ARTICLE 74: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Applying Techniques for Collecting Data

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Data collection is at the same time a simple and complex task.

The data that is available on most topics is often vast.

And because there is so much data available, students sometimes spoil their research at this early stage already.

Because they tend to accept any books that they find in the library by searching for key words on computer and in the library referencing system.

And they would accept what people who claim to be experts or people with master’s degrees or Ph. D’s tell them.

It does not matter what the topic of the interviewee’s thesis or dissertation dealt with.

If they have the qualifications their opinions are jam-packed with wisdom and truth.

I discuss applying data collection techniques in this article.

The different research methods provide alternative, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, frameworks for thinking about and planning research projects. In addition to this there are four main data collection methods that can be used with all the main approaches, namely documents, interviews, observation and questionnaires. In this respect four characteristics of documentary evidence are important, namely content, social construction, how recent the documents are, and documents in networks.

The study of content. Documents are used as sources of information when content is studied. Diaries, written life histories and letters can be significant sources of data. In everyday life documents are often records of naturally occurring social events. In addition to this, bureaucratic offices routinely produce rich textual data in the form of medical reports, minutes of meetings, planning documents, memoranda, emails, etc.

When reading the contents of a document, you need to interpret and evaluate the written words. Interpretation will invariably be subjective and different researchers can interpret the same document differently. That is why you need to validate the interpretation of data. This can be done by calling upon many other sources of information, often through a process of triangulation. 

The social construction of documents and records. You can also approach research material as data to be drawn and used as facts. The analysis of statistical reports in the form of tables or graphs or both is an example of using records as facts from which we can come to certain conclusions. The production of ‘realities’ from data requires a source, for example statistical reports, rules and technical instructions according to which the data can be analysed and interpreted and grouped. A simple example would be a group of students (the data source) that are grouped into those who are good at athletics, music, mathematics, etc. (according to certain rules for grouping, which can be as simple as asking student what their interests are).  

Documents in use. Studying documents that are in use have the advantages that they are recent and mostly provide data in a context that is relevant to the purpose of the research. Such documents are often used to manage projects, for example building plans for a bridge, and as a means of communication between role players in a project.

Documents in networks. Documents often make a big difference to social arrangements and interaction. We have all experienced how a speech can influence the way in which people behave. Documents can also make a difference to the way in which people behave. Marketing, for example, utilise this ability of documents to influence people to establish or increase the demand for a product or service.

Documents can enable us to perform better and safer. Aircraft pilots use documents to check if they are taking off and landing safely. Educators use evaluation check lists to ensure that they offer quality learning. Exam papers are used to check if students meet the requirements for promotion or certification.

Actor-network theory (ANT) supports the idea that documents can function as actors.  ANT theory claims that data plays an important role in almost all human activities, including politics, economics, technology, sociology, etc.


Most researchers use reading documents, interviews, observation and questionnaires to collect data for research.

All data that we collect must be validated.

Documents are mostly used to obtain and study context.

Records can be used as facts from which conclusions can be gathered.

Documents that are still in use provide recent data in a context that is relevant to the purpose of the research.

Documents can influence people’s behaviour and they can enable people to perform better and safer.

Data plays an important role in most human activities.

Interviews, observation and questionnaires deserve special attention.

Therefore, I will discuss them in a series of videos dedicated to each separately.


I hope that, having watched this video, you at least realise that you need to plan and execute data collection for research with great care.

You must plan your data collection carefully.

You must know what you are looking for.

You must have a good reason or reasons why you accept every data source that you use in your thesis or dissertation.

You must know what you are hoping to achieve with every piece of data that you use.

False or irrelevant data can do serious damage to your research.

Don’t even accept what I share in my videos without corroborating my advice.

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ARTICLE 11: The Table of Contents of your Thesis or dissertation

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I discuss the layout of a table of contents for a thesis or dissertation in this article. In the beginning, the table of contents will be more a structure for a table of contents than a final one.

You will probably have decided which chapters to include in your report, but you will have only one or two lower-level headings. Also, you might need to add a small number of chapters as you progress with your research.

The table of contents should follow directly after the authentication of your work.

