Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Action Research

Introduction

Some universities charge exorbitant fees for the privilege to study through them.

And some parents will pay what the university charges because they want their children to obtain a Ph. D. from this and that excellent university.

It is also true that some universities are better positioned to offer research in certain fields of science.

You might need a laboratory that only one or a few universities have.

Or perhaps you might need a special computer or other scientific tools and equipment that not all universities have.

In such an instance you will be doing the right thing to do whatever it takes to be accepted for Ph. D. studies by the university of your choice.

However, whatever the topic of your research, the most important deciding factor if your Ph. D. will be a quality product is you – the student.

I will discuss action research as a research method in this post.

Action research

Some know action research by other names, for example, action learning, action science, collaborative inquiry, community-based study, contextual action research, co-operative inquiry, emancipatory research, participatory research, etc.

Action research is “learning by doing”.

This means that a group of people will identify an immediate problem, do something to resolve it, evaluate their efforts and try again if unsuccessful.

Action research aims to solve the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation.

It, simultaneously, adds value to social science.

The community that is the target for action research often also actively participate in the research.

This means that the people affected by a social problem work with the researcher to study a problem.

They help to collect data, make suggestions and recommendations and use the results of the research to influence social change.

This would be an emic approach to research.

Just to clarify – In terms of the relationship between the researcher and his or her target for research, we can follow either an emic or an etic approach.  

An emic approach to research is where the researcher and the target for the research cooperate in finding a solution to a problem.

An etic approach to research would be where the researcher does research as an observer divorced from the target group.

Action research is a developmental research process.

This means that people not only solve problems by falling back on their current knowledge but also learn and develop new knowledge that they can apply in the future to solve the same or similar problems.

The solutions to problems in one community can often also be used to solve the same or similar problems in other communities.

Action research is typically cyclical in terms of data collection and analysis and starts with identifying a problem, collecting data, analyzing the data, taking action to resolve the problem and evaluating the outcome of the research.

Typically, the participants in the research “own” the problem and they become partners in carrying out the research.

A process of reflective critique is followed, meaning that members of the target group together with the researcher would consider, discuss and decide on a solution to the problem being researched.

It also implies dialectical critique, meaning that the research problem is solved through open critique.

As a researcher you will probably be concerned that people might not accept your interpretations, ideas and judgements.

This is normal. People often resist change because it creates uncertainty and sometimes even fear.

Sometimes fear has little to do with the potential changes in the immediate environment, but rather with the research process itself.

There is also the risk that change might threaten people’s status and even their relevance to the community.

You will need to address these fears if you are to gain and keep the support of the community with your research.

Such fear is not all bad, though. It is what drives you to do professional research.

The nature of action research raises several possible ethical dilemmas.

Your bias towards the data being collected might damage the quality of your research as well as your relationship with the target group for your research.

Other factors, such as the needs and fears of the target group might contaminate the authenticity and validity of the data that you and the members of the target group collect.

The target group might have a different agenda than you for participating in the research.

Your own diligence and drive, or rather lack of diligence and drive, can hamper the level of your involvement in the research.

You might become too emotionally involved with the target group for the research and the problem being investigated.

The effect on the participants when you withdraw from the community on completion of the research might leave them in a position where they cannot manage the situation on their own.

You will need to consider this and ensure that the community is not damaged by your research.

Examples of paradigms that fit in well with action research are:

Ethnomethodology.

Neoliberalism.

Summary

Action research considers theory to inform practice, that is the real situation in a particular context and at a particular point in time.

Theory together with reality is analysed to transform the status quo, that is to solve a social problem.

Solving a social problem is achieved by following an emic approach and reflective and dialectical critique.

The researcher should consider the possible risk that research can do more harm than good if there is not mutual respect and trust between the researcher and the community whose problem is being addressed.

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Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies

Introduction

For my first doctoral study, I used a quantitative method, specifically  CHAID supported with loglinear analysis and the CATMOD procedure. I chose this statistical method because I intended to send out many questionnaires. I had to ask for the assistance of the statisticians of the South African Council for Social Research to process my completed questionnaires because I did not have the software or knowledge to do the work.

Of course, I had to analyse the printouts of the processed data myself, else I would not have been able to come to any conclusions, findings or suggested solutions to my research problem.

