Salma’s story: What is it like to conduct doctoral research during a pandemic?

Blog post by Salma Al Saifi, doctoral researcher at the School of Education, University of Bristol

The spread of the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 with all the strict measures and restrictions applied to minimize its impact on people’s lives have posed a serious challenge to the conduct of my research project. For instance, conducting fieldwork such as interviews and classroom observations during such circumstances was problematic and challenging for me.

Challenging times

The first issue I faced was to pass my progression and upgrade to the PhD level. My panel meeting was decided to be on the 25th of March 2020, at the first hit of the pandemic when information about the disease was vague and scary. Like all international students in the UK, I decided to flee to my country with my two daughters, trying to take all the precautions to reach home safely. At the same time, I had to think about all the necessary arrangements to have my panel discussion online, bearing in mind that internet connectivity is an issue back home.

During the eight-hour flight from the UK to Oman, I had a sleepless night, trying to comfort my two young daughters and assure them that things will be alright and we will reach home safely. I reached home four days before my panel discussion and started my twenty-one days quarantine period alone with my two daughters in a small, rented flat for this purpose. Having to self-isolate in a different place other than my own house was difficult because, as a mum, I had to take care of the three of us alone and on the top of this, I had to prepare for my progression meeting.

I am grateful to the compassionate support I got from my supervisors, family, and friends, who gave me the courage to keep going and pass the progression discussion successfully. I will not also forget the professional conduct of the process I experienced as the two examiners in my panel were very insightful and considerate of the whole situation.

Engaging with research participants during the Covid-19 pandemic

The second issue I encountered was recruiting enough participants for my research project. It was not possible for me to contact the college students directly as I had originally planned to engage them in my research. The lockdown measures applied in my national context at that time banned any face-to-face communication between people, so I had to contact the participants via emails first. In such complicated and uncertain circumstances, it was hard to get positive responses from them because they are not used to communicate via emails regularly.

Therefore, I had to use my personal relationships with the heads of departments and teachers to encourage the students to respond to my emails. However, securing students’ participation via this way failed too as I did not receive a single reply to my emails from the students whom I have contacted. Hence, I decided to try another alternative. I got the help of a teacher who teaches an elective course to these students and had them all in two WhatsApp groups. I requested him to add my number in the two groups and to introduce me to the students. I introduced myself and my research to them and I requested them to text me directly in case they were interested to participate with me. After several reminders, I managed to get a positive response from four students who helped me to recruit the rest of the participants.

Online data collection

The third challenge was changing to online data collection in my research. I found it very difficult to communicate with the participants virtually because they only insisted on voice interviewing. Disconnecting their cameras and being unable to see them during the conversation was a weird situation for me. I could not read their facial expression or body language, which were important aspects in the communication process because they could help me understand and contextualize their responses to my questions. That was missing during the talks!

In the beginning, I felt a bit disconnected during the first conversation. However, I decided to adjust myself to the new situation and accept and respect the participants decision. Appreciating and acknowledging that their participation is voluntary legitimated their request for security. Hence satisfying this need was indeed an essential ethical consideration. I tried to fulfil it because I believe that making the participants feel safe and comfortable during the data collection process results in much in depth data.

The final issue I faced during the second phase of the data collection was the college closure and the cancellation of the rest of the term due to my country’s decision to go into a total lockdown. This decision created a dilemma for me. Cancellation of studies means no online classes available for me to conduct the classroom observations. The other important issue which is directly linked to my research was that my participants will not be available because this was their final term. They will be graduates! I had to face the challenge and to take a decision in consultation with my supervision team. Discarding the data I had already gathered and start over again was not a wise thing to do, especially after the struggle I had to recruit volunteer students for the first phase of the data collection. Besides, cancelling the classroom observations and relying solely on interviews data pose a big limitation in my study because one of my research aims is to triangulate data from different sources. Therefore, I decided to recruit new participants for the focus groups to gather data for the second phase. It was not an easy thing to do, but my good rapport with students and constant communication with teachers helped me to attract and convince other students to participate with me.

It is true that researching in a pandemic is still challenging for me, but I discovered that I can be resilient and adaptable to such new and unexpected situation. All the hardships I have encountered so far, whether in passing the progression discussion or during the data collection process, taught me to be flexible and responsive to a high extent, which I am sure will benefit me in my future research endeavours.

School of Education doctoral programmes

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This blog was originally published on the TLC blog: Salma’s story: What is it like to conduct research during a pandemic? – The Centre for Teaching, Learning and Curriculum (TLC) (