7 Research Challenges (And how to overcome them)
Make a bigger impact by learning how Walden faculty and alumni got past the most difficult research roadblocks.
Whether you are a current student or a doctoral graduate, conducting research is an integral part of being a scholar-practitioner with the skills and credibility to effect social change. Fortunately, many of the research challenges you will face—from choosing a topic, to finding study participants, to staying sane throughout the process, and every step in between—have already been addressed by members of the Walden community. Here, they share their insights on how to overcome seven top research challenges.
Challenge: Choosing the Right Topic
Your research topic is the foundation on which everything else rests, so it’s crucial to choose carefully. “You can’t do anything else until you figure out the basic focus of your topic,” says Dr. Susann V. Getsch ’08, who earned her PhD in Psychology from Walden. The topic of her dissertation, Educating Students With Pervasive Developmental Disorders: An Exploration of Government Mandates and Teachers’ Perspectives, was close to her heart—Getsch has a child on the autism spectrum. After first attempting to “take on the entire world” with her research, Getsch chose to focus on how special education teachers select the protocols for classrooms with students with autism in the context of No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She shares her recommendations for choosing an effective research topic.
- Develop a doable topic.Determine what resources you have available—time, money, people—and choose a topic that you can do justice. Getsch scrapped an initial study idea of replicating another researcher’s study because it would be too resource-intensive.
- Read everything you can on the topic. Getsch “stumbled across” systems theory, an interdisciplinary framework for understanding systems in science and society. The topic was outside her required class reading, but ultimately provided Getsch’s theoretical framework.
- Find a theoretical basis to support your topic. The key is having an overarching theoretical context for your results. “I was really thrilled when I found these theories that fit my study like a glove,” Getsch says.
- Make sure the topic will hold your interest. You’ll be spending at least a year on a dissertation or any large research project, so it has to be compelling enough that you’ll go the distance.
- Look for a niche in which you can make a difference … My view is that you really should be offering something new to the field,” says Getsch.
- … but remember you can’t change the world with one dissertation. Getsch’s dissertation committee chair, Dr. Stephanie Cawthon, helped her focus on the crux of what she wanted to explore. “She gently pointed out that I couldn’t change the whole world with my dissertation, but I could add to the body of knowledge,” says Getsch.
- Let yourself shift gears. Getsch admits that the topic she started out with was “in no way” what she ended up with.
- Fine-tune your topic based on input from others. “Take every opportunity you can to pick the brains” of experts, Getsch recommends. “I went across disciplines. I drove people crazy. And each time, I would revise slightly based on what the last person taught me.”
Challenge: Choosing the Right Methodology
Once you’ve chosen a topic, you’ll need a methodology—a procedure for conducting your research—in order to move forward.
Dr. Linda Crawford, a faculty member in Walden’s PhD program, has received the Bernard L. Turner award two times for chairing outstanding dissertation recipients. She offers several techniques for getting on the right path when it comes to choosing the appropriate methodology for your study.
“The best way to choose it is not to choose.”In other words, Crawford says, “the methodology that’s used comes from the research question, not from your personal preferences for one design or another.” She recommends refraining from choosing between a qualitative or quantitative methodology until you:
- Complete the sentence: “The problem is …”
Complete the sentence: “The purpose of this study is …”
Formulate your research questions.
- Let your answers guide you.
- Determine what kind of design and methodology can best answer your research questions. If your questions include words such as “explore,” “understand,” and “generate,” it’s an indication that your study is qualitative. Whereas words such as “compare,” “relate,” or “correlate” indicate a quantitative study. The design comes out of the study, rather than being imposed on the study.
- Hone your study design. Once you become clear whether you’re going in a quantitative or qualitative direction, you can begin to look in more detail at the methodology. This will be determined by figuring out “from whom you’re going to collect data, how you’re going to collect the data, and how you’re going to analyze it once you collect it,” says Crawford.
- Be crystal clear. For a qualitative study, you might use focus groups and interviews, for example, to collect data, whereas a quantitative study may use test scores or survey results. Either way, the methodology should be so clear that any other trained researcher should be able to pick it up and do it exactly the same way.
- Be honest about your abilities. Ask yourself, “This is what the study demands—do I have the skills to do it?” says Crawford. If not, determine if you can develop the skills or bring together a research team.
- Take your time with the planning process. “It’s worth consulting other researchers, doing a pilot study to test it, before you go out spending the time, money, and energy to do the big study,” Crawford says. “Because once you begin the study, you can’t stop.”
Challenge: Assembling a Research Team
Research is never done in a vacuum. Once your topic and methodology are in place, you will need a research team to support you, as well as study participants.
Dr. Lynette Savage ’09, PhD in Applied Management and Decision Sciences, recommends assembling a network of advisors before starting your research:
- Solicit useful feedback.Savage suggests that you “cultivate friendships with people who are going to help you think critically” about your topic. These people are invaluable for helping you consider your idea from a different angle or perspective.
