The Myth of Mixed Method Dissertations

Posted February 12, 2013

I want dissertation students to be empowered in their dissertations, to learn something, and to graduate.  In the dissertation consulting business, Statistics Solutions has come across a lot of mixed method dissertations, and they’re seemingly on the rise.  When I ask the graduate student why they want to review two methodologies, then conduct and interpret both quantitative and qualitative methods, they invariably say because their advisor told them to.  The lament of the dissertation chairs are "one methodology is not enough" or I want you to "triangulate your findings."  There are literally tens of thousands of purely quantitative OR qualitative dissertations sitting in the library, so why this trend?

First, I suspect that the chairs are getting pressure from the top, who are getting pressure from accreditation boards, to have more scholarly dissertations.  The answer to more scholarly dissertations is not more breath, but more depth.  Dissertations are to be original, add to the literature on a topic, and to provide a research experience to the student--this can certainly be done with one methodology.  And let's all be honest, most institutions are not research institutions--and maybe the chairs, administration, and accreditation boards should stop trying to put a square peg into a round hole, and appropriately focus on a dissertation that the students have been prepared to conduct.  (and by the way, just giving them a few dissertation classes is not preparation--the entire graduate experience is the preparation--if you can't do it, don't expect miracles in the last year).
Second, I suspect there is a mismatch between what the student’s comfort and preparation level and the chairs experience. There’s an old adage, that "your down on what you’re not up on."  Dissertation students should therefore pick wisely who their chair (and committee) is and simply ask them what kind of dissertations they have predominantly worked on, and even what the advisors own dissertation methods were like.
Third, students are not empowered, nor have the experience, to say I want to do just quantitative or just qualitative.  I believe this happens for several reasons.  The dissertation is primarily an individual process and bouncing the process off others in a confidential manner with colleagues is difficult.  Second, there are a lot more people involved in the process: the chairperson, the committee, IRB or URR, the dean--so the chances of the dissertation getting stuck in one of these areas is much greater than just taking a class where the teacher has virtual total control of the process. I also think anxiety sets in.  Anxiety is natural since dissertation students are so close to finishing, the process is brand new, and their control seems to be at a minimum.
So what’s the solution?  First, pick the dissertation chairperson well and only once.  Changing chairpersons will almost always cost you more time and money.  You’re going to spend a year or more with this person in the dissertation process, so it’s worth it to have a few conversations prior to committing to that chair.  Second, as odd as it may sound, disengage emotionally from the process.  There are a lot of things you have no control over--sometimes the topic, department response time, and the structure of the process itself.  Just focus on what you can control, dispassionately, and consistently.  Finally, get support--social support, collegial support, statistics support, APA editing support--put the odds in your favor by getting help you need in the process with people who know you and the process.  The stakes are high, your time, energy, and monetary investment has been great, so finish strong, as quickly as possible, and get something out of the experience--that’s the kind of triangulation you truly need.

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