Thematic Data Analysis

Hey, guys welcome to Grad Coach TV where we  demystify and simplify the oftentimes confusing   world of academic research. My name is David and  today I am chatting to one of our trusted coaches   Amy about six tips to keep in mind when you are  conducting your thematic analysis. This discussion   is based on one of the many, many articles over at  the Grad Coach blog. So if you would like to find   out more about thematic analysis you can visit  the blog at Also if you are   looking for a helping hand with your dissertation  thesis or research project be sure to check out   our one-on-one private coaching service where we  hold your hand throughout the research process   step by step. For more information and to book  a free consultation head over to So hey Amy, welcome back to the Coach Cast  as always super great to have you on it with   us today. Hi, David, I am happy to be  here. So Amy today we are talking about   thematic analysis sort of some tips and  tricks that we can do to sort of ease the   process of running thematic analysis.  And the first tip that we are going to   mention is probably one anyone who has been  watching our content will know will come up is   making sure you are considering your golden thread  when running your thematic analysis. So Amy what   should we be looking out for here? Well, the first  place to start is with your research questions. So   look at the qualifying words you have attached  to your research questions what type of research   questions are you using are they exploratory in  nature are they predictive are they interpretive?   So this matters because this is going to determine  how you are analysing your data and sort of what   phrases you use when you are finalising your  themes. So then the next thing you can look at is   the types of research aims and objectives you  have. Again if your study is more exploratory then   you need to remain kind of more open when you are  identifying patterns and what your participants   have said or in whatever data source you are  using.

Conversely, if you are trying to make some   sort of a prediction or some sort of a conclusive  statement then you might need to be a bit more   intentional about how you are looking at your  data and what you are looking for. And then you   might look at your theoretical framework or model  if you are using one. I always think they are a   good idea because they just really help organise  your whole study and make sure that golden thread   is tightly aligned throughout each chapter. So a  framework, a model will have different constructs   different features. And so what are those  constructs what are the branches of the model?   Really dissect that and then that can help  organise your data and it can you know it   should be the lens through which you are analysing  your data anyway that theoretical framework. So,   for example, if you are doing a study and you  are using social identity theory then the thing   that you are looking for is relationships. So you  are looking for the presence and the patterns and   anytime the participants are talking about  personal relationships. If you are using a   framework that is about an intervention let us say  social workers and discipline at a school you are   going to be looking in the data for any time your  participants are talking about anything that has   to do with student discipline to identify whether  or not and the degree to which the presence of   social workers is helping with discipline. I think  that is really helpful to think through sort of   those core parts of your golden thread. If what we  are talking about sounds a little strange do not   worry we do have a video up on YouTube explaining  what the golden thread is and how to use it.   The link to that will be down in the description  below. But it is really helpful to think about   letting your golden thread lead you through how  you are going to undertake the thematic analysis.

But it is also good to go back to it right at the  end. Once you feel comfortable with your analysis   that you have identified themes it is a good thing  to take a look at those themes and just make sure   you are in line with what you set out to do. You  do not want to have set out to do an exploratory   study and then by the time you get right to the  end you are actually doing something completely   different. So we are always looking for that  alignment back to what we started off with. And   so the golden thread is going to be super helpful  there. Part of that I always say it is a little   bit helpful to just copy and paste your research  questions at the beginning of each chapter and you   do not have to end with that you can take those  out but just to keep you okay, am I gearing too   far off of the research questions and just keep  referring back to those at the start of every   chapter. I cannot agree more with that I do it all  the time myself and I encourage all my students to   do it as well. The research questions have to  come up at least in every chapter whether they   stay there maybe not but definitely putting them  there is just going to help you out down the line. So our second tip is to remember that thematic  analysis and qualitative analysis in general   are iterative. You are not just going to  do a single run-through of your analysis.   Amy, why do we need to follow this sort of back  and forth process with our data? Well, David, I   think a lot of times well, every time actually we  as researchers were coming into our projects with   a certain world view a certain perspective. Which  is good this is a part of it and you talk about   that in your method section and your positionality  perhaps. You have certain expectations for what   you are going to find in your study and you might  even be hoping for certain things and inevitably   in your raw data and your transcripts, you are  going to find certain things right that probably   reflect those expectations in some way.

