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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 14, 2004
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The getting of access: The trials and tribulations of the novice researcher

Anthea Taylor, Zsuzsa Millei, Lee Partridge & Lynette Rodriguez
The University of Western Australia
In many fields and in education in particular, researchers, such as teachers, are inclined to believe that because they are enmeshed in the field or have good relationships with students, issues of politics, power and status will exert minimal influence and that access to the field will be smooth and unproblematic. In this paper, three doctoral students with varying degrees of insider status, working in the Australian context, reflect on the rocky journeys they experienced obtaining and maintaining access to field sites. The authors argue that despite a body of literature addressing this issue, many of the commonly used texts devoted to educational research do not adequately tackle the subject. The novice researcher often remains unsuspecting and under prepared for the range and depth of difficulties encountered in the process of gaining access. The question is posed, what might be the role of the academy in preparing researchers?


For any qualitative researcher working in an interpretivist paradigm, but particularly novice researchers, an initial challenge involves finding and negotiating access to a site. It can be a protracted and even a disheartening process. In this paper three education doctoral students report on their diverse attempts to move their research projects from proposal stage to gaining and maintaining access and entry to their field sites, to begin and then proceed with their research. The discussion considers the different challenges posed at various stages, considers what the literature offers in terms of preparation, and speculates on why education research students might find access to schools particularly frustrating. Finally, the paper questions what the academy might do to assist in the preparation of novice researchers to anticipate and manage access and entry challenges and setbacks.

What the literature offers

The literature dealing with the pragmatics of gaining access to a research site(s) for qualitative research projects is at best, patchy. It ranges from extensive discussions of issues surrounding gaining access and entry to the field to little, if any, attention to the topic. Among those works devoting somewhat cursory attention to the topic are texts commonly used in Education faculties in Australia: Schwartz and Jacobs (1979), Sarantakos (1993), Punch (1998) as well as Miles and Huberman (1994), and the recent edition of the Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000). Some in this genre, such as the Open University publication, Doing Your Research Project (Bell, 1999), devote most of their consideration of access to a discussion regarding obtaining ethical clearance rather than what might be considered the pragmatics of entry to the field.

Most of the literature that does discuss issues of access and entry in some detail is found within qualitative research methodology texts. In the older edition of the Handbook of Qualitative Research (1994), for example, Maurice Punch (pp. 83-97) provides a well-itemised description of what to do and what not to do when attempting to gain access to the field. Among the issues he discusses are those to do with the formation of friendly and trusting relationships, the need to fully engage with a group under study, and the particular difficulties involved in negotiating with 'gatekeepers'. In the same volume, under the somewhat poetic chapter title, 'The Dance of Qualitative Research Design: Metaphor, Methodolatry, and Meaning' (p 209-219), Janesick addresses the sensitive nature of access and entry to the field and the need for the researcher to 'establish trust, rapport, and authentic communication patterns with participants' (p 211), particularly at the commencement of the research. However, apart from this brief highlighting of the need for good researcher-participant relationships, Janesick does not explore how researchers might get to first base or go about building such relationships based on trust, rapport and communication. Nor does she identify issues that can inhibit the development of such relationships.

Of the literature that does treat various aspects of the topic in some detail (eg Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983; Bogdan, 1992; Eisner, 1991; Punch, 1994; Carspecken, 1996; Krathwohl, 1998; Patton, 1990; Marshall and Rossman, 1999), the finer-tuned discussions (such as Carspecken 1996) are understandably associated with a focus on ethnography, where a researcher has a prolonged and intense relationship with a field site. Hammersley and Atkinson (1983), for example, include a chapter detailing the practical implications of getting access to the field and gaining entry through 'hanging about', engaging with 'sponsors', dealing with 'gatekeepers' and, importantly, employing one's own social ties. They caution that "negotiating access is a balancing act. Gains and losses now and later, as well as ethical and strategic considerations, must be traded off against one another in whatever manner is judged to be appropriate" (1983, p. 72).

