Tag Archives: qualitative research

Knowing when to stop

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I’m really enjoying my research at the moment. I know this will probably change over the next few months, but for the moment there it is. Enjoyment.

A few things are contributing to my current happiness:
1. Full-time on-campus study is working well for me. I have a routine, a stable workspace where I can have things set up ready to swing into action the moment I arrive, friendly but equally focused colleagues, and access to those secondary but important ‘parastudy’ items (coffee, food, wi-fi, library).
2. I seem to be hitting a good work-life balance – at least for the moment.
3. I’ve stopped recruitment and in a few weeks I will have completed my final interview.

It’s the third of those points that is the focus of this post.

After a rather lacking-in-confidence start, I’m now feeling at ease in my discussions with parents. I have my list of materials – audio-recorder, mapping tools, paperwork – pretty much down pat so I don’t foof around too much getting myself ready to go. I’ve had enough (and varied enough) conversations that although each one is different, I feel capable of responding to most unexpected situations. I have a few core questions that I (mostly) remember to ask in some form, depending on the flow of the discussion. And I know that if I was to stop right now, I have enough information upon which to build my thesis.

So why am I still going? This is something my supervisor has gently challenged me with recently, and I’ve been asking myself the same question. In some methodologies there is a clear guide to help answer this question: you state a particular number of questionnaires to be circulated and your sample is the number returned, for example. Or you code as you go, and stop when you reach saturation and no new ideas are emerging. For me, each interview brings a new slant on the topic. As unique as everyone’s situation is, every parent’s information will in some way be different to every other parent’s.

An added factor for me is that I enjoy the process of listening to the parents who are taking part in the study. It fascinates and energises me. I’m inspired and intrigued by them, and honoured that they trust me with their information.

So, at some point, I will need to draw that imaginary line in the sand and say ‘enough’. At that point, my study lurches into a new phase, and this is perhaps also why I’m putting off the line-drawing moment. It was easy enough to decide to stop recruiting; this did feel like hard work, sending out multiple slightly customised pleas for assistance to reach parents, going back with more information, explaining my ethics approval and why I can’t just change my public documents at will, waiting on all sorts of different agencies’ internal processes over which I had absolutely no control (‘could you just send an email about your study to … and they’ll have a look at it and get back to you’). Deciding to stop recruiting but remaining open to any further requests to participate that might trickle in from past advertising, has been a nice relaxed space to be in.

According to my project proposal and ethics approval, I’m aiming for 30 participants, with individual one-off meetings. There was some hesitation about whether this was too many (as my supervisor pointed out, this could result in a lot of data to manage, and I might stop seeing major new themes emerge well before I got to 30), although one of the academics on my proposal panel queried whether this would be enough to be able to obtain more widely useful findings. At the time I write this post, I’m anticipating a total of 25 parents, but I’ve changed my methodology slightly to accommodate some couples who wanted to meet together in the one discussion, and the option to have more than one meeting if the single one wasn’t enough or time was too constrained. As a result, the number of meetings and the number of parents doesn’t quite match.

I’m transcribing and jotting down my thoughts on emergent themes as I go, and I’m starting to draft my methodology chapter, but once I stop meeting with parents I will need to turn my attention fully to these tasks. And there, possibly, lurking just beneath my consciousness and occasionally popping up its fanged head, is The Thing. I know once I start that phase, the whole candidature moves into its final stages. The abstract ‘when I finish my thesis’ (somewhere, over the rainbow…) becomes a more concrete date. A dog walking over this concrete date would still leave paw prints, but it’s firming up as we speak. And I’m not sure I’m ready! Also, I know this next phase is the bit where people tell me I will start to hate my thesis, and I will start to hate my supervisor (I find that really hard to believe, but this is what I’m told) and it will all turn into a Great Big Tedious Drudge.

Because I feel ambivalent about concluding the interview phase, I’m hoping that my supply of interested parents will simply trickle away of its own accord, so that there will be no identifiable moment when I have to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t meet with you, I’ve completed that phase of the study.’ On the other hand, at the moment it looks like I will have completed all the parent meetings a month ahead of schedule, which makes me happy. Maybe I’m ready to move ahead after all, knowing that there will always be people out there who have interesting things to tell, but who will need to do it some other way than through the this vehicle. Um, what’s a post-doc?