What I Learned About Doing Your Academic Research Effectively

What I Learned About Doing Your Academic Research Effectively
Conducting research – proper research if you may – is no walk in the park. But in Pakistan, it’s like navigating through a maze whose creator never wanted to create it in the first place and begrudges one’s audacity for even thinking about entering his maze! Here in Pakistan, it’s more about making sense of the intertwined pathways and blurry openings at first, than finding the end of the maze.

Especially if you are conducting qualitative research and in-depth interviews is your weapon of choice. And if you are conducting policy research and it involves public officials or organizations with traditional setup (big industries etc.), brace yourself for a war you didn’t start.

Many first-time researchers or research students struggle are clueless while starting off their project. Some reach out to their seniors, but not everyone finds a fairy godmother or a guardian angel in their senior. For such students, at a risk of becoming preachy, here are a few tips as per my experience of the thesis project:


Finding respondents

1. Create a list of your potential interviewees/respondents first. Do your research and find their contact details.
2. Email them first. Since you are asking them for a favor—their time, be nice and courteous. Mention their work if they are researchers/authors/journalists. But do keep in mind that not all of them would respond, and even fewer would do so positively.
3. Sometimes, the seemingly simplest solution is the best one. Look them up on social media, most of them would be active on Facebook or Twitter and check messages as well. While it might seem transgressing the accepted social conduct, it works more often than you might think.
The first person to agree to give me an interview (from across the border) was contacted on Facebook. It really gave me confidence and an overall positive feeling about the interviews. And you wouldn't believe that I even got a response from a high-level dignitary on Twitter, with thousands of followers and probably hundreds of DMs. But keep in mind that the first option should still be the email. If you can't find the email id, then go for social media. Most of my interviews were scheduled on LinkedIn, even with those whom I had emailed before. After sending them a text on LinkedIn, I received the reply by email as well. You might land on their contact number as well through your connections. Use the same formal, courteous tone as you would on email. Try messaging first and then call.
4. Follow-ups help a lot, more than you think. If you didn’t get a response to your email or messages, send a follow-up message after three working days or a week.
5. For interviews with the government officials, the first thing to try is find some link and get connected. If not, then find their number and ask them nicely, they would ask you to come with an official letter (you know, the ‘standard procedure’), but they might "grant away" some time. Some of them might be happy to help, but they are a rare breed.
If you don’t have any connection, still it doesn’t hurt to try. Try contacting them as well on LinkedIn and other places. Someone might help you out. And if you are concerned about being too pushy, just remember either you can have a successful research project in your record or have a shred of pride while doing research. Moreover, with the government organizations, steer clear of the term data request, because asking a public office for data is just like asking someone to give you both their kidneys.
6. Do not get disheartened by lack of response or negative replies. Some of them wouldn't give time, for their own reasons. Just move on to the next one.


During the interviews

1. Don't interrupt your interviewee. If you have any questions or feel they are deviating from the subject, let them finish, jot down your questions meanwhile and ask them later. Let them speak as much as possible, especially if you are conducting semi or unstructured interviews. (If it's a sensitive topic or you think the interviewee is reserved and trying to hold on to information, this is the best strategy to loosen them up). We, as researchers, are not supposed to be nudging them to come to the answer we like or giving them cues to have them reach our desired answer.
If you have to speak, just agree or acknowledge their response while asking the next question. Ask more questions or explain if they are straying from the topic.
2. Do not strike a debate. Just remember, it’s their response you would be needing for analysis, not your part of the verbal exchanges. Pushing them or arguing them would taint your data and induce bias. Arguing with them is just counterproductive and counterintuitive too. Disagreeing or showing as such might lead to distrust and ultimately withheld information, especially if you are working on a sensitive topic.
3. Start transcribing as soon as you are done with the first interview. (Unless it's a group project, transcribe your interviews yourself.) You would be able to improve your next interviews by a great deal. My first interview was more like a talk show where I was the host and interviewee the guest. While transcribing, I felt like giving myself a slap. I've always believed myself to be an intent listener, but at that time, I was like why I wouldn’t shut up. Do not let it be a boring, mechanical exchange either. Show your interviewee that you are listening to them with interest.