So those  are going to emerge in some form or another as   your dominant themes. So that is why you know  to minimize that bias you want to make sure to   circle back to that raw data to those transcripts  and you will probably find some lines some things   that your participants said that you did not  quite capture. Just because it is not as dominant   as the other things do not mean it is not worth  incorporating into your findings. And in fact,   it could lead to something quite interesting so  you want to just make sure you are capturing all   angles of what your participants have said  in their experiences. That is the whole   point of doing qualitative work. One thing  I really suggest is helpful for me is taking   quick breaks. Leave your desk leave the computer  get some fresh air or even you know stare at   another screen for a while but get your eyes off  of those words get your brain off of those words   because you will come back with fresh brain, fresh  perspective and you will see things completely   differently. You will see things perhaps that  you did not see at all before. So that might   actually require that you step away for more than  just a few minutes that could be a week or more   if you are just really kind of stuck. Which  happens a lot when we are really engrossed   in our work. So I think that is super helpful  and it is one of the things that I know I do in   more than just analysis chapters, in write-up, in  planning it is always good to take that step back   to do something else and then to come back and  look with fresh eyes. But again with the thematic   analysis remember that it is an iterative process  we are going to be looking at our data we are   going to be looking at the codes we have generated  seeing the relationships that exist and then   consider developing them into themes. We are  then going to take those themes right back to   the data to confirm they exist and you are going  to do that a few times.

There are multiple rounds   to a thematic analysis you know you might do an  initial round just to identify the core themes   you might do a second round and identify potential  sub-themes that are making up a theme or maybe a   theme you thought you had might actually not have  the support that you initially thought. So it is   always good to come back and re-look at your data  because your data is what is supporting your view.   Yeah, absolutely that is so critical especially in  qualitative work to demonstrate to your audience,   to your committee to whomever that you have gone  systematically, methodically in rounds step by   step. So it is not just you read the transcripts  once came up with codes, came up with themes and   that was it. This should take a fairly lengthy  amount of time and that is also where that putting   time and distance between you and the transcripts  comes into play as well. I think that is a really   helpful point and it is somewhat a little unclear  in the when you are reading a paper that is done   a thematic analysis it sounds like they have just  coded it and found the themes they do not always   mention how many steps there are. But definitely  take a look at any of the methodological textbooks   out there any of the key resources. I swear by  Braun and Clark but definitely take a look at   those and they can be so helpful in the thematic  analysis process. I mean if you look at the   systematic thematic analysis those people they  will take hours and they will be in teams they   will be in committees sitting around boardroom  desks before they finalise their ultimate theme.   So you are absolutely right that it may look  like a very short phrase okay it takes nothing   to come up with that but no in fact it takes a  lot of thoughtfulness, a lot of consideration,   a lot of tying all of these pieces together to  feel confident about what you are ultimately   saying about your study is wholly reflective  of what your participants actually said.

So our third tip is to expect the unexpected. Amy  what is unexpected in thematic analysis? To me,   this is kind of the fun of doing qualitative  work is that or any research really you do not   really know what you are going to find. And I  think one of the things that I have found with   my students that I work with is that is they are  they are going into it with certain expectations   and then in the findings it is not  there or it is there in a different   way then they feel like they have done something  wrong but that is not the case. And in fact,   it is it is quite the opposite it is as long  as you have enough evidence to support your   findings you want to have those unexpected  findings. And that is kind of the unexpected   and significant way that you are contributing to  research and that is definitely something you will   want to emphasise is this is how your study is  contributing to existing research. Because let   us say that you are looking at a particular  leadership framework that emphasises the   importance of clear communication but when  you actually go to interview the employers,   your participants are employers and they are not  really talking about communicating with their   employees then that is significant. I mean you  are finding that that is not actually happening   and this could have important implications  for those organizations that there needs to be   standardise the framework they need to better  apply it or maybe the framework itself needs to   be adjusted in some way. I think that is really  helpful to think through especially because   it is really easy to think when something does not  go the way that the literature is stating that you   think the problem is with you. It is very much  something that happens with imposter syndrome,   particularly with young researchers who are just  learning the ropes. What I can say is have a bit   of faith in yourself.

