ARTICLE 7: How to Decide on the Context for Your Ph. D. or Masters Degree Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


Research is always done in a specific context.

Your contextual perspective is necessary to explain the background of your research.

You will need to explain the context for your research in your research proposal if you are studying towards a Ph. D.

You should also repeat the context for your study in your research report, regardless if it is for a master’s degree or a Ph. D.

All the stakeholders in your research will be interested in the context of your research.

Stakeholders can be a Postgraduate Committee, your study leader, sponsors, external assessors, leaders in the industry, government officials and, of course, future students.

Context is expressed as the scope or limits of your research.

It is the “playing field” on which you will conduct your research.

You can and should use the context for your research to create interest in your research and to show that you can do the research.

The context for your research can change when to do your research. You will need to check with your study leader that such change will be acceptable because it can impact on the viability of your study.

You can also use the context for your research to refine your research topic and to formulate your research problem, research question or hypothesis.

The Elements of Context

The following can be elements of the context of your research:

  1. Geographical area. You can, for example, confirm the viability of your research by showing that you will investigate just one country rather than a whole continent or the world.
  2. Field of research
    • Your field of research will decide the faculty where you will study. For example, Medical Science, Human Resources Management, Military Science, Arts and Culture, Marketing, and many more.
    • The field of research can also decide the research method and the paradigmatic approach that you will use, but we will need to discuss these issues in a future post or posts.
  3. Target population. Your target population can be people, animals, insects, rocks, cloud formations, etc.
  4. Time. Your research can stretch over a period, focus on a specific point in time, compare one era (mostly in the past) with a different era (mostly the present), etc. Data seldom apply infinitely, although rationalists are of the opinion that some scientific principles do.
  5. Gender. You can conduct research on just one gender, all genders, compare the behavioural profiles of different genders, etc.
  6. Value systems. You can focus on just one value system, for example, a comparison of how tourists would behave compared to how locals will behave. You can also investigate many behavioural patterns and link them to the profile elements of your target group.
  7. The level of your research. Research is mostly done on a micro or macro level. The field of research will have an impact on the level of your research.

You will need to explain why you chose the context that you did. Possible reasons for deciding on a context can be the nature of the problem that you would like to solve, the time and funds that you have available, viability in general, etc.

From the reason for your choice of context should follow the value that your research will add to the academia, the industry, the community, government, etc.


The context of your research explains the “what”, where”, “who” and the “when” of your research.

The context can include a geographical area, a value system, a religious group, a species of living organisms, artefacts, etc.

Context can be refined in terms of structures, stakeholders, social groups, etc.

Your research problem or hypothesis can be deduced from the context for your research.

Do not over-complicate the context for your research. Just explain it in simple language.

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ARTICLE 6: The Layout and Structure of a Table of Contents for a Ph. D. Research Proposal

Written by Dr J.P. Nel


The table of contents is your first opportunity to impress upon the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader the importance and value of your planned research.

Especially experienced professors often claim that they can already see if your study proposal is viable or not by just looking at the table of contents.

Just to avoid confusion – you can have two tables of content in your research proposal. The first would be the table of contents for the proposal itself and the second can be the proposed table of contents for your research report.

In this post, I will share with you hints on what you should write under each heading of your table of content to gain the approval of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.

The table of contents

To begin with, here is an example of a table of contents for a research proposal.

Table of Contents

                                                                                                Page no

1     Introduction                                                                          1

1.1  Introduction to the problem                                                 1

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study                                           2

1.3  The Importance of the Problem                                            2

1.4  Definition of the Problem                                                       3

1.5  Definition of Concepts                                                           3

1.6  The Motivation for the Study                                                 5

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem                                      5

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research                                       6

2     Research Design                                                                 7

2.1  The Research Approach                                                       7

2.2  Research Methodology                                                         8

2.3  Data-collection Strategy                                                         9

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration                                           10

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates                  11

3     References                                                                            12

4     Definitions                                                                             13

5     Quick Reference Manual                                                    14      

You will notice that the research proposal consists of three main sections, namely the introduction, the body and supplementary information.

In the introduction, you should discuss the context and purpose of your planned research.

In the body, you should discuss how you will approach and conduct the research.

Supplementary information should lend authenticity and validity to your proposal.

1     Introduction                                                                         

1.1  Introduction to the problem

See if you can here already impress upon the Postgraduate Committee the importance of the study by discussing your ideas in the context of your planned target group or target area.

You should link your introduction to the environmental factors that you regard as wonting and show how your research can solve problems in that context.

Do not criticize if you do not have facts to substantiate your claims.

1.2  The Primary Focus of the Study

Keep in mind that your research proposal, like your eventual research report, should follow the so-called golden thread that runs through your study.

To achieve this, let the environment and context that you discussed in the introduction to the problem develop into your focus for the study.

After all, you should focus on the research problem if you are to solve it.

1.3  The Importance of the Problem

Link the importance of the problem with the previous issue, that is the focus of your study. Discuss why the problem is important and who will benefit if the problem is solved.

Do not claim over-emotional problems. Always reason in an objective and professional manner.

It is especially when you choose a critical paradigm, for example, critical theory, critical race theory, or feminism that researches sometimes can ignore the facts to prove a point about which they feel strongly.

