Research: Behind the Scenes

So you finally found the perfect research topic, the appropriately scoped research question, and have a cutting edge research design that’s bound to knock APSA’s socks off.  You submitted your proposal to the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to make sure it’s up to ethical standards and it was approved in a timely manner.  Bring on the participants!

While getting to this stage in a research project is truly exciting, there is still a lot of work that must be done behind the scenes that you might not know about.  How are you recruiting participants? How are you scheduling them? Do you have access to a lab or space to use for your study?  If you are paying them, do you have cash on hand? Do you have all of the paperwork you need to fill out if you are getting reimbursed for paying the participants? Do you have the materials you need for your study? Not all of these questions will apply to every study you do, but they are definitely things you will want to think about (and have solutions for) before you start collecting data. Before you panic, here are some tips for thinking about the behind the scenes side of experimental research.

1.  While you’re waiting for your proposal to be approved by the IRB, try to get everything else ready so that once it’s approved, you can get started right away.  For example, if you need research assistants or volunteers to help with your experiment, look into recruiting them while you wait for IRB approval.  You might want to get a feel for the availability of your research assistants and sketch out a schedule of when you would be able to run participants through.

2. Create a folder with all documents and forms that you will have to print. This might sound obvious, but it really helps make sure you keep them all in one place and helps you think about everything you will need. These items might include your informed consent forms, debriefing forms, reimbursement forms (if you’re paying participants), instructions, and any other materials you might need for your particular study.  Depending on the nature of your study, you might consider making as much of this electronic as you can to conserve printing costs and the hassle of coordinating all of that.

3. Practice! Find a friend, colleague, classmate, labmate, sibling, anyone to help you practice running your experiment.  Walk through the steps from start to finish as if you were running a real participant through your experiment.  Keep a notepad handy to jot down things you forgot or still need to do.  This will also help calm your nerves!

4. Ask questions.  As you’re preparing for data collection, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  I recommend keeping a notepad handy because sometimes these questions come to you at odd, random times, when you’re not even working on your project.  Ask other students who have gone through this process before, ask your professors or advisors, and ask who to ask about some of the finer details. For example, find out from  your department who to go to about reimbursement forms and other paperwork.

5. Set up your data storage system.  The way you store and organize your data will depend on your project, but it is important to think about how you want to do this.  If you will be manually entering data after each experiment session, prepare your spreadsheet ahead of time so that all you have to do is type the numbers in.  You might also think about your coding scheme (if that is relevant for your project) and creating your codebook.  Make sure you format your dataset in such a way that allows you to conduct the analyses you will eventually be conducting without having to make many changes.  Keep your data in password protected files and always back up your data.

Conducting a research project is a truly exciting and rewarding experience, but it certainly comes with its fair share of frustrations.  Some of these frustrations and the chaos surrounding the launch of a study can be attenuated by careful preparation.  Through it all, don’t forget to take a step back and reflect on your hard work! Remind yourself of the puzzle you’re trying to solve and why you are doing this project.  Enjoy the experience!