For Grad Students Who Have Anxiety Conducting Interviews Because Survey Data Isn’t Enough

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


If you’re like me, there’s something appealing about the idea of conducting interviews for my research. There’s the control over the experiment. There’s the originality of your data. There’s the ability to gather the whys and the how’s straight from the source in a way you can’t with standard survey data collection. All these wonderful benefits to qualitative data collection…in theory. In practice, there’s the reality that your entire project hinges on the answers of people who have no inherent reason to have a stake in the success of your project.


You need them more than they need you.


If you have any type of anxiety (like most grad students do) that fact is potentially terrifying. I’m a fairly textbook extrovert who loves to engage folks on a variety of topics and inquiries, and even I struggle with how to properly conduct an interview either via phone or in-person. But fret not, if conducting thirty interviews with women from diverse backgrounds lifestyles has taught me anything, it’s how to manage my own anxiety and therefore conduct a significantly better interview.


Plenty of articles and books will tell you how to fashion your questions and organize your instruments, but few deal with the emotional and mental barriers undergoing such research presents for the investigator. So, as a soon to be minted Ph.D., I’ve compiled a list of best practices that proved handy in my dissertation data collecting frenzy.


1. Get out of your own head.

If people agreed to do it, then they’re onboard. They don’t want you to hurry up. They’re not secretly annoyed by your inquiries, they’re also probably just as nervous about the whole process as you. To you it’s just an hour of data that you’ll eventually have to transcribe and obsessively analyze. To them it’s a chance for their voice to be featured in a piece of important academic research.


People who may have never seen the inside of a college are now going to have their thoughts and opinions recorded by a really smart and accomplished academic (that’ll be you) who thinks their voice matters.


2. Treat all respondents with respect.

If you asked them to take time out of their schedule to sit down and more or less ‘chit chat’ about some really specific, potentially obscure topic area that for all intents and purposes only matters to you and your research, you have got to show them you value their time.


Be conscientious of your tone, your language, and your general level of engagement and treat all respondents the same whether they’re five or 75. They’re ultimately doing you a favor. Act like it. 


3. Lots of data does not equal good data.

Sometimes a 20-minute interview is far more informative and useful than a 2-hour one. Don’t get so fixed on a time marker that you sell your data short. Sometimes a short answer is the best answer. 


4. Be open to a little side conversation.

The gems that become useful for your research when you let a little extra chatter occur will surprise you. Interviews are just recorded conversations about a pre-specified topic. A divergence from the structure a lot of times makes the interviewee feel more comfortable during the process.


Don’t be so rigid you miss out on a great piece of data but don’t diverge so much that you never get an answer to your original question.


5. Just ask for the interview.

When you’re used to a place it can feel odd asking people you know to sit down and talk to you. When you’re new to a place it feels odd to ask people to engage in such an activity. Whatever the anxiety about asking the prospective respondent is, ignore it and just ask. If someone fits your sample, ask him or her to participate in your research. You’ll be surprised at how much people have to say when you simply ask.


And the worst that can happen is they decline your offer to participate…and you go ask someone else.


6. Know what answers you want to your questions.

As great as the question sounds after you’ve worked on your interview guide 654 times, it still may not translate well to your respondents. Know what type of answer you were expecting so that you’re able to clarify or rephrase the question in a way that your respondent understands. When they ask you ‘what do you mean’ by your question, knowing what type of answer you are looking for can help you quickly rephrase it so that it makes sense to your respondent.


A question is only as good as the answer it elicits, if you’re constantly getting poor answers or requests for clarification, it might be time to revise the question. 


7. Don’t be afraid to improvise.

Sometimes you get an answer that brings up a new line of questions. If you have the time, feel free to ask for clarification or for your respondents to explain their answer further. Also if a question feels like it’s not appropriate to ask a respondent due to whatever, don’t ask it. It’s okay to go off script for a bit. 


Once you’ve done all your interviews and spent hours transcribing them, it’s time for analysis and manuscript drafting. When it comes time to revise and edit your manuscript let someone who knows nothing about your work read it. Of course you want to pick someone who has a good grasp on English and essay-level writing expectations, but once you’ve cleared those requirements get someone from an unrelated field to read your work.


They’ll quickly be able to point out any discipline-related jargon or other words that people outside your specific field, or research even, will not understand. You want your work to translate easily to the ‘everyday academic’. If you’re like me, reading law briefs and chemistry papers makes you want to take a nap, but that’s not due to a barrier of understanding (it’s because I’m social scientist who hates reading law briefs and hard science things). The best articles I’ve read from other fields are the ones that I was able to understand without need of a terminology translation. It’s possible to write about your work and make it pertinent and relatable to those outside your field, having fresh eyes look at your drafts is one surefire step to a final product that folks actually want to read.


That’s all I got folks! Hope these tips prove helpful for your research journey. Time for me to get back to brooding over my latest dissertation draft in a dimly lit office. Happy researching!



B.Alexandra is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology. Research interests include: Black Feminism, Race, Gender, and Religion. Personal interests include but are not limited to: reading, writing, lifting weights, and resisting oppression. Your resident Christian Black Feminist here with a word.