1.4  Definition of the Problem

Please do not now define a problem that has no relevance to what you discussed so far. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis should follow from what you already wrote.

The research approach that you will follow will largely decide if you will define a research problem, research question or hypothesis.

You will probably formulate a hypothesis if you intend to use quantitative research.

You will probably formulate a research problem or research question if you intend to use a qualitative approach.

You can have more than one research problem or question, but don’t list too many. I would suggest not more than three.

1.5  Definition of Concepts

The definition of concepts is a challenge even in the policies and procedures for Ph.D. and master’s degree studies of universities and other research organisations.

That is why you will need to explain what you mean by key terms and concepts.

Once you have explained what you mean by such terms and concepts, you must apply the meanings consistently.

1.6  The Motivation for the Study

The motivation for the study links up with the importance of the study. The importance of the study is mostly also the motivation for the study.

You should not use something like “It is important because my dad wants me to study for a Ph.D.” as a motivation for the study.

Your motivation for the study should reflect the needs of the community, a sponsor, the academic fraternity, even perhaps the entire world.

The potential value of your study should invite acceptance, validity and sincerity.

1.7  Current Knowledge of the Problem

It would be risky to choose a research topic about which you know nothing.

You will probably need to do some prior studying and you should provide evidence of such prior knowledge and, perhaps, experience.

You can also mention the profiles of the individuals or organisations who will be involved in your research if it is relevant.

Just keep in mind that they cannot do your research for you.

1.8  Potential Benefits of the Research

Your research must have theoretical value, practical value and scientific value.

Theoretical value would be the new knowledge that will result from your research.

Practical value would be what can be applied in the industry.

Scientific value can be to the benefit of a field of science.

Theoretical, practical and scientific value can form the basis for future research.

2     Research Design                                                                

2.1  The Research Approach

You should mention if you will do quantitative or qualitative research.

Briefly explain why you chose the approach that you did.

You can also discuss the paradigmatic approach that you will follow here, or you can discuss it under a separate heading, also here.

2.2  Research Methodology

Make sure that the research methodology that you will use is reconcilable with the research approach that you chose.

2.3  Data-collection Strategy

Data collection strategies are often regarded as research methods.

I don’t think this is a serious problem because data collection strategies are, indeed, often also research methods.

Then again, not all data collection strategies go with all research methods or even research approaches.

This, however, is also not a serious problem.

You will learn that what you intended to do cannot be done once you get to the point where you need to do the research and collect the data.

2.4  Ethical Issues for Consideration

We will discuss ethical issues in much more detail in a future post because ethics in Ph.D. are a mouthful. It includes issues such as being honest, protecting the identity of people involved in your research, not committing plagiarism, trust, deception, legality, professionalism and many more.

2.5  Proposed Chapter-outline and Deadline Dates

The proposed chapter outline can be a provisional table of contents for your research report.

You will also need to provide deadline dates for your research.

We will discuss the chapter-outline and deadline dates separately in future posts.

3     References

You can have a separate heading for literature study in which you list the references that you already consulted and a list of references for your research proposal.

Don’t list references that you did not use. If you list references that you did not use yet in your literature study, you will need to point this out.

4     Definitions and a Quick Reference Manual

You might have separate headings for references and a quick reference manual.

Not all study leaders will allow this, though.

Definitions and the quick reference manual are mostly there to help you maintain consistency in your writing.

Summary and close

In summary:

  1. If your research proposal does not show that your research topic is important and that you can do the research, the Postgraduate Committee will probably not approve your application.
  2. Keep your research proposal sufficiently simple for you to understand everything that you write.
  3. Make sure that you know what the university will require you to cover in your research proposal.
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ARTICLE 8: How to Choose a Research Approach for Ph. D. or Masters Degree Studies

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Your research approach can be qualitative, quantitative or a mixed approach.

The approach that you choose will largely depend on your research skills and personal preferences.

The nature of the research is also an important determining factor.

It is, for example, unlikely that you will be able to use qualitative research to conduct research on a natural science topic.

The other way around is more possible.

You can often use a quantitative research approach to investigate social science topics, although it might not be the best approach.

What students sometimes claim to be a mixed approach is often a quantitative approach with some statistical analysis.

It is mostly social scientists who do not feel comfortable with quantitative research.

However, some natural scientists find it difficult to conduct qualitative research.

You need to be clear about the approach that you will follow in your research proposal and dissertation if you are a Ph. D. student and in your thesis if you do research for a master’s degree.

You will also need to motivate why you chose the approach that you did.

You should choose a qualitative approach if the research problem deals with social science.

You should choose a quantitative approach if your research problem relates to the natural sciences and if you will need to make use of substantial statistics.

You can choose a mixed research approach if your research problem relates to social science but lends itself to some statistical analysis.

Your study leader will advise you on which approach to follow, and you should listen to her or his advice.

Of course, you can disagree and most study leaders will let you carry on with the approach of your choice, but there is a risk that you might be making a mistake.

You can change your research approach even while you are conducting research already.

However, the longer you take to switch, the more difficult will it be, and the more time will you have lost.

So, you can see that the goal, purpose and objectives with your research will influence your choice of approach.

The goal is what you hope to achieve with your research.