This is your analysis and as  long as you can go back to your data that you have   strong support from the interviews through the  use of quotes and the analysis that you have done   then it is totally okay to have these results and  if anything they are going to be the surprising   results that help improve your study. But just  make sure not to throw out the expected findings   in lieu of the unexpected. Make sure that if there  are four out of five of the aims and objectives   that you had that totally make sense with the  literature deal with each of those. And where   there is that unexpected finding then you can  bring that in as needed. So do not feel you have   to question your own results but also make sure  you have got the data to support it. Yeah, I like   the way that you say that it is about finding that  confidence as a researcher and especially if this   is your first time doing this a lot of the clients  that we work with it is their first time that is   why you want to be so methodical and so thoughtful  and read, read, read get some coaching help,   get outside help for each step of the process.  So at the end, you can have that confidence and   feel like well this is not what I thought I was  going to find but I have done everything correctly   so I am going to include this. Yes, I am going to  stand by this this is something unexpected but I   think there is something interesting here.  There is so much richness to doing that it   is definitely what makes for fun qualitative  analysis is when you do identify these little   interesting titbits that sort of enrich the  concept that you are dealing with. And I guess   that is why we are coming to qualitative research  is for that level of richness in the data set. So our fourth tip is to not forget the importance  of keeping good quality research journals. When   we are doing research journaling during thematic  analysis what are the things we need to be keeping   in mind and why is it beneficial? Well, I keep  coming back to this notion of doing qualitative   work and the importance of conveying rigour and  being systematic.

So one of that is transparency   so you want each and every step that you are  taking in your design to be clear. The logic   behind each of the design decisions that you made  and there is going to be a lot of decisions and a   lot of thinking that you have. So keep track  of that in a reflexive journal. So this start   from the very beginning but you need to have this  documented in some way so you can keep reflecting   back to it because later on you are going to  circle back and you are going to think what was I   thinking there when I said that or when I coded it  this way. And then if you have that there you go   okay yes that was my logic there. Inevitably you  are going to forget things so keeping a journal   for each step will be helpful especially when you  get to your coding just to get out of your head   and get your thoughts onto paper start listing  your codes. You have your empirical indicators   those are your exemplar that reflect the  examples of those codes and then you have a brief   description and then maybe add a column for your  own reflective thinking your own memo to fill in   the dots of maybe what is not you know literally  reflected in the words of the quote itself.   Memos and journals are really important too in the  actual interviews. So as you are interviewing a   participant you have the you know over Zoom  or in person you are recording the audio,   okay but you are also writing down the all the  whole context everything and that that is what   we call thick notes and that you can actually add  to your methods section as a part of your method   thick notes is that you are writing down there  might be something significant in the in the   non-verbal communication what the participant is  not saying that you might factor into your later   analysis that is important. So for example if  you ask a question about something and they give   a long extended pause or they seem uncomfortable  in some way you write that down and then later on   it might make something later on, make more sense.

But the point is you know it is kind of a fairly   easy thing to do keeping a research journal it  is for yourself you are not going to necessarily   include it in your paper. So you can write however  you want to write it whatever you want to write   but being able to circle back and remind yourself  about why you made certain choices will help you   later on, turn that into more academic writing  of those explanations for those choices.   I think that is really good advice and it is  something that can even help as a thinking process   by getting those ideas onto paper at that point  and going back and reflecting on them you can   generate further insights. It is also really  helpful when it comes to defending your research   because that inevitably happens a month or a  little bit after you have handed in a little bit   further since you did your analysis. So having a  document that you can go back to that has sort of   the outline of your thinking and how your thinking  has developed is going to be super helpful in the   write-up phase but also when you are defending  your thesis. Simply taking a read-through of   your journal prior to a defence is just going  to give you so much more confidence in the way   you approach to your research topic and how you  answered those questions. Yeah, that is true too   because inevitably in research it is an evolution  and your paper is going to change probably in   quite a few ways from where you initially started.  And that is okay too that is totally normal that   is how it should happen. But there might be some  things at the beginning or along the way that are   also really important and maybe it got lost as  you refined and refined and everybody is giving   their input and you are just hacking your paper  apart and getting to the finalised version.

