This blog is part of a series for Evidence-Based Health Care MSc students undertaking their dissertations, by Research Assistant Alice Tompson.
I thought Margaret Głogowska would be a great person to chat to about the opportunities and challenges of writing a mixed-methods thesis. Margaret has loads of research experience and co-coordinates the Mixed Methods Evidence-Based Health Care module.
Here are her top tips for writing a successful mixed methods dissertation:
1) Start writing as soon as you can
Beginning to write your dissertation can be daunting – a blank screen can be very intimidating! Margaret suggests the methods section can be a good place to start. Writing what you are doing, and how to you are doing it is, often more straightforward than writing why you’re doing it or describing or discussing your results. Plus it’ll help you identify any holes in your research plans.
2) Mixed methods isn’t a game of two halves
Margaret explains that a common mistake is to think of mixed methods studies as having to have two components. In fact, they have three: in addition to the quantitative and qualitative strands, successful dissertations will pull these together to provide insight greater than the sum of the parts. This doesn’t only relate to the results: be sure to include your plans for integration in your methods section too. This article by Jenny Burt gives some further advice on “following the mixed methods trail”.
3) Think about the structure
When writing up her own work, Margaret reflects on, “What’s a good way to bring this together to answer my research question?” You could follow a typical quantitative approach where each component is reported sequentially (i.e. quantitative, qualitative, integration). However, you could adopt a more qualitative approach organising your results by themes, each illustrated with qualitative and quantitative data. Think about which structure will enable you to present the fullest picture of the issue you are investigating. In this article, Alicia O’Cathain and colleagues describe three approaches to integrating mixed methods data.
4) It’s not about the “right answer”
Don’t be disheartened if the results from the different components of your study are not in agreement. Instead of attempting to establish which is more valid, use dissonant findings as an opportunity to return to your datasets to explore the reasons for these differences. This will enrich your understanding and enable a full account to be presented.
5) Embrace the flexibility
Mixed methods studies are a relatively recent development that can take many forms. As a result, there are not currently any reporting standards that students can use to structure their work. Although this can be daunting, Margaret encourages students to use this freedom to work to their advantage. Be creative and flexible to enable you to present a rich, complete account of your work.
6) Be systematic and rigorous
Although mixed methods offer flexibility, this must not be at the expense of rigor or transparency. When writing up provide enough detail for your examiners/ readers to be able to replicate your methods and analyses. Justify the approaches you took and the decisions you made. Enable them to follow the story.
7) Read the literature
The field of mixed methods is advancing all the time. Refer to the literature for methodological developments, for example how to display data, and also to see how published studies reported their mixed method projects.
To get you started, here are three helpful papers Margaret uses as teaching examples:
- Van den Bruel et al (2016) C-reactive protein point-of-care testing in acutely ill children: a mixed methods study in primary care. Archives of Disease in Childhood 10.1136/archdischild-2015-309228
- Moffat et al (2006) Using quantitative and qualitative data in health services research – what happens when mixed method findings conflict? BMC Health Services Research, 6:28 doi:10.1186/1472-6963-6-28
- Casey et al (2014) A mixed methods study exploring the factors and behaviours that affect glycemic control following a structured education program: the Irish DAFNE study. Journal of Mixed Methods Research 10(2):182-203
She also recommends the work of Alan Bryman, a pioneer in combining qualitative and quantitative research.
8) Fortune favours the prepared!
Keep your research notebook with you: it will allow you to keep track of ideas, useful references, and helpful conversations. Fortune favours the prepared so always keep your notebook close to hand!
9) Be concise
Word limits are a perennial issue in mixed methods research. Two methods plus integration means there is a lot of information to convey. No word can be superfluous and it may take several drafts to cut out the clutter. Use tables and appendices to “make the most of your precious word count”.
10) Final steps – publishing your thesis
The value of mixed methods, particularly in applied health research, is increasingly being recognised. Based on her own experience, Margaret suggests contacting journal editors for advice on how to tailor your manuscript for their particular audience to increase your chances of it being accepted.
If you are interested in learning more about the Evidence-Based Health Care module: “Mixed- Methods in Health Research” take a look here.