The purpose is the reason why you want to achieve the goal.

You can develop objectives from both the goal and the purpose of your research.

What’s more, you can break objectives down even further into questions that you can use in a questionnaire or interview, should you plan on sending out questionnaires or hold interviews to gather data for your research.

The goal of your research

You need to explain what you hope to achieve with your research.

Try to stick to one goal only.

The more goals you have, the wider will your scope be and the more difficult will it become to come to valid conclusions and proposals.

The purpose of the research

The sponsors of your research will expect some value for their money. They can, therefore, provide you with the purpose of your research.

Sponsors can be industrialists, but they can also be taxpayers, communities, government, parents.

You can, of course, pay for your own studies.

A professor can also suggest a research topic and purpose.

Typical purposes for research can be to add economic value, improved quality of life and improved professionalism.

As I already said, a purpose can be broken down further into objectives.

  • Added economic value can be achieved through improved production processes, more efficient work, higher productivity, etc.
  • Improved quality of life can be broken down into higher income, improved well-being, better health care, safety, social justice, the arts, leisure time utilization, freedom to interact in an enlightened, informed, responsible and constructive manner, etc.
  • Improved professionalism can be the availability of good quality learning institutions, improved skills, more research, etc.

The external environment often affects research projects. Therefore, it also affects the research approach that you will use.

It would be a good idea to consider the level of social, economic, technological, legislative, and natural environmental development of your country or community when choosing a purpose for your research.

The reason for this is not just to be generous, even though being kind is important.

Taking the external environment into consideration is in your own interest. Being aware of changes in the external environment has emotional, marketing, security and financial value.

For example, in a country with a high unemployment rate, research that would promote education, job creation and employment should be promoted.

Strategically speaking society should not only focus on solving current and short-term problems but also position themselves, through research, to seize growth opportunities and to prepare for possible future threats.

Some universities and academics claim that research on master’s and doctoral level can and should have intellectual value for its own sake.

I don’t think that such a value exists. Time and energy spent on research are never wasted. What may be regarded as worthless knowledge now might turn out to be valuable in the future.

I once met somebody who did research on the patterns that water makes in the sand where rivers bend. He wrote an article for a scientific magazine on his research. Scientists in astrology read the article and realised that the sand patterns can be used to determine if there is or has been water, and perhaps also life, on other planets.

Always see if you can gain practical value from your research. In my opinion, universities focus too much on developing new theoretical knowledge rather than solving real-life challenges. In this respect, universities and the industry should co-operate.


You will need to be clear about the research approach that you will follow.

Your study leader can help you to decide which approach to follow.

You can switch from one approach to a different one even while you are doing your research.

This, however, can be a costly exercise.

You will need to formulate a goal, a purpose and some objectives for your research.

Sponsors of your research will often insist on the achievement of a goal that they can benefit from.

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ARTICLE 4: The Difference Between a Research Report on the Honours, the Masters and the Doctoral Level

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


In this article, I will share with you some differences between research reports on the honours, masters and the doctoral level.

Not all universities have the same requirements for research reports on different levels.

They do not even always agree about the requirements for a research report on the same level.

Therefore, my purpose with this post is to give you a “feel” for the difference between research reports on the honours, masters and the doctoral level.

The topic

The topic for an honours degree should be simple.

You should investigate a real problem and find a solution that applies in a specific context.

An example, of such a topic, is to identify a process by means of which to deal with stress in a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the master’s degree level, the topic should be more complex.

You might, for example, conduct a scientific analysis of the factors that cause stress, the effect of such stress on people’s health and behaviour, and possible preventive actions.

On the doctoral level, your research should be highly complex. You will need to develop new knowledge and procedures, for example, the development of a new medication.

Relevance to profession and society

Research on the honours degree level will have limited specialization in a specific area of expertise.

Your research on how to manage stress might, for example, be restricted to psychological observations of a limited number of cases only.

For research on the master’s degree level, you will probably specialize in a complex area of expertise. Here your focus can, for example, shift from identifying the causes and effects of stress to physiological changes in the body caused by stress.

A high degree of specialization in a highly complex area of expertise would be typical of research on the doctoral level. Finding an effective vaccine against the COVID-19 virus is an example. However, research on the psychological causes and effects of the pandemic, the impact of the pandemic on the economy of a nation, etc. can also be investigated on the doctoral level.  

The nature of the research problem

Research on the honours degree level will mostly cover a small number of dimensions, for example, the impact of stress on communication, work performance, and personal relationships.

Research on the master’s degree level will be more complex and can include multiple dimensions. You might, for example, conduct research on the impact of stress in the workplace, at home, how it impacts on children, male adults, and female adults.

Research on the doctoral level should be highly complex and multi-dimensional. You will probably focus more on a community, perhaps even a nation or country, rather than just the impact of stress on specific dimensions. You research will enable you to identify dimensions rather than for you to you decide on dimensions to investigate in advance.

The scope of your research

The scope of research on the honours degree level should be limited in terms of the subject and geographical area. You might investigate something as small as just a playground for children in a suburb.

The scope of your research on the master’s degree level can be broad in terms of the subject and the geographical area. You might, for example, do research on the value of playgrounds in general for reducing the stress that children experience during a period of lockdown.

