ARTICLE 18: How to Establish Objectives for Ph. D. or Masters Degree Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


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

This would be ideal. However, creating and 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.

The challenge is somewhat less in the case of a thesis for a master’s degree.

Even though you will not be required to develop new knowledge, theories, processes, etc. on master’s degree level, you will still need to conduct scientific research.

Therefore, study leaders and universities sometimes accept a dissertation or thesis because the students showed that they can do academic research on the postgraduate level.

Often universities accept a dissertation or thesis 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.

Even though master’s degree students are not required to develop new knowledge and theory, they should still follow the research steps that I describe here to analyze and gain an understanding of complex theory, philosophy and practice.

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 five elements are closely linked to your choice of research approach, research methods, paradigmatic approach, data collection methods, sampling methods, and data collection instruments.

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.

You will probably follow a quantitative approach when measuring something.

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

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

  • To test something.

You will probably also follow a quantitative approach when testing something.

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.

You will probably follow a quantitative approach when doing calculations.

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 virus are examples of such calculations.

  • To compare.

You will most likely follow a quantitative approach to compare people, artefacts, etc.

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 to different places, times, etc.

  • To understand a real-world problem.

Understanding real-world problems mostly require following a qualitative approach.

It is used to understand any threat to the well-being and survival of people.

  • To build knowledge and theory.

Building knowledge and theory will mostly require making use of a qualitative approach.

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

  • To develop interventions or programmes.

You will probably follow a qualitative approach to develop interventions or programmes.

Development might need to be measured, though.

  • To evaluate something.

Evaluation can require a quantitative or qualitative research approach.

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.

Informing a larger study will mostly require a qualitative approach.

The larger study will probably be broken down into several small projects, each with its own objectives.

  1. To identify.

Identifying people or phenomena will mostly require making use of a qualitative approach.

  1. To explore.

Exploration will mostly be done through a qualitative approach.

Exploring phenomena or events is pretty much like a detective who would seek answers or causes of events.

  1. To describe.

You will use a qualitative approach to describe something.

Here the biggest challenge is to achieve accuracy and validity.

  1. To explain.

An explanation will require a qualitative approach.

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

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


The purpose of your research will be the 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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ARTICLE 13: How to Write the First Chapter of Your Thesis or Dissertation.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Most universities will allow you to choose a name for your first chapter.

It can simply be “Introduction”.

You can also choose a more descriptive name of the contents of the chapter, for example, “Contextualising the Study.”

Some universities might even allow you to insert a Preface before your first chapter.

You should check with the university first before you add a separate preface to your thesis or dissertation.

I will share a few thoughts on the preface near the end of this post for the sake of clarity.

Each chapter in your thesis or dissertation should have its own introduction, but that is not what I will discuss here, so don’t get confused.

Writing the first chapter is the launchpad for writing a thesis or dissertation.

It points the writing process in the direction it should go and lay out what your research project should achieve.

The following are possible headings for your first chapter:

  1. Introduction. It might be confusing if you include an introduction to a chapter called “Introduction”, but that should not be a serious problem.

You can discuss the following issues in the introduction:

  1. Your problem statement, problem question or hypothesis.
  2. Clarify the problem statement, question or hypothesis.
  3. Background information on the field in which the study will be conducted.
  4. You should narrow the wider scope (the background information) down to a viable target group or target area.
  5. Explain why the problem or hypothesis is important.
  6. Introduce and develop the topic for your research.
  7. Introduce the title for your thesis or dissertation.
  8. Statement of objectives
    1. Break the purpose down into objectives and objectives into sub-objectives or tasks.
    1. This breakdown can be useful when you need to prepare questions for interviews or questionnaires that you intend to send to members of your target group.
  9. Definition of related concepts
    1. Concepts and words are often understood and used differently by different academics.
    1. It will often be impossible to determine what the right meanings are.
    1. Therefore, do your homework to determine as accurately as you possibly can what the concepts and words that you will use mean and then explain how you will use them.
  10. The motivation for the study
    1. You need to explain why you wish to investigate the problem of your choice.
  11.  Current knowledge of the problem
    1. Most universities will not even allow you to enroll for doctoral or master studies if you cannot show that you have enough prior knowledge of the topic of your research.  
  12. Potential benefits of the research
    1. You need to explain who will benefit from your research as well as how they will benefit.
    1. This can be integrated with your motivation for the study.
  13. Ethical issues
    1. You need to conduct your research and write your report in a manner that will be acceptable to any reasonable person and that does not transgress any legislation, rules or regulations.
    1. The university will require you to confirm in writing that this is the case.
  14. The structure of your study
    1. The structure of your research will depend on the university requirements, the research approach, research methods, paradigms, data collection methods and data analysis methods that you will use.
    1. Your personal style will also play a role.
  15. Summary of Chapter 1
    1. Each of your chapters needs to have an introduction and a summary.
    1. You can add conclusions and recommendations that you gained from the chapter here.
    1. Cutting and pasting sections from the body of the chapter is not a summary – it is an extract.
    1. The summary should not contain new information.
    1. It will, therefore, be unlikely that you will acknowledge sources in the summary.
    1. You should summarise the chapter in such a way that all the important facts and arguments are given in a concise manner.

The preface

Some universities will allow you to include a preface before your first chapter.

You will probably only write the preface after the thesis or dissertation has been completed.

Or you can write the preface while you are writing the rest of your report.

A preface is usually a combination of disparate elements, necessary for the clarification of aspects of the work, but not necessarily concerned with the development of the argument.

Some claim that a good preface consists of three distinct parts – a general presentation of the research problem, the purpose of the research, and stating your position in terms of your capacity and limitations to do the research.

All of this can also be included in the first chapter.

Be careful of not using the preface to rationalize.

Do not use the preface to make excuses for not submitting quality work. If that is the case, no preface can save you – your study leader and external examiners will see that your work is not up to standard.

You may wish or need to supply information on the historical or literary background of your research topic, intellectual climate and biographical material relevant to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the research material.

Do not use the preface to put the blame for your challenges on your family, your employer, study leader, the university, the world.


The first chapter of your thesis or dissertation prepares the reader for the scientific argumentation and evaluation of the information that you will gather and analyse.

You should use the first chapter to contextualise your study.

It explains the importance of your research topic, how you will investigate the problem or hypothesis that you formulated, the area and target group for your research and what your research project should achieve.

Although you will need to show what you expect to achieve, you need to guard against showing that you have already decided what the results of your research will be.

You need to be objective and conduct research with an open mind.

Some universities will allow you to include a preface before your first chapter. The best way to write a preface is to write it while you write your thesis or dissertation.

Go back to the preface when you think of something that you desperately need to write but that does not fit into the structure and layout of your thesis or dissertation.

Do not use the preface for anything that might damage your end-product. 

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