Things I messed up during my qualitative interviews…

I spent this week interviewing some students as part of my PhD research project and, naturally, I made plenty of mistakes. Learning from what you did wrong is part of the PhD process, though (or maybe the research process in general). Despite that, I don’t see too many willing to publicly put forth where they went wrong, although it is probably these mistakes that are most useful to hear about, whether you’re a novice or experienced researcher. So here it goes, I’m going to put my mistakes out there. These are the things I did wrong during my qualitative study:

  1. Not factoring in time to say goodbye to participants
    I put plenty of effort into my introduction and debrief to the participants, and worked on pacing myself to keep a tight schedule. What I didn’t factor in: saying goodbye. I didn’t consider that it takes time to do things like put on coats and that people naturally like to make small talk. So my first interview ended at just the right time, but then the participant asked about my visit to the town and how far into my PhD I am. The American in me loves a chance to chat with strangers, but this also meant that I was off schedule from the start.
  2. Keeping my watch on my wrist
    I was well-prepared in that I knew I would need to watch the time in order to pace the interviews and keep the day’s schedule. But keeping my watch on my wrist made it not so easy to slyly check the time without seeming bored or in a hurry. That thing is much more useful on the table next to you.
  3. Not practicing my transitions between activities
    My interviews included both a conversation period and a discussion of a case study. However, I didn’t plan a smooth transition between the two, which led to the first few interviews feeling a little stilted when I suddenly brought out the case study, interrupting the flow of an otherwise good conversation.
  4. FOOD.
    I gave myself a break for lunch, but didn’t bring myself enough food to sustain myself through 8+ hours of interviews. A growling stomach in the middle of a great interview? Not so good. Take it from me and bring more food than you think you’ll need.
  5. Not scheduling mental breaks.
    I had two days to accomplish all of my interviews, so I crammed in as many as possible. This was great in some ways, because it upped my sample size and led to more diversity in my participants. What I didn’t consider was how exhausted I would be at 5:00 pm on day 2, with 2 more interviews to go. Not to mention how physically uncomfortable it is to sit for 9 straight hours at a conference table and keep a chipper face. I should have scheduled in a few half-hour breaks to take a walk around and recollect myself.
  6. Thinking an interview went badly because I didn’t cover all the questions or because it went down a different path
    There were a few interviews that didn’t match up with my pre-determined idea of a ‘successful interview.’ Some went down a path I hadn’t intended to talk about, and others only made it through half of my prepared questions. Initially I thought this meant I was a bad interviewer in these cases, but when I play these recordings back, they are the best ones I conducted. In these cases, the participants brought up new ideas I hadn’t thought about before or discussed some of the topics in a rich, in-depth way. And after all, isn’t that the point of the interview?
  7. Forgetting what I just asked
    Often an interviewee starts to answer, but forgets what the point of the question was after a few minutes of speaking. On the other side of the conversation, I tend to hyper focus on what the interviewee is saying and start working out in my head what needs further clarification or elaboration. So, when the inevitable ‘What was the question again?’ question came up, I stumbled the first few times to remember what I had even asked. Lesson learned: you need to pay attention to your side of the conversation as much as their side.
  8. Not briefing myself on the lingo
    As an interviewer, you want your questions to feel natural to participants, and throwing them off by using words they aren’t accustomed to can be detrimental to the conversation’s flow. It’s important to know the situational lingo and context of the location at which you’re interviewing, otherwise you spend too much time explaining what you mean or asking for clarifications of what they mean. Example: if you’re interviewing about group work, and students call their group work projects by a certain name at that university, it’s best to know what that is at the start.
  9. Forgetting I’m just as interesting to them as they are to me
    When a young American researcher with a weird German surname comes from the UK to your country, it’s natural to want to know why she is here and how she got to that point. I didn’t think about the fact that participants see me as a person, not just a researcher (even though it’s all too easy as a researcher to see ‘participants’ instead of people). By simply introducing myself at the start, in addition to my research, I quickly learned it could help set a more informal and comfortable atmosphere that could encourage participants to feel safe with me and open up more.
  10. Slipping in American English.
    Nearly a year of living in the UK has covered up some of my American English, but (fortunately? unfortunately?) not all of it. In interviews on this side of the world, it’s a constant struggle to use the right words, or else risk confusion. Say term, not semester. Mark, not grade. Lecturer, not instructor. The list goes on, and I could be better at it.

So there you have it, my uncomfortable confession of what went wrong in this study. Maybe you’ve made similar mistakes? I’d love to know about them, if so.


2 thoughts on “Things I messed up during my qualitative interviews…

  1. Some really good advice in here. I would add not taking time to write up notes of conversations as soon as possible after the interview as you can if you haven’t been able to record it.


  2. This is also applicable to job interviews, actually.

    The two things I always do wrong in this situation: (1) Talking a lot because I’m nervous, and (2) Not drinking a single drop of water.

    Some things I have done “right”: (1) Using a notepad summarize questions asked and also my thoughts; (2) Using the break after day 1 to improve on day 2.


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