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Doctoral training and innovation for qualitative researchers

Randall F. Clemens

One of the principal tasks of a research university is to train doctoral students to be able to design and conduct quality research studies. Optimally, training includes a mixture of theory and practice, coursework and experience. While a student marches to class to learn about research techniques, she also conducts research as part of major projects. For example, she learns about purposive sampling in class and practices it in the field. The idea is that both activities enrich each other. During my own experiences and those with students, the blended approach often leads to those important “Aha!” moments. It’s one thing to read about participant observation; it’s quite another to do it. And so, the interplay between theory and practice allows students to constantly refine and improve their skills and expertise.

Doctoral programs usually require students to obtain 15 credits related to research methods. Students enroll in a mixture of quantitative and qualitative courses, depending on their focus. An example of a qualitative-focused program of study may include a two-semester introductory strand along with a few courses that highlight specific approaches like ethnography or case study. It provides a nice overview of qualitative research and a more in-depth exploration of a few methodologies. But, is it enough?

In a new book, The Graduate School Mess, professor Leonard Cassuto argues that graduate schools need to do a better job preparing students for a variety of professional tracks. It’s a familiar—and often ignored—refrain. And yet, coupled with increasingly dire job prospects and a changing job market, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. While tenure-track positions are decreasing, job opportunities with funders, policymakers, think tanks, school districts, and others are increasing.

How have schools of education responded? While both education and technology have undergone massive transformations over the last decade, doctoral programs have not maintained pace. They have relied on established and well-worn strategies without embracing new ideas.

Of course, there are exceptions. I know of a few programs that secure internships with state policymakers, school districts, or think tanks. I have many talented colleagues designing and implementing creative courses—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, students are often more enthusiastic about and engaged in those courses. And, I know of doctoral advisors who have modified their stances towards the processes and outcomes of graduate education. They provide students with new coursework and publishing opportunities and support alternative job placements. But, as Professor Cassuto highlights, admiring the innovations of a few exemplary programs and professors does not solve the over-arching problems that haunt graduate schools of education.

What’s one possible solution for qualitative researchers? My own work focuses on the uses of qualitative research for public policy. One of the biggest limitations when considering the topic is the degree of misunderstanding about what qualitative research is and what it can be for policy design. In order to improve the utility of qualitative research, some scholars try to make it more like quantitative research. Such an approach undermines the unique strengths of qualitative inquiry. For instance, thick description, a hallmark of ethnography, has the ability to illuminate policy issues in ways that quantitative research cannot. Think about the ability of photographs and videos to move people to action. Now, combine that with the creative possibilities of social media.

It’s more important than ever to focus on the foundations of qualitative research. Recent examples like Alice Goffman’s On the Run and the subsequent controversy it created illustrate the increased scrutiny qualitative scholars encounter when producing public scholarship. Doctoral students need to be able to understand and examine the underlying epistemological, methodological, and axiological assumptions of research. They also need quality research experiences. However, the current approach to doctoral training fails to embrace the future of qualitative inquiry.

A course that focuses on designing research for multiple audiences—e.g., laypeople, funders, policymakers—prepares students for jobs inside and outside academia. Understanding how to translate ethnographic findings into actionable policy solutions is an important skill, so is recognizing the potential of emergent technologies to present and distribute research. A course that highlights the multiple uses of qualitative research has the capacity to help researchers make their work more accessible for diverse audiences and to improve the marketability of graduates as they pursue alternative job tracks. It also has the ability to alter how individuals view the utility of qualitative inquiry.

Like all education reforms, challenges exist. Faculty members may not understand new technologies or may disagree with efforts to expand the reach of qualitative research. In order to gain competitive advantages, universities are trimming coursework requirements. Methods already get squeezed. The prospect of one more course may not be too palatable to some. And yet, the challenges are not insurmountable. In order to stay relevant, schools of education must adapt.