In retrospect, I was walking on thin ice by making use of a statistical process about which I knew absolutely nothing.

In this article, I will share with you an introduction to research methods.

Most of the methods that I will discuss should be used with qualitative research, although some can also be used with quantitative research.

All research methods can be used with a mixed approach.

The challenge with quantitative research methods is that they are often dedicated to a specific scientific field of study rather than to a research method.

They often also deviate from the generally accepted structure of a Ph. D. Research Report.

Therefore, I will only share a few remarks on statistical research methods in general rather than to try to discuss research methods that are used in a specific natural science field.

Research methods overlap with research paradigms and data collection methods. I will discuss them separately in future posts.

Mixed research methods

Research on doctoral level is becoming increasingly diverse and inclusive of both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

That is one of the reasons why a mixed-method approach is often followed.

Another reason why students decide to follow a mixed-method approach is because they feel that a combination provides a better understanding of a research problem than just focusing on qualitative or quantitative research methods.

Some students argue that a mixed-method enhances the validity and accuracy of data and the relevance and value of research findings.

The overarching premise is that the integration of two or more methods should facilitate the achievement of research objectives.

The decision of whether to integrate multiple methods depends on a combination of the research objectives, the resources and time available, your philosophical assumptions, your knowledge of research methods and your style or personal preferences. The people who will read your research report, especially your sponsor, but also your study leader and the external examiners, will also have an influence on which research method or methods you will use.

Different methods can be used as a form of triangulation in the hope that the findings from the different methods will corroborate one another.

Where will you discuss the research method that you will use?

You will probably discuss the research method that you will use in the second chapter of your dissertation or thesis.

You should explain:

  1. The method that you will use without trying to “teach” you study leader or other readers the intricacies of research. They probably know more about this than you.
  2. Why you chose the method.
  3. The reason why you chose the method.

You should also provide a detailed description of the components of the methodology of your choice.

The method that you choose must enable you to progress from a problem situation to a solution.

As far as possible you should do as much of the work as possible on your own.

For my second doctoral study, I used Atlas.Ti to code an analyse the data that I collected, mostly through interviewing. I used grounded theory, which is a qualitative research method. This time around I attended a short course on Atlas.Ti at the University of Guildford in Surrey before embarking on my studies, so that I could do all the work on my own.

Your method or methods can consist of a combination of literature study, models, arguments, mathematical proofs, surveys, case studies, experimentation, etc.

Did you notice that I am integrating research methods with data collection methods here?

The chapter on your research methods is mostly not difficult to write.

After all, you will have all the information from a book or books that you consulted.

Even better, your study leader can suggest a method that will work well with the nature of your research.

In addition to the purpose of your research, you should also consider your knowledge, experience, strong points, and weak points and the data that you will have access to.

Don’t choose a quantitative method if you feel uncomfortable with calculations and statistics or if you do not have access to laboratories or other scientific equipment that you will need.

Don’t choose a qualitative method if you will not have access to or feel comfortable with people as your target group.

Summary

You will probably use quantitative research methods if you feel comfortable with figures and statistics, if you have access to the laboratories or other scientific equipment that you will need for your research and if the topic of your research is such that it can be investigated quantitatively.

You will probably use qualitative research methods if you feel comfortable when working with people, when the topic of your research is suitable for qualitative research if you need to solve immediate social or community problems.

You will probably use mixed research methods if there is a need to collect and analyse quantitative and qualitative data.

You can use more than one research method, and some of them might be quantitative while others are qualitative in nature. Different methods can be used as a form of triangulation, which should give you a measure of corroboration of your data and findings.

Keep in mind that research methods, paradigms, data collection methods, and data analysis methods are all parts of the research process.

You will probably discuss the research method that you will follow in the second chapter of your research report. Although it is an important chapter, you should not go into too much detail.

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The Interrelatedness of Ontology, Epistemology, and Methodology

Introduction

In this article I discuss epistemology, ontology and methodology as a unit. They belong together as elements of academic research.

Ontology

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 “original meaning of” is given by ontology.

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

Epistemology

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 how an event or phenomenon looks, why it is as it is, how models interact (in a systematic or erratic manner).

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

Three such elements are popularly described.

  1. 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.
  2. The second includes various issues of scepticism. It asks if knowledge, arguments, opinions and beliefs are true, valid, relevant and justified.
  3. 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”.