While most sites pose potential access and entry challenges to the qualitative researcher, some are particularly difficult. Research with the very young or the elderly, or the outlawed, or in settings such as in hospitals or prisons, or those that are intimate or dangerous each pose access difficulties for different reasons. Of relevance here are those posed when working with children in institutions such as schools. Krathwohl (1998) and others (eg Eisener 1991; Bogdan 1992; Walford 2001), deal in some depth with the particular set of issues concerning the pragmatics of researchers' entry to educational sites. Krathwohl (1998) in particular identifies institutional constraints that he says can limit what the researcher is allowed to do:

Only a limited amount of time can be taken from classroom teaching. ... Because most institutions try to maintain business as usual come what may, those institutions that allow their schedules to be disrupted by research are unusual. Such disruptions bear testimony to some combination of the negotiating skill of the investigator, the perceived value of the research, and/or the typicality of an institution (p.198).
In addition, controversial topics or situations where there are 'negative antecedents' make it difficult for successive researchers, novice or otherwise. Pointing out that gaining entry to institutions such as schools is particularly complex, he pays attention to negotiations, the "runaround" that can occur with gatekeepers, and the pitfalls that can arise when relying on sponsors or on 'referred approvals' (Vallance, 2001). Citing Bosk, (1979, p.194), Krathwohl (1998) points out that a sponsor in an administrative position within an institution can turn out to be a "Kiss of Death", suggesting that such situations are by no means uncommon.

Many authors agree that negotiating access can be time-consuming, difficult and testing of one's patience, creativity and flexibility. In the face of such challenges it is tempting to seek sites to which one already has access as an insider. However, as Krathwohl (1998) points out, gaining access even with insider status is not without its own set of challenges. As he says, a qualitative researcher's intent is "to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange" and suddenly trying to approach familiar situations, as a stranger, can appear contrived and unnatural and the researcher's new role may not be accepted. Vallance (2001), however, advocates what he labels 'referred approvals' for research with teachers in schools, whereby a principal is adopted as a quasi insider and asked to recommend study participants from among a school's staff. This of course is not without the potential for problems of sample bias arising from the school's internal politics and power relationships.

The question is how much effort should be put into persisting in an attempt to gain access to a site that is not initially compliant. Krathwohl (1998) cautions against persisting with attempts to gain access to a site when researchers find themselves having continually to re-negotiate and resist additional restrictions. He suggests that sometimes it might be better to find another site - even if the study has already begun. Walford (2001), however, is of the opinion that persistence is likely to pay off in the end and cites several examples from his own research to support this view. Bogdan (1992) also suggests that initial reluctance may be reversed. He is of the view (p. 82) that most schools understand, and are ultimately supportive of postgraduate student research projects on site. The following accounts of novice researchers working in the Australian education context, however, do not entirely support his optimism. Each illustrates that gaining access is indeed time consuming and tricky and far too often frustrating. Each tells of a process requiring ongoing diplomacy, persistence, creativity and flexibility as well as resilience. The examples are postgraduate students' captioned stories written in their own voices and style. The variations in individual style have been preserved to provide a space for the authentic voice of each lived experience and encapsulate the emotional journey to find accommodating research sites. In Feeling like a ball in a pinball machine the author presents an edited extract from her field journal. With Can I play too? and Hoops and goalposts both authors reflect back on the sequence of events and frustrations experienced before getting started on the data collection phases of their research projects.

Example One: Feeling like a ball in a pinball machine [1]

My research involved gaining a better understanding of the role of rewards in the lives of adolescent boys diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I needed to interview boys diagnosed with ADHD as well as others with no diagnosis. To facilitate access to the participants and their teachers, I was seeking a single site to carry out my study.

What follows is a log of the events that lead eventually to securing a research site. The process took 10 months, involved four schools, three principals, one deputy principal, six school psychologists, one Year eight coordinator, a school secretary, two postgraduate students, one university supervisor, six letters, numerous emails, countless phone calls and six false starts.

May 5: Informed by department circular that [school 1] was eager to be involved in any collaborative research projects focusing on boys' education! Would be a great site for my research. Will draft a letter to the Principal tomorrow outlining my project.

