Anyone who has written a thesis or dissertation for their earlier milestones of higher education – undergraduate and graduate, knows that academic writing is vastly different than composing a letter or email to family and friends... if such writing is still done.
While some people contend that writing is a lost art, students know that is far from the truth: academic writing is an integral part of their university experience.
Still, not every essay or treatise demands discrete sections, especially not one that discloses how and why researchers process information.
University students have long gotten used to citing references at the end of their papers but how should they detail the steps they took to arrive at the conclusions expounded on in their dissertation?
Now, your Superprof shows you, step by step, how your research methodology should unfold.
Why Dissertations Demand a Methodology Section
Good journalism relies on sources and corroboration for stories, lawmakers consider past actions, current events and future public sentiment along with a host of other relevant information to write and pass laws.
Even our parents always ask us our reasons for doing things and why we did them. Why should your most important academic writing be any different?
Your dissertation’s research methodology section allows readers to determine the validity and reliability of your work.
Laying out how you researched your topic, why you selected the data that you did and the reasons you chose that information and those methods of analysis indicate a thoughtful and compelling work laid out by a methodical, organised and scholarly mind.
Your dissertations’ methodology section also points to your capacity for reasoning and deep intellectual thought.
Considering that you have likely chosen your topic with an eye toward a career in that field of study, laying out how you came to your conclusions matters as much as the conclusions themselves.
So, just as you had to rationalise to your parents why you wanted that new thing or how going on this adventure would benefit you, you must explain the thoughts, ideas and reasons behind your most important piece of academic writing.
One more good reason to write a research methodology section: many careers that call for a PhD generally include some sort of research.
Marketing professionals often use focus groups to determine a new product’s market viability and economists are renowned for data collection and analysis of data; even the census is essentially a social research project that relies purely on data collection.
In short, virtually every career field formulates hypotheses, conducts some sort of research – be it field research or case study research and discloses their findings, along with their research methods.
In essence, your dissertation is preparing you for a world that demands data and proof thereof.
Don’t forget to read our column on research analysis and how to present your findings.
Why and How You Chose Those Data
This section of your dissertation should start with disclosing your general approach to your research. What is your argument and what type of data do you need to address it?
If your topic involves identifying, categorising, ranking and measuring patterns, you would use quantitative methods to make generalisations. Such a methodology is effective if the bulk of your data comes from surveys or other market-driven research.
By contrast, to give insight into a particular phenomenon or concept, you would employ qualitative methods of research because they are best for interpreting or describing such ideas. Qualitative research is best when used to fit your findings into a larger context.
If your research includes both quantitative and qualitative research, mixed methodology would be more appropriate.
If your research calls for a qualitative methodology, you should describe how, when and where you got your information from. Did you conduct interviews or rely on existing data? Maybe you set up focus groups or a participant observation event in which you set up conditions to analyse how participants reacted.
On the other hand, if your research is qualitative, you might detail the surveys you drafted, the experiments you conducted and/or the already-existing data you drew on to arrive at your conclusions.
In all cases, you must be as explicit as you can be; leave no detail out, no matter how trivial you think it might be.
Join the conversation: what steps did you take in writing your dissertation?
Your Method of Data Analysis
As important as data gathering is, how you analysed it is more so. This part of your methodology section should be as succinct as possible; you don’t need to reveal much detail about any discussion or presentation at this point.
Keeping in mind that a quantitative methodology is numbers-based, you might disclose what software or application you used to analyse your numerical data, any statistical methods you used and how you prepared your data for analysis.
By contrast, qualitative methods rely on observation and language so you might divulge how you categorised and coded your ideas, and related any narrative or discourse analysis you uncovered.
Mixed-methods research will include elements of both quantitative and qualitative measures.
Tip: during the literature review phase of your dissertation preparation, you will focus on gaps in the research that could inform your choice of topics, not on data analysis. However, you can highlight such gaps in your methodology section if they are relevant to your choice of analysis methods.
More on that in a moment...
You might also look closely at how those published dissertations expressed their methodology as a template to how you might draft your research methods section.
Your Tools, Materials and Rationale of Data Selection
Keep in mind that this dissertation section is your space to justify your methodologies, especially if you’ve taken a less-than-standard approach to your subject.
You should explain why the methods you chose worked to dis/prove your thesis and why other methods would not have been suitable.
You should also detail how your approach to analysing qualitative and quantitative data could open new avenues of research or contribute to existing knowledge, especially if current or traditional methods limit research rather than broaden its scope.
For instance, if you’re conducting psychological research, you might aver that lab conditions cannot fully replicate actual behaviours in real-life situations, which is why you conducted interviews with subjects known to have endured a specific emotional event in the field rather than subject them to lab tests.
Justifying your research in this manner gives you room to concede that lab experiments can be effective for examining causal relationships in psychological phenomena.
In short: expressing awareness of both the breadth and limitations of your researching methods lends both authority and credibility to your work.
Note: Before drafting your research methodology section you should first read up on your institution’s dissertation guidelines on how to write a dissertation because it will include instructions for formatting and writing according to your school’s expectations.
Here, in a nutshell, we pack this article’s salient points. Your dissertation’s research methodology section should:
- Explain your approach
- Describe how you collected data and why you selected those data
- Describe what methods you used to analyse your data
- Evaluate and explain your choice of methods
- Be written in the past tense
You might wonder about that last point: why write it in the past tense?
The answer is obvious – because your research took place in the past. Still, you’d be surprised at the number of advisers who’ve had to reject their candidates’ papers because of this simple error.
Always remember that the purpose of this section is to give the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of your work, not reveal your conclusions. You want to demonstrate that your work was done meticulously and in full awareness of any pitfalls you might have encountered.
Besides relating your research choices to your dissertation’s main purpose, your methodology section should prove that you chose the best way possible to answer your research questions and, by extension, your problem statement.
As you cite your sources, make sure they are relevant to your topic and field of research.
Citing sources confirms that you followed standard practices for the type of research you conducted and how you settled on the methodology you chose only after evaluating different research methods.
Citing also makes your case for any new methodologies or approaches you took in analysing your data and may even highlight gaps in the existing literature.
Although the methodology should be quite technical and detailed, you must nevertheless remember that the person reading your dissertation will not necessarily be as informed on the subject as you are.
Writing for your audience is an almost meme-worthy catchphrase but there is a reason for this recommendation.
If your field of study has a vocabulary all its own and/or if your research was conducted in a way uncommon in your field, you should provide explanations for any deviations from the standard and justify the choices you made.
In that same vein, if you followed standard research methods for your field of study, you won’t need to provide as much detail or context – but you still have to lay out the reasons for your choices and discuss any obstacles you might have encountered while collecting data or analysing it.
As long as you show that your research was as meticulous as possible and your approach can be justified, you may avoid harsh critiques of your work.
Help Superprof help others: what advice would you give a doctoral student on choosing their dissertation topic?