Thematic analysis is an effective method for researchers to derive meaning from large sets of qualitative data. At a basic level, it involves grouping together “codes” (labels assigned to pieces of text) according to common themes and relationships to reveal underlying patterns of meaning.
At Grad Coach, we’ve noticed that many students view thematic analysis as a rather daunting and drawn-out process. So, in this post, we’ll discuss 6 time-saving tips you can use for thematic analysis, along with loads of examples.
#1 Keep the golden thread front of mind
As we’ve covered in previous posts, it’s essential to keep your golden thread (which consists of your research aims, objectives and questions) front of mind when you analyse your data. You should regularly refer back to your research questions, as they’ll form the foundation for the themes that you’ll identify and analyse. You’ll also make it much easier to analyse your data and maintain consistency throughout your dissertation this way.
In addition to this, you’ll want to consider the type of research questions you use: for example, are they exploratory, predictive, or interpretive? In other words, are you approaching your data in an open-minded way to gain new insights, or are you trying to make predictions for your findings? This will help shape your thinking and guide your analysis as you work through the process.
In a similar vein, you’ll need to account for your theoretical framework (if you have one), as this will help you organise and structure your analysis. For example, if you conduct research through the lens of social identity theory, then you’ll look for the underlying patterns and themes in how your participants talk about their personal relationships.
Once you’ve analysed and grouped your codes into themes, it’s good to compare them with your golden thread to ensure alignment. This saves precious time, as it prevents you from only realising at the end of the project that you’ve deviated from your research aims.
An easy way to remind yourself of your golden thread is to make your research questions highly visible as you conduct your research and write up your chapters. You could, for example, keep your research questions in your document header as you write up (and remove it once you’re done, of course).
#2 Take a highly iterative approach
The repetitive nature of thematic analysis means that it requires multiple rounds to identify core themes and sub-themes. For example, the first round may involve identifying those main themes, the second for sub-themes, and the third for spotting themes that don’t have the support from the data that you initially anticipated.
Another thing to remember is that you’ll likely have expectations with respect to what your data will reveal. To minimise this (inevitable) bias, you’ll want to circle back to the raw data (such as your interview transcripts) regularly. This helps you to gain new insights and nuances that you didn’t quite capture in the initial rounds of analysis. In the end, reviewing data from multiple angles is an inherent part of qualitative research.
From a practical perspective, a great way to gain a fresh perspective for thematic analysis is to take regular breaks. When you’re so entrenched in your research, you’re bound to get tunnel vision, which is bad for avoiding bias and missing those small details that may cost you precious marks. Ultimately, you’ll need to demonstrate to your marker that your research process was rigorous, methodical, and systematic.
PS – if you get stuck, Braun and Clarke’s YouTube channel is full of helpful resources for using thematic analysis.
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#3 Expect (and embrace) the unexpected
Since qualitative research is inherently a constantly evolving process, you’ll have to accept that your findings may subvert your expectations. In these situations, we often find that younger students experience “imposter syndrome”. This needn’t be the case, as unexpected findings don’t necessarily mean that you’ve done something wrong.
For example, you may set out to study the relationship between classical music and emotional experience. You may intuitively expect that classical music improves one’s mood, but then find that it actually dampens it. If you’ve followed all the correct steps, then this is an extremely valuable contribution to existing research and warrants further investigation.
So, if your findings don’t align with the existing literature (which you explored in your literature review), that’s okay. This is science after all, so unexpected findings supported by data are still good findings. In the end, this will enrich and contribute to the research that you’re engaged with.
At the same time, you should avoid completely ditching findings that support your expectations in lieu of those that don’t. Qualitative research is all about nuance, so it’s crucial to realise that all types of findings can be valid, provided the research process has been carried out correctly.
#4 Keep a detailed research journal
Since it’s important to convey that you were rigorous and systematic in your research, you should always be transparent about your approach and process. In other words, you’ll want each step you took (and the logic behind them) to be clear.
To help keep track of each of your design choices over extended periods of time, it’s extremely useful to keep a separate research journal. The research process is a lengthy one and you’ll forget the small (but important) details if you don’t keep a record. If you’re more digitally inclined, use Word and/or Excel and their comment features to take notes. Alternatively, hand-written notes also help to stimulate the thought process.
When conducting interviews, it’s a good idea to take “thick notes” to capture non-verbal communication. This basically means that you take exhaustive and specific notes to capture nuances in your observations. For example, a participant may give a long pause before answering a specific question. This may seem inconsequential, but write it down anyway! It could be a sign of being uncomfortable with the topic and you may even notice similar trends with other participants later on.
Remember that you don’t have to worry about how your research journal looks or what it contains. In the end, no one’s going to mark it. So just make sure that you keep it in a way that makes sense to you. Additionally, taking more notes than you may need is always better. Doing so will help turn the data into usable writing for your research project.
Lastly, a research journal is also helpful for reminding yourself of why you made certain choices. You’ll be able to remember why you’ve made certain decisions, thus building your confidence when you have to defend your research.
#5 Use visualisation methods/tools
It’s important to engage with your data through different approaches to determine the most relevant findings. To help gain a different perspective of your data and codes, it’s helpful to visualise them in different ways. This in turn will force you to think differently, which will help with identifying groups of related codes.
For example, you can use charts, pictures, graphs, spreadsheets, and/or PowerPoints – whatever makes sense to you. There’s also plenty of software for you to create mindmaps, such as Inspiration or XMind. You can use colour-coding in Excel to help cluster related pieces of data, and concurrently separate unrelated pieces of data. Word clouds also help to generate ideas and identify common phrases. At the same time, don’t underestimate the power of “offline” visualisation – sticky notes and whiteboards can also be very useful methods.
Again, just as with your research journal, don’t fixate on how these visuals look, as you won’t publish them in your final dissertation. First and foremost, they are there to help develop your themes. They could, however, form the basis for a formal visual in your final document.
#6 Get input from outsiders
The whole research process can be very overwhelming, complicated, and time-consuming, especially with the sheer amount of reading involved. Luckily, you don’t have to do everything alone. To help instil confidence in yourself, your audience, and your markers, utilise outside opinions. This will only help to refine your analysis and findings.
Within qualitative research, you can use a method called “member checking”. Basically, once you’ve generated your themes, you send them back to the participants you’ve interviewed to ensure that you’ve captured their thoughts accurately.
Similarly, you can employ the use of “peer briefing”, where someone who is not involved in your study (but with some academic background) reviews your findings. They’ll act as a fresh pair of eyes to help confirm that the study progresses logically from its aims to its conclusions. This is also crucial to identify and avoid bias.
Remember, it’s perfectly natural to feel doubt and uncertainty. Every established researcher started as a student with zero published articles and similar feelings. All that time spent systematically engaging with the research will make you an expert in that field, so have faith in yourself!
Recap: Thematic Analysis Tips
In this post, we covered 6 time-saving tips for using thematic analysis in qualitative research:
- Use the golden thread to maintain consistency
- Adopt a highly iterative approach
- Expect (and embrace) the unexpected
- Keep a detailed research journal
- Make use of visualisation methods/tools
- Get input from outsiders
If you’re looking for a helping hand with thematic analysis, or any other aspect of your dissertation, thesis, or research project, check out our one-on-one private coaching service, where we hold your hand throughout the research process, step by step.
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This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.