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

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 manner.

The link between ontology, epistemology and methodology

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

Together, ontology, epistemology and methodology form an all-encompassing system of interrelated practice and thinking that defines the nature of your research.

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 reason 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 belief upon what you base your research. It 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.

Summary

Ontology is “the science of being”.

The ontology is a statement of fact without explanation.

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 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.

Methodology is driven by your ontological beliefs and based on your initial epistemological philosophy. Your initial epistemology is improved through the development of new knowledge and philosophy.

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Consulting Sources of Information for your Ph. D. Research.

Introduction

In this article I will share some ideas with you about finding and selecting sources of information to use in your doctoral research.

Where to start looking for sources of information

A suggested list of references is a valuable starting point for your research.

You should consult such references first if a list is available.

All professionally written books give recognition to sources which the writer of the book consulted.

You should be able to consult some of them.

It will not take you long to get to know which writers are recognized authorities in the field of your research.

Reading such books, articles, official documents, etc. can help you to find some good data and to learn how to discriminate between good and poor sources of information.

The same applies to internet sources.

Many academics still frown upon the use of internet sources.

I agree that much that is posted on the internet are probably not accurate and often also not valid information.

However, I do not agree that one should not use the internet to find information for research.

Many decades ago, people believed that all that was written in books, magazines and newspapers was true.

Some of you will remember how people used to defend their arguments by saying that “it was written in this or that newspaper”, or “that it is true because I heard it on the news.”

Now we know that the books, newspapers, magazines and the radio of back then often shared propaganda and lies with us, as do social media now.

A simple way in which to find sources of data on the topic of your research is to find just one or a few relevant books on the library shelves or catalogues. There are often more books with similar content on the same shelve or in the same row.

A problem with books is that they become outdated rather fast. The same can be said about articles on the internet, though.

It is a healthy practice not to use books older than five years unless you know or can determine that the contents of the book or other sources of data is still accurate and relevant.

Natural scientists will probably rely on statistics and other calculations for confirmation of accuracy. However, statistics can also be manipulated, as can laboratory tests.

Whatever sources you use, remember to give recognition to the originators.

Verifying the authenticity of sources

Regardless of which sources or kind of sources of information you consult, you need to do whatever you can to verify the authenticity, validity and accuracy of the information that you are offered.

There are many ways in which you can evaluate and confirm the value of information.

An already old, but still effective way in which to do this is triangulation.

Ironically, I came across sources that do not correctly explain what triangulation is. One such sources was written by a professor at a university.

You need to know the ontology of triangulation to understand what it means in the context of academic research.

Triangulation has its origin in the science of survey.

Many decades ago, perhaps until some fifty years ago, surveyors used directors, graphometers and later theodolites to find the coordinates for points on the ground. They would take bearings to known beacons on high points, add 180 degrees to obtain back bearings, and plot them on a map or air photo. The intersection of three such backbearings, measured from three beacons, would be the true position of the director or graphometer.

Such surveying was called triangulation because you had to use trigonometry to calculate the coordinates of the unknown point, which would be where you put the theodolite.

The rationale behind trigonometry is that the more bearings from known points you have, the more accurately can you calculate to coordinates of the unknown point.

In research we use the same argument for confirming the accuracy of information. The more sources that contain the same information, the more likely it is that the information is accurate and true.

Of course, you can have more than three sources that corroborate information, but three are generally accepted as the minimum.

Obviously, this is not a foolproof technique. It can easily happen that several writers quote the same information that they obtained from a book or article written by somebody who shared false information, or from one another.

Triangulation does not relate to source of information only.

Any kind of corroboration of the accuracy and validity of data and findings can be reinforced through triangulation.

Triangulation can refer to data, sources of information (which would include writers) researchers who come to the same findings and conclusions, theories that agree on arguments or points of view and different research methods that deliver the same or similar results.

 Not all academics support triangulation as a way in which to corroborate data, findings, etc.

They too can have a point, because of differences in paradigmatic approaches.

Truth and accuracy can be dependent on context and time.

What is true now might not be true tomorrow or any other time in the past or the future.

What is true in one country or any other place will not necessarily be true in other countries or other places.

The truth as perceived by one person might not be true for somebody else.

