In a perfect world, completing a dissertation has a logical progression: identify a gap in the literature, submit a proposal, collect your data, report the findings and conclusions, and then successfully defend. However, unexpected difficulties can and do arise. Your committee members could be replaced midway through the process, or maybe you find that your data cannot be collected the way you anticipated. One of the biggest obstacles for most students in the dissertation process is avoiding the hurdles of the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Two of the most common IRB obstacles stem from studying vulnerable populations and developing new instrumentation.
The IRB are obligated to scrutinize your data collection process to ensure that participants are protected, especially if your study involves vulnerable populations such as minors, elderly individuals, residents of facilities (prisons, treatment centers, nursing homes), mentally disabled individuals, or non-fluent English speakers. When studying such participants, you are required to give detailed descriptions on how you intend to protect the vulnerable population from potential risk. This step alone can potentially add months to the process. Before even beginning the topic development stage of the dissertation process, consider studying individuals who do not qualify into one of these vulnerable groups.
Another red-flag situation to avoid with the IRB involves developing a new research instrument or survey. The IRB will suggest that an expert panel outside of the faculty committee review the self-designed tools. In addition, a pilot test with a small sample will potentially have to be conducted to ensure that the survey questions are logical and interpretable. And finally, you may have to run an exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and confirmatory factor analysis (CFA), which are advanced statistical procedures to examine the factor structure and validity of the instrument. If you have no other option but to create your own instrument, plan to do so well ahead of time because of the additional steps that may be required. When possible, however, it is best to use a previously validated instrument or archival data.
There are just some of the common hurdles to overcome in the IRB approval process. However, just keep in mind that the IRB process exists for a reason: to ensure that all research is ethically sound and that research participants are protected. It is your duty as a researcher to conduct your study in an ethical manner and to protect your participants; it is the IRB’s duty to make sure you are upholding those responsibilities. Approaching your IRB application with this mindset will help the process go by more easily.
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