Planning your Dissertation Part 5: 'Dissertation Methods' by Roy Horn

Choosing a method to investigate your dissertation area is exciting, engaging, and fun. It seems like, finally, you are making progress. In this euphoria of motivation, the necessary critical elements can be forgotten.

The Methodology Section
It is important to write a section in your dissertation that deals with methodology. Methodology can be usefully thought of as an organized critical discussion of the principles and methods of a subject area. Principles can be regarded as the underlying philosophy of the research. Methods and practices of a discipline must be discussed, critiqued, and evaluated. All dissertations should have a section that sets out these underlying philosophical principles and should develop a critical discussion of appropriate methods.

Quantitative or Qualitative
As soon as your start this discussion, you will have to address the most fundamental of decisions: will your research be quantitative or qualitative? In broad terms, that often soon becomes a smudged distinction. If you are collecting data on how many things or how often things occur in a participant group, you are doing a quantitative dissertation. If you are collecting less structured opinions, thoughts, or behaviors in order to understand the meaning, you are conducting a qualitative dissertation.

Many, many dissertations are conducted each year using quantitative survey methods. If you search Twitter with the word dissertation, you will soon find many examples of online surveys. It is worth participating in some of these to understand the approach and how they can be structured.

SNAP and Survey Monkey provide free software and host your survey. There are many others! Don’t forget you can target the audience that takes your survey more effectively in a paper-administered survey. However, on-line surveys have a distinct advantage in that the data entry is done by the participant and the analysis is done by the software. If you need more extensive analysis, you can export the data into SPSS (survey analysis software) or a spreadsheet.

Interviews are generally classified as a qualitative method for gathering data. An interview tends to display the following attributes:

  • It is exploratory in nature.
  • It uses natural, existing, settings and contexts.
  • It is interested in meanings, perceptions, understandings.
  • The research focus is often on processes, not outputs.
  • It uses induction for the analysis of data.
  • It produces specific rather than generalised data.
  • Research findings are specific to the context.

There are many variations and combinations of methods available that can create unique approaches to dissertation research. For more detail on methods and methodology, check out my book Researching and Writing Dissertations (2009), Roy Horn, CIPD: London, pages 107:140.

All dissertations must address the issue of ethics. It is important to consult your university regulations regarding the ethical standards of conducting research. These will be unique to the institution, but some general areas must be considered.

The main aim of ethical standards and the issues highlighted here are that your research should DO NO HARM! It is preferable for your research to do some good. The methodology section must set out the detail and argument of an ethical case for your research. It must weigh up the potential good against the possible harm. There are special rules for carrying out research with children or those who cannot give informed consent – if your research involves either of these groups, you must discuss it fully with your supervisor.

You must get the informed consent of each participant in the study. This need not be too arduous, but you must provide clear information and give each participant the right to walk away! Potential participants have the right to a clear understanding of the research.

Research Information Sheets are often used that set out:

  • the title of the study
  • the purpose of the study
  • why the participant was selected for the study
  • a description of procedures, the purpose, the length of time required and how participants will be involved
  • a statement of any likely inconveniences expected
  • the possible risks to the participants and details of any support mechanisms
  • the possible benefits to the participants and society
  • details of any payments, prize draws, feedback from the study
  • how confidentiality, anonymity and privacy will be maintained
  • the right of participants to refuse to participate or to withdraw at any time for any reason
  • contact details of the university ethics group, and the researcher
  • details of the care, use and storage of the data collected from the study
  • the signature of the researcher and the participant.

As you can see ethics is not to be taken lightly but these aspects are easily covered by a clear Research Information Sheet and by obtaining a signature of consent for each person.

Finally, use Tom’s Planner to develop the timescale of the dissertation. Tom’s planner is quick and easy to learn and use and will be crucial to the success of your dissertation. Conducting the data collection often spreads over a long period of time, so it will be worth planning the various steps using Tom’s Planner.  See the link for an example of Tom’s Planner setup with the methodology actions highlighted.

In the last blog, I will look at how to analyze the data you have collected.

Get a head start on your dissertation by using this templateand start planning now! This schedule will save you lots of time and energy.

Roy Horn is an academic at Buckinghamshire New University in the UK and tutors dissertation students. He has written two books one on dissertations and one on skills.

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