So   going back to that journal and really reminding  yourself about what is it that you originally   wanted to get out of this research, what was  the point you were trying to make, what were   your goals, what is the story you wanted to tell  that maybe got lost a little bit along the way.   So that journal can help you bring you back to why  you wanted to do this to, begin with. My advice is   and it is the same thing I tell quantitative  scientists just keep notes of every step because   the worst-case scenario used up a little bit of  paper or in the modern era a few megabytes of   computer space but not having those notes and  needing to come back to them that is always   way worse than having them and not needing them.  So I always suggest take notes throughout the   process just keep track of your research it is  only going to strengthen your final product. So our fifth tip is to take advantage of  visualisation methods. Amy what can we do to use   visualisation techniques to help us in the  thematic approach? Well I mean I do not know   about you but I am a very visual person. So it  helps me to see the words on a table, a graph,   a chart some pictorial form to think about things  differently and see things differently. So,   for example, you are trying to come up with  your themes you might have some sort of chart or   graph or you know it just depends on what kind of  a learner you are. So if you are a software person   and you work well with different software use  that use PowerPoint or Microsoft Word. It does not   matter what whatever makes sense to you. When I  was a teacher I used a software called Inspiration   it is still around it is very user-friendly and  you can either use one of their templates or come   up with your own. So let us say you are coming  up with your themes take your codes put the codes   in some sort of a shape a circle or square put it  any kind of colour you want and then you will be   able to see okay these codes are kind of similar  so I am going to cluster them and put them into   a category or conversely these codes are very  different so we are going to separate them out.

But the point is getting out of just staring  at the computer will facilitate a different way   of thinking and that is what we are trying to  get at to get that fresh perspective and those   really good tight original compelling themes. And,  for me, I am also very much about writing things   down it is something about the act of writing it  down so I have a million sticky notes everywhere.   Write down your codes on the stickies put them  up on a bulletin board, put them up on your desk   and just move them around and in different ways  because the point is you want to engage with your   data with different approaches so that you can  come up with the best most effective most relevant   findings. I totally agree with you on using  alternative methods. I will say I personally   maybe it is because I come from the quantitative  background do not think in pictures I think in   spreadsheets and those. But I totally use Excel to  help me find connections between themes. So I will   do things like develop a column that is just my  initial codes, develop a second column which is my   sort of refined code from there I will develop  some sub-themes or potential themes and then   I will start colour coding. I will start using  filtering, sorting and through that, I am able to   tackle those codes in a different way. That said  I still will take those codes take those themes   and put them on a mind map. Because as much as I  am a thinker in spreadsheets and hard data, it is   really helpful to just have that visualisation  that is helping me make connections between   themes or sub-themes that I would not normally  interact with. And so I always suggest to clients   take a look at using a methodology that you are  not familiar with just to help in the planning   and analysis phase.

Does not need to be pretty you  are not necessarily going to be publishing this   but it is going to be really helpful for you  thinking through how things are connected and   how to develop your themes. Yeah, and I mean there  is a variety of ways to do it and as a first step,   you might even just Google codes, categories,  themes. And if you just Google that and click   on images a million things will come up. So  that might be a place to just kind of okay   how do I do this. Get out of your head and just  literally type in those words and click on one   of those pictures images and that will give you a  direction of okay this pictorial way makes sense   to me and just go with it. And do not worry about  being right or wrong. Yeah, I totally agree with   that particularly, at the analysis phase. It is  that analysis it is an iterative thinking process.   Ideas will change ideas would develop but having  that on paper can just really help you out or in a   visualisation. One other thing to mention is while  you probably will not be publishing the thinking   that you do in these initial visualisations  sometimes these connections, mind maps,   word maps that you generate are the seeds for  a visualisation or a graphic that you will be   presenting in your final dissertation. So do not  just think of it as an analysis section it is also   something that helps you move towards the final  presentation of that data as well. I have seen   some really amazing Word Clouds this was a really  cool software that extracts the most commonly   used words in your participants' responses and put  them in a really neat visual. And so this is part   of your methods as well. You can arrive there and  maybe you will just starting out maybe you do not   worry about it being pretty but you never know how  these things can evolve maybe it gets to the point   where you want to include this in your paper and  then you will need to worry about you know making   it look more academic.

