Last month Daisy, Roxanne and Oriana shared how they approached choosing and narrowing down their research topics. This month they discuss how they have begun to navigate the tricky landscape of methodology, methods and research approaches in their respective disciplines. Again, as well as sharing their experiences and the very real ups and downs of undertaking a project, Roxanne, Oriana and Daisy will share their tips and lessons learned.
Before we begin, we just want to plug the excellent Library resource SAGE Research Methods, a methods library providing books, reference works, journal articles, and instructional videos by academics from across the social sciences and The Final Chapter resource from Skills@Library with a section devoted to research methods and methodology.
As part of your project, you will need to read a few papers to understand the basis of your research topic and the approach taken to analyse your data. Through reading about similar studies to your own, it will give you an idea on how to begin your project. Personally, I used a paper on the topic of my project to understand what information I needed to attain from the experimental data that I was given. From this, I could then form my own analysis of the data using Python to compare my own data with the study’s. It’s always scary to look at a scientific paper and more of the Greek alphabet than English. I have experienced this many times when researching and revising- but it’s important not to let this put you off!
For my project, my supervisor gave our group a paper on weak localisation (a foundational topic in the project) to read. Coming back from a summer away from quantum mechanics and condensed matter, I panicked when I first looked at his recommended paper. I wasn’t prepared to face the new formulas and overly long, complicated words. However, I have through my physics journey learnt and been taught how best to read scientific papers. Here is what I learnt…
- Start by looking at the abstract and conclusion
This will allow you to get a sense of the topic and contents of the paper and ease you into the theory.
- Look at the subheadings
This can help to show more about what is in the text and show which sections are important for you to read
- Read the important sections
If you know the areas that you need to learn more about for your project, read these sections first as sometimes there can be other information that is not relevant or needed for your research.
- If you are unsure of what is important, take your time to read each section
Give yourself enough time to read the paper at your own pace. I find it helpful to have breaks throughout reading as I struggle to maintain concentration to properly absorb the information.
- Look at the important graphs and formulas
These will help you to understand the applications of the theory and show important correlations. Personally, I find it helpful to skip over the formulas and mathematics in my initial read of the paper. It makes it easier to understand the formulas when you first know the theory behind them and the importance of the variables.
As the project is an independent, self-run module, it can be good practice to read around the subject, outside of just the papers you are told to read. When working with in depth theories, it can be difficult to find useful resources from google searches. A useful tip for this is to use the references section in papers you have read to attain further sources. This way, you will know that they are reputable and relevant to your research.
For the first paper I needed to read on my project, I came out of reading it confused and stressed that my project was beyond my capabilities. The high level of the physics theory behind the experimental data collected made me feel like I would not be able to understand it. I struggled with imposter syndrome. To deal with this feeling, I started to talk to the others in my project group to hear their views on the paper and project so far. This eased my mind as we all had parts of the paper that did not make sense to us. It helped to get other’s viewpoints to see if there is a better/clearer way to understand ideas.
Upon talking to my supervisor about how I was feeling, I found that he did not expect us to understand the whole paper immediately and helped me work through the initial principles covered. If you are struggling with anything it’s important to talk to others about this as the people around you want you to succeed and you are probably not the first to have these issues. From this experience, I also found that you need to lower your expectations for yourself going in to third year. It is ok to be lost and confused, especially at the start. Give yourself a break!
In summary, the papers that I have read have informed me on how to tackle my project. Through using the context and physics that I learnt in the research papers, I have been able to use the weak localisation equation to fit and analyse my data. The theory and techniques that you take away will be very specific to your project but it is important to make use of other’s methods of analysis to advise you on how you approach your own. Additionally, comparing your results with other studies will help you to gain an estimate for how accurate your analysis is. Always check your values so that you know whether you are on target!
I’m going to give you a general update first: I’m quite stuck with my dissertation at the moment. I’ve reached this icky phase of overthinking everything, including the actual direction of the dissertation topic-wise, which feels quite ironic seeing as my last piece was on ‘narrowing your topic’. I’m actually writing this whilst in Eddy B, having realised in the last couple of hours that I might have to change my research question again. If you read the last piece I wrote, I mentioned that deciding on a research question has become the bane of my life. This is, annoyingly, still the case.
