What you can do when you can’t collect research data
Going into lockdown is a tough enough challenge for most people, but all the more so for PhD students and researchers who have to pause or drastically amend their fieldwork or lab work. What do you do when you can’t interact with research participants? Or when you cannot physically access the labs and facilities you need for experiments?
First of all, your PhD supervisor or the principal investigator of your project should already be talking to you about alternative ways for conducting your research. Some universities may also allow their doctoral candidates to take a leave of absence if the current pandemic is having adverse effects on their physical and mental health; or if lockdown circumstances are making it completely impossible for candidates to continue with their work.
However, in the cases where you still have to continue with your research, there is still much that can be done in lieu of going into the field or labs. Below, we outline our best suggestions to help you continue working on your PhD at this time.
Readjust your methods
The lockdown can be an excellent opportunity to prove your flexibility as a researcher. Depending on where you are in the world, there may be no way of knowing when and if you will even be able to conduct your research as planned.
So, you’ll need to consider how else you might explore your research question using alternative methods and methodological approaches – instead of doing interviews, can you design an online survey or questionnaire, or organise online discussion panels? Can you work with and analyse online or digital content instead? You may need to adjust your research focus slightly, or ask different questions, but these changes can make for rich methodological discussions or even prompt the creation of novel methods and approaches.
Perfect your paperwork
Doing paperwork may seem extremely dull, but your future self will thank you for getting it in order before you start collecting data! Use this time to build the supportive framework you need to collect, store and manage your data effectively. This could mean creating clear spreadsheets to document each piece of data or filing all your administrative records and correspondence with research participants. When you are mired in data analysis many months on, and need to refer quickly to the specific details of one piece of data, all this preparation will save you hours of frustration and work.
Reflect upon your research design
Thinking deeply about the many aspects of your research design is very valuable for anticipating any ethical, methodological and epistemological issues that may arise while you’re collecting your data. We are usually in such a rush to get into the field or labs that we often overlook this much-needed phase of contemplation and researcher reflexivity. The blank, open space afforded by lockdown is perfect for reflecting upon the many (potential) issues arising out of your research and data. For example, think about how you are/will be positioned as a researcher in relation to your participants; consider who/what your research subjects are and how their demographics affect the data you collect; and anticipate potential practical issues or ethical challenges that may arise during your fieldwork or experiments, and plan measures to address them.
Connect with other researchers
At the best of times, the PhD journey can often be a lonely one, so it is all the more important now to create and maintain contact with other students and researchers. Know that doctoral students the world over are facing many of the same challenges you are with their fieldwork and data collection – offering and receiving peer support within a research community can make a big difference in finding relief, solidarity and strength.
Find out if your department or university are organising online training sessions or events for researchers to connect. Students are also independently discovering imaginative ways to meet online, such as through online writing retreats or virtual coffee mornings, so you could even create your own online sessions with research colleagues and friends.
Reach out and share your experiences, for example what parts of your research you can’t progress with, or the problems you’re facing with your methods. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Other researchers can help to brainstorm alternate ways for approaching your research within current constraints, or share their own experiences and the solutions they’re working with. If nothing else, listening to others’ stories in lockdown or talking to peers who empathise with your situation can be helpful and offer reassurance that you’re certainly not alone.