Degree In Sight

Clinical psychologist Karen Fergus, PhD, believes she was in the right place at the right time in 1995 when she started her psychology doctoral program at York University. In one of her first courses, she listened to psychology professor David Rennie, PhD, speak about using qualitative methods as an alternative to the traditional quantitative techniques.

Rennie had been fighting to make qualitative research mainstream for nearly two decades, saying that it enables researchers to explore topics difficult to address with a more conventional approach. For example, the subtlety and complexity of the inner experience is sometimes most effectively described as written accounts or oral interviews than as a set of numbers, he said.

That lecture inspired Fergusto complete a qualitative research dissertation in 2003 on how people cope with their partner's cancer diagnosis.

"The discovery part of qualitative research appealed to me and fit the kinds of questions I was interested in answering," says Fergus. "It's about listening to people's stories and trying to understand the process by which they make meaning out of life's experiences."

These days, qualitative research dissertations are increasingly common, particularly in counseling and clinical psychology, says Fordham University psychology professor Joe Ponterotto, PhD. A qualitative researcher who has studied the rise of qualitative research in psychology, Ponterotto says a slow paradigm shift is under way: 95 percent of counseling programs he's surveyed allow qualitative dissertations, although only 10 percent of students take advantage of the opportunity.

That's too bad, says professor Constance Fischer, PhD, of Duquesne University, which specializes in qualitative research training for clinical psychologists. She believes qualitative research can be the best technique for studying certain topics-particularly within clinical and counseling psychology, where surveys and numbers don't always capture the subtleties of people's experiences. And some say that completing such nontraditional dissertations can even make you more employable.

"Programs are screaming for qualitative expertise," says Fischer. "Our graduates have a big leg up for getting academic positions, because they can teach other students how to do qualitative research."


Recent counseling psychology graduate Dee DePorto, PhD, who studied under Ponterotto, says qualitative research allows her to get at issues researchers can't address quantitatively.

"We can count how many times a victim experiences sexual abuse, or we can count how many times someone was hit," DePorto says, "but if we want to know the context around how that specific isolated incident occurred and the kinds of damage that happened because of it...we can't garner any of that information from a quantitative assessment."

Alison Bess, PhD, who recently completed a dissertation in counseling psychology at Texas Woman's University, found that the personal, intimate nature of conducting qualitative interviews fit well with her personality. She used interviews toexplore what the therapy experience is like for transgender people.

Meanwhile, hospitals and other funding groups increasingly appreciate the value of qualitative research, in large part because nurses have used these techniques to great success. In addition, in 2000, the National Institutes of Health created guidelines for writing qualitative research proposals.

In terms of publishing, Ponterotto found that over the past 12 years, the proportion of qualitative studies published in mainstream counseling journals increased from 13 percent to 18 percent.

"It's still abominable, insufficient and inadequate," says Ponterotto. "But it's getting better."



There's still a lot of prejudice against qualitative research. Although the history of research psychology is founded on qualitative research by the likes of Freud and Piaget, a desire to be seen as a "hard" science and gain acceptance within the number-hungry world of the natural sciences caused a backlash against qualitative research, saysRennie. He's fought to publish in mainstream journals despite skepticism among some reviewers and editors.

"We're up against a lot of strong biases," adds Fergus. "I have to justify why I'm doing my study in the first place and back it up with an explanation of the logic behind my methods."

But these hurdles are not insurmountable for graduate students who want to pursue training in qualitative methods, says Fischer. If qualitative research is the best way to study the topic you're interested in, here's some advice to get your project started:

  • Read as much as you can about the method you want to use and about qualitative research in general.

  • If it's not too late, choose a department with some qualitative expertise and training opportunities. If your department doesn't fit the bill, try to find a mentor and qualitative research training courses in other departments, such as sociology, ethnic studies or education. "You need to convince the faculty in your department that you have enough expertise to run the project," says Ponterotto.

  • Make sure your adviser is open to the concept. "It's not just a matter of whether your faculty accepts what you're doing," says Ponterotto. "You want them to be as excited as you are about the project."

  • Try a pilot study before jumping into your larger dissertation project.

  • Choose the right method, and understand the philosophy of science anchoring the methods. Students should get familiar with all the major methods and figure out which one is most suitable for what they want to study, says Fischer. Beware that qualitative researchers often need to justify their methods and philosophical stance in far more detail than quantitative researchers, adds Fergus.

  • Assemble a dissertation review committee not only with expertise in the topic you're studying but also in the methods you're using, says Rennie. At the very least, members should be receptive to a qualitative research approach.

One technique that the experts don't recommend is to try to make your qualitative research more "palatable" to a mainstream audience by throwing in some quantitative techniques.

"Mixing methods dilutes the power of both approaches," says Ponterotto. "And it's difficult to be sufficiently competent in both as a graduate student."

That's not to say that students shouldn't become versed in both qualitative and quantitative approaches. At Fordham, faculty encourage graduate students to be "bi-methodological," says Ponterotto.

"We want them to understand the philosophy underlying both approaches and to be able to navigate going back and forth," he says.


Beth Azar is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

“Our graduates have a big leg up for getting academic positions, because they can teach other students how to do qualitative research.”

Constance Fischer
   Duquesne University