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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