That is why I always define information that I share in books, articles, the internet, etc. and I always respect the right of others to disagree with me.

It is a good idea to check how writers motivate and explain their arguments. Be careful of loose statements without any explanation or corroboration. Also, be careful of arguments that sound too good or bad to be true. Unlikely arguments are probably not true if they are not properly proven or supported or logically explained.

Summary

When looking for sources of information, you should start with a list of references that the university, your study leader or any other expert whom you trust suggests.

See if you can find more sources from the books or other sources on the list.

Check the accuracy, validity and authenticity of the sources by looking for corroboration of the contents of the sources. Corroboration can be found through triangulation, seeking out writers with a known good reputation, and common sense.

Also check how old the sources of information are. The older the sources are the more likely it is that the contents might be outdated and inaccurate.

Keep in mind that books, articles in magazines and newspapers and even official documentation can be just as false as internet sources.

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Specifying the Limitation for your Ph. D. Research

Introduction

There is no such thing as a perfect research report.

It is, nevertheless, human to have great ideas for your research.

It is also human not to achieve everything that you had in mind for your research.

What are limitations?

Do not confuse the “delimitation” of your research with “limitation”.

Delimitation would be setting boundaries for the scope of your research.

The limitations of your research are those characteristics of design or methodology that inhibit the validity, applicability, objectivity, generalizability or interpretation of the results of your findings.

Examples of possible limitations can include lack of access to data sources that you hoped to consult, lack of cooperation from participants in your research, time constraints, legislation, lack of access to research instruments, etc.

There are certain mistakes that you should not make in your research and that you, therefore, also should not list as limitations. Examples include not being motivated to work, wasting time unnecessarily, dishonesty, plagiarism, shoddy work, etc.

Limitations are mostly imposed from the outside. Flaws in your research report that can be attributed to you will probably not be accepted by your study leader as limitations. They are mostly things that you could or should have foreseen and you should have done contingency planning to avoid them from happening.

Acknowledging the limitations of your research

Acknowledging the limitations of your research shows that you have integrity and that you understand what you should have done, even if, for whatever reason, you did not manage to achieve perfection.

Nobody will know the shortcomings of your research better than you.

The limitations that you acknowledge should be tempered with reasonableness.

They should not be so extensive that your study becomes unimportant or not at an acceptable standard.

Failure to acknowledge the limitations of your research can render your research invalid and it can misdirect future research done by you or somebody else who is inspired by your work.

Sometimes you might be able to make up for limitations through assumptions.

Where to acknowledge the limitations of your research

Most universities will require you to acknowledge your limitations in the last chapter of your research report.

This make sense because you cannot foresee most of the limitations before you have done your research.

It is a good idea to write down the limitations that you encounter from the start as you encounter them.

You can always delete some of them if you find a solution to the problem later.

Summary

The limitations of your research are the flaws in your research design or methodology that can damage the quality of your research project.

Limitations are mostly caused by external factors over which you have little or no control.

Internal factors, that is the omissions or mistakes that you are responsible for are mostly signs of poor research work and, therefore, mostly not acceptable.

Acknowledging the limitations of your research is a responsible and mature thing to do.

It might not improve the quality of your work but will help to render your work trustworthy, authentic and valid.

Acknowledging limitations does not free you, as a student, from having to submit quality work.

Although you will probably acknowledge the limitations of your work in the last chapter of your research report, you should write the limitations while doing your research and immediately when you come across them.

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The Scope for a Ph. D. Research Report

Introduction

Failure to limit the research problem/research question or hypothesis from the start can lead to you collecting a mass of information, much of which you will not be able to use.

The Scope of your Research Report.

Although you should limit the scope of your research project, you should still collect a good amount of data.

Consequently, your initial scope will be broad. You will need to narrow this down as you progress with your research.

You need to eliminate irrelevant data while paying more attention to valid and valuable data.

Also, make sure that you collect relevant data.

To collect relevant data, you will need to use the most effective and efficient data collection methods and ask the right questions.

The scope of your research will also be influenced by how widely shared across the population for your research the knowledge, beliefs, behavior, interest and other data relevant to your research are.

The more data is shared in the population for your research, the more likely it is that people will respond more or less the same to your questions.

