What I wish I had known at the start of my Master’s research project

At the start of my Master of Information Management research project, I wondered how I would complete a deliverable that’s equivalent to the weighting of 12 postgraduate assignments. Thanks to expert guidance from my supervisor, I was able to break it into stages and smaller chunks, and make steady progress. I’ve now completed the methodology section, literature review, recruitment, data collection and data analysis and am writing up my findings and discussion.

My tips so far

  • Research question reminders – Once you’ve figured out your research questions, keep them visible as you progress through the project, at the top of Word documents for example:
    • when you’re reviewing the literature for your lit review
    • writing interview questions or
    • writing up the findings and discussion sections.
  • Software licenses – If you think you might need any software from your university, ask for it early – it took me a few weeks to get a license for a home version of data analysis software.
  • Organise your files – Try to keep your filing system under control as you go. My current count for this project is 41 folders and 275 files. Save a copy of each version you send to anyone – for example ethics documents and drafts for review. This makes it easier to track changes as you go, and revisit older versions.
  • Back it up – Back up everything, have a primary and two backups with one of the backups offsite. For me this means the main copy on my laptop, a copy in the cloud (my university’s dedicated research cloud space), and another copy on an external drive. During transcription I had a corrupted audio file and nearly lost 30 minutes of an interview. Thankfully I was working with a backup copy rather than the original. I was easily able to get a fresh copy of the original with no harm done except for 5 minutes of sheer panic!
  • Help future you – once you get into the intense writing stage in the last few months, leave a note for yourself at the end of each session so you know where to pick up the next day.

I’ve had a positive experience overall, enjoyed some parts more than others, and it has made me want to do more research!

Photo of Prevally Beach with rocks, ocean and a bronze statue of a woman
Prevally beach, in Yebble, Margaret River, WA

Semi-structured research interview tips

I’m in the last semester of Curtin University’s Master of Information Management, and midway through a 4-unit research project (25% of the whole Masters!). This research project is essential for me to understand the research process, as I want to support researchers in my future library and information career.

My Master’s research project title is:

Engagement with open access among Curtin University humanities researchers: Exploring the perceptions of, and barriers to publishing open access

This blog post shares some tips for running semi-structured interviews, a qualitative research data collection method. I’ve summarised what worked well for me at a Master’s level, seasoned researchers will have far better tips! 

Some definitions

Qualitative research is the attempt to understand someone else’s worldview and perceptions, usually via their words.

An interview guide is the questions you plan to ask during the interview.

Semi-structured interviews use an interview guide, but with the flexibility to deviate during the interview.

Why choose interviews?

During my literature review, I noticed that previous research that used interviews rather than surveys was more insightful about experiences of open access. Interviews are very time-intensive as they need to be transcribed and analysed, but for me this effort has been worth it.

Before the interview

  • Pack chargers and cables, spare batteries, spare pens, paper, backup recording method (I had a digital recorder with a backup of recording software on a laptop), a spare printed consent form and participant info sheet.
  • Number your printed interview guide pages, this makes it easier to jump around if the participant talks about a later topic before you have asked questions about it.
  • If you have used purposive sampling to find your participants and it fits with your research ethics approval, try and learn more about your participants before you meet them. I was able to review the publications of the humanities researchers that I interviewed, and read their latest work before I met them. For me, this made it easier during interviews to establish rapport and encourage recollection of their open access publishing experiences.
  • If you have a lot to cover, prioritise the questions you really want to ask first.
  • Read over your literature review as you have probably written it a few months ago.
  • Get everything ready the night before.

The day of the interview

  • If possible, try and find the actual room where you’re going before the interview.
  • Don’t panic if you get lost! Ask for help. I had to ring two of my participants 5 minutes before our appointment because I could not find their respective rooms despite being in the right buildings.
  • It’s ok to be nervous, you’re doing something important. All of my participants were kind and generous with their time and retelling of their experiences, and I ended up really enjoying the interview process.

During the interview

  • Sort out paperwork first including a signed consent form, and make sure they have read the participant information sheet.
  • I started each interview by explaining the four areas I would be asking questions about.
  • Saying “I’ve read that” or “I’ve heard that” are really useful phrases to show that you are recognising what the participant is telling you but without inserting your own opinions (thank you to my supervisor Dr Hollie White for this tip!)
  • If you think of an extra question while the participant is talking, make a note so you don’t have to interrupt them and can ask it when they have finished speaking.
  • If you’re running out of time, reprioritise your remaining questions. 
  • At the end of the interview thank the participant, their time is valuable.

After the interview

  • If reflecting on an interview was part of your research plan, do this as soon as you leave the interview. I am stunned by how much I have forgotten from interview conversations every time I listen to the recordings.
  • Back up the audio recording as soon as you can.
  • Transcribe from the backup audio file and keep the original file secure according to your research data management plan.
  • Follow up with anything you promised the participant such as links discussed during the interview.
  • Have a break – I was quite tired from the effort of leading an interview, listening, making notes, monitoring question progress and thinking ahead at the same time.
  • Tell yourself well done 🙂

Further reading – both open access

Edwards, R., & Holland, J. (2013). What is Qualitative Interviewing? (The ‘What is?’ Research Methods Series). London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781472545244

Hammersley, M. (2013). What is Qualitative Research? (The ‘What is?’ Research Methods Series). London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781849666084

Photo of kookaburra bird on cabin balcony with trees in background
Kookaburra in Beedelup, WA