The Nature and Structure of a Ph.D. Research Report


Before we discuss the nature and structure of a Ph.D. research report, I need to point out that research on doctoral level is not about just writing an essay. It is hard and complex work, but the rewards are most certainly worth the effort.

Conducting research and writing a report is like the seafarers of old and the astronauts of today who, as the old space science movie used to begin, “venture where no one else has ventured before”.

You will enjoy interesting and exciting discoveries.

Sometimes you might weep because of what you discover.

At other times you will jump for joy.

It is, indeed, a roller coaster ride that I hope you will enjoy.

Let’s board the ship.

Characteristics of a research report for a Ph.D.

Here is a brief summary of the characteristics of a research report for a Ph. D.:

  1. The topic can be highly complex but need not be so.
  2. The content will be highly specialized in a highly complex area of expertise.
  3. The scope can be extensive or at least apply to a realistic community or geographical area.
  4. Analysis of data will require sophisticated analytical processes.
  5. Recognised research approaches, methods and paradigms should be used.
  6. The report should be 30,000 to 70,000 words in length.
  7. The bibliography can include generic and specific sources.
  8. More than 130 sources should be consulted.
  9. Marks are not awarded and the report should be worthy of distinction before it can be accepted as meeting the requirements.

The research design

You should design your research report in such a way that it will satisfy the purpose of your research.

Although the design will consist of several headings, or steps, it does not mean that you will follow a linear process. You will inevitably need to return to previous work, construct and reconstruct until you achieve an acceptable level of complexity, validity, authenticity and reliability.

The design is linear, but the research process is always a spiral.

Most of all, however, you will need to achieve the purpose of your research.

Your research design will probably move from underlying philosophical assumptions and theoretical knowledge to new knowledge and a solution to a problem.

Even though the basic structure of a research report is prescribed by universities, all of them will allow a measure of flexibility by allowing you to add chapters. Omitting chapters might be risky because you might leave out important steps in the writing of the report or in the research process.

Changes in the internal or external environment, new information, unforeseen obstacles and unexpected opportunities to improve your work can move, perhaps even force you to change the structure and layout of your research report.

Research is not just about collecting and interpreting data, it is also a process by means of which you would manage change. That is why your design should be flexible.

Never pad, i.e. never include data in your report that is not relevant to the purpose of your research.

Structure your report, including the chapters, sub-sections, paragraphs and even sentences in such a manner that they logically flow from the problem to the solution.

The design of your research report will depend on your research skills, the topic of the research and what the university prescribes.

The design of your research report should include which type of research you will conduct. your research can be exploratory, descriptive or explanatory.

Exploratory research would be research on a topic that you do not have much information about. You will, therefore, need to collect and analyse a substantial amount of data. Mostly a mixed approach.

Descriptive research would be research on a concept, people, situation, etc. that you are familiar with and that you wish to describe. Mostly a qualitative approach.

Explanatory research involves testing a hypothesis and coming to conclusions about the validity of the hypothesis. Mostly a quantitative approach.

The scale and scope determine the boundaries of the design.

The boundaries put the problem statement or hypothesis into perspective.

You will also need to acknowledge the limitations of your research process. Some universities will allow you to overcome limitations with assumptions. This, however, can damage the validity of your findings and the reliability of your recommendations.

Acknowledging that you are developing or deconstructing the findings of somebody else will lend validity and authenticity to your work.

Don’t underestimate the quality of research done by academics before you.

Be modest about your claims to the originality of your work.

Don’t regard quotations from the work of other researchers as a substitute for sound arguments by you.

Regard the work of others as corroboration of your own and use it as such.

Let’s look at the basic structure of a research report.

All research reports should have the following elements:

  1. The title page.
  2. The table of contents.
  3. A list of figures and tables.
  4. The abstract.
  5. Confirmation of authenticity.
  6. Acknowledgements.
  7. The preface or introduction.
  8. The chapters.
  9. Bibliography and references.
  10. Appendices.


Research design is the blueprint according to which you will conduct your research.

Accept that change will occur while you do your research. Accept this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Consult as many sources of data as you can find, but guard against trying to include too many research methods, paradigms and data collection methods in your research.

The insights that you offer must be your own.

Remember that scrupulous honesty is as important in small matters as in large.

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