Qualitative researchers; Jack of all trades, master of none

But oftentimes better than a master of one.

Qualitative researchers are no strangers to in-depth interviews, Focus Group Discussions, or Observation research. These methods have often been used by young researchers while they were still studying.

Becoming a good moderator in FGDs or interviewer during IDIs is a requirement for qualitative researchers. What sometimes comes as a shock, and the years at college or university often hardly prepare you for this, are the challenges a qualitative researcher needs to learn to navigate. Challenges posed by both senior researchers you work with and your clients. These challenges can start before the first group is moderated or the interview is conducted.

For example, you are to start a new project for one of your clients. The research objectives involve exploring group dynamics, interactions, and varied perspectives (e.g., how young people alone, or in groups, respond to a new variation of famous fried chicken). There are 3 internally homogeneous peer groups (e.g., high school students, university students, and fresh graduates). Based on the brief, the research objective, and the target group, you may already know that the best way to conduct the research is through a series of FGDs. For example, you propose to do 2 x 3 FGDs (each with 8 participants) in 1 week.

But what if your client insists you do IDIs instead but keeps the number of people (n = 48) to be recruited and the timeline you proposed for FGDs (1 week)? Now, you have a sub-optimal research method, an increased workload, and no additional time to do the job. What to do, right?

  • Start an open discussion with the client about the best approach for the research design. You can approach the client with at least two options: understand why the client sees IDIs as the best way forward, and perhaps adjustments in the research objective and research questions are required.
  • Another way forward is to go back to the original proposed design and see if the benefits of your proposal can be made more apparent.
  • After that, don’t be shy about the need for a thorough data collection process, emphasizing that quality insights require adequate time and participant engagement.

The pressure you can get to rush a phase in research is not exclusive to the data collection phase but can be experienced at any stage. And it’s not only clients that want results too fast. Also, senior researchers or managers can put too high demands on young qualitative researchers. And also, here, a need for open discussion is often needed.

Another problem faced by young qualitative researchers is uncertainty caused by inexperience. This can touch things like planning, making or organizing transcripts and summaries, analysis, or even the structure of a report. It is good to consider that your work is indeed a development path. And there are at least three things you can already do right now.

  • The first step is the easiest: read. Read published qualitative research articles to understand how experienced researchers structure their studies, analyze data, and present findings. And so become more knowledgeable on all facets of your job.
  • The second step is to discuss with your peers. You would be surprised how much your peers can help tackle problems they had to solve recently, just like you do.
  • And finally, reach out to an experienced researcher and get them to be your mentor for guidance. They can offer a helicopter overview, point you in the right direction on specific problems, and help troubleshoot issues based on their experience confronting similar challenges over the years.

In the end, young qualitative researchers who are excellent interviewers or moderators should aim to become Jacks of all trades to navigate the many challenges they face.

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