Once you have written your thesis or dissertation, you will probably delete the provisional structure for a table of content and replace it with the chapters, headings and sub-headings of your final thesis or dissertation. Keep in mind that your table of contents must not differ from the chapters, headings and sub-headings in your thesis or dissertation.

At the end of your table of contents, you should also have the references that you consulted, a list of figures and a list of tables.

Universities are mostly flexible about the structure of a table of contents for a thesis on the master’s degree level. There are certain chapters and topics that you must cover in the dissertation for a Ph. D.

Also, keep in mind that the thesis for a master’s degree is a good opportunity to practice for when you will write the dissertation for a Ph. D. It will not be wrong to follow the structure of a dissertation when writing the report on the master’s degree level.

Here is a list of the most basic headings that most universities will expect you to discuss in your dissertation:

  1. Title page.
  2. Confirmation of authenticity.
  3. Acknowledgments.
  4. Abstract.
  5. Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study.
  6. Chapter 2: Research Methodology.
  7. Chapter 3: Theoretical Background.
  8. Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis.
  9. Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study.
  10. References.
  11. List of Figures.
  12. List of Tables.

The title page. I already discussed the title page, sometimes also called the cover page, in a previous article (article 5). Just take note that this is where it will fit into your thesis or dissertation.

Confirmation of authenticity. You will be required by the university to confirm that the contents of your thesis or dissertation are your own. Most universities, if not all, use a standard format for such confirmation.

Here is an example:

“I, (your full names and surname) declare that (the title of your thesis or dissertation) is my own work and that all the sources that I have used or quoted have been indicated and acknowledged by means of complete references.

(Your signature)


Acknowledgments. Acknowledgments are a matter of choice.

However, it is only good manners to thank people who helped you with your research.

The acknowledgment has real value for your research, though.

  1. It shows the readers of your report that you conducted your research in a systematic, ethical and disciplined manner.
  2. It shows that you understand that research should not be done by one person only.

Abstract. The abstract is a mandatory summary of your thesis or dissertation. Not all universities will require you to write an abstract for a thesis. The abstract must be short – you will be required to summarise your thesis or dissertation in three or four pages.

Some readers, for example, your sponsors, might read only the abstract. Therefore, you will need to ensure that you cover all the questions that they might have.

Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study. Researchers making use of technicist research methods often claim that their findings and the principles and concepts that they develop are timeless and that it applies independently of context.

Even they, however, need to define the range and scope of their research – they will not be able to include the entire world, let alone the entire universe, in their research projects.

Chapter 2: Research Methodology. In this chapter you will discuss:

  1. The research approach that you will use.
  2. The research methods that you will use.
  3. The paradigmatic approaches that you will follow.
  4. The data collection methods that you will use.
  5. How you will analyse the data that you collect.

Chapter 3: Theoretical Background. You will probably need to do a literature study as a foundation for your research. It would be rather difficult to jump into data collection and the analysis of data if you do not know what you should be looking for.

Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis. You already discussed the data collection and analysis methods that you will use in Chapter 2 of your dissertation. Here you will need to discuss the actual processes of data collection and analysis. This is a critically important chapter and might even be broken down into two or three separate chapters. It is from the contents of this chapter that you will come to conclusions and findings from which to develop a solution to the problem that you investigated.

Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study. Chapter 5 will normally be your final chapter. This is where you will describe your solution. Depending on the purpose of your research and the research approach and methods that you used, you might develop a model, new knowledge, new methods to combat oil pollution at sea, new medication, and many more.

References. All sources that you consulted must be acknowledged in your thesis or dissertation.

Universities invariably have prescriptions in this regard, and you should abide by them.

I will discuss referencing formats in a future article.

List of Figures and List of Tables. The lists of figures and tables follow directly after the table of contents.

One can regard it as part of the table of contents.

The figure and table numbers in the lists must be the same as in the content of the thesis or dissertation.

Different universities have different requirements for the layout and format of the lists of figures and tables, although most are flexible in this respect.


Your provisional table of contents will probably be just a structure, consisting of chapters with no lower-level headings.

Your actual and final table of contents must align exactly with the contents of your thesis or dissertation.

I will discuss the abstract, chapters, references, lists of figures and tables in more detail in separate articles following on this one.

Good luck with your studies and stay healthy and safe.

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