But first starting out you  know you do not have to worry so much about that. So our final tip, tip number six is to remember  that you are becoming the expert and it is your   analysis. So you can have some confidence  there but also do not feel that you have to   do everything alone. Amy, I have sort of presented  two opposites here how do we put those together?   Well, it is complicated right this whole  undertaking of a thesis or dissertation is   overwhelming and complicated and time-consuming.  And by the end of it, you will have done so much   reading but all of that time and by the end, you  should have that confidence that you have become   an expert in this. Because you have done all  the reading in these different ways and these   different topics different areas and you have put  it all together in some kind of a unique way so   you are that expert on those topics in that way.  And that is kind of an exciting part about doing   a research paper. So you need to trust yourself  and your analysis. In a thematic analysis you come   up with your themes and then in your discussion  chapters, it is your job to go beyond the literal   data. Your analysis is exactly that your analysis.  And also I think there are some things that you   can and should do to help instil that confidence  both in yourself and in your audience, in your   committee and that is getting outside opinions.  In qualitative work, there are a few ways to do   that. There is something called member checking  and that is okay so you have generated your codes,   the codes have been clustered into categories and  then from there you have analysed and abstracted   them into themes. And so once you have your final  themes send them back to your participants and get   their input. And so they will say okay yes you  got it you got the spirit of what I was saying   or they might say no that is not what I was saying  at all. But that is important that you learned   that okay and you can actually put that into your  methods section as well that you this is a part   of your triangulating of your findings of your  data supporting your ultimate findings is you   did some member checking.

You can also do purity  briefing which is enlisting the help of someone   who is not involved in your study but might have  an academic background and who can look at your   results look at your findings and say yes okay I  can see how you got there I see this transcript   and I can see the logic behind getting from there  to your themes. And so having other people agree   with you and sort of confirm what you found  can help you as you are this emerging scholar   and that confidence building that you will need  when you get to the end and you have to defend all   of these choices. I think that is really helpful  it is also a great way to sort of avoid any   bias a peer debriefer is going to be able to help  you pick up if there are any biases that you have   in the way that you are analysing, thinking  through and working through those transcripts.   But it does come up as well that if you have a  strong theme that is counted to the literature   and you have got a peer debriefer who has  looked at it and says actually this totally   makes sense then you can totally lean into  it. It is a valid finding as long as it is   well supported by the literature having that peer  debriefer you can feel confident in that result.   Even though it is counter to what was expected  or what you set out to find out. So definitely   keep that in mind while you are doing this. You  are becoming an expert you are the individual   that collected the data, you have analysed the  data you have read the associated literature   give yourself the confidence that you deserve.  You have put the effort in now it is just about   writing it in a convincing way and getting that  across to your panel and your committee. Yes,   absolutely and I mean think about every researcher  every published article that you read those   researchers started out at some point as a student  who had no published articles or anything and   probably felt the same sorts of doubt that we all  experienced when we are writing our first paper.

But now you are becoming you are taking that leap  from student to scholar becoming the person that   other people are going to start citing and that  is really exciting. Yeah really is. So Amy thanks   so much for joining us today as we tackled a  bit about thematic analysis and some tips and   tricks to keep in mind. As always super great  to have you joining us. Absolutely my pleasure. All right so that pretty much wraps  up this episode of Grad Coach TV.   Remember if you are looking for more information  about thematic analysis be sure to check out our   blog at There you can also get  access to our free dissertation and thesis writing   mini-course which gives you all the information  you need to get started on your research journey.   Also if you are looking for a helping hand with  your dissertation or thesis be sure to check out   our one-on-one private coaching service where  you can work with one of our friendly coaches   just like Amy. For all the information and to book  that free consultation head over to