Doctoral research is the cornerstone of a PhD program.
In order to write the dissertation, you must complete extensive, detailed research, and there are different types of research for different types of studies—involving very different methodology.
“The method of research is informed by the research question,” says Garvey House, PhD, associate director of research and residencies for Capella University’s School of Business and Technology. “The problem that’s being addressed usually involves either a gap or a controversy in the literature.” Once the research problem has been identified, the student can employ the methodology best suited for its solution. There are two primary dissertation research methods: Qualitative and quantitative.
There are two primary dissertation research methods: Qualitative and quantitative.
Qualitative research focuses on examining the topic via cultural phenomena, human behavior, or belief systems. This type of research uses interviews, open-ended questions, or focus groups to gain insight into people’s thoughts and beliefs around certain behaviors and systems.
Ayn O’Reilly, PhD, core research faculty in the School of Public Service Leadership (PSL) and co-chair of the PSL Scientific Merit Review Committee, notes there are several approaches to qualitative inquiry. The three most routinely used include:
- Case Study. “This is the most common approach for studying work environments,” says O’Reilly. The research involves the use of multiple sources of data. This might include interviews, field notes, documents, journals, and possibly some quantitative elements (more information on quantitative research follows). A case study focuses on a particular problem or situation faced by a population and studies it from specific angles. For example, a researcher might look at violence in the workplace, focusing on when, where, or how it occurs.
- Phenomenology. O’Reilly points to this as the most difficult form of qualitative research, which involves describing a “lived experience” and learning from that experience to help people or organizations that may face that same experience. “The researcher is trying to understand what the experience is like for the subject. For example, take Hurricane Katrina. Whether it’s a NICU [neonatal intensive care] nurse, a member of the National Guard, or a newly homeless widow—the researcher’s job is to assess the full experience of someone involved in large-scale phenomena.” This type of research is difficult partly because of its emotional context. “The researcher needs to know what it is to be that person. It can be very powerful,” says O’Reilly. A researcher using this method will be trained during coursework and residencies in how to conduct this type of research, which involves specialized interviews and surveys with the people involved in the phenomenon.
- Generic Qualitative Inquiry. Also called generic qualitative, generic inquiry, or other variations. “This is the fallback approach,” says O’Reilly. “A generic qualitative inquiry is conducted when the student has qualitative research questions, but the study does not meet the requirements of a case study or phenomenology. So the researcher may be using similar methods, but will not have as thorough of a foundation of research available.” For that reason, it’s also less desirable, because the research isn’t going to be as extensive and inclusive. The researcher could run into problems with fewer data to analyze. O’Reilly notes that it’s a better approach for someone who is perhaps seeking a second advanced degree and has done a considerable amount of research, or who just needs to answer a research question or subtopic.
House recommends working on your face-to-face and phone/Skype interview skills if you’re going to use qualitative methods. “You have to understand your own biases and not to ask leading questions. You’ll need to learn when and how to probe more deeply.”
Quantitative research involves the empirical investigation of observable and measurable variables. It is used for theory testing, prediction of outcomes, and determining relationships between and among variables using statistical analysis. Ellen Mink, PhD, core research faculty in the School of Public Service Leadership and co-chair of the PSL Scientific Merit Review Committee, outlines two primary data sources for quantitative research.
- Primary Data Collection. In this approach, data are collected by the researcher. Participants are recruited for the study, informed consent is obtained, and quantitative data are obtained either electronically or in person by the researcher. This approach allows the researcher to decide exactly what variables he or she is interested in exploring and how they will be operationalized in the study. Variables are measured using instruments whose psychometric properties (reliability and validity) have been established by other authors. Data are analyzed using statistical techniques to assess the nature of the relationships between and among variables.
- Secondary Data Analysis. This approach involves the statistical analysis of data collected by other researchers or organizations. There are a number of publicly available data sets for researchers, often from large-scale, federally funded research projects or data repositories. Secondary data analysis may save time for researchers as participant recruitment and data collection are avoided. It is also a way to access information about vulnerable populations in an ethical manner (as it does not involve direct contact). However, when utilizing this approach, researchers must build their research questions based on the available data.
The choice of whether to use a qualitative or quantitative methodology is based on the nature of the questions being asked, the state of the field, and the feasibility of the approach with the population of interest.
“There are so many variations and possibilities,” House says. “PhD students need to be resourceful and willing to shift their expectations as they learn new research techniques. Researching a doctoral dissertation is an ongoing learning process.”
Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’s doctoral programs.
Tags: dissertation, doctoral
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A key part of your dissertation or thesis is the methodology. This is not quite the same as ‘methods’.
The methodology describes the broad philosophical underpinning to your chosen research methods, including whether you are using qualitative or quantitative methods, or a mixture of both, and why.
You should be clear about the academic basis for all the choices of research methods that you have made. 'I was interested' or 'I thought...' is not enough; there must be good academic reasons for your choice.
What to Include in your Methodology
If you are submitting your dissertation in sections, with the methodology submitted before you actually undertake the research, you should use this section to set out exactly what you plan to do.
The methodology should be linked back to the literature to explain why you are using certain methods, and the academic basis of your choice.
If you are submitting as a single thesis, then the Methodology should explain what you did, with any refinements that you made as your work progressed. Again, it should have a clear academic justification of all the choices that you made and be linked back to the literature.
