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 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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