May 15: Response today from the Principal of [school 1] rejecting my request to conduct my study at the school due to previous research commitments. This is confusing based on the earlier advice I had received. The letter did say "unable to accommodate your study this year" so I phoned the school (was unable to get past the secretary), apologised for not being clearer in my letter, and assured her that my data collection would not begin until next year. Would that make a difference? She took all the details and promised to pass the message on to the Principal. Oh well, I tried.

May 16: Principal's secretary phoned today to say that since the project was to begin next year, it might be reconsidered. The Principal needed to discuss it with the school psychologist. I offered to forward a copy of my research proposal to assist in their deliberations.

July 15: Two months and still no response from [school 1]. Perhaps I need to start looking for another school.

July 20: Finally received a letter from the Principal of [school 1] declining my request to carry out the study in the school next year. He wished me well in my quest for an alternative research site! My supervisor has offered to contact an associate in another boys' school to see if they would be interested. This person is in an administrative position within the school so would most likely be influential. The school is demographically very similar to [school 1] and has been previously involved in research projects with the Faculty. It could be a good site!

July 25: On the advice of the contact within the school, I called the Year 8 Coordinator at [school 2] and tried to explain the project over the phone. He sounded distracted and was obviously busy. He said he would get back to me within the week.

August 30: Still no contact from the Year 8 Coordinator. My supervisor offered to ring the school psychologist and "sell" the project. She managed to get his tacit approval for the study. Will write to the Principal telling him of the preliminary interest his staff have shown in the research, emphasising the relevance and the importance of the study to boys' education and asking for approval.

October 16: The Principal has approved the project being conducted at the school provided the school counsellors (psychologists) agree. This presents a problem since there are two school psychs and while one has agreed, the other is about to go on maternity leave and be replaced by someone new.

November 14: Arranged a meeting with the replacement school psychologist today. She told me that the message she had been given about the study was that it was going to be very disruptive to the students and a lot of work for the school counsellors. Somehow the detailed outline of the project I sent to the Principal has managed to morph into this horror story, which has alienated the very people in the school I need to work with. Having listened to my reassurances that nothing could be further from reality, she told me that she was only employed to the end of the term and that a new psychologist would be starting in the New Year and that really I should be discussing the project with her. Which way to square one?

November 20: Some cunning detective work unearthed a contact number of the '"to-be-appointed" psychologist at [school 2]. I phoned and made an arrangement to meet her when school resumes in the New Year. A three-month wait!

February 10: I arrived for my meeting with the newly appointed school psychologist to be told that it would be with both counsellors. I felt a little under-prepared as what I thought would be a casual meeting with an opportunity to introduce myself and begin to establish a working relationship, now felt as though I was being assessed, checked out to decide whether my project was worthy of their sponsorship. Although I was nervous, the meeting went well. Both counsellors listened to the proposal and offered really useful and insightful suggestions to assist in the smooth running of the project. There were just a few details they needed to check with the Principal. I emailed my supervisor to tell her it had been a constructive meeting and it was "all systems go".

February 11: Am I existing in some kind of parallel universe? Yesterday the project was all ready to go - all the relevant stakeholders were happy (I thought) and I had done all that was required. Today I received an email from the counsellor at [school 2] telling me that the Principal "feels that because [she is] new to this position and given the school's current commitments [they] are unable to assist [me] at this time with [my] research". I feel as if I've heard this before! Time is now running short and I don't even have a school!

February 12: Discussed (well, agonised over really) the dilemma with my supervisor. She was as frustrated and bemused as I was but was able to provide some kind of reassurance that I wasn't going completely mad, nor had I imagined the whole thing. Some other possible schools were suggested and being conscious of the shortage of time, I decided to phone one rather than go down the same long, previously unsuccessful letter route. Contacting the Principal, I had thought, was the politically correct way to go about things but that hadn't worked in the two previous cases and it would seem that by the time the message made its way to the school psychologist it was so garbled that it had become an unrecognisable and unpalatable account of my project. I decided to phone the school psychologist directly at [school 3] to determine at least from the outset whether they might be interested. The conversation lasted about five minutes at the end of which she informed me that, despite my reassurances, it sounded like too much work!