The other update I have for you since then is regarding methodology. I had a meeting with my supervisor a week or so ago, where she told me my original chosen methodology couldn’t happen because of ethical issues. I wanted to go down the qualitative route and interview charity workers but, because I wanted to interview them about sensitive topics, it would take up to eight weeks to get approval. I’ve now decided to go for the desk based pathway. It’s making me quite nervous that I’m not clear on this yet to be honest, but onwards and upwards. Anyway, I’ve popped my tips that I’ve gained so far below regarding methodology:
Tip 1: Your methodology will rely on your research questions.
What you want to study and answer will define how you investigate it. Don’t worry if your research questions keep changing; I spoke to some of my flatmates (massive shout out to them for their support), who are either Masters or PhD students, for advice. Some of them said that they changed their research questions six times over the course of three months for their PhD work, and that tweaking it a lot is normal. I’m trying to take from this that it’s okay to get to that absolute height of frustration where you start to wonder if what you’re doing is even worth it, because apparently that’s unfortunately just part of the process.
Tip 2: Consider the ethical issues as early as possible
Ethical issues will also define your methodology, and if you’re struggling with your research questions the next best thing to do is weed out any ethical issues to decide your methodology. For example, are there ethical issues that will prevent you from using qualitative research methods and collecting your own primary data? Ask about the ethical process in your School early on, (for social sciences we have to fill one of these in, but I’m not sure if everyone does), and see how ethically complex your project will be. If you are required to complete an ethics approval form, you can use this as a framework- it will make you think through your whole project, and you can try and use the form for a variety of different methods to see which one is best. Keep in mind that even if you think you can’t go down the primary research route, there can be ways around it so it’s always best to speak to your supervisor first, like I had to do. This will also involve thinking about the time scale you have to work with.
Tip 3: Consult the literature
This works either way for whichever methodology you want to do. Is there enough in the literature to justify what you want to do, and how you want to do it? If you want to do a desk-based dissertation, is there enough literature that you can base that on? If you want to go down the primary data route, is there enough in the literature to justify that this is the best approach to answer your research question? Is there something in the literature that is suggesting that a mixed methods approach would be appropriate? If you can’t find much academic literature, what about policy? Is there also enough there to evaluate the policy, and back up your arguments?
Tip 4: Make a list of aims and objectives
These will help direct your methodology too – which methodology will be the most effective, and why won’t others be as effective? You can include this in your final dissertation too, in your methodology section if you have one.
Tip 5: Break down the methods process
Once you’ve decided on a route, go further. Break the route down into its different components (for this look at the resources I’ve listed at the end of this article, such as the Sage Research Methods website). For example, if you want to collect your own data then how? Interviews? If so then do you want to do structured interviews or something else, and will you do it in person or online? This is where the ethics form can also come in helpful to help you think through it. There may be more flexibility with one certain route for you.
If you decide to do some form of desk based dissertation, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of reading. I currently feel very overwhelmed with this, but apparently that’s normal. Make sure you ask your supervisor for suggestions on what to read. Also remember that desk based dissertations have various forms (which I personally found very confusing), but if your desk dissertation seems to vary dramatically to what you think a desk based dissertation should be, then double check with your supervisor.
If you do your own primary research then how will you select your participant sample? Do you have access to participants that are appropriate and in a way that’s ethical (for example, who aren’t your friends/family, and who aren’t vulnerable groups)? Again, the ethics form will help here.
Your method will influence the overall structure of your dissertation, and it will change depending on which methodology you use. Consider which one you prefer. Which one works best with the existing literature and with your research question?
Tip 6: Discuss your dissertation
Discuss your dissertation with your friends or your peers. Maybe they’ll have some ideas that you haven’t thought of that could help you with planning your methodology. I’ve found it useful to tell some people my research question and ask them how they would expect someone to research it, and then think about whether that way would be realistic.
Lastly, here are some useful resources that I’ve come across:
- I was in a Skills@Library workshop this morning where they suggested the Sage Research Methods website. It has various sections on dealing with both qualitative and quantitative data, step by step guides, videos, encyclopaedias specifically for research methods, and podcasts to help you tackle the methodology part. You should sign in using your University of Leeds login.
- Skills@Library also offer extra 1 to 1 support – you can book a face to face or online appointment here
- I’ve also found The Final Chapter website very useful. It has sections on each part of the dissertation process, and also offers example dissertations
- I’ve also found this book immensely helpful: Bryman, A. 2015 Social Research Methods (5th