One of the first things to consider when developing your study is which research method you’ll choose: qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods.

Consider the following questions to help determine which research method is best for you.

What type of data are available to me?

The first thing you should consider is the type of data you have available to you.  It’s much easier to work with data you already have (such as archival data) or are sure you have access to than to plan a study and hope you’ll get the data you need.

Look at your research questions and ask whether they’re better aligned with qualitative or quantitative data.  If you’re doing a study on individuals’ perceptions or experiences surrounding a phenomenon, you’ll probably need to gather rich qualitative data in the form of interviews or focus groups.  However, if you’re focused on  ore generic attributes or characteristics (such as stress, anxiety, self-efficacy, leadership style, etc.), quantitative may be the way to go.

A quick note on instrumentation… if you select a quantitative method, always try to locate an existing instrument to gather the data you need.  Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to!  Developing and validating an instrument involves pilot testing (which can be arduous).

What sample is available to me?

In addition to differences in data characteristics and collection methods, qualitative and quantitative research have different sample size requirements.  Generally, quantitative methods require larger samples, while qualitative researchers can get away with much smaller samples.

In qualitative studies, sample size is determined by saturation.  In contrast, the required size of quantitative samples is determined via power calculation.  If you only have access to a small sample or you’ve got very specific inclusion criteria that will significantly limit the participants available to you, you’re probably better off with a qualitative approach.  On the other hand, if your sample is more generalized and you have access to the tools needed to gather a large sample (such as online survey distribution), quantitative could be a better option.

How comfortable am I with different types of data?

Next, ask yourself how comfortable you are collecting and analyzing different types of data.  If statistical analysis isn’t your strength, a quantitative research method could be a challenge.

While there are pros and cons to working with each type of data, it seems that students sometimes select a qualitative method because they think the analysis process will be easier – but be warned, this usually isn’t the case.  Qualitative data requires special treatment that can be incredibly tedious and time-consuming.  Fortunately, regardless of the type of data you decide to work with, there are plenty of analysts and statisticians available to assist with the data analysis, if you get stuck.

What about mixed methods?

In some cases, you might want to integrate both quantitative and qualitative data into your research.  Mixed methods are particularly awesome if you’re following a case study design.  The integration of quantitative and qualitative data can also be useful for triangulating findings.  Often, mixed methods studies produce impressive and robust findings – just be aware that this type of study is very labor intensive.

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