February 13: Phoned a fellow doctoral student, who had mentioned some time ago that she had contacts in a particular boys' school. I asked her if she could help.

February 15: Got word that [school 4] was interested in my study. I phoned to arrange a meeting with the Deputy Principal and the school psychologist. On the phone they seemed enthusiastic but I am reluctant to expect too much yet. I think I will take reinforcements with me this time (in the form of my supervisor) - don't want to be outnumbered.

February 25: The meeting at [school 4] with the Deputy Principal, school psych, and my supervisor went unbelievably well. Despite having discussed the best tactics and plan of attack beforehand, we didn't have to work very hard at all. They were surprisingly supportive and even spoke of ongoing research partnerships between the school and the University.

March 6: Met with the school psychologist today to discuss the logistics of the project. Everything was fine; we seemed to agree on every point. Once all the details were finalised we went to the Deputy's office to report on our excellent progress. Surprisingly, he now seemed to want more control of the project and wanted me to make a significant change to the sampling design. My ally, the school psych, argued in defense of the planned approach, pointing out relevant methodological issues. Unconvinced, the Deputy resolved (unilaterally) that he needed to check the matter with the Principal! Where have I heard this before? I have a bad feeling about this.

March 8: Email received informing us of the Principal's blessing! Finally - it has only taken 10 months to get this far!

Postscript (UPDATE): An eighty-five per cent permission rate was received and the relationship with the school continues to be supportive and productive.

In retrospect I wonder what I might have done differently to facilitate more efficient access to a research site. In the end it was a referred introduction to the school that allowed entry to the site. However this was the second referral I had used, the first being unsuccessful after a protracted length of time. I tried a number of approaches, top down approaching the principal initially and bottom up, being referred from someone within the school. I tried approaching those within the school who would be most affected by the study, the school psychologists and the teachers. No one approach seemed to be preferable.

I acknowledge that the nature of my study may have been perceived as sensitive and therefore the schools may have been wary of participating. I did my utmost to allay such fears by attempting to explain the study in detail and reassure the schools that confidentiality would be preserved.

I believe that finally the school that accepted my proposal to conduct the study did so because it complemented their own agenda. If I was advising others in a similar situation I would suggest that it is important to begin early to secure a research site, to utilise what contacts you may have and to be flexible, being prepared to change or modify the research design or site to enable a good working relationship with the school or organisation. Perhaps next time I might be more sensitive to early subtle signals.

False hope, inordinate rejections, delays to the start of the project and passing a layer of gatekeepers posed recurring obstacles in the process of obtaining entry for the researcher in the first example. Flexibility to compromise the criteria for site selection and the research design proved to be the most effective tool to overcome difficulties, a tactic that returns in the next story. As a novice researcher it is difficult to know how long to persist with attempts to gain access to a reluctant or apparently unco-operative site, particularly when there are few signs.

Example Two: Can I play too?

My research is examining conceptions of childhood and power relations in early childhood education settings using Carspecken's (1996) method of critical ethnography. Critical ethnography is concerned with the social inequality that characterises modern society and its relations, which make any project conducted with this methodology a sensitive topic. The study required intensive involvement by the participants, which can make the granting of access even more problematic.

I needed to find a tremendously accommodating teacher and assistant, a relatively small class size to facilitate the observation of young children, and since I would be frequenting the site regularly, it needed to be close. As a fairly recent migrant to Australia I had no existing contacts in local schools in Perth, but I was able to use a lecturer's education department contact to build a short list of about ten possible sites. Local WA protocol requires that all contact and correspondence in government schools goes through the principal, so armed with my list of possible classroom teachers, I began to approach the principals for permission to approach their early childhood teachers for an informal talk. I received varying responses and explanations. In short, each approach was unsuccessful; it would be too difficult, it was untimely to have the research done in the classroom, or would be too time-consuming and so on. I did manage to contact a few teachers, but without the principals' full agreement they understandably avoided any further contact with me. At this point I could see that I could only expect severe delays and obstacles along the way and I decided not to pursue this avenue any further.

