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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

If it all starts to go wrong

Completing research online

Both qualitative and quantitative research online has unique challenges. Here are some approaches if you need to undertake your project in this way.

In fact, there is an entire website dedicated to moving research online. While initially created for psychology research, a lot of it can be applied to a range of disciplines.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, some researchers turned their attention to creating simple experiments in their own homes which can be used in the school classroom. Some of these have since been published, and there are journals for improving teaching methods of most subjects. For example, see Kissi & Dreesmann 2020.


We are coming out of a time where all quantitative research could not be completed in person, and still multiple researchers have chosen to remain this way. Fortunately, it means there is lots of advice and resources out there. Here is a whole book.

Video interviews show little difference between sharing of deeply personal experiences, do not result in shorter interviews or higher rates of cancellation and rescheduling, and are overall highly satisfactory for participants (Jenner & Myers 2018; Archibald et al. 2019). There are many videoconferencing technologies available for use, and each will require planning regarding privacy and confidentiality (Lobe et al. 2020).

Quantitative (especially lab, field, or equipment-based)

Temporarily online? Try:

  • Writing a literature review
  • Get involved with virtual conferences (Remmel et al. 2021)
  • Plan your experiments for when you return

Online for longer?



Archibald MM, Ambagtsheer RC, Casey MG, Lawless M. (2019) Using Zoom Videoconferencing for Qualitative Data Collection: Perceptions and Experiences of Researchers and Participants. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, doi:10.1177/1609406919874596

Jenner B & Myers KC. (2019) Intimacy, rapport, and exceptional disclosure: a comparison of in-person and mediated interview contexts. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 22:2, 165-177, doi: 10.1080/13645579.2018.1512694

Kissi L & Daniel Dreesmann. (2022) Flowers with powers – conception and evaluation of an ‘educational seed mix’. Journal of Biological Education. 56:2, 147-162, doi: 10.1080/00219266.2020.1757485

Lobe B, Morgan D, Hoffman KA. (2020) Qualitative Data Collection in an Era of Social Distancing. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, doi:10.1177/1609406920937875

Remmel A. (2021) Nature 591, 185-186, doi:

It is entirely normal to be frustrated with your PhD from time to time. The further you travel on the PhD journey, the more intense it can get. That is natural – you are spending years working on something with little immediate reward, and if something goes wrong, it can start to feel hopeless.

Sidique Gawusu calls this “the turbulent waters of the doctoral voyage”. I like this description, because it encompasses our need to navigate events out of our control, and the inevitability that it will happen to all of us at some time.

The main approach for this is simply taking a step back. Look at the big-picture question you are trying to answer. What have you got so far? Are there alternatives to the journey? I.e., can you get from point A (what you have already achieved) and point B (your goal) by maneuvering around the turbulent water?

If this is not possible, some students have pushed through, with support from supervisors, other PhD students, mentors, or different tools.

Part 4 of this course will give you examples of how other PhD students have navigated their unique turbulent waters, and let you know what to do if you find yourself really stuck.


Some initial tips

  1. Do not try to ignore negative thoughts
    1. Embrace them rather than fight them and turn the tables. Ask yourself what they’re telling you. Try to find the root cause of the feeling.
    2. This way, we move from thinking of the emotion as something bad, and instead accept it as something that is a natural part of the PhD process that can be dealt with and mitigated.
  2. Celebrate the small things
  3. Embrace the rubbish writing drafts
  4. Remind yourself that PhDs are challenging
  5. Remember that we can’t work at maximum pace and productivity every single day, and that is okay

Then, you can start to move forwards, and get things back on track.


Here a couple of outside sources on the topic

I asked research students: Think of a time when your project did not go to plan. What happened next, and what advice would you give others?


Feeling like it’s going nowhere

I think projects feeling like they are going nowhere sometimes is quite common. What to do about that is part of the journey, there is no single answer. Pause the project, backtrack and change directions, gather additional data, etc. Talk to your mentor.

  • PhD marketing


Primary data mislabeled

Data was not labelled correctly. I had to hunt down the previous researcher who had got the sequencing data, to find out where it came from. They said, “yes I’ll find out for you!” and did not.

So, I kept on asking. Eventually, while talking to another supervisor, they suggested I talk to the ex-postdoc (now at a different university) who solved the problem immediately – i.e., within 30 mins of me emailing them.

If the postdoc hadn’t fixed it, I would have had to discard the data. I would have still had half the data overall, though. My advice, keep on giving friendly reminders, and go to other people for advice. Perseverance.

My project is not all perfect yet, though. One of my supervisors is not willing to send me some of the research specimens, and doesn’t want information about it published, due to “commercial interest”. This is yet to be solved…

  • PhD biosciences and computer science


In person interviews out of the question

Due to health reasons, I had to conduct participant interviews online. It was a learning curve, but I adapted my methods. My results were still interesting, and I have done many presentations on it.

  • PhD psychology


Could not collect most primary data

I couldn’t get access to the museum to collect my data, which would have been novel. Basically, I couldn’t get hold of the majority of the data that I was meant to be using in my analysis.

I had to create a much larger research range in terms of secondary data, contact scientists for unpublished data, and I was still able to take a new approach and new thinking my topic. I brought together new bits of analysis to create a meta-analysis instead. This yielded some really interesting results, and we are working towards publishing it.

  • Research master’s zoology


Gantt chart reality check

I made a Gantt chart and after submitting it, I immediately realised I had given myself 2 weeks to do something that was going to take over a month. So now I am already 1 month behind, but it doesn’t matter, I can adjust it.

  • PhD physics

Still worried? Talk to:

  • Other PhD students – probably from any discipline, we all seem to go through similar mazes
  • Other researchers or experts in your area
  • Supervisor
  • Pastoral tutor (find them on MyPGR)
  • Doctoral College



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