The scope for research on the doctoral level can be extensive in terms of the subject and the geographical area. You can, for example, do research on ways in which to reduce the stress experienced by children during periods of lockdown in a country. It is possible that your findings can apply wider than the country on which you did the research. However, time and financial constraints might make it impossible for you to confirm your findings wider than one or two neighbouring countries.

Accessibility of data

Data for research on the honours degree level should be simple and should not display complex interrelationships or require complex analytical processes. It should be easy to identify direct cause and effect. For example, the reasons why children are stressed can be obtained through observation or interviewing parents.

Data for research on the master’s degree level will be complex, showing interrelationships that require complex analytical processes. It might, for example, be necessary to link stressful behaviour to existing psychological theories and principles.

Data for research on the doctoral level will be highly complex, as will be the interrelationships that need to be analyzed. Such data can serve as the foundation for new theories and knowledge.

Research methodology

A variety of research methods can be used for research on the honours, the master’s and the doctoral degree level, including qualitative, quantitative, historical, case study, experimental, and causal-comparative research. The topic and purpose of the research will decide which research method or methods should be used.

Length of the research report

An assignment on the honours degree level should be between 12,000 and 16,000 words. That is 60 to 100 A4 pages.

A thesis on the master’s degree level should be between 20,000 and 50,000 words or 100 to 250 A4 pages.

A dissertation on the doctoral level should be between 30,000 and 70,000 words or 150 to 350 A4 pages.


The bibliography on the honours degree level should be generic and specific. This means that the knowledge of the topic should be evident and obtainable from general sources of information, for example, books, magazines, the internet, interviews, questionnaires, etc.

25 to 70 sources of information should be enough.

The bibliography on the master’s degree level should be more advanced, although the same sources as for research on the honours degree level will often provide the required data.

70 to 130 sources of information should be enough.

The bibliography on the doctoral level will mostly be highly specialized. Such data will serve as the foundation for the development of new data. New data will often be an extension of existing knowledge.

More than 130 sources of information will probably be needed to achieve the purpose of the research.

The format of the thesis or dissertation

The research report on all levels must be formal.

The university will have specific requirements in this regard.

You should not deviate from the university’s requirements without the permission of your study leader.

Linguistic and literary quality

The linguistic and literary quality must be correct and appropriate to the topic and level of the study.

It is always a good idea to have your research thesis or dissertation language edited by a linguistic expert and a must if the language in which you write your report is not your first language.

Contribution to scientific knowledge

An assignment on the honours degree level and a thesis the master’s degree level should serve as an enhancement of the existing knowledge.

A basic measure of original thought should be evident.

A dissertation on the doctoral level should be a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. It should show insight into the subject of your study. It should also show that you can apply a high level of independent and original thought.

Assessment of the research report

An assignment on the honours degree level and a thesis on the master’s degree level will be given a mark, which can be a percentage or just a symbol.

You can be awarded a distinction for your effort.

Marks are not given for a dissertation on the doctoral level. The assumption is that a dissertation on the doctoral level must be worthy of distinction to meet the requirements for a Ph. D.

Close and summary

Research on the honours degree level can be basic.

It is often a form of action research.

Research on the master’s degree level should be more complex than on the honours degree level.

The development of new knowledge is not required.

Research on the doctoral level will inevitably be highly complex.

New knowledge and procedures should be developed, although universities are often satisfied if the student can demonstrate the ability to conduct highly complex research.

Regardless of the level of research, research reports are judged on technical competence, evidence of scholarly research, critical ability, comprehension of the relevant theoretical issues, clarity, and coherence.

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ARTICLE 5: How to Structure a Title Page for a Master’s Degree or a Ph. D. Research Report

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


In this post, I will share with you several hints on the title page for a Ph. D. or masters degree research report.  

Just before we discuss the format of the title page – It is not possible to use terminology with which all universities will agree.

Some call the report submitted for a Ph. D. a dissertation, others call it a thesis. It is also called a doctorate.

The same applies to a research report for a master’s degree.

I will refer to the research report as a thesis on the master’s degree level and a dissertation on Ph. D. level.

I will use “research report” when referring to both the thesis and the dissertation.

Some universities call the person who applies for doctoral or masters studies a student or prospective student, others call him or her a candidate. In a relativist spirit, I will just use what feels right.

The study leader is sometimes also called the promoter or the supervisor. In a more structuralist spirit, I will stick to ‘study leader’.

A title page for your research report

I deliberately decided to discuss the title page for a research report and not just the title, because the title page includes the title.

There are several other issues of the title page that I would also like to bring to your attention.

The layout and wording of the title page for a research report might differ slightly from the title page for the research proposal. This is also something about which universities do not always agree, although the differences in the layout are mostly subtle.

As I said in my previous post, members of the Postgraduate Committee might suggest a different title from the one that you suggest.

If you chose a study leader before applying for post-graduate studies, she or he will probably help you with the formulation of the title.

The title of your research proposal, once refined, can be the same as the one that you will use for your final research report.

Here is an example of a title page for a research proposal.

An Epistemological Explanation of the Migration of the Ontology of Functionalism that can be Attributed to the Erosion of the Epistemological Development of Society from a Foucauldian Perspective

Please note that the title given here is in many ways flawed.

