Unlike the first two posts in this series, this post will include a large amount of information I acquired second-hand. Because I chose to write a training manual rather than conducting an empirical study, I cannot speak to my own experience about the intricacies of a dissertation involving data collection. During my first year, though, I did do an empirical study for class, and so I will draw my wisdom from that experience. I do highly recommend finding someone in your program who did an empirical study for their dissertation to provide insights into your project. In fact, I would suggest finding someone in your program who has completed a similar dissertation regardless of your project so that you can be sure to meet your program’s specific requirements as closely as possible.
The most important component I have found of a project involving data collection is to make sure that you have permission to move forward. This is not the time for asking forgiveness rather than permission. There is a rumor in my program of a woman who began her study prior to receiving her official Human Subjects Committee approval, and she ended up not being allowed to complete her project. No dissertation = no degree, and they still expect you to pay back your loans even if you don’t finish.
The second most important part of any dissertation is communication with your adviser. You can follow every procedure to the letter, but if your chair feels that it is not the project that he or she signed up for, they can tell you to make changes. Significant changes. Even if it is your nineteenth draft and all you want to do is graduate. Discuss with your chair in excruciating detail what you plan to do and how you plan to do it, and make sure that they are in agreement. That is what the prospectus is usually for – it is basically a contract where you outline what you will do and your chair agrees to work on it with you. Unfortunately, though, often times chairs agree to a prospectus with contingencies, and if you do not get those contingencies spelled out you might be in for a hassle later on.
As a side bar to this, also make sure that your chair and other committee members are people who will have the same goals in mind for your project. This did not happen to me, but I have heard horror stories from other programs of faculty butting heads on certain details, with each refusing to pass the student without things being done his or her own particular way. When my chair agreed to work on my project, I blatantly asked her who she would be alright with as second and third readers, and then I chose the rest of my committee from that list.
Anyway, if your project involves human subjects of any kind, or archived data from a past experiment using human subjects, you will need approval from your institution’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB basically gets to decide whether or not what you are doing is ethical, from the wording on your consent forms to the actual procedures used in your study. For my study, a classmate and I were using archival data that had been collected by the university in previous years. Our IRB had an issue that, when the initial data collection had taken place, participants did not give consent for their information to be used in our study (because neither of us was attending graduate school at that time, and neither of us had any idea that we would want to do this study in the future). We were fortunate that the researchers of the initial study had the foresight to predict that someone else might benefit from their data and had clearly spelled out in their consent forms that the University had the right to re-use the data for future research while protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of the information.
Basically, be prepared for the IRB to ask you to revise your proposal. Their job is to be scrupulous, so even if you send them a flawless proposal, it is their job to find something wrong with it, even if that something seems insignificant to you. This also means that you need to be prepared to submit early. At my university, the IRB meets once per month, and so if they send you revisions and ask you to re-submit, you have to wait another month for the changes to be approved before you can even begin.
When constructing your timeline, also keep in mind the availability of the subjects you want to use. At my university, there is a tendency for graduate students to collect dissertation data during the spring semester, and statistically fewer students volunteer than in the fall. As such, every spring we end up with projects that lack sufficient volunteers. If you know this about your university, make a plan to collect data in the fall, or to be open to spreading it out over two semesters.
And remember: Relax, and take deep breaths. Your dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint. Good luck! You would not be here if you weren’t smart enough to handle this.