about and why and how it is good scholarship, that can lead to all kinds of problems with funding and approvals that you will not want to have to deal with.
posted by carmen at 8:50 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

My advisor is telling me to apply for grants to travel. Funding agencies won't fund my travel there unless I have a pretty specific project proposal, including what data sources I want to use, who I want to interview, etc. I have never done qualitative work before and I'm lost!

Your advisor is telling you this for two reasons. The simplest is that the process does take a while and you need to get this in the pipeline well before you are close to writing, which means, now. Assuming you have three or so years left, if you end up writing a fieldwork grant application in the second of these, that probably won't be enough time to do the fieldwork and finish your dissertation on schedule. The more important is that grant applications are incredibly useful ways of forcing yourself to clarify and develop your ideas. The impact on my later work of applications for grants that I didn't even get have been incredibly significant, I would say.

And, as everyone else says, you should be asking your advisor these questions. Odds are they are not actually unaware that you lack this experience, and think it would be really good for you to get it. One easy thing to ask them (and others) is if they have any model proposals from previous students that they can share. I don't think I have ever written any kind of funding proposal in absence of an actually (ideally successful) example, and you shouldn't try to do this either.

I agree with carmen that you shouldn't embark on a dissertation project you don't want to do or are ambivalent about. However, you have to be sure not to confuse being out of your comfort zone with not wanting to do the project. I think everyone has to move out of their comfort zone at some point in their graduate career, and this isn't typically an enjoyable experience at the time. But in my field, the combination of proven quantitative/theoretical skills and proven fieldwork skills is a really potent combination on the job market, and it probably is in yours as well, as I'm sure your advisor is well aware.
posted by advil at 10:28 AM on July 31, 2009

This is really something you should talk to your adviser about -- there are definite qualitative tools that can add depth to a large-n project (as well as help with hypothesis generation, etc.), but you need to get a menu of the options (focus groups, document content analysis, etc.) and a sense of what can be done from talking to someone experienced in this kind of research
posted by paultopia at 11:58 AM on July 31, 2009

Nthing to talk to your advisor about what exactly s/he wants from you. Just send an email or drop by and say "Hey, I've been thinking a lot about what you said last week. Can we have a meeting to flesh this out a bit?"

But as someone who does mixed-methods research (albeit within a very quantitative department) in developing countries, be aware that getting grants, as you seem to know, is really tough without a top notch proposal. Maybe your advisor isn't aware of how difficult it is.

Basically, I'd make sure that your advisor knows WTF s/he is talking about in regards to getting funding for travel, doing qualitative research, etc. If s/he has no expertise in this area, BE CAREFUL.

As far as data collection in developing countries, check my comment on this recent post.
posted by k8t at 2:32 PM on July 31, 2009

PS, a big misconception about qualitative methods is that one could just dive in without training. Nthing taking a methods course in a different department.
posted by k8t at 2:32 PM on July 31, 2009

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