Responses to more specific and personal issues, for example unique events, individual experiences, or personal opinions will probably be more varied.

The research scope is often determined by time constraints and the resources that you have available.

The more time and funds you have at your disposal, the more sophisticated data collection tools will you use.

You should then also collect more and better-quality data.

This does not mean that lots of time and resources are a precondition for doing quality research.

Creative researchers mostly manage to find the data that they need even with limited time and resources at their disposal.

Don’t be too ambitious and select a topic that is way too broad for university research purposes.

Students often choose a too broad scope for their research because they are concerned that they will not be able to write an “acceptable” number of pages.

After some initial reading, most students find that they have too much to write, and they don’t want to lose any of the data that took them so much time and effort to collect.

That is why time spent on deciding on a realistic scope before you start doing research can make your work much easier and more efficient.

Never delete data at random – this will ruin the flow of your arguments.

Summary

The scope of your research has an impact on the amount and kind of data that you will collect.

Most students collect too much data when they start with their research.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as long as you remember that you will need to refine the data and only keep what is relevant and necessary for your research.

Students seldom have more time and funds for research available than universities or large businesses.

That is why you will need to accept a humble scope and probably less sophisticated research tools than large organisations.

It is better to decide on a realistic scope for your research before you even start.

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How to Establish Objectives for Ph.D. Research

Introduction

Almost all professors at universities will tell you that you are expected to develop new knowledge, theories, processes, medication, etc. on doctoral level.

This would be the ideal. However, creating adding value to the existing knowledge and skills often take much longer than it would take to do research for a Ph. D.

Sometimes scientists stumble upon new knowledge, new inventions, new medicines or processes purely by chance.

Mostly, however, new discoveries require systematic research and gradual progress over a long period.

Therefore, study leaders and universities often accept a research report for a Ph. D. just because the students showed that they can do academic research on doctoral level.

Often universities accept a research report because they can see the potential of the student to conduct further research, perhaps as part of a research team of the university.

It is then that the student might develop something new.

Objectives for Ph. D. Research

Most students start with an idea, from which they will develop a topic, a title, a purpose, objectives and a research question, problem statement or hypothesis.

It would not be impossible to start at any point in this circle, depending on what you have been given or have identified.

These six elements impact on the selection of your research approach, research methods, paradigmatic approach, data collection methods, sampling methods, and data collection instrument development.

The verb that you choose for your research objectives will largely determine which research approach you will follow.

The following are examples of possible research objectives:

  1. To measure something.

Most likely a quantitative approach.

The examples of things that need to be measured are endless.

Examples – rainfall, changes in temperature over a period and at different places, lengths, weights, etc.

  • To test something.

Most likely a quantitative approach.

Medication can be tested, how people respond to treatment, the strength of concrete, the performance of people in many different fields, how people respond to certain impulses, events, etc.

  • To calculate something.

Most likely a quantitative approach.

Finances are often calculated for many different purposes.

Population numbers are counted, animal species after widespread fires in Australia, People who contracted and perhaps even perished because of the COVID-19 (Corona) virus are examples of such calculations.

  • To compare.

Most likely a quantitative approach.

Any competition has an element of comparison in it.

The performance of countries in almost any field can be compared.

Anything that can be measured can be compared for different places, times, etc.

  • To understand a real-world problem.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

Used to understand any threat to the well-being and survival of people.

  • To build knowledge and theory.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

It is guided by existing knowledge and theory in order to improve the existing knowledge and theory.

  • To develop interventions or programmes.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

Development might need to be measured, though.

  • To evaluate something.

Can be quantitative or qualitative.

Performance in a wide variety of fields is often evaluated to identify deficiencies and to achieve improvement.

Products, interventions, programmes, processes, conduct, etc. need to be evaluated.

Measuring quality is an example of this.

  • To inform a larger study.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

Will probably be broken down into a number of small projects, each with its own objectives.

  1. To identify.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

  1. To explore.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

Pretty much like a detective who would seek answers or causes of events.

  1. To describe.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

The biggest challenge is to achieve accuracy and validity.

  1. To explain.

Most likely a qualitative approach.

You will need to delve deep into the thought processes of others.

You will need to identify the causes of events or phenomena.

Summary

The purpose of your research will be a deciding factor if you should follow a quantitative or qualitative approach.

