From uncertainty to the semi-structured interview (Jason Murphy)

Image courtesy of Markus Spiske/Unsplash
Taking on a PhD while working full-time can be a rewarding experience. I get to delve into an area of intellectual enquiry in a really rigorous way, and in a fashion that I'd be unlikely to undertake during my spare time!

My post today shares my preliminary experiences with research interviews. I hope it will prove useful to others in the social sciences. I present this post with the caveat that I'm by no means an expert in this area, and that these insights are things that I've learned along the way.

Within the social sciences – my discipline – candidature often involves establishing your position, concerns and argument within the existing literature and defining your methodological approach. This is often done before attempting to collect your data.

For those who are studying part-time, this can be a considerable journey and one that almost risks the complete abstraction of your original question and motivation for embarking on your journey of enquiry.

In my own case, it’s been a truly humbling experience and one where, quite honestly, the more I “learned” (note those deliberate commas); the more I delved and enquired, the further I seemed to drift away from any kind of absolute clarity about what I was doing.

In other words, the more I learned the less I knew. With this came an acute sense of ambiguity within a boundless ocean of perspectives, enquiries, points of view, etc.

While the journey can be long, once you've reached an outline or semi-definite position from which to form your argument, you'll need to gather your data.

You'll be presented with the very real task of applying your foundational work to a tangible world of differing uncertainty– something that lives outside of your head: the world of others. Critically, your enquiry will need to be grounded and of some practical use to others, in an applied or theoretical sense.

My journey took me to the semi-structured interview and, with this, a considerable level of anxiety and self-doubt about its effectiveness as a method and my effectiveness as an interviewer!

I was very fortunate that my supervisors have a lot of experience in the area of interviewing and qualitative enquiry, and they were happy to share this expertise and guide me through a lot of my own self-doubt. A really critical point here was their recommendation to produce a pilot study. This involved taking every aspect of the interviewing process: the recruitment; the formal, ethical considerations; the interview itself; the transcription of data; and, finally, a draft analysis.

This process was extremely helpful because I could choose people with whom I was already acquainted, were part of a valid target group, and would be able to appreciate and support the pilot nature of the study at this point. It allowed me to be clearer about the formal processes (starting the participation information statement, acquiring signed consent and explaining the project), the technical requirements (using the audio equipment effectively and testing it in a number of environments), reflection and refinement of the interview questions, the process of transcribing an interview, and the analysis of the data itself.

If you’re about to start using interviews for the first time, I can’t recommend enough doing a pilot study. It really helps you to live through the experience and gain insights that you wouldn't necessarily have considered. It will also give you an opportunity to reflect again on how well your questions are working.

Right now, at the point of writing this post, I’ve done over twenty interviews and I’m still learning new things every time! It’s a really complex process - there are whole shelves of libraries devoted to the issues!

Here are a few strategies that I think would help those getting started with research interviews:
  • Do as much of the technical/formal parts ahead of time (at least a day before), like sending on copies of the paperwork, testing your audio equipment, and recharging your extra set of batteries.
  • Send your participate a calendar invite to lock in your date and time. Send them a reminder the day before.
  • Bring along hard copies of the paperwork and the consent form.
  • You’re probably going to feel mildly to acutely nervous. Try your best to remain calm and remember that it’s not about you – it’s all about your participant. If you transfer this nervousness to your participant, it will be harder for them to relax into the interview and you will be less likely to gain deep insights.
  • Quickly form a rapport with your participant. Show an interest in them and find points of common experience early on, but make sure you get into the formal interview as quickly as you can. 
  • Rather than taking notes during your interview, make lots of eye contact with your participant and listen to them as closely as possible. Listen for opportunities to ask follow up questions, or to probe their response more deeply. Sometimes, participants will begin making a statement and change the subject – this can be a great opportunity for an unplanned follow up question that delves deeper. 
  • My interviews are semi-structured, and it has proven useful to be familiar with the questions, or themes, but not approach the interviews in a rigid way. Every participant is different, and being relaxed, and using cues to adjust the focus of the conversation is one way of keeping the conversation flowing and relaxed. Your participant is more likely to share deep themes if they are relaxed.
I tried to gather some field notes soon after the interview is complete. Sometimes, I use my iPhone to record these as spoken notes. Other times, I scribble down some bullet points if I’m pressed for time but, ultimately, I try to record in long form observations about the interview and how it went. I focus on the environment where the interview took place, the body language, and personal feelings and emotions around how well the discussion went. These notes will provide you with additional context around each discussion.

One of the significant parts of the interview process is the transcription itself. I was very surprised by how time-consuming this can be. I’m not a slow typist, but it can take me a whole day to transcribe a single, one-hour interview! While there is no better way to get close to your data, I’d recommend that you consider transcribing every second interview, and having the others professionally transcribed. It will free up time and energy to focus on recruitment and reflection on your data. My department had some funds available to support research-related expenses, which I was able to apply for after discussion with my supervisors. While you will still need to carefully check your transcriptions for accuracy, this takes 1–2 hours, instead of a whole day. This can also be a good opportunity to take further notes about key parts of your interviews.

Finally, the key thing that I’m discovering even as I write this post is that although I have put countless hours of preparation into positioning my study and delving into theories that surround my topic, research by its nature has an inescapable core: discovery.

I couldn’t help forming assumptions around what I'd find through my interviews, but these are the things you bring as a researcher to your field. Ultimately, you don’t know what you are going to find, and I’ve been finding that I have needed to correct myself and be open to learning the things that I didn’t know were there.

I believe that this open, adaptable approach is necessary with interviews, in order to be able to learn fully from your participants, and have a chance at seeing what it is they have been willing to share with you.


Jason Murphy works with the La Trobe University Graduate Research School (GRS) as a senior research communications advisor. He manages the GRS website, social media, and newsletters that reach out to graduate researchers. His professional goal is to help make La Trobe a great place to do research.

Jason's multidisciplinary PhD research focuses on the work of marketing professionals and asks if this contributes to ideologies that reinforce and perpetuate social class. Situated in the field of marketing, the project draws from work in the fields of marketing, anthropology, and the broader social sciences. He tweets at @murphy_jason.