Next I looked for early childhood teachers who were postgraduate students themselves on the assumption that they would surely be supportive. I soon ended up with nine names and after contacting each I started to negotiate with two teachers who were keen to collaborate. On the basis of the school's demographics, I eventually chose one classroom. Then I proceeded through the conventional channels of getting 'official' entry into the preferred school. By the end of the school year permission granted and everything was set to start the research at the beginning of the next school year.

When the school term opened in the New Year, I was all set to start. The night before I had arranged to go to the school the phone rang at 9.30pm. It was the teacher ringing to withdraw her participation in the research. She said that unexpectedly two children with learning difficulties had been placed in her classroom and she felt she was not able to accommodate me as well during the forthcoming school year.

So here it was the beginning of the school year, my research proposal had been accepted, my ethics application had been approved, I had consent forms ready to go, but no site. I was desperate. I reluctantly amended the criteria I had set for the site selection. As luck would have it I was given a contact, a principal who when contacted agreed on behalf of the classroom teacher to participate. Without even meeting the teacher, I had a site with 27 children albeit 30 km away from home.

But I still faced another difficulty. To carry out observations in the classroom, I needed the consent of all the parents. I decided to be present when the consent forms were distributed to the parents to make a good impression on them, to let them know that the teacher and researcher were already collaborating in the research and it would provide the chance to 'personalise' the researcher. Most of the consent forms were speedily returned and after waiting a week I had the permission of all the parents except one. A mother of a child with a serious illness opposed my presence in the classroom because she did not want her 'child to be involved in any research'. I approached the mother and listened to her concerns. By the end of a desperate negotiation (from my side) the form was finally signed and research could resume again.

My journey to find a field site and obtain entry had lasted for six months but I ended up being extremely fortunate. This site, hastily organised at the last minute, turned out to be excellent. I met an extraordinary teacher, the most wonderful assistant, and a most diverse group of children. Looking back now I can see that keeping open the options of the second co-operative teacher as back up research site for longer could have saved me lot of time and frustration, but at the time I felt it was not ethical not to communicate to her that I had selected an alternative site.

Finding a research site with no prior contact whatsoever turned out to be very time consuming in this example. On the other hand, while being an insider can make initial contacts easier, it can bring other obstacles as well, which lengthen the process of getting entry. The next example illustrates the length of time that was necessary to invest in establishing rapport and credentials in a culturally appropriate manner with participants, several layers of gatekeepers and administrators in Aboriginal contexts. The story will show how unexpected hurdles could arise even after official entry to the site was granted.

Example Three: Hoops and goalposts

My study is focused on exploring the post-compulsory education and training stories of Aboriginal youth between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Three research sites that are educational post-secondary institutions were selected, of which two are in urban and one in a rural location. Each site caters solely for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and offers programs for Indigenous students interested in continuing their education in the secondary, higher education and training sectors.

Some form of insider status is extremely important in research with Aboriginal society. Most Australian Indigenous respondents' find it difficult to speak openly with people they don't know regardless of whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. If the researcher is Indigenous, respondents want to know where the person fits into the Indigenous context in terms of family connections and hometown before they feel comfortable enough to speak openly. Therefore, as an Indigenous researcher, it was important for me to consider the selection of sites where I had some prior connections. By doing this I was attempting to make access to the site and respondents as smooth as possible.

On this basis I chose sites where I had or anticipated I would have both personal and professional contacts. I currently work at one site, have worked previously in another and have family living in the town in which the third site is located. At each site family members had previously been students and family members were also current staff at two of the institutions selected. At the one site in which I had not worked or visited previously, I needed to make the time to chat casually with the person who would initially give permission and when this was done, inevitably we discovered that we were somehow connected through the marriages of family members.