You will follow a quantitative approach if the achievement of your purpose will require statistical analysis and accurate evidence.

You will follow a qualitative approach if the achievement of your purpose will require descriptive work.

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How to Find a Topic for Ph.D. Research

Introduction

It is always advisable to identify a real need for improvement or new ideas that will require research.

The following are steps that you can take to find a research topic on doctoral level:

  1. Consider the research that you’ve already done.

Your thesis for a Master’s degree is a good starting point for further research.

It is probably something that you are interested in and have some good knowledge about.

Remember, this time around you will need to create new knowledge and skills.

  • Your own interests are a great source for finding a topic.

List your interests and rank them to find a topic that you are interested in.

Surf the internet.

The topics that you Google is always a good starting point.

Visit the library.

  • Consider current events.

Current news is probably important and already something that somebody else regarded as worth reporting on.

Discuss the news with friends and colleagues.

Listen to what they are afraid of, look forward to, etc.

  • Keep your eyes open and make a note of everyday observations.

Keep your eyes open and listen to what people talk about.

People often talk about their needs and fears.

  • Do not underestimate the value of your personal experiences.

Your personal experiences, challenges, disappointments, and successes in life can be topics for research.

People often have similar experiences and they might need some assistance or guidance, which you can offer them.

Developing your research topic

You will probably need to develop a research topic even after you have found an idea that you like. Such an idea can be developed into a research topic by following seven steps:

Step 1: Select a general topic.

Sometimes somebody else might suggest a topic if you cannot find one.

A lecturer, a sponsor, a family member, a friend might suggest something.

It is not a good idea to choose and develop a topic that you know nothing about.

Step 2: List keywords to help you look for information about the topic.

Keywords can help you find more information on a topic on the internet, in a library or from a lecturer, family member or friend.

Good keywords can save you lots of time and effort.

Keywords can generate new keywords.

Step 3: Get an overview of the topic.

Improve and expand on the idea that you have.

In the beginning, you should collect anything that you can find on the topic of your research.

Do not throw away any information now already – you never know how your research might develop.

Information that does not look relevant now might turn out to be critically important later.

Besides the more you read about your topic the better will you understand it.

Step 4: Begin to focus the topic into something that you can cover well.

At some stage, you will need to narrow your research down to the important issues that relate to the purpose of the research.

Search for examples and important information – examples will help you with your fieldwork and information is necessary as a theoretical background.

Do not go for volume – focus on quality and relevance.

Step 5: Write a statement of purpose for the focused topic.

Your statement of purpose will guide you through your research.

Focus, focus, focus.

Your statement of purpose will motivate you, help you to formulate your problem statement, question or hypothesis, and help you to work systematically and efficiently.

Step 6: Create subtopic headings for the research.

Subtopics will help you organize your research report in such a manner that your arguments will flow smoothly toward the achievement of your purpose.

Keywords can often be used as subtopics.

You will probably change and delete subtopics as you progress with your research.

Step 7: Brainstorm questions about the focused topic.

Research teams often use brainstorming.

You can also do so, for example by organizing focus groups to discuss salient issues.

Summary

You can find a research topic from:

  1. Your previous research.
  2. Other people.
  3. Your personal interest, experiences, observations.
  4. The news.

Once you have decided on a topic, you will need to develop and refine it.

  1. Start by developing a research problem, research question or hypothesis.
  2. Select keywords and use them to gather data.
  3. Focus the topic to make your research viable.
  4. Formulate a purpose for your research.
  5. Break your topic down further into subtopics.
  6. Refine, restructure, add, delete.

You are now on your way with your research.

Remember to focus and to work in a spiral.

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The Research Problem, Question or Hypothesis for a Ph.D. Research Report

Introduction

Did you notice that some Ph. D. students formulate their research question, statement to impress rather than to explain?

Here is an example of such a myopic research question:

“A Wittsteinian elucidation of the rationalist ontology of mathematics and its epistemological influence on the post-structuralist nature of language.”

A good research problem, question or hypothesis defines the focus of your research project.

The focus should, furthermore, be aimed at achieving the purpose for the research.

The Postgraduate Committee will use the research problem, question or hypothesis to judge if your proposed research topic meets the requirements for academic research on doctoral level.

