Planning Your Research Project

Updated: Apr 8, 2016

Writing a Research Project

Developing a research project worthy of a thesis or dissertation can be a daunting task, and if your experience with it is “normal”, you will likely find yourself discouraged, wondering why your advisor is so critical of the work you have to keep doing over and over again, and probably confused by what all those terms ending in “-ology” mean, exactly, and why they suddenly seem so important.

At any academic level, the purpose of a dissertation is to demonstrate that you are able to combine and synthesize knowledge you have gained through applying it to a real-world question or problem in a way that produces new knowledge. Fortunately, the definition of “new” is fairly flexible; you might choose, for example, to show how one or more well-known theories are reflected in real-life circumstances, or draw practical lessons from a detailed case study. That flexibility is a wonderful thing, but it’s also precisely the reason the process of planning, conducting, and presenting research must adhere to some rigid standards. Your work must be thorough, logical, and – perhaps most importantly for researchers undergoing the trial for the purpose of obtaining a degree – must be in a form that can be sensibly evaluated by academic judges who (unlikely as they are to admit it) are probably not as well-versed in the particular topic of your dissertation as you are.

While the process is critically important, it does not actually have to be completely mind-boggling. In fact, the process of designing research really only needs two steps; although both do require a lot of study and careful analysis, they are not necessarily difficult and can help you develop your project quickly and effectively.

Step One: Qualitative or Quantitative Research?

Consider the basic research question or problem you are seeking to answer. In all likelihood, the answer will be something that explains either how a particular phenomenon occurs (an exploratory result), or why it occurs (an explanatory result).

If the answer you are seeking is one that explains both how and why, then you should take a careful second look at your chosen topic, because it almost certainly is too broad. There are studies that require a mixed approach (combining qualitative and quantitative methodology), but they are relatively rare. Studies that use a mixed approach are not so rare, and unfortunately, neither is the sharp criticism they often earn for sloppy or inappropriate methodology. Because selecting and designing a proper mixed-methodology study is a complicated and challenging exercise, it will be the subject of an entirely separate article, coming soon.

In general, research topics that explain how something occurs will use a qualitative methodology, and topics that explain why something occurs will use a quantitative methodology. There are exceptions, of course, and it is entirely possible that your chosen subject will break this general pattern. But because quantitative and qualitative methodologies are completely different from one another, determining which one is probably more likely at this point helps because your methodological analysis will be, at least in the beginning, focused in just one direction; if you discover later that you need to take the opposite approach, going through the analysis the second time will be much faster.

So what is the difference between the two approaches? This is where all those words ending in “-ology” become important:

“-ology” What it Means In a Qualitative Approach In a Quantitative Approach
Epistemology How do we understand what we know? Through experience-based (subjective) interpretation. Through objective observation.
Ontology How do we understand reality? Reality is determined by the subject’s perception; can change and has multiple interpretations. Reality is determined by the researcher’s perspective; has one interpretation and is fixed.
Axiology What values apply to what we know? Many; values are recognized to shape the interpretations of reality by both the subjects and the researcher. None; because reality is fixed and viewed objectively, values that would suggest different “truths” are irrelevant.
Rhetoric (Okay, so that’s not an “-ology” word. Just go with it.) What language do we use in communicating what we know? Objective, third-person, and based on pre-established, explicit definitions. Narrative, sometimes (but not necessarily) less formal, based on definitions developed in the course of the narrative.
Methodology What processes do we use to learn what we know? Deductive processes – established research designs and instruments, seeking to produce generalizable results. Inductive processes – research designs and instruments emerge through the research process, results are in the context of the study topic or subject.

Step Two: Choose the Appropriate Research Procedures

Your best guides to selecting what research procedures you will use are the existing research studies that will undoubtedly be part of your literature review. To give your research credibility, use the same procedures as similar studies; while this may seem unoriginal, remember the position your work is in with respect to your academic judges (or peer reviewers, if you are doing research for publication): Your subject represents new knowledge, so in order for it to be assessed for quality, the manner in which you arrive at your new knowledge must be in a form which is reasonably familiar and known to be effective.

Quantitative studies are a bit easier in this regard than are qualitative studies, because there are fewer methods to choose from, and the analysis and development of results will almost always be accomplished through statistical tests. The downside of this, of course, is that any small errors in following very well-known procedures will be instantly obvious, and so require very careful and often tedious work on the part of the researcher. Qualitative procedures such as focus groups, semi-structured or open-ended interviews, and case studies allow for greater variety and creativity, but require more effort to justify academically. A common pitfall of many research studies, particularly qualitative studies is lack of relevance in the methods being used. To help avoid this, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is all the information I am seeking from the research procedures related to my research questions?
  2. Is all the information I am seeking related to the theoretical background I have presented in my study’s literature review? 
  3. Does each separate procedure (such as individual survey questions, individual questions for interviews or focus groups, or statistical tests) add a new piece of information to the results? If the answer is no, then is there a reason (such as confirming the result of a particular question or test) for a procedure to provide the same information as another one, and is this absolutely necessary to establish validity and credibility of my results?

Following this basic guide to planning your research project will not help you avoid a lot of work, but it will help you do that work in a much more efficient way, leading to better results and a much more enjoyable learning experience.

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