Common Research Methods for the Social Sciences
There are numerous research methods that can be used when researching scientific subjects, you should discuss which are the most appropriate for your research with your supervisor.
The following research methods are commonly used in social science, involving human subjects:
One of the most flexible and widely used methods for gaining qualitative information about people’s experiences, views and feelings is the interview.
An interview can be thought of as a guided conversation between a researcher (you) and somebody from whom you wish to learn something (often referred to as the ‘informant’).
The level of structure in an interview can vary, but most commonly interviewers follow a semi-structured format. This means that the interviewer will develop a guide to the topics that he or she wishes to cover in the conversation, and may even write out a number of questions to ask.
However, the interviewer is free to follow different paths of conversation that emerge over the course of the interview, or to prompt the informant to clarify and expand on certain points. Therefore, interviews are particularly good tools for gaining detailed information where the research question is open-ended in terms of the range of possible answers.
Interviews are not particularly well suited for gaining information from large numbers of people. Interviews are time-consuming, and so careful attention needs to be given to selecting informants who will have the knowledge or experiences necessary to answer the research question.
See our page: Interviews for Research for more information.
If a researcher wants to know what people do under certain circumstances, the most straightforward way to get this information is sometimes simply to watch them under those circumstances.
Observations can form a part of either quantitative or qualitative research. For instance, if a researcher wants to determine whether the introduction of a traffic sign makes any difference to the number of cars slowing down at a dangerous curve, she or he could sit near the curve and count the number of cars that do and do not slow down. Because the data will be numbers of cars, this is an example of quantitative observation.
A researcher wanting to know how people react to a billboard advertisement might spend time watching and describing the reactions of the people. In this case, the data would be descriptive, and would therefore be qualitative.
There are a number of potential ethical concerns that can arise with an observation study. Do the people being studied know that they are under observation? Can they give their consent? If some people are unhappy with being observed, is it possible to ‘remove’ them from the study while still carrying out observations of the others around them?
See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.
If your intended research question requires you to collect standardised (and therefore comparable) information from a number of people, then questionnaires may be the best method to use.
Questionnaires can be used to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, although you will not be able to get the level of detail in qualitative responses to a questionnaire that you could in an interview.
Questionnaires require a great deal of care in their design and delivery, but a well-developed questionnaire can be distributed to a much larger number of people than it would be possible to interview.
Questionnaires are particularly well suited for research seeking to measure some parameters for a group of people (e.g., average age, percentage agreeing with a proposition, level of awareness of an issue), or to make comparisons between groups of people (e.g., to determine whether members of different generations held the same or different views on immigration).
See our page: Surveys and Survey Design for more information.
Documentary analysis involves obtaining data from existing documents without having to question people through interview, questionnaires or observe their behaviour. Documentary analysis is the main way that historians obtain data about their research subjects, but it can also be a valuable tool for contemporary social scientists.
Documents are tangible materials in which facts or ideas have been recorded. Typically, we think of items written or produced on paper, such as newspaper articles, Government policy records, leaflets and minutes of meetings. Items in other media can also be the subject of documentary analysis, including films, songs, websites and photographs.
Documents can reveal a great deal about the people or organisation that produced them and the social context in which they emerged.
Some documents are part of the public domain and are freely accessible, whereas other documents may be classified, confidential or otherwise unavailable to public access. If such documents are used as data for research, the researcher must come to an agreement with the holder of the documents about how the contents can and cannot be used and how confidentiality will be preserved.
See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.
How to Choose your Methodology and Precise Research Methods
Your methodology should be linked back to your research questions and previous research.
Visit your university or college library and ask the librarians for help; they should be able to help you to identify the standard research method textbooks in your field. See also our section on Research Methods for some further ideas.
Such books will help you to identify your broad research philosophy, and then choose methods which relate to that. This section of your dissertation or thesis should set your research in the context of its theoretical underpinnings.
The methodology should also explain the weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to avoid the worst pitfalls, perhaps by triangulating your data with other methods, or why you do not think the weakness is relevant.
For every philosophical underpinning, you will almost certainly be able to find researchers who support it and those who don’t.
Use the arguments for and against expressed in the literature to explain why you have chosen to use this methodology or why the weaknesses don’t matter here.
Structuring your Methodology
It is usually helpful to start your section on methodology by setting out the conceptual framework in which you plan to operate with reference to the key texts on that approach.
You should be clear throughout about the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to address them. You should also note any issues of which to be aware, for example in sample selection or to make your findings more relevant.
You should then move on to discuss your research questions, and how you plan to address each of them.
This is the point at which to set out your chosen research methods, including their theoretical basis, and the literature supporting them. You should make clear whether you think the method is ‘tried and tested’ or much more experimental, and what kind of reliance you could place on the results. You will also need to discuss this again in the discussion section.
Your research may even aim to test the research methods, to see if they work in certain circumstances.
You should conclude by summarising your research methods, the underpinning approach, and what you see as the key challenges that you will face in your research. Again, these are the areas that you will want to revisit in your discussion.
Your methodology, and the precise methods that you choose to use in your research, are crucial to its success.
It is worth spending plenty of time on this section to ensure that you get it right. As always, draw on the resources available to you, for example by discussing your plans in detail with your supervisor who may be able to suggest whether your approach has significant flaws which you could address in some way.