You will need to narrow your research question, statement or hypothesis down to a project that you will be able to cope with, bearing in mind how much time and funds you have available for the research.

Keep in mind that research should always be the foundation for further research.

Let’s look at an example of a research question and then refine it until we reach the point where it meets the requirements for viable research on doctoral level.

  1. What is the effect of global warming on social interaction?

A research question like this creates more questions than it solves.

  1. It is extremely vague and the effect of global warming on social interaction can be a multitude of possible things, for example relationships in the classroom, at home, between married couples, friends, clients versus salespeople, etc.
  2. The effect of global warming on different continents, in different countries, different cultures, different seasons, etc. will probably not be the same.
  3. What is meant by social interaction?

One will need to explain and define the research question. However, even then it would be almost impossible to conclude generally applicable findings that will apply to the entire world and all people and times of the year.

Here is a refinement of the research question:

  • What is the effect of global warming on the social interaction of Europeans working in metropolitan areas?

This research question already hints on possible economic value. It is limited to a specific type of living area and it would probably be possible to choose a representative sample for the research.

You should be careful of not formulating your research question in such a way that it renders your research subjective and biased.

For example, if you were to ask:

  • Will global warming cause people working in metropolitan areas to lose interest in social interaction?

you might create the impression that you are of the opinion that global warming will cause people working in metropolitan areas to lose interest in social interaction.

It might still be a workable problem to investigate though. You can also reformulate your problem statement or question as a hypothesis, especially as the answer to your question might simply be “yes” or “no”. You might even be able to statistically prove your hypothesis as valid or not. Here you would probably use quantitative research and a technicist paradigmatic approach.

You can avoid the dichotomous nature of this last example (the answer can only be “yes” or “no” by formulating it something like this:

  • What will be the impact of global warming on the social interaction between Europeans working in metropolitan areas?

Regardless of how you formulate your research question, you will still need to describe the context for your research.

The purpose of your research can also help to clarify your research question, statement or hypothesis.

The scope of your research can help you to know where to go, what to investigate and when to stop with your research.

You research question, statement or hypothesis is not final if you did not submit your final report.

However, keep in mind that it will become increasingly more difficult and riskier to change your research question, statement or hypothesis the longer you wait to do so.

Summary

A research question, statement or hypothesis gives you a good indication of which data you need to collect and which methods you will use to access and analyse your sources.

A well-articulated research question, statement or hypothesis provides you, your study leader and any other readers of your research report with valuable information about your research.

You need to explain the focus, purpose, scope and motivation for your research.

You also need to and motivate your research question, statement or hypothesis clearly and objectively.

The rationale for your research question, statement or hypothesis can serve as evidence that your research project is viable.

You can change your research question, statement or hypothesis any time while you are still doing research. However, the longer you wait, the more incorrect data will you collect, and the more time will you waste on doing unnecessary work.

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Creating a Draft for a Ph.D. Research Report

Introduction

In my previous post, I discussed writing a second chapter for your Ph. D. Research Report.

This post on how to prepare a draft for a Ph. D. Report ties in closely with my previous post on how to structure your research report.

You will write many different versions for a draft report, and you will continue reviewing what was probably just a structure in the beginning until you rich the point where you will have a final product.

But you need to start with a first draft.

The following seven steps will enable you to write a first draft.

Step 1: Make an outline of your headings.

The outline should be an abbreviated picture of the parts of your report that you can also use as the scope for when you need to defend your submission.

The Table of Contents of your research report can serve as the outline.

Initially, you will start with just a framework. As you progress with your research, the framework will grow into your actual report as well as the final table of contents for your research report.

The outline can help you prevent and identify flaws in the structure of your report.

Step 2: Check your research statement, question or hypothesis.

You will have written your research statement, question or hypothesis when you prepared your research proposal.

You can refocus the research statement, question or hypothesis at any point while writing your report, if necessary.

You can also refocus it as often as you wish, although you should not do this indiscriminately.

Refocusing your research statement, question or hypothesis would be necessary if you were too ambitious when you decided on the scope for your research.

You will need to refocus your research statement, question or hypothesis if you run out of time.

Your study leader will not like it if you run out of time because you dragged your feet.

Step 3: Write the body of your research report from your notes.

This is where you will ensure that what you write flows logically.

