Using children and vulnerable adults as subjects in a dissertation/thesis has many drawbacks.

The primary drawback is obtaining the necessary permissions.

  • Since children are minors and cannot legally consent to participate in a research study, you have to receive permission from a parent or guardian.
  • You will also need permission from a school board, school principal, teacher, or research committee. There can be an exception to the latter permission if you’re already working in the school and have built a good reputation with its principals and administrators.
  • There will also be the required permissions from your own university, known as the Institutional Review Board (IRB).

Here is a real-life example of why caution is necessary in using vulnerable adults as subjects.

One of my clients, Ralph, was pursuing his doctorate in education, and worked as administrator for a group of mentally-challenged adults. He was the district manager for one of the ten or twelve mental health districts in the state.

In this case, everyone knew him, liked him, and knew what he was doing; they even knew the topic of his doctoral dissertation, for which he planned on using subjects in his district.

He started to compose his IRB application. However, the state department for mentally-challenged adults wanted to see his proposal. He was under the impression that everything was verbally approved, but when he submitted his proposal to the executive director for the whole state, the proposal and IRB were sent to six different directors.

Only three out of the six approved his proposal. Two of the directors eventually approved, after asking for and receiving additional information. However, the sixth director still said “no.”

Ralph then had to have a one-on-one meeting with the sixth director to go through more details about how he would protect the subjects of the project.

Ralph had been under the impression that his project would automatically be approved, and also that he would have access to the subjects within his district in this state. However, when it was time to get actual signatures for approval, several people were unsure.

What should have taken two weeks for approval, took six months!

The takeaway from this is that, if your dissertation involves children or vulnerable adults, then one of your earliest tasks is to secure the permissions you’ll need to proceed. Find out:

  • whose approval you’ll need,
  • what documentation is needed, and
  • the approval process to follow more easily.

Attention to the details will really pay off.


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