One of the questions clients often come to us with is whether now is a good time to conduct research with key stakeholders (e.g., prospective students, current students, faculty and staff, alumni, etc.). Our response hinges on their research objectives and target audiences, both of which impact project timing.
What’s the research question?
The nature of the research question plays a key role in determining if the timing is right. Questions that pertain to a specific point in a selection process, such as understanding dynamics and influences on an enrollment decision, have less flexibility. Research activities that start too long after a decision has been made can limit the utility of the information, as memories can fade and participation from those who would pursue or engage with the sponsoring institution decreases.
Other types of research questions have fewer restrictions and are less time-bound, such as defining the general reputation of an institution or identifying dynamics around philanthropy. One note: if you plan to repeat the study over time to study trends, it’s best to collect data at similar times of the year—for example, July—to remove any seasonal effects that could make interpretation of results more challenging.
Who is your audience?
The populations targeted for research can also influence timing. Some audiences, such as currently enrolled students and faculty, are significantly easier to engage while school is in session versus academic break periods. Likewise, other external stakeholders in education fields, such as high school guidance/college counselors and teachers, are also easier to recruit while school is in session.
Others can be more easily tapped year-round, including parents, institutional staff and administrators, alumni, employers, and community leaders. Prospective students can also be tapped at different points in the cycle depending on the nature of the questions (e.g., understanding application decisions vs. final enrollment decisions).
The only time when we generally discourage conducting research is during the end of calendar year period, typically from the first or second week in December through the first week of January. Research audiences are either checked out for the holidays or too busy trying to wrap up the academic session to be able to participate in research. You’re better off waiting until January to engage your target audience(s) when their attention is better focused.