Where Is Your Data??

Here you are!

You finally made it to the dissertation phase of your doctoral program! You worked hard to complete all the coursework, did all the assignments, and got good grades. NOW, You are out of the coursework and ready to start your dissertation. Nobody will give you assignments to submit for a grade. No classmates. Only you and the dissertation. Of course, your dissertation Chair will give you feedback but you are expected to develop and support a plan for conducting research then do that research, analyze data, and report findings and implications.

Overlooking This Part of Your Dissertation Can Put You in the ABD group!!

I have written other posts about all the things you need to be doing in your dissertation process and also discussed All But Dissertation (ABD). That is the sad fate of almost half the students enrolled in doctoral programs. This is about something that can be easily overlooked as you develop your research proposal.

Do You Have Any Idea Where You Will Get the Data for Your Study?

Sadly, many doctoral students wait until they have developed their research proposal to ask this question. Even worse, they automatically assume they will be able to access the data they desire. Both of these are recipes for disaster. The time to start investigating data sources is early in your program before you write yourself into a rabbit hole.

If you are starting your dissertation and have not considered the following questions, you may be in for a shock!

What do you need to collect?

What kinds of data will help you learn more about the problem found in your literature search? Will it be existing data that you will analyze or participant accounts and supporting documents that can tell a story or paint a clearer picture of the problem? Knowing what you need will also help you determine the research method and design.

What will answer the research questions?

Good research questions are key to setting the boundaries for your study. They tell you what data you need and keep you focused on your research. All researchers uncover other questions that need to be answered. The research questions provide the boundaries for your study so that everything you do is intended to answer your questions, which in turn, will help you learn more about the problem.

Don’t think you can use a shotgun approach to data collection. Collecting extraneous data because “you may need it later” is not acceptable. This is a dissertation and you are expected to thoughtfully consider in advance, what you will need to collect and then justify its collection.

Remove extraneous data.

Research questions help you keep extraneous data out of your research. That doesn’t mean the extraneous data is not valuable, just not for this study. Maybe you can plan further research after your dissertation is defended and published. Right now, the dissertation requires all of your effort and focus.

What will you use to collect the data?

This is an important concern for dissertation research. There are many ways to collect data. The ways you select should be appropriate to your research method and design. What will you collect to get the best data? In qualitative designs, triangulation involves three or more sources that can be compared and contrasted to strengthen the accuracy of the results. Having multiple data sources broadens an understanding of a problem.

√ Surveys

If you are using a quantitative method, you may be using surveys to collect data. Depending upon the length of your program, you may or may not have time to develop your own instrument and test it for validity and reliability. For this reason, doctoral students usually choose existing instruments. This approach will get data that can be statistically analyzed.

√ Interviews

Interviews are used for both quantitative and qualitative data collection. If used in quantitative designs, the interview questions may be in a more structured form to facilitate quantitation during the analysis.

Since researchers using qualitative design seek rich, complex details, semi- or unstructured formats are preferred. The participant is encouraged to provide details about the phenomenon that will later be analyzed for common themes. This type of interview also lets the researcher ask for clarification and/or elaboration to get the necessary data.

√ Observations

Observation can be used in either quantitative or qualitative methods. Observations can provide information about participant interactions with others. Observing someone’s actions gives an added dimension to data collected using other approaches.

√ Journal responses

While this approach can be used in either method, it is used more frequently in qualitative designs. Depending on the design, these can be participant journals kept during the research period or narrative responses to specific questions posed by the researcher.

√ Site documents

Site documents also help contextualize the research results and can be used in either method or in a mixed methods study. Qualitative case study design frequently uses one or more of these to expand the understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. These are examples of site documents:

  • Professional Development
  • Policies
  • Historical records



Research almost always means getting access to data sources and that usually means getting permissions to access it. If the research involves posting flyers, sending mass emails, or other forms of distribution for recruitment, there is usually some form of permission needed. Pre-existing data located in databases is the main source for quantitative studies. In every case, it is critical to know early in the dissertation process how to get permission. The permission should be a response on letterhead stationery or an email using the organization's email system.

Who can give permission?

Knowing who can give permission for research can sometimes be tricky. This must be the person with the authority to grant permission. There may also be multiple permissions needed if you plan to conduct research in multiple site organizations such as a school district. Getting permissions can range from a simple signed letter to complicated forms that take weeks or months to process. Knowing these things in advance can help prevent wasting time later.

Writing the request for permission letter

The best way to know what must be included in a request for permission letter is to put yourself in the position of the one who will grant permission. If you were the responsible person, what would you need to know before giving a complete stranger access to your site? You would want to know the “who, what, when, where, and how long” before giving permission.

For Schools

If you are conducting research in a school district, the following steps will need to be completed. Note: if there is an IRB process for the school system, do that first. (I will talk about IRB things in a minute.) Generally, the following steps are taken:

Send the request for permission letter to

  1. School District Administrator and,
  2. Principals of each school where you will conduct research.

What About the Institutional Review Board (IRB)?

Before you can conduct research, you must have approval from your institution’s IRB committee. This is done once you have your research proposal accepted by your committee. However, you can familiarize yourself with the process.

Note: Some organizations have their own IRB that must be completed.

Why am I discussing the site IRB process? Although it is different than getting permission to conduct research, there are a couple of important reasons to talk about it.

  • First, if you cannot get IRB approval, you won’t be able to conduct the research even if you have permissions.
  • Second, getting site IRB approval may take a few weeks so doing this early in the dissertation process allows time to gain approval.

The purpose of the IRB committee is to protect the rights of human subjects but even if you are not using human subjects, the IRB must provide an exemption status for your research. Be prepared to revise your IRB application once or twice.

If you have participants in the study, you must show how you plan to contact them with recruitment material, answer any questions they may have, provide them with Informed Consent (IRB), schedule and conduct interviews, and schedule member check/followup meetings.

- Remember that you as the primary investigator must be the one to contact them so email or flyer distribution must be done by you.

When and How Will You Contact Participants?

The “when” happens only after the following:

  • You have an approved dissertation proposal
  • You have IRB approvals, from your institution and the research sites if they have their own IRB
  • You have all permissions to enter the research sites (This is really a given if you have IRB approval as permission letters are part of the application.)

The “how” is outlined in the IRB application that must be followed.

Collecting Your Data

Where will you actually do the data collection?

This is an important and often overlooked part of planning dissertation research as gaining access to some data sources is a time-consuming, complex process. Doctoral students often hit a “brick wall” when seeking access to the data that will help them understand the problem.

Where are the data located?

Research sites

Research sites are any places where the data is found or where data collection will occur. While usually businesses or schools, sites can be public meeting places or private homes.

Getting to the Data

Pre-existing data located in databases is the main source for quantitative studies. There may be multiple forms to complete before permission is granted. Sometimes, the organization might want to see a conditional approval from your university before granting access. You can save yourself lots of headaches and frustration by investigating this early.

How long will it take to collect the data?

Consider the time limits of your program when planning the data collection timeframe. Some research designs take too much time to be viable possibilities but in any case, it takes planning to make sure that you can collect all the data you need and do it within your realistic timeframe.

A Closing Story

Sadly, there are too many stories to pick one as an example of a dissertation student who waited too long to make sure there was access to the data needed for her research...or his research...too many unnecessary stories. Don't be one of those stories!