This blog is a follow-up from part one where we introduced the concept of multi-study theses, as an exciting and relevant approach to doctoral studies at the Faculty of Education. For those new to the topic, we explain what a multi-study PhD is in detail in part one. We now move on to answer a few questions showcasing the joys and perils of the multi-study approach, to help you decide whether it is right for you. So, let’s get started!
1. What does a multi-study thesis look like?
The multi-study thesis should be greater than the sum of its (multiple) parts. While each of the individual studies can serve as stand-alone pieces of research, collectively, they should contribute to the main research objective or question. In the thesis, the main research question acts as a navigational compass, guiding the overall flow and narrative, and like glue, binding the multiple studies together into a cohesive and compelling report. More practically speaking, multi-study theses include an introduction, an integrative discussion, and a concluding chapter to demonstrate how each study contributes towards the overarching research objective.
2. Are multi-study projects inherently multi- or mixed-method?
While multi-study projects are well-suited for multi-mixed method designs, they do not have to include multiple methods. For example, Laura plans to use quantitative methods to investigate two research questions arising from the same secondary data. However, multi-study projects often feature different methodologies and methods for some or all studies, to investigate different facets of the same research problem or research population. Gabby and Bea’s multi-study projects, for example, feature a mix of systematised literature reviews and syntheses, document and policy analysis, and case study research, ultimately building a textured and nuanced understanding of the research phenomenon with diverse data and analytic methods.
3. How many studies are included in a multi-study?
It depends! Some multi-study theses include as many as four studies, while others include two. The number of studies should be guided by your research conceptualisation, approach, and methodological design in consultation with your supervisor.
4. What are the benefits of adopting a multi-study approach?
There are so many!
a. It can sharpen the focus of your research aim and plans
Structuring a PhD project as a multi-study can serve as a useful thinking tool for conceptualising multiple – inter-related but different – parts to a PhD project. This especially applies to more complex explorations of research topics and research objectives. For example, when exploring school inclusion, considering the beliefs, attitudes, and experiences of multiple stakeholders (e.g. teachers, children) can be done through separate studies, each focusing on a specific target group. From a practical perspective, the multi-study PhD splits the project into more manageable chunks of work and can offer multiple, faster deadlines, which make the research process easier to manage and more enjoyable. Completing a study gives a sense of accomplishment, encouraging a doctoral researcher on a lengthy PhD journey.
b. It can develop your skills as a researcher
Doing a multi-study PhD has academic benefits beyond the PhD process and viva examination. It supports developing multiple ‘researcher’ skills, such as becoming adept at and using different research methods and conducting a variety of analyses. The vision of doing shorter studies helps early researchers think and write concisely; an essential skill for communicating the findings for a varied audience.
c. It is a flexible, adaptable approach
One of the key practical benefits in context of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been the flexibility of a multi-study approach. Practically, we have been able to adapt our original research plans to ask the same research question in a new way and/or research the original topic with new, varied methods. While this has been especially valuable during COVID-19’s prolonged uncertainty, having split the PhD into a number of self-contained studies allowed for flexibility along the way. Additionally, a multi-study PhD has the potential to lend itself to a reflexive research design, where the first stages of a research project directly inform later stages.
d. You may find it easier to publish during your PhD programme
A multi study PhD is designed in such a way that it can be easier to publish the PhD in study sections, therefore building up publication skills during your PhD journey and enabling students to graduate with published papers. Having some papers published or accepted to peer review gives further credibility to the PhD project, which may be beneficial for the viva examination. Even if the papers have not been accepted before the viva, comments received during the peer review process are helpful for revising parts of the thesis or preparing answers to questions that are likely to be raised during the viva.
5. What are some of the challenges of the multi-study approach?
The multi-study approach can feel like you’re doing not just one PhD but multiple! The process can be rewarding but also challenging, so we recommend always discussing potential structures for your thesis with your supervisor before adopting any particular approach. A few common challenges we have experienced include:
a. Ontological and methodological coherence
Even if the multi-study project employs different methods, the studies and final thesis should have ontological and methodological coherence. While this is true for any thesis, ensuring your ontological and epistemological frameworks align across several studies, means designing the research thoughtfully and intentionally from the beginning and regularly checking to ensure that any shifts in research methods (due to adaptive designs) do not threaten the theoretical or epistemological coherence.
b. Conceptual coherence
Multi-studies require all parts of your studies to be conceptually connected, so that the whole PhD has one coherent ‘story’ and is not a collection of independent studies.
c. Time and project management
It is easy to get heavily invested into one study and not save enough time for your second or third study. It is a constant challenge to ensure that the multiples studies do not turn into two to three PhDs, instead of the one with different sub-studies. We recommend considering how long it will take to develop certain methodological skills, if you’ll be using several different methods alongside of the process of actually generating, analysing, and writing about your data.
6. How do I know if the multi-study approach is right for me?
Not all projects lend themselves to being a multi-study thesis. While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the questions that students should be asking themselves prior to conceptualising their project as a multi-study thesis.
The research questions in a multi-study can be independent questions that look at different aspects of the research focus or they can be a single overarching research question with sub-questions addressing different aspects of the research focus. Do your research questions lend themselves to being answered in the form of a multi-study? Do each of the studies ‘speak to each other’ in answering the overall research focus? If not, can they be adapted to ‘speak to each other’?
A multi-study may add to your workload – is it worth it? Is this doable in terms of time, workload, and word count?
This can be an uncommon approach depending on your discipline. Examiners, supervisors, and/or advisors may not be comfortable with this type of thesis. Have you had/planned a conversation with your supervisor to ensure this is a viable option? Can you justify using such a design?
We hope that part two of this series has answered some of your questions regarding the multi-study approach. However, we are aware that it probably has not answered all your questions! If you would like to continue this conversation, join our Moodle page. To gain access to our shared resources and mailing list, you can self-enrol here. We will also be publishing part three of this blog series soon, where we will explore case studies of students who have undertaken PhDs using different multi-study approaches and their experiences of doing so.