After approval from the administration in each site was gained I then had to establish a relationship with Aboriginal staff who would enable me to actually access the site and participants. This was the most important part of the process of gaining access. Without the foundation of a trusting and open relationship access may be difficult to obtain, thereby jeopardising the research. I laid the foundations for this relationship by making sure that I was unobtrusive and open to chatting, having cups of tea and joining with the activities going on whenever I could. Once early relationships were beginning to be formed I began the same process with the respondents. This proved to be slightly more difficult because of a number of different factors such as, age, status, gender and the respondents' limited but developing knowledge of my family connections.

In this careful and considered entry to the research field a number of different tasks needed to occur simultaneously (see also Sarantakos, 1993 p. 258). With limited mutual knowledge of each other, the initially unknown researcher was attempting to create a place for herself and her research in the community whilst making known her research purpose. This involved familiarising the respondents and those in authority with both my personal and professional backgrounds and my research project. While the building of this research foundation was vitally important it was also delicate and time-consuming.

While time-consuming, my initial access to the field was relatively unproblematic. However, access problems did occur about a year into my project when I was awarded a Health scholarship.

While my research is located within the education field, it met the target areas for a scholarship which identified the importance of contributing to a greater understanding about Indigenous youth, namely that of mental health and well-being. The terms of the scholarship required that I now gain another ethics approval from another ethics committee that entailed submitting a lengthy application. The application stipulated that approval from a new set of organisations was necessary prior to submitting this application. If approval was not granted from each of the organisations I could not submit the application and without this second ethics clearance I could not access the competitive scholarship I had been awarded.

The core business of these organisations is that of meeting the immediate and daily health needs of their clients. Their immediate and pressing core business is not concerned with the gathering of adolescents' education stories. For four months I waited for answers to my letters and for my phone calls to be returned. My research was being delayed and it seemed as though I had reached a stalemate. I resorted to trying to discover key people in the organisations who may have been able to help me get a response. I spent a couple of weeks of talking with people who helped me identify key people in each organisation. I planned to meet these people to discuss my situation in the hope that they might help progress my cause with those at the top of the organisations who held my letters. In the end I didn't need to do this. Eventually I began to receive the long awaited letters of support from the organisations giving approval for my research to proceed in their regions.

These experiences demonstrated very clearly to me how crucial sensitivity on the part of the researcher can be and that access, whether it is to the field, to respondents or to organisations which have the power to approve or reject a proposal, can be delayed or jeopardised when the researcher lacks familiarity or relationships with those crucial to the successful undertaking of the research. As with the previous two cases I also experienced frustrating delays and like them, persistence and patience have been critical ingredients.

Looking back and reflecting on how the access process might have been sped up and the delays overcome more efficiently, I am not sure how it could have been with Indigenous participants. The investment of time in face-to-face contact and relationship-building is a crucial element in the Indigenous research context. Clearly I should have done likewise in seeking formal permission from all the Aboriginal organisations only peripherally associated with my project but on which I relied for permission to access my scholarship so I could proceed with my project.

The previous examples illustrate some of the obstacles novice researchers face in the process of getting entry to a future research site. As the novice researchers approached particular sites, each faced the challenge of establishing rapport with various people in different positions. A number of sensitive situations (referred to in the second and third examples) of being amongst and/or coming from the community of participants, contradicted the fact of researching them with expert knowledge and created imbalances in relationships with participants. The researcher in example three had the privilege of being an insider, which on one hand eased her way into the research sites. On the other hand it this did not speed up the process because of the need to locate herself as an Aboriginal person in the Aboriginal community, enact the connections as well as establish herself as a researcher, which considerably delayed her project. Unexpected hurdles, sensitive topics, problems of unknown or problematic protocols and last minute withdrawals caused further impediments in each example. During negotiations particular situations arose, in which researchers' intentions were not understood or trusted. Whenever obstacles occurred, it demanded researchers be flexible with design and site criteria or in helpless cases to give up negotiations and move to a different site. Clearly it would have been advantageous to have had partially negotiated alternative field sites arranged from the outset as backups even if this involves amending the criteria for site selection somewhat. However, the ethics of keeping such back up sites in the wings for the length of time necessary, for example in the first two of these cases, must seriously is be questioned.