You should check if all your ideas, arguments, evidence, figures and tables flow logically, much like the narrative for a novel.

In the old days, we used notecards for this.

Now we have computers that make the work much easier.

Step 4: Check that you site all the information that you quoted from other sources with parenthetical citations.

Parenthetical citations are where you recognise the authors of the text, statistics, etc. that you use in your report.

You must cite your sources when using the following kinds of material, in whole or in part:

  1. Direct quotations.
  2. Paraphrased and reconstructed quotations. (Quotations of which you changed the original wording somewhat.)
  3. Statistical data.
  4. Images made by someone else.
  5. Song lyrics.
  6. Original ideas that belong to someone else.

We will discuss referencing methods in a future post.

Step 5: Write your introduction.

The introduction normally has two parts:

  1. A general introduction to the topic of your research.
  2. Your research statement.

Step 6: Write your conclusion.

You will conclude after you have done the literature study and fieldwork.

Through the conclusions you should:

  1. Create an impression with the reader that the work is complete and well done.
  2. Show that the research project has been brought to a logical and realistic end.
  3. Show that you have made a positive contribution to the field of your study.

You can restate your research statement, question or hypothesis here.

You can also summarise your main points of evidence here.

Step 7: Create a title page.

I already discussed the title page in a separate post on writing a title page and in the post on structuring your research report.

You can prepare the title page at any stage while doing your research and writing your report.

Reviewing your draft report

You can and probably will submit chapters or perhaps just sections that your study leader would like to see from time to time.

However, do not submit what you might regard as a final product unless you feel proud of the work that you did.

You should feel confident that your study leader will be satisfied with your work, so much so that you are looking forward to his or her feedback.

And even though you might expect to be showered with praise, you need to realise that the opposite might still happen. Be prepared for what you might regard as cruel, unfair and unnecessary criticism.

This is when you will need to show character. Now is the time when you will need to show that you can persevere.

Do not blame your study leader for not being as impressed with your work as you are. Listen, or read, the feedback carefully and give yourself time to think about the feedback, absorb it and to decide how you can benefit from the disappointment.

You can and should pre-empt negative feedback by evaluating and correcting your work even before your study leader tells you to do so.

Here are eight questions that you can ask of your work to find opportunities for improvement:

  1. Is it necessary to introduce new material, data, ideas, and thinking? If yes, then find the additional content and include it.
  2. Did you include arguments or information in your research report that adds no value because it is not relevant to the purpose of your research? If so, remove such padding from your report.
  3. Is there data or arguments that you included early in your report that later proved to be outdated or irrelevant?
  4. Is there more recent and relevant data or arguments in a later chapter or chapters? Remove obsolete data and arguments.
  5. Can you find any cognitive mistakes in any of your arguments, conclusions, assumptions or recommendations? If so, remove the errors or correct them.
  6. Is the structure of your chapters or sections in chapters erratic? Good software, such as ATLAS.Ti can often solve the problem. Sometimes logical thinking can also do wonders for the flow of your report.
  7. Did you respond negatively, aggressively or immaturely to feedback from your study leader, assistant study leader or perhaps even one or more external examiners? Apologise and thank them for their assistance. Correct your errors and inform them how you used their feedback to improve your work.
  8. Did you repeat theoretical data, arguments, etc. in your report? Even simple office software, like Microsoft Word, can find the repetition of sentences if you suspect that you repeated a statement and ask the software to find it.
  9. Did you, at any stage while writing your report, use a research method or paradigm incorrectly? It can happen that you “drifted” from one research method or paradigm to different, more suitable ones. This is not always wrong, but if the research methods or paradigmatic approaches contradict one another you will need to correct the error.  

Probably all research topics on a doctoral level are of such a nature that the perfectionist will never be satisfied with the report. There will always be something that needs improvement.

You must draw the line somewhere, even if the temptation to just do this and that might be strong.

Summary

The structure that you will prepare when you start with your research is already a first draft.

You can use the seven steps that I discussed to prepare your first draft.

You will end up writing and saving many versions of your research report until you reach the point where you are satisfied that you have achieved the purpose of your research project.

You can and should review and improve your draft report intuitively by correcting flaws when you identify them.

You can improve your product further by asking and answering the nine questions that I discussed.

Don’t become trapped in a never-ending process of review and further research.

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