5 Tips on Surviving Ethical Approval for Your Research

Studies involving human participants or animals often require ethics approval. While standard practice, this process can seem both daunting and complex to those unfamiliar with it. Here, Jie Zhang (a 2nd year PhD student in the School of Education) shares her experience of going through the ethics application process for the first time, and offers five tips to new PGRs on how to survive it.

NY (CC BY-SA 3.0).
By NY (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The first time I realised I would need to make great efforts in the ethics application stage of my research was during a workshop, when a classmate said he spent six months obtaining ethics approval for his study. I was surprised it took so much time, so I began to search for the ethics forms on the University’s website to get a general idea about the process before starting it myself.

My research focuses on international students’ experiences—as this involves human participants it requires ethics approval. I began to prepare my ethics documents at the end of May 2016, and submitted after about a month. I received comments, revised my documents and resubmitted, and at the beginning of August received approval. While this was half the time of my classmate, it is project dependent, so approval for your application could be faster.

Here are some suggestions from me based on my own experience with the ethics approval process; hopefully you will find them useful if you ever need to go through it yourself.

1. Have a positive attitude on the application

PGR students may find the ethics application complicated and messy, but it will be easier if you keep a positive attitude. The ethics application process is designed to protect you from encountering potential problems with your research and prevent you from hurting your participants or yourself. Realising this, and being careful and patient, will help you avoid feeling stressed, anxious and frustrated

2. Read and think carefully about the instructions you are given

It may sound simple and silly, but it is the most important thing you need to be careful with. Simply search for and download the ethics form and all the accompanying instructions from University’s website, and read them carefully before you start to fill in the form. Note down any questions you have and recheck the instructions. Basically, if you follow all of the instructions, you will get the approval.

3. Get support from your supervisor(s)

Supervisors play an important role. I am very grateful that my supervisor gave me great support during this process. She answered my questions when I was confused and helped me revise my ethics documents to better justify and be more specific about my research methods, particularly putting more emphasis on anonymity and confidentiality. They are experts in your field and have probably experienced the ethics application process themselves. Therefore, they can answer your questions and see potential issues in your application. Talk to your supervisor regularly about your concerns and ask them to check your ethics documents before submission.

4. Make the most of the support available at the University

Please be aware that you will need to go through ethics approval if your research involves working with humans. It is also required for most (but not all) studies involving animals. However, training is available through your school or graduate school to help you. The Research Integrity workshop is mandatory for such research and you may find voluntary ones like the PGR student ethics workshop and Research Ethics in Practice RDP workshop helpful.

Research involving animals may need ethical approval—always check. Image by Rama (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr.
Research involving animals may need ethical approval—always check. Image by Rama (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr.

5. Learn from other PhD students

Other PhD students can also be a good source of support. While your supervisors may have gone through the ethics applications years ago, other PhD students may have just done it. They may know about new rules and recent changes in ethics application and can provide more practical suggestions on this process as a result. Also, as PhD students, they may also know of training opportunities or reading resources to support you. Discuss your concerns with other PhD students who have had such experiences and ask for help if you need.

It is my pleasure to share my experience and hopefully these suggestions can be helpful. Good luck to your ethics application!

The ethics application process differs between the University of Glasgow’s collages; more information can be found on their specific ethics webpages:

College of Arts  

College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences (link only works on campus)

College of Science and Engineering (link only works on campus)

College of Social Sciences

Jie Zhang, 2nd year PhD student
Jie Zhang, 2nd year PhD student

Post Author: James Burgon

James (@JamesBurgon) is a final year evolutionary biology PhD student in the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine.

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