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No dissertation (or research paper) is complete without the methods section. Since this is the chapter where you enumerate how you carried out your research, this is where all the meat is! Here’s where you clearly lay out the steps you have taken to test your hypothesis or research problem. Conventionally, this is Chapter 3 in your dissertation, before you detail the results of the study and after you provide a literature review for your research problem.
Let’s take a closer look at how this is done!
Before we get into the details of this chapter, let’s get one thing out of the way. For the novice researcher, “methods” and “methodology” in research may seem one and the same. But to equate the two is a folly that you must quickly rid yourself of. (Don’t worry, we’ve made such mistakes too; we were all once in the dark.)
The research methodology or design is the overall strategy and rationale that you used to carry out the research. Methodology in research is important because it determines the broader framework of the whole project, and will be defined on terms such as qualitative vs. quantitative, descriptive, analytical, and exploratory.
Research methods are the specific tools and processes you used to gather and understand the data you need to test your hypothesis. Some examples of research methods are interviews, experiments, online surveys, case studies, and participant observation.
To put it simply, research methods are a subset of the research methodology.
Needless to say, the methodology and methods of study for each dissertation differ; they are dependent on what field of study you are in and what your hypothesis is. There are three types of research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches.
Many research projects also see the use of multiple methods to test the same hypothesis — this is known as mixed methods research and is a pretty well-rounded approach to ensure that the hypothesis holds up in different conditions. (Research methods in psychology, for example, are often like this.)
But regardless of what your dissertation is on, there are some broad things you should cover in your chapter:
Explaining the methodology in detail shows that your study is reliable and scientifically valid. It provides legitimacy to your research and tells your readers that you have used methods that are ethical and repeatable.
The research process you undertook may have gone on for months or even years. So there’s a lot to go through here. Your writing must be concise and crystal clear about the rationale and procedure of your research.
Your aim here, beyond getting the grade that lets you graduate, is to share knowledge. It is to tell your evaluators and fellow researchers about the processes you followed to test your hypothesis in such a way that they can replicate it. In other words, if another researcher adopts your methodology, they should ideally reach the same conclusion(s) you have.
Since you’re enumerating the process of how you tested your hypothesis, you must write this chapter in the simple past tense.
Many academic style guides also provide specific guidelines for this chapter, based on what method you have chosen for the project. Even if your university has not been specific about what guidelines to follow, it’s a good idea to do some research about how researchers with similar studies as yours have structured their methods chapter. This will give you a good idea of what you need to include in yours.
Remember who you are writing for. While it is conventional for research papers to provide definitions and contextual information about the concepts and procedures used, you must tailor it for the audience reading your paper. For example, you do not need to elaborate upon ideas that your evaluator or fellow researchers in your subject are already familiar with.
Let’s see how to write the methodology section step-by-step. Follow these steps to create a strong methods chapter:
In the dissertation introduction, you will have provided the background of your research and stated your hypothesis or research problem. In this section, you will elaborate on your research strategy.
Begin by restating your research question and proceed to explain what type of research you opted for to test it. Depending on your research, here are some questions you can consider:
These questions will help you establish the rationale for your study on a broader level, which you will follow up by elaborating on the specific methods you used to collect and understand your data.
Now that you have told your reader what type of research you’ve undertaken for the dissertation, it’s time to dig into specifics. State what specific methods you used and explain the conditions and variables involved. Explain what the theoretical framework behind the method was, what samples you used for testing it, and what tools and materials you used to collect the data.
Once you have explained the data collection process, explain how you analyzed and studied the data. Here, your focus is simply to explain the methods of analysis, not the results of the study. (You’ll have noticed by now that the next chapter of your dissertation is the “Results” chapter; that’s where you explain the results and the implications of your study.
Here are some questions you can answer at this stage:
Your mode of analysis will change depending on whether you used a quantitative or qualitative research methodology in your study. If you’re working within the hard sciences or physical sciences, you are likely to use a quantitative research methodology (relying on numbers and hard data). If you’re doing a qualitative study, in the social sciences or humanities, your analysis may rely on understanding language and socio-political contexts around your topic. This is why it’s important to establish what kind of study you’re undertaking at the onset.
Now that you have gone through your research process in detail, you’ll also have to make a case for it. Justify your choice of methodology and methods, explaining why it is the best choice for your research question. This is especially important if you have chosen an unconventional approach or you’ve simply chosen to study an existing research problem from a different perspective. Compare it with other methodologies, especially ones attempted by previous researchers, and discuss what contributions using your methodology makes.
No matter how thorough a methodology is, it doesn’t come without its hurdles. This is a natural part of scientific research that is important to document so that your peers and future researchers are aware of them. Writing about this aspect of your research process also tells your evaluator that you have actively worked to overcome the pitfalls that came your way and you have refined the research process.
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