Ten tips for students starting a qualitative MSc dissertation

This blog is part of a series for Evidence-Based Health Care MSc students undertaking their dissertations, by Research Assistant Alice Tompson.

Undertaking an MSc dissertation in Evidence-Based Health Care (EBHC) may be your first hands-on experience of doing qualitative research. I chatted to Dr. Veronika Williams, an experienced qualitative researcher, and tutor on the EBHC programme, to find out her top tips for producing a high-quality qualitative EBHC thesis.

1) Make the switch from a quantitative to a qualitative mindset

It’s not just about replacing numbers with words. Doing qualitative research requires you to adopt a different way of seeing and interpreting the world around you. Veronika asks her students to reflect on positivist and interpretivist approaches: If you come from a scientific or medical background, positivism is often the unacknowledged status quo. Be open to considering there are alternative ways to generate and understand knowledge.

2) Reflect on your role

Quantitative research strives to produce “clean” data unbiased by the context in which it was generated.  With qualitative methods, this is neither possible nor desirable.  Students should reflect on how their background and personal views shape the way they collect and analyse their data. This will not only add to the transparency of your work but will also help you interpret your findings.

3) Don’t forget the theory

Qualitative researchers use theories as a lens through which they understand the world around them. Veronika suggests that students consider the theoretical underpinning to their own research at the earliest stages. You can read an article about why theories are useful in qualitative research here.

4) Think about depth rather than breadth

Qualitative research is all about developing a deep and insightful understanding of the phenomenon/ concept you are studying. Be realistic about what you can achieve given the time constraints of an MSc.  Veronika suggests that collecting and analysing a smaller dataset well is preferable to producing a superficial, rushed analysis of a larger dataset.

5) Blur the boundaries between data collection, analysis and writing up

Veronika strongly recommends keeping a research diary or using memos to jot down your ideas as your research progresses. Not only do these add to your audit trail, these entries will help contribute to your first draft and the process of moving towards theoretical thinking. Qualitative researchers move back and forward between their dataset and manuscript as their ideas develop. This enriches their understanding and allows emerging theories to be explored.

6) Move beyond the descriptive

When analysing interviews, for example, it can be tempting to think that having coded your transcripts you are nearly there. This is not the case!  You need to move beyond the descriptive codes to conceptual themes and theoretical thinking in order to produce a high-quality thesis.  Veronika warns against falling into the pitfall of thinking writing up is, “Two interviews said this whilst three interviewees said that”.

7) It’s not just about the average experience

When analysing your data, consider the outliers or negative cases, for example, those that found the intervention unacceptable.  Although in the minority, these respondents will often provide more meaningful insight into the phenomenon or concept you are trying to study.

8) Bounce ideas

Veronika recommends sharing your emerging ideas and findings with someone else, maybe with a different background or perspective. This isn’t about getting to the “right answer” rather it offers you the chance to refine your thinking.  Be sure, though, to fully acknowledge their contribution in your thesis.

9) Be selective

In can be a challenge to meet the dissertation word limit.  It won’t be possible to present all the themes generated by your dataset so focus! Use quotes from across your dataset that best encapsulate the themes you are presenting.  Display additional data in the appendix.  For example, Veronika suggests illustrating how you moved from your coding framework to your themes.

10) Don’t panic!

There will be a stage during analysis and write up when it seems undoable.  Unlike quantitative researchers who begin analysis with a clear plan, qualitative research is more of a journey. Everything will fall into place by the end.  Be sure, though, to allow yourself enough time to make sense of the rich data qualitative research generates.


Veronika teaches on the Qualitative Research Methods module of the Evidence-Based Health Care Module.   Click here to learn more about it.

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