In education faculties, many student researchers are already practising teachers and it is common for them to use their own schools as research sites. However, as the literature cautions, and the third case illustrates, insider status does not necessarily guarantee a smooth ride, nor is it necessarily any less time consuming for either a novice or an experienced researcher.

Here we have three novice researchers who each experienced frustrating delays and each, with good reason, believed they had access to a field site only to find at the last minute that entry was barred or, as in the third case, that additional barriers were encountered during the process. It might be argued that while many of the issues raised here could have been dealt with more strategically, or that a good research design always has alternative back up sites ready to be accessed if necessary, in mind if not in place, this is not always a realistic strategy for the doctoral researcher. It also can be argued that many of the problems experienced and described by the researchers here are mirrored in the literature and as such might be regarded as generic and not unexpected.

Some of the problems experienced in the process of gaining access for these research projects may well have been to do with the nature of the studies. Access can be notoriously difficult when controversial topics are probed (Krathwohl, 1998, p.198). Similarly the negotiating and renegotiating of access and approval, or the feeling of being given the 'runaround' is also not uncommon. The experience in all the schools, but particularly the second school approached in the first case where the researcher was being referred from person to person, can be described as one where gatekeepers "refer the request to others in the hope that someone will find a legitimate objection that can be used to provide an excuse" to deny access (Krathwohl, 1988 p. 253). Krathwohl (1998) cautions that administrators may seek to have some control over the project. In the first case study described, controlling the selection of participants was requested but other forms of intervention may include viewing field notes or drafts or approving the release of a report.

Apart from the problems associated with gaining and maintaining access facing any researcher, the novice researcher faces different, additional hurdles. Unlike experienced researchers, they may not have well-developed strategies for gaining access and entry that they implicitly factor into their research proposals, nor have they necessarily had experience developing situational negotiating skills that they can bring into play from the outset. They are unlikely to be sufficiently familiar with the process to be able to move strategically to neutralise gatekeeper reluctance before it is expressed irrevocably as outright refusal. Unlike the seasoned researcher, they do not typically come to a site with a reputation and/or supported by a high profile industry funding body.

Unlike the experienced educational researcher, novices are less likely to be confident about the parameters of their research or have a feel for how much they can vary a proposal within these parameters. The constraints on student research posed not just by a field site, but by university policy, supervision, defence panels and ethics committees result in the novice student researcher having to answer to many masters. Thus, the novice researcher has neither precedent upon which to draw, nor ease of flexibility.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the novice researcher in education faces an even greater battle to gain access to study sites than students from other disciplines. Since the nature of the educational research means that much of it is carried out in schools, it can be argued that a dilemma exists, because of the perception that people within these institutions have of 'students'. Further, many practising teachers have a cynical and critical view of the ivory tower approach of the educational theorists of academia.

The research student in education is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Approaching the school, albeit as a postgraduate, and asking for access to conduct a study means they first have to overcome the connotation that the label of 'student' carries. Schools are interwoven with power relations and the teacher-student dyad is one of the most well-defined of them all. Entering a school as a student researcher immediately positions the individual into this power structure's less privileged position. An immediate consequence of this is that it becomes very easy for the school to reject the researcher's entry to the site.

However, aligning themselves more with their institution or university in an effort to de-emphasise the "student" label may be of little benefit. Many practising teachers are skeptical of what they perceive to be an overly theoretical approach to education espoused by academics. The tension between theory and practice is often the source of much dissension, particularly in the current environment of significant educational change, which many teachers feel is being forced upon them.


This paper set out to problematise the process of getting novice researchers' entry to the field site with an aim to highlight an area of importance for academia. Here we have tried to provide fine grained examples of three novice researchers' experience of gaining access to field sites in education contexts. While the literature is rich, the lived experience can still be problematic, particularly with respect to delays, false starts and dashed expectations. As such, we argue that in the present climate this phase of the research project may need more consideration by the academy. Here we have no ready answers but seek to generate some serious debate by posing the question what can the academy do?