I deliberately did this so that we can use it as an example of how you should refine the title.

Let us analyse and refine the title.

To begin with, the title is too long. We will need to shorten it.

There are too many pompous words in the title.

“Epistemological explanation” is a tautology. Epistemology ís the explanation of something. The student should omit either “epistemological” or “explanation” or rephase the sentence entirely.

Even “migration” can probably be replaced by something like “change”.

Using “epistemology” twice in the title makes it sound awkward. The student should lose the second “epistemology”.

Ontology will probably be the right word to use if it is the student’s purpose to do research on the changed meaning of Functionalism as a paradigm over time. She or he could have explained this in the body of the proposal or could have used a simpler word, for example, the “original meaning”.

Michel Foucault’s philosophy is said to be post-structuralist in nature, or perhaps even post-modernist. He, however, does not agree. It would be rather risky to use his philosophy as the foundation for your research title if you are not sure that his philosophy is even relevant to your study.

Lastly, it would be difficult to come to conclusions and to suggest recommendations that would apply to the entire world. Different countries and even continents differ in terms of culture, geography, politics, levels of development, etc. It would, furthermore, be impossible to conduct research globally because of time, financial and physical constraints.

Here is a suggested title that would eliminate the flaws in the original one:

An analysis of the changes in the value system and structure of the Namibian society since independence.

The meaning of the original title has changed in the sense that it now refers to a much narrower context.

Some universities might require you to use some more technical or scientific terms, perhaps just to lend some status to the title of your research.

In my opinion, however, the status of your research should come from the quality of your research and not from window-dressing.

Close and summary

In summary, check the requirements for a title page of the university where you study or plan to study.

Ask your study leader for examples of good title pages and copy their layout.

Keep the title of your research report short and simple, but also listen to the suggestions of the Postgraduate Committee and your study leader.

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ARTICLE 3: How to Structure your Research Proposal for a Ph. D.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


In my previous post, I shared with you some hints on how to write your research proposal and how to present it orally.

In this post, I will share with you some ideas on how to structure your research proposal so that the Research Committee will be convinced that your idea is a good one.

There is no synergy between universities about the meaning of a dissertation versus a thesis.

Most dictionaries call a research report on Ph. D. level a dissertation, and a research report on masters degree level a thesis.

These are the meanings that I will use in this and all my other posts on research methodology.

The structure of your research proposal

Most universities will require you to cover the following in your research proposal:

  • A title for your dissertation.
  • Table of contents.
  • The context of the research.
  • The goals of your study.
  • Research approaches and methods.
  • The table of content for your dissertation.
  • Bibliography.
  • Endnotes and footnotes.

What you write and discuss under each of these eight points will determine if your application to study for a Ph. D. will succeed or not.

I, therefore, will discuss each point separately in future posts.

For now, I will just mention a few salient issues to remember.

Let us look at the eight points.

A title for your dissertation

The title for your dissertation should be brief and descriptive.

Members of the Postgraduate Committee or your study leader, if you already have one, might suggest a different title.

The title can change at any time during your studies.

You will need to check if the title is still valid with your study leader from time to time.

Table of contents

The table of contents is an overview of all the topics that you will cover in your research proposal.

The context of the research

The context of your research should also be the scope or limits of your research.

Context is always relevant to postgraduate research and it will largely determine if your proposed study is viable.

The goals of your study

The goals and purpose of your study will determine the value of your research.

This section should start with the purpose of your research followed by the goals that you hope to achieve.

Research approaches and methods

Your research approach can be quantitative, qualitative or mixed.

Your choice of research approach and method will depend on your personal preference, research skills and the topic of your research.

You will probably also indicate which paradigmatic approach or approaches you will follow here.

The table of content for your dissertation

The table of contents should provide an outline of your chapters.

It can also serve as the scope for your research.


Your bibliography cannot be complete and final yet.

You will need to consult many more data sources when you start doing serious research.

You should list the sources that you already consulted and the sources that you believe you will consult.

Endnotes and footnotes

You will not have a heading for endnotes and footnotes.

They are used to explain terminology, to make incidental comments or to amplify or corroborate a point of argument.


In summary, do not underestimate the importance of preparing for the oral presentation of your study proposal.

What you write and present will determine if the university will allow you to study for a Ph. D.

You need to know what you should discuss, and you need to do it well.

That is why I will share with you in future posts hints on how to write and present every issue that you need to cover in your study proposal.

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ARTICLE 2: The Research Proposal for a Ph. D.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I will discuss the content and format of a research proposal in this article.

It is unlikely that you will be expected to submit a research proposal for a master’s degree.

The purpose of a research proposal

I am not aware of a university that does not require prospective Ph. D. students to submit a research proposal.

And, furthermore, all of them will require of you to submit your proposal in writing or online as well as to do an oral presentation of your proposal.

The main purpose of the research proposal is to convince the Postgraduate Committee that your research project is viable.

You will also need to show that it has not been researched before, and that it will add value to the academic knowledge currently available.

For your research project to be viable, you will need to show that you can cover the topic in the time and with the funds at your disposal.

It is possible that somebody else already did research on a similar or perhaps even the same topic as the one that you are interested in.

Professors know this.

