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 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.
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.