The ultimate guide to planning your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) research study

Aka: How on earth will I manage the enormous task of completing my IPA research project?

​As you have probably guessed, I am very keen on project management and planning – hence my free IPA Study Survival Guide, including a handy Road Map and Checklist for your IPA research project as a (hopefully) helpful free planning tool. This post will explore my take on the best way to manage your IPA research study, whatever the level of study you are at.

Project management is often overlooked

I have noticed over the years, that project management can be a neglected area, depending on your programme, institution, and even supervisor. But in all honesty, getting a qualitative masters or doctorate (or even an undergraduate degree) is not really about how clever you are, it’s about how well you can manage:

  • a sizeable project with multiple stakeholders over an extended period of time
  • a vast amount of information and data
  • and, ultimately, yourself

​In my view, effective planning is essential for research success, and I emphasise this in my workshops and other material.

However, this does not mean that the course of a well-planned project always runs smoothly!

Research is always tricky, regardless of the paradigm you employ, and rarely goes entirely according to plan.

Often, we are blindsided by research curve balls and, of course, life can frequently just get in the way! (2020 and 2021 are very good examples…)

So, while I actively encourage a planned approach, I also caution that any plan is unlikely to unfold exactly as expected!

Many doctoral students and PhD candidates take longer than anticipated to complete and I encourage you to open up to this fact and to make project management something that you attend to with vigour while also holding it lightly.

With that in mind, here is some advice and guidance to help you stay on track:

Take a high-level approach initially

Make the effort to broadly plan out your timetable or timeline for your project from the get-go. This is so that you can estimate what is required for completion (reaching ‘mission accomplished’).

You may have a requirement for this type of broad timeline for your proposal – your stakeholders (supervisors/programme/institution/powers that be) will want to know that you can realistically plan for project delivery.

I often encourage students to use a Gantt Chart for this process as it is an easy way to determine and generate a high-level overview of the main tasks or phases involved.

Break it down into chunks

Break up your project into phases or broad tasks such as ethics application, literature review, proposal writing and submission, sample recruitment, data collection etc. See the IPA Study Survival Guide for help with this.

Make sure that you include all relevant milestones that need to be met to keep your research study on track.

Make sure that you include holidays/time off for rest and recuperation as well – self-care is a prerequisite for successful completion, not simply an add-on.

Be prepared to review and revise as you go along

BUT bear in mind that this planning exercise really only communicates how you intend the project to progress.

It is highly likely that your research process will be unpredictable: things are unlikely to go entirely to plan and you will need to revisit and revise your Gantt chart on a monthly, if not weekly, basis to review and revise accordingly.

If you find you are drifting for whatever reason, the temptation will be to abandon your Gantt chart – I urge you not to!

Try to see it as a rolling plan that is held lightly and constantly updated in the light of new evidence, events, and a constant review process of your progress.

On a personal note, while I was completing my professional doctorate, I found myself rejigging my plan pretty much on a weekly basis. While at times this felt chaotic and depressing as I failed to meet goals regularly, in fact, it really helped me stay on track and pretty much reach mission accomplished in the timeframe that I had set myself, albeit a month later than planned.

Plan some slack into the system

Do your absolute best to incorporate some ‘slack’ into your timetable/plan to give yourself the best chance to navigate any unexpected issues or events.

Planning in some ‘spare time’ to catch up at points can be invaluable if you are unable to stay on track for whatever reason.

Some unforeseeable circumstances (‘unknown unknowns’) may take you by surprise. For example, unanticipated poor health, your supervisor leaving, resources unexpectedly becoming unavailable, realising you need to have a major rethink of your study and returning to the drawing board to pivot, a global pandemic hits…

Having some slack in the system can be really helpful to manage unexpected events such as these AND to manage the inevitable timetable drift arising from potentially foreseeable circumstances (‘known unknowns’) as, in my experience, things always take longer than expected in the qualitative research process.

Typical examples include:

  • Recruiting and organising interviews or focus groups for data collection
  • The timeframe for supervisory feedback on written work (which may depend on your supervisor’s other commitments, including marking at certain times of the year)
  • How long it takes to do a good quality IPA analysis
  • How long it takes to write each section (especially the analysis for an IPA)
  • How many drafts you might need to go through if supervisory advice indicates changes to be made
  • Organising and preparing your paper trail and appendices
  • Getting your work proof read before submission

Try to include some regular ‘slack’ into your planning/timetable to help offset this type of typical issue and bear in mind that a Gantt Chart can only offer a high-level planning approach – you will need to make a more detailed plan on a monthly, weekly and daily basis to break things down into smaller chunks or tasks. Using a free planner like Trello or Asana can help keep on top of this.

The value of regular review

The plan for a successful research project cannot be ossified in stone from the start due to the unpredictable and erratic nature of the qualitative research process and how it unfolds in the moment.

Not to mention that we all have lives and stuff happens…

BUT this does not mean that planning should be avoided – it is still essential!

Regular review of your plan and timetable is a way of tracking your progress and evaluating how well your research design is unfolding. The process of regular review is vital to help you identify what is not working so that you can revise your strategy and stay on track with your project.

Regular review will also help you develop the capacity to manage your time more effectively, and you will develop a knack for the accurate estimation of your ability to complete a task in a particular timeframe, an essential life skill that will stand you in good stead way beyond your higher-level degree.

Final words: keep calm and keep planning…

So, all in all, keep calm and keep planning, even if it seems an imperfect and somewhat uncontrollable process!

Hold it lightly but pursue it vigorously….

Until next time!

Wishing you the ultimate research study good fortune, Elena

Copyright © 2020-24 Dr Elena Gil-Rodriguez

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The information contained in this article or any other content on this website is provided for information and guidance purposes only and is based on Dr Elena GR’s experience in teaching, conducting, and supervising IPA research projects.
All such content is intended for information and guidance purposes only and is not meant to replace or supersede your supervisory advice/guidance or institutional and programme requirements, and are not intended to be the sole source of information or guidance upon which you rely for your research study.
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