- Vet your committee. If you need a formal committee, choose your chairperson carefully, Savage says, “because you’re going to work closely with him or her for a while.” She recommends interviewing your potential chair and committee members to make sure there’s a match and discussing upfront what each party needs in order to go through the process. This includes asking whom your chairperson is comfortable working with—“The chair helps negotiate things if the committee can’t come to agreement, so he or she needs to get along with everyone else,” Savage explains.
- Be clear about your needs.Similarly, when it comes to finding mentors, or getting help for tasks such as creating a survey tool or writing your research question, Savage suggests being very clear about what you need from them. “People are very willing to help when you come structured and prepared,” she says.
Challenge: Finding Study Participants
Once you have your team together, it’s time to conduct your study, and that means finding participants.
Dr. Rodney Lemery ’08, PhD in Public Health, managed to overcome a big challenge to recruiting participants for his study: “Like a lot of epidemiology researchers, I was trying to target a ‘hidden population’—men who have sex with men,” he explains. Lemery shares how, through trial and error, he recruited 125 participants for his study.
- Don’t waste your money.Lemery first tried hiring a third-party email marketing group to send his survey to 50,000 self-identified men who fit his criteria. While email marketing might work in some cases, it’s a costly risk—Lemery spent $2,500 and got just four subjects.
- Leverage the power of a network. Lemery’s next attempt to reach his target group was more successful. He used what are called “snowball” sampling techniques—“targeting a particular group, locating advocates within that social network,” and then asking them to recommend others who might be willing to participate in the study. “You almost get a domino effect, if it works,” Lemery explains.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out. Lemery also approached established researchers in his field for guidance and networking. “I was very nervous, but I went ahead anyway and contacted two very well-known researchers, and one of them turned out to be a very key advocate in my research and recruitment,” he explains. “If I had listened to my fear, I never would have gotten 45 of my participants.” His advice to others looking for mentors: “Just go for it—the worst thing that can happen is that people can say no.”
Challenge: Getting Institutions to Participate
Sometimes recruiting study participants requires going through institutions, which may put up barriers, particularly if your research is controversial or sensitive, and this presents an additional challenge.
Dr. Eileen Berg ’09, Doctor of Education (EdD), conducted her doctoral study on the relationship between teachers’ unions and educators throughout schools and districts in Ontario, Canada, and came up against strong resistance due to the political nature of her topic. And Dr. Christopher Plum ’09, PhD in Education, needed to observe Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings—in which a plan is developed to help students with disabilities—in order to conduct his research. These meetings are often very difficult for parents and students, and getting access required permission from school districts, as well as the parents, student, and school psychologists attending each meeting. Berg and Plum offer suggestions for getting institutional buy-in:
- Don’t stop at the first rejection.“I went to one of the superintendents, and she said, ‘That’s interesting, but you’re not going to get any support from this school district,’” says Berg. “So I started to apply to different districts and got all these rejections—the influence of the unions in Ontario was so strong that nobody wanted to participate.
- Pursue alternate avenues. After extensive research online and networking, Berg eventually found an organization that would promote the study to principals and another organization that agreed to publish a notice about the study in its bulletin for teachers.
- Persevere. “If it’s an extremely hot topic, you’re going to have the doors blocked,” Berg says. “You need to persevere, you need to make contacts, you need to network with people and make phone calls and ask, ‘How can you help me?’ ... Just sending emails won’t work.”
- Build relationships. Plum agrees that when going through institutions to find study participants, the key “is trying to form relationships with the people who will help you gain access.”
- Learn to sell yourself. “You’ve got to do a lot of selling of yourself and what you’re trying to do,” Plum says. But, he warns, there’s a fine line between being persistent and not turning people off. “That’s the art,” he says. “You have to finesse it and understand the importance of building that comfort level. The people who are the gatekeepers have to believe that you’re coming in objectively and that what your research yields will potentially positively impact the institution in some way. How does this add value?”
- Be prepared. Plum also stresses the importance of having all of your forms and information—such as a copy of your abstract and a thumb drive with supporting documents—on hand at all times, in case someone wants more information.
- The importance of image. Finally, Plum says, “presentation is important—it all paints a picture in terms of how you’re going to come across.”
Challenge: Staying Motivated and Working Your Plan
Sometimes, in the course of a large research project, the biggest challenge can be internal—maintaining the motivation to keep going despite obstacles in your research and the pressures of work and personal commitments.
Dr. Latrice Y. Walker ’08 completed her PhD in Education in just eight quarters (while also working “non-stop” on her business). She shares her strategies for maintaining an upbeat, confident attitude and staying the course with any large-scale research project.
- Follow your passion and your purpose. “The first component of motivation is working on something you’re passionate about, that you believe in,” Walker explains. “It’s cyclical—if you’re passionate about what you’re researching, the research will increase your passion to complete your research.” Passion, she says, comes from the belief that your work will have some kind of social impact, that an injustice in the world could be improved “even just 10 percent.”
- Monitor your attitude. “When there’s so much to do, attitude does make a difference,” Walker says. “There can be no doubt in your mind that you can do this. You must believe that you can make it through this process.” To stay positive, she suggests thinking of the mind like a garden: “We have to pluck out the negative thoughts like weeds and constantly plant positive thoughts.”
