Doctoral Research: Aligning Variables for Measurement

By: Dr. Ron Jones

Doctoral researchers typically designate two or more variables as the primary basis for addressing the phenomenon under study. For example, central research questions could be structured, “How does Variable A affect Variable B?” or “What, if any, relationship exists between Variable A and Variable B?” The researcher collects and analyzes data on Variable A and B, determines the effects on or relationships between the variables, and writes the findings and results section. Sounds simply enough, yet oftentimes complications ensue because of the lack of a valid means to measure or assess the variables.

To collect primary data, quantitative researchers use a survey and qualitative researchers use a questionnaire. Doctoral students have numerous data collection instruments available that have proven reliability and validity. In other words, the instrument has been successful used and proven to accurately and consistently measure what the researchers intended to measure. With many existing surveys available, what causes the difficulty in locating an instrument to measure the variables? Oftentimes the problem with employing an existing instrument results from the researcher attempting to measure abstract or intangible concepts in defined terms. More clearly stated, the variable represent a phenomenon or concept that is, at worst, immeasurable, or at best, difficult to measure.

Reviewing an example should add clarity to the concept of designing and aligning variables for measurement. A hypothetical research question is, “What effect does political leadership behavior have on the success of an organization?” From this question, one can ascertain the independent variable is political leadership behavior and the dependent variable is organizational success. First of all, the concept of organizational success could involve an array of definitions. The researcher should consider aligning the success variable with defined measurements to create a success index. If for-profit organizations are the target population, success could be measured by year-over-year growth in sales plus profitability as a percentage of sales. By specifically defining what constitutes success in relation to the study, the researcher removes the ambiguity associated with the dependent variable.

The next challenge is measuring the political aspects of the organizational leaders. A search of previously validated surveys regarding leadership behaviors reveals a means to identify and measure numerous leadership styles such as transformational, transactional, laissez-faire, and emotional, yet none exist to measure political behavior of organizational leaders. What are the options? First of all, the researcher should, through investigation and consultations with experts, determine is the variable is measurable. Creating new knowledge is a typical objective of a doctoral project, yet a flawed or misaligned research variable creates barriers to completing the study. In the event an existing, validated instrument is not available for collecting data regarding a particular variable, the researcher has the option to conduct a pilot study of a self-developed survey or questionnaire to establish reliability and validity. Participants of the pilot study should be representative of the target population, yet excluded from the formal study as participants. Although conducting a pilot study might be the solution, the process will not create a means to measure an immeasurable variable.

The next option is variable alignment. By aligning the variable with a validated survey or questionnaire, researchers eliminate additional steps and approvals within the doctoral program created by the need to conduct a pilot study. Furthermore, alignment with a proven instrument or changing the variable to a concept that the instrument has the proven reliability and validity to measure removes the challenge presented by an immeasurable or difficult to measure variable. In the hypothetical study, the political behavior variable could be changed to a leadership style, measurable by an existing instrument, which holds political connotations. The objective of the study might be slightly altered, yet the research topic remains intact.

Doctoral students should consider the time, effort, and resource-saving value of using an existing, proven data collection instrument. Doctoral research builds on what has come before, taking advantage of the prior scholarly work of experts. Consider the advantages of aligning the variables with an existing, proven instrument to ease the pathway to doctoral success, defined as an earned doctorate.