A general feeling exists in the academy that access and entry issues, such as those experienced by the doctoral students here, are merely hiccoughs that are part and parcel of the process of socialisation into the researcher role; a rite of passage to be endured and mastered by the novice. In terms of what the academy does, or might do, to better assist student researchers prepare for and deal with access and entry issues, apart from recommending reading of the common texts and sharing anecdotes, any further preparation often appears to be somewhat ad hoc and idiosyncratic. This is not entirely satisfactory, as good novice researchers can be soured by early access and entry setbacks, good projects can be compromised, and good research sites can be contaminated for future projects.

Several writers have suggested that a discussion of access and entry issues should be incorporated into a research proposal. Marshall and Rossman (1999 p. 84), for example, suggest that "(a)t the proposal stage, the researcher should indicate that negotiations have begun and formal approval is likely" and that "she has knowledge about the nuances of entry and a healthy respect for participants' concerns". The reality is, however, that the process requires students to submit their proposals and gain ethics approval prior to undertaking any purposeful negotiations regarding access and entry to a field site. Also, one questions how any of the issues illustrated in the case studies presented here could have been usefully identified or sufficiently planned for at the proposal stage?

What assistance should be given to student researchers is complicated by the policy and funding framework of postgraduate research which emphasises students finishing their degrees within a limited time frame - with funding to universities being tied to completion. This "bottom line" incentive may provide a motivator for the academy to do whatever it can to assist students and reduce the barriers that might prevent a project from being started, let alone completed. Alternatively it may result in students being discouraged from engaging in studies such as those described here because of the difficulties the student researcher is likely to face.

Walford (2001) believes much can be learnt from looking at other disciplines, in particular commerce and the business of selling, to gain useful insights into handling the problems of access. He argues that researchers need to learn to "sell" their project in the same way a product might be sold. This raises the issue of whether the academy might well have a role in training researchers, not only in quantitative and qualitative methodologies, theoretical frameworks and paradigms, but also in the "art of selling". Further, a significant contribution could be made by the universities in enhancing the desirability of the product (research project) by informing the customer (schools) of the benefits and value of research being conducted. One of the most effective ways university departments might achieve this is by conducting regular research forums to which practising teachers and administrators are invited.

Notwithstanding the experiences reported here, on a brighter note Hammersley and Atkinson (1983) provide an encouraging observation for the beginner - field notes about the process of access and entry can often be turned into useful research data!


  1. Barley (The Innocent Anthropologist, Notes from a Mud Hut, 1986, p. 13) used this metaphor to describe his feelings while attempting to secure a research site.


We are most grateful to Janice Dudley (School of Politics and International Studies, Murdoch University) for her helpful suggestions and critical reading of a draft of this paper.

The authors also wish to acknowledge the support they have received: Zsuzsa Millei's doctoral project on conceptions of early childhood is supported by a Fogarty Foundation Doctor of Education Scholarship; Lyn Rodriguez's PhD exploring Aboriginal youth's conceptions of mentors and heroes is supported by a Healthways Health Promotion Indigenous Research Training Scholarship; and Lee Partridge, while undertaking her doctoral project examining ADHD diagnosed boys' notions of reward, was a 2003 recipient of a University of Western Australia Teaching Internship. Both Lee Partridge and Zsuzsa Millei were also recipients of a Fogarty Foundation Travel Award and Lyn Rodriguez of a University of WA post-graduate travel award, enabling them to present an earlier version of this paper at the NZ/AARE Annual Conference at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, 29 Nov - 3 Dec 2003.


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Authors: Dr Anthea Taylor, School of Social and Cultural Studies, The University of Western Australia. Current email: anthea.taylor@ecu.edu.au

Zsuzsa Millei, Lee Partridge and Lynette Rodriguez
The Graduate School of Education, The University of Western Australia
Email: millei@cyllene.uwa.edu.au, lee.partridge@uwa.edu.au, l.rodriguez@gunada.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Taylor, A., Millei, Z., Partridge, L. & Rodriguez, L. (2004). The getting of access: The trials and tribulations of the novice researcher. Issues In Educational Research, 14(1), 85-102. http://www.iier.org.au/iier14/taylor.html

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