Academic Qualifications & the Challenges of Masters & PhD Research

My work involves more and more leadership coaching. Leadership: South Africa’s major need and requirement, to redirect its policies and restore society and economy.

In her PhD research of my team based leadership programme, industrial psychologist Tracy Potgieter gave evidence of the transformative impact of the biographical approach that I apply in working with people. Biographical means that the dynamic of the unique life story, talents and challenges of everyone are of essence in my coaching. This lifts the impact beyond mere increased self-knowledge, plain intellectual know-how or skills training. It engages the real will of people to manage their change and growth. Each person’s next steps have ripple effects in their families and among their friends and community. And of course those in leadership roles, become ‘multi-plyers’ – by the example they set.

I reckon leadership coaching is the best investment in any organization’s development and success.

For many women and men, who are well on their way in their career journey, acquiring an academic qualification becomes necessary. Often this is prompted by promotion opportunities, strong competitors or plainly by the demands of their managerial function. The stress that comes with completing tertiary studies is always a tangible factor. The endless hours spent over assignments and exams take their toll – the more so with having to perform at work and being there for one’s family. This pressure mounts when the successful completion of a research project comes as the last effort standing in the way of obtaining the degree. Many would-be graduates buckle under the demands of producing that piece of scientific research and – so close to the finish – are tempted to give up.

Countless times I’ve heard: ‘I really don’t know how to go about research, I don’t get guidance. I’m wasting my time, not going anywhere.’

I empathize, just thinking back on the years with anxiety over my own Masters and PhD! Browsing the ‘How to?’ research handbooks, leaves one reeling. Doing research needs to taught experientially, ‘by doing’, with practical tutoring of experienced researchers.

Unfortunately in the grooming of our thought leaders, South African tertiary institutions struggle to cope with providing basic introductory training in research. Often the potential impact of theoretical research modules falls by the wayside, because individual tutoring is impossible due to the vast student numbers.

Most of SA democratizing and racially transforming institutions of tertiary education, simply don’t have sufficient academic resources to (fulfil their mandates of) creating tutoring space for developing logical and critical thinking and for introducing students to the theoretical background of research methodology. As a result, ‘the backbone’ behind undertaking research is lacking for the majority of students, regardless of the subjects they are studying.

The whole endeavor of building research capacity is enormous.

SA education policy has prioritized democratization and with a legacy of many students arriving at university underprepared, faces a tall order. Universities put a lot of effort in bridging programmes, specifically to upgrade English language and writing skills. A ‘conditio sine qua non’- as the Romans used to phrase it: one cannot be good scholar without mastering and expressing thought processes in the accepted scientific language.

This brings me to the news of the coaching modules which I have newly launched, under the auspices of the Research Capacity Development department of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) – the university nearest to where I live in Port Elizabeth.

This department asked me to provide step by step guidance for Masters and PhD graduates who embark on their thesis projects with limited knowledge of research. To assist these ‘emerging researchers’ I developed a coaching programme, consisting of these 3 modules:

1 Introduction to Qualitative Research

What is it? How to go about it?

2 Focus groups in Qualitative Research: Focus Group interview and facilitation

How to organize, conduct and record Focus Group Interviews?

3 Qualitative content analysis

How to process all the information and data gathered?

Each of these interactive modules takes 2 days. I coach the action learning and create a platform for the participants to define the scope of their topic, to formulate their research questions and decide upon the methods and techniques they need to apply. We practice scientific interview skills, content analysis of interview results, and the layout of a writing plan.

During the past academic year approximately 70 NMMU graduates took part. Their main motivation was that they had opted to do a qualitative research project, to avoid the complexity of statistical methods – having assumed that avoiding quantitative research would make their project easier. But it became clear that they needed the necessary underpinning for qualitative research as well.

Here is some of the feedback they gave:

  • I received great insight in qualitative versus quantitative research methodology and the workshops breathe new life into your research work
  • The process of how to go about your research is simplified and applied to you own research
  • Relevant information for the ‘writing up’ of your research
  • Unpacking the whole qualitative research process
  • Very useful to understand the 3-fold activity of observation-understanding-interpretation
  • Very useful to understand different theoretical paradigms: like positivist, interpretivist and critical theory
  • A building block in my qualitative research, something not covered in my MBA studies
  • I have acquired knowledge about theory that I wasn’t aware I was missing!
  • Eye opening: it taught me about conducting interviews!
  • Very important introduction to Atlas.ti for computer aided analysis and coding techniques
  • Value of in-depth listening as interview skill
  • Workshop validates ‘context’ and ‘bias’ in qualitative research
  • Eye opener for anyone who wants to do a qualitative research
  • I now understand the difference between qualitative and quantitative research
  • Practical: unpacking my topic, brainstorming my research questions and practicing in-depth interviewing
  • I learnt more in 2 days than in an entire research methodology course!
  • Engaging interaction and understanding the frustration and the creative challenge of research