There are just too many people doing research all the time and you will not know who is studying what.

The Postgraduate Committee will, therefore, probably accept your proposal if they feel that it has merit.

You will be required to add value to the field of your research, the university and the community through your research.

This is especially important on the doctoral level.

Then again, the professors on the Postgraduate Committee know that you are probably just beginning to do research on such a high level.

Therefore, they might allow you to enrol for a Ph. D. if they see merit in the topic of your research and if you can convince them that you have good potential as a researcher.

You will need to show that you have some knowledge of the topic of your research.

And you will need to show that you have the potential to successfully complete your studies.

Doing an oral presentation on your research proposal will help to clarify your own thinking about your research topic.

Doing an oral presentation on your research proposal will also help you to form a point of reference for your research project. That is why it is a good idea to decide in advance what paradigmatic approach you will follow.

Remember, you will need to maintain consistency in your arguments and to focus on the topic of your study.

Your research proposal is also your plan of action for your further research.

Here are some hints on preparing your research proposal

Different universities have different requirements for the format and layout of a study proposal.

What I suggest is a generic format, but you will need to check it with the university where you plan to study.

The university will probably specify the number of words, font type and size, indents, use of capital letters, language, the numbering of pages, chapters, paragraphs, and the layout and wording of the title page.  

Ask your study leader for a copy or copies of other research proposals that he or she considers to be good.

You must have a clear idea of what the problem statement, problem question or hypothesis for your study is.

Academic research is not a linear process. It is a spiral.

Therefore, your research proposal is not cast in concrete.

I will discuss the structure of your research proposal with you in a future post.

For the time being, just remember that you will need to cover the following:

  • The reason why you think that your research topic is important.
    • The purpose of your research.
    • What you intend to achieve or prove.
    • The methodology that you will use.
    • Your paradigmatic approach.
    • How you will collect and process data.
    • Evidence that you have already done some prior research.

You must at least have done some literature study.

Here are some hints on presenting your study proposal

Keep in mind that some of the members of the Postgraduate Committee might not want to be there.

  • They often have lots of other work.
    • They might be studying themselves.
    • They probably will have other post-graduate students who are already studying whom they need to help.

Do not waste any time. Be brief and to the point.

Know your topic and show that you have some knowledge and, perhaps experience in the field.

Know the meaning of the terminology that you use.

Start with your research as early as possible before preparing your research proposal.

Keep in mind that your proposal is not a concept thesis or dissertation.

It is just the scope – the parameters of the problem or topic that you intend to explore.

You cannot come to conclusions about your research problem or hypothesis now already. This is something that you will do after having gathered much more data.


Your research proposal is the tool with which you can gain access to Ph. D. studies.

You need to prepare well.

This will require some research in advance.

You should prepare presentation tools and notes and rehearse your presentation.

Keep in mind that the Postgraduate Committee are people with their own perceptions and needs.

They will be experts in postgraduate research, but it is up to you to convince them that your research will be viable and valuable.

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ARTICLE 1: Why Would you Embark on Studies for a Master’s Degree or a Ph. D.?

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


It is always a good idea to establish a healthy relationship with your study leader, and you should approach him or her for assistance as often as you possibly can.

However, they always have lots of work and limited time.

That is where I am hoping to save you and your study leader time and energy through this series of articles on research methodology.

You can read the articles for free on my blog at

Or you can watch my videos at Access to videos will cost one US Dollar per video.

I will post more than a hundred videos on academic research.

You can enroll for a course in research methodology if you wish. This will cost some money, though.

Why would you embark on studies for a master’s degree or a Ph. D.?

I don’t think you would have even searched for a topic on Master’s or Ph. D. level if you were not the inquisitive type.

You don’t need to be a nerd to be a good academic researcher.

All you need is the “right” reason for embarking on post-graduate studies.

I guess what I am saying is that you need to be motivated to study.

Here are some reasons why one would study towards a masters degree or a Ph. D.:

To add value. In my opinion, the most important reason why you would embark on post-graduate studies should be to contribute.

On Ph. D. level, you will need to create something from which society or at least a section of society will benefit.

You might develop new knowledge, new procedures to do a job, new medicine, new ways in which to solve problems, a new philosophy, etc.

On masters degree level, you will need to demonstrate the ability to conduct research and to master knowledge, philosophies and concepts on a post-graduate level.

To pursue your interests. Do not try to do research on something that you know nothing or little about.

Also, do not embark on studies on a topic in which you are not interested.

It will be much easier and more fun to study something about which you already have expert knowledge and with which you already have ample experience.

Without knowing it you will have done a lot of research already and you will probably already be an expert on the topic of your research if it is something that you are interested in.

Then again, most academic wizards have a way of developing an interest in a problem or a topic once they have decided to study it.

Besides, after a year or two of intensive research, you might well know more about the topic of your research than your study leader.

Status value. Regardless of whether you are interested in the topic of your research or not, you will probably wish to obtain a masters degree or a Ph. D. because of its status value.

There is nothing wrong with this.

We all need a little recognition and we need people to like, respect, and envy us.

For the sake of others. You might wish to make your parents proud.

You might want to set a good example for your children and motivate them to also study hard.

You might want to impress your spouse or show him or her that you are not a loser after all.