- Reward yourself. “Make rewards part of your work plan, and then give yourself those rewards,” Walker says. “It could be going to the movies, going out to lunch, spending time with your family—whatever it is, make it something meaningful to you.”
- Ask for help. Walker credits her family—especially her husband—with helping her handle all her commitments. “If you share your goals with those individuals you care about, they will get to buy in and help you achieve those goals,” she says. “But only share your greatest dreams and goals with people who are going to be positive and supportive.”
Challenge: Dealing With Your Data
When you’ve completed your study, the final challenge is knowing how to make sense of the data you’ve collected.
Dr. Ronald Paige ’07, PhD in Education, was faced with 900-plus pages of transcribed stories from the interviews he conducted. And Dr. Paula Dawidowicz, a faculty member in The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, is the author of Literature Reviews Made Easy: A Quick Guide to Success. Paige and Dawidowicz offer tips for working with your data.
- Ground yourself in the research. Paige realized that, to address his large volume of research, he had to connect his own research to the existing research. Grounded in a “huge survey of the literature,” he had the parameters to organize his research. Dawidowicz adds that your data should be presented in a way that demonstrates how your research adds to the body of knowledge.
- Get back to your methodology. Paige credits a course in research methodologies taught by his mentor and committee chair, Dr. Linda Crawford, with preparing him to deal with his data. “The books we had to read were excellent,” he says, “and we compared methodologies in class—that was very helpful.”
- Listen to the data. “When you have that kind of qualitative data, and you’re looking at it cold, the biggest challenge is not to look at it with any preconceived ideas—you literally have to step back and wait for the data to come alive and start speaking,” Paige says.
- Take advantage of technology. “The key thing in qualitative research is looking for patterns, and that’s where having a software program—I used one called HyperRESEARCH—was invaluable,” Paige says. “I couldn’t have done it without that.”
- Stay focused. Dawidowicz cautions against being distracted by irrelevant data as you do your analysis. She suggests “keeping a really close eye” on your research questions and your hypothesis, “because sometimes the data you collect will take you away from that.”
- Account for biases. Dawidowicz explains that, in a quantitative study, the researcher needs to address the biases of the individuals completing the survey before the results can be generalized to a larger population. Whereas qualitative work requires researchers to discuss “how their bias or interpretation may have played into their conclusions.”
- Let the data drive your presentation. Dawidowicz says, “The data should drive how you present what you’re doing. It’s your job to organize it around the research questions.”
- Draw on the details. “A good quote or a good point pulled from a quantitative survey—that information can always give us a greater sense of what actually occurred,” Dawidowicz says.
The Walden Advantage
Because Walden is dedicated to creating scholar-practitioners who will make a difference in their fields, students in Walden graduate programs have an exceptional level of support for conducting research that can effect social change. In addition to the support provided by faculty members, mentors, and dissertation committee members, Walden graduate students have access to the targeted resources of the Center for Research Support and the Center for Student Success.
The Center for Research Support can assist students with many of the specific research challenges outlined in this article. For instance, when it comes to choosing a topic and a methodology, the center regularly updates its Web site with new resources about different content areas and offers poster sessions at the January and July residencies.
“These are good opportunities to see the research being done by Walden students and faculty and to talk to the presenters,” explains Dr. George Smeaton, former executive director of the center. Students can also discuss their research projects through the center’s Communities of Scholarship in Practice—an online forum for groups of people interested in the same topic to meet electronically.
Smeaton says that other valuable resources for conducting research include access to a large number of data sets through the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research and access to a participant pool of Walden students, alumni, and faculty for Web-based surveys. In addition, the center offers a statistics course for students who need to improve their skills to conduct research and provides guidelines and rubrics for developing theses and dissertations.
The Center for Research Support also offers graduate students assistance in pursuing funding for research projects, help with publishing research, and access to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which ensures that Walden research complies with the university’s ethical standards and federal regulations.
More support is available through the Center for Student Success (CSS), which provides the following student-centered resources:
- Career Services: Practical online tools for complete career planning, management, and advancement cycle, as well as individual consultations.
- Academic Residencies: Opportunities for doctoral and some master’s students to meet with faculty, network with other students, and build research skills.
- Walden Library: Extensive digital resources, as well as dedicated staff who will help students identify, evaluate, and obtain the materials they need for their research.
- Writing Center: Comprehensive support for academic writing, including tutoring, writing courses, one-on-one consultations, and samples and templates.
- Student Success Courses: Supplemental courses for students who would like to enhance or refresh their skills in a particular area.
Dr. Lorraine Williams, executive director of the CSS, explains that the individual units of the CSS “work in a synergistic way to support students in their research.” For example, the Writing Center will work with students one-on-one—as well as in group skill sessions at residencies—and will also direct students to appropriate graduate writing courses, if necessary, and work collaboratively with the library to help students create a literature review. “We all work closely together as a team and strategize as to how we can best support our students,” Williams says.Learn more about academic support at Walden.
- Read Dr. Paula Dawidowicz's article on building a literature review.
- Read more PhD survival tips from Dr. Susann V. Getsch.
- Read more Ph.D. survival tips from Dr. Lynette Savage