Reflections on using a mixed methods diary approach

Added value to research

Perhaps the greatest benefit of adopting a mixed methods diary' approach in this piece of higher education research was the opportunity to triangulate findings and examine the complex phenomena of doctoral students’ social transitions. At the start, we recognised that social relationships between students in higher education were not necessarily rational or linear and that students’ reflections on their social support networks may change over time (or even day-to-day). We also felt there was value in exploring social support networks from both a macro, group-level perspective and a micro, individual-level perspective, as this would add depth to our understanding of experiences within individual university' departments. Therefore, the opportunity' to explore convergence and divergence in the findings across multiple methods helped us develop a more complete answer to our research questions in a higher education setting.

The first step of our research was a quantitative, social network analysis approach whereby we mapped existing social relationships in each department and analysed various individual-level measures related to students’ position within their social network. From this analysis, we concluded there were different engagement patterns: some doctoral students received substantial social support and were central to their social networks, while others received demonstrably less social support and appeared to be more isolated. While these findings were valuable, one weakness of social network analysis is that it does not necessarily explain why or how networks have formed in a particular way (Froehlich, Rehm & Rienties, 2020). Indeed, our initial quantitative findings brought up many questions: Why were some doctoral students more engaged in their social community'? Why' did other doctoral students not receive as much social support from their peers? What factors influenced doctoral students’ social experiences in their departments?

As seen in other higher education studies (Swim et al., 2001; Swim et al., 2003), we followed up our initial findings by asking doctoral students to keep a diary, where they recorded their social behaviours in the department and reflected on what may have influenced doctoral social communities. By using the initial quantitative findings as a lens for comparing participants’ diary' responses, we identified several patterns of behaviour that linked to or explained the varying social support levels doctoral students received. For example, the diaries illuminated several factors that influenced students’ social connections with peers and staff, such as their physical presence or attendance on campus, physical working spaces allocated in the department, or whether they' had recently relocated for doctoral study. However, we found that, at times, the diary' submissions lacked depth in some areas of participants’ reflections. We also felt our findings thus far did not establish whether these behaviours and reflections were a cause or an effect of participants’ role within their social network. For instance, lower attendance could mean that doctoral students have fewer opportunities to establish social support, but equally an existing lack of support might lead to less motivation to be present in the department.

Our third research method, semi-structured interviews with doctoral students, provided an opportunity' to bring these initial findings back to the participants and develop more in-depth understandings of their experiences. In our interviews, we used a mediating artefact, which was a social network analysis visualisation depicting relationships between doctoral students as nodes and lines (see Mittelmeier et al., 2018). Participants were asked to reflect on the visualisation and why certain patterns might be exhibited in the doctoral students’ social networks. We also brought in preliminary’ findings from the diary' data and asked more direct questions to expand upon students’ experiences. For example, we noted that several participants had taken the initiative to plan social activities for their peers and we were able to ask participants to comment upon why and what motivated these behaviours. Similarly, we asked participants who were less involved in the community what influenced their decision not to attend certain social events or why they more frequently worked from home rather than in the department.

Altogether, bringing together these three research strands helped explain initial findings, provided more depth in responses, and allowed us to triangulate findings from multiple perspectives. The diary' approach’s flexibility also meant that we could strategically embed it within our research in ways that best supported answering our research questions (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2017). In our design, this was as the second of three data collection phases, which allowed us to use the diaries to provide more depth for the initial quantitative findings and simultaneously act as a foundation for follow-up interviews. Nonetheless, incorporating diaries into a mixed methods design brought up distinct challenges, which we turn our attention to next.

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