To improve your self-image. Regardless of whether it was your intention, obtaining a masters degree or a Ph. D. will probably improve your self-image.

To improve your job situation. A masters degree or a Ph. D. can help you find the job of your dreams, to be promoted, to earn a higher salary.

For the piece of paper? Here is a word of caution – it is mostly not a good idea to embark on post-graduate studies for the sake of the piece of paper.

Then again, you might have good reasons why you need or would like to get the piece of paper.

Studying on any level should first and foremost be about gaining additional knowledge and skills, not about getting a certificate that you can frame and hang on your office wall.

If it is just the certificate that you are interested in, you can just as well buy your Ph. D. on the internet.

Focusing on the piece of paper rather than on the improvement of your knowledge and skills can backfire.

Your employer and colleagues at work will expect you to perform better once you have obtained your masters degree or Ph. D.

If you cannot, they will catch you out.

You might even be demoted or lose your job.

If you obtained a masters degree or Ph. D. illegally you might end up in jail.

There is only one safe way in which to obtain a masters degree or Ph. D. and that is through hard work.

It will not help to apply psychological pressure on your study leader, for example by accusing him or her of discrimination if they do not accept the work that you submit.

Study leaders who discriminate are the exception and they don’t last long at most universities.

In summary

You should do research on a topic that you are familiar with and you will need to focus on creating new knowledge, procedures, philosophy, etc.

There is, however, nothing wrong with improving your marketability, your image, your status and enjoying life.

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ARTICLE 23: The Interrelatedness of Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology in Post-graduate Research.

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


With what degree of probability can experimental physicists say that they know how the world and life on it were created?

Will social scientists agree with them?

We can gain insight into questions like these through epistemology, ontology and methodology.

The interrelatedness of ontology, epistemology and methodology is the topic of this article.


Ontology is concerned with the natural world.

It is the nature of reality.

It focuses on the core characteristics, origin and what we can observe.

The “what” question often leads to an ontology.

For example: “What exists?” “What is true?” “What is real?” “What is?”

Ontology deals with the nature of being. Such “being” is not necessarily checked for validity, although scientists often try.

You can already identify an event or phenomenon as true by making use of your senses.

The “origin of” or “the original meaning of” is given by ontology.

Phenomena are not explained but rather described or simply stated as fact.


Epistemology is the study and explanation of what knowledge is and the logic behind the knowledge.

It can also be the philosophy behind knowledge.

It focuses on explaining knowledge, how we can obtain knowledge and how we should reason about the nature and elements of knowledge.

Knowledge is often formulated and explained in terms of what an event or phenomenon looks like, why it is as it is and how models interact.

Epistemology is made up of the elements of the world in which we live.

Three such elements are popularly described.

The first element is a philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge, which can include arguments, opinions and beliefs and how it relates to concepts such as the truth, validity, relevance and justification.

The second includes various issues of skepticism.

It asks if knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs are true, valid, relevant and justified.

The third is an explanation of the sources, criteria and scope of knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs.

For an epistemology understanding is more important than knowing and knowing is more important than to believe.

Even so, you can hardly develop an epistemology if you do not “know”.

Knowing is necessary to come to conclusions.

You will at least have an opinion or belief.

The epistemology of an event or phenomenon can be found through quantitative or qualitative research methods.

Your epistemological approach should be an effort to generate descriptions and explanations of the world, or at least the small part of the world that you do research on.

Your descriptions and explanations must, of course, be true, valid, relevant and justified.

Epistemology seeks to understand the how, origin, processes and limitations of observation.

Developing an epistemology requires operations such as drawing distinctions, establishing relations and creating constructs.

Epistemology includes a description of how knowledge impacts the target group for your research.

So, you can see that epistemology includes the research methods, data collection methods, and data analysis methods that we employ in our research.

Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

It implies the provision of evidence for your conclusions and inferences.


Methodology is the procedure that you will follow to identify and prove your argument, opinion or belief.

Some researchers differentiate between research methodology and research methods.

They argue that research methodologies are philosophical approaches while research methods are ways of doing things.

Philosophical approaches are also called paradigmatic approaches while research methods can include data collection methods.

I am just mentioning this for the sake of those who wish to differentiate between research methodologies and research methods.

Whatever stance you adopt will probably not influence the research work that you do.

Methodology is concerned with how you know something and go about obtaining the knowledge and understand that you need to solve a research problem.

It is the way in which you would discover knowledge in a systematic way.

The link between ontology, epistemology and methodology

Ontology is the belief upon which you base your research.

Ontology defines your research framework while epistemology determines the research questions that you will need to answer.

Ontology specifies the nature of something that we can sense and that we wish to investigate further if we are to know more about and understand an event or phenomenon.

Epistemology is the philosophy and knowledge behind the belief that you will investigate by making use of a research method, or methodology.

This is called your research premise, paradigm or interpretive framework.

Checking for validity is the bridge between ontology and epistemology.

If you manage to explain a fact, you will have crossed the bridge to epistemology.

Here is a simple example – your ontology can be that something tastes sweet. Your epistemology will be the reasons why it tastes sweet.

A century ago, most people would not have known what a computer is. They never saw one and, therefore, it is not included in their ontology.

Today almost all people will recognize a computer when they see one, but some will still not know how it works. It has not been explained to them and, therefore, it is not yet part of their epistemology.

Epistemology and methodology are driven by ontological beliefs and observations.


Ontology is “the science of being”.

The ontology is a statement of fact without explanation.

A statement of fact can also be just a belief.

Thinking, evaluating, studying and theorizing about an event or phenomenon within the framework of a predefined society can be your epistemology.

Epistemology asks: “how do we come to know?”

Epistemology is an explanation, not a label.

In doctoral research, you need to find evidence that your theoretical and philosophical claims are correct.

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge and the science of explanation.

Your initial epistemology is improved through the development of new knowledge and philosophy.

Methodology is driven by your ontological beliefs and based on your initial epistemological philosophy.

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ARTICLE 44: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Masters Degree Studies: Constructivism

Three young intercultural couples keeping social distance while sitting on dry grass in front of each other and talking during outdoor relax

Written by Dr Hannes Nel, D. Com, D. Phil


One certainty about post-graduate research is that there is no guarantee that you will succeed.

Many students do not even start because they are afraid that they might fail.

And the uncertainty coupled with the fear of failure after you have done a lot of work causes many students to not even start.

Constructivism is a simple paradigm with lots of promise of success.

Although there is still no guarantee, you can at least embark on your studies in the knowledge that you will have a fair chance to show what you are capable of.

What is more attractive to an intelligent and creative researcher than the opportunity to use his or her mind to develop new knowledge and understanding?

The work will still be a challenge, but thanks to constructivism, not an insurmountable one.


Constructivism is a rather liberal paradigm, that allows the researcher to create new knowledge and understanding through cognitive reasoning.

It claims that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.

We reconcile new observations and experiences with our previous ideas and experiences.

This might change our perceptions, or the new information and experiences might be discarded.

How we respond to new information and experiences depends on how we process the data in our minds.

This means that we create our own knowledge by asking questions and exploring things.

To compensate for the subjectivity of constructivism, you need to pay special attention to ethics.

The way in which you collect, and construct, data are prerequisites for the validity and accuracy of your analysis.

Also, the quality of data and the way in which it is analyzed determine how reality is interpreted.

Constructivism is mostly used with grounded theory methodology.

Human interests are important for research purposes.

Therefore, constructivism can also be used with several other research methods.

For example, action research, case study research, ethnography, etc.

A multitude of data collection methods can be used.

For example, interviews, participant observation, artifacts and almost any documents that are relevant to the field of study can be consulted.

The aim of research using constructivism is often to understand situations or phenomena, not only to create new knowledge.

Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed.

It involves a researcher collaborating with participants.

That is an emic approach.

For those who might not be familiar with the etic and emic approaches to research – an emic approach is where the researcher works with the target group for the research.

She or he can even become part of the target group.

In an etic approach, the researcher observes the target group from the outside.

The interaction of several people is researched in their context or setting.

It mostly involves the social problems of the target group for the research.

The accuracy of research findings is validated and creates an agenda for change or reform.

This entails a rather well-known sequence of steps that are followed in most qualitative research methodologies.

The following are typical steps:

  • Identify human interests.
  • Formulate the aim of the research.
  • Gather rich data.
  • Collaborate with participants.
  • Research target group interaction.
  • Validate the accuracy of the findings.
  • Create an agenda for change or reform.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

For example, like positivism constructivism also uses observation to gather information.

Different from positivism, which argues that knowledge is generated in a scientific method, constructivism generates knowledge in an interpretive manner.

There are other differences between constructivism and positivism.

Constructivism prefers an emic approach while positivism is equally comfortable with an emic and an etic approach.

Constructivism prefers qualitative research while positivism prefers quantitative research.

Although some academics claim that constructivism can be positively associated with behaviorism, the link is rather weak and unconvincing.

Very well, behaviorism also uses observation to collect data, but behaviorism does not make use of reflection while constructivism does.

Then again, radical behaviorism makes use of reflection.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism, also because of the lack of reflection.

Constructivism is widely criticized for its lack of value in education and its lack of balance when used as a philosophy in research.

In education, it can lead to group thinking when one or a few prominent educators propagate a process or concept as “the only truth”.

Constructivists sometimes place too much emphasis on sensory experience at the expense of reflection.

This means that constructivists sometimes focus strongly on the ontology, that is “what is” and neglect the epistemology, that is the “why” and the “how” of a phenomenon.

Because of this, knowledge is sometimes not sufficiently proven to be valid and accurate.

Some academics integrate constructivism with other paradigms.

Others regard such integration as robbing constructivism of its identity.

The third group of academics feels that integrating constructivism with other paradigms enhances the philosophical strength of the research process.


Constructivism requires intelligent cognitive reasoning.

People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection.

The aim of constructivism is to understand situations and phenomena.

Research often involves creating change or reform.

Ethics and human interests are important in constructivism.

Constructivism makes use of many data collection methods.

Constructivism is associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism.

Constructivism rejects scientism and empiricism.

Constructivism is criticized for:

  • Not having much value in education.
  • Lack of balance.
  • Too much emphasis on sensory experiences.
  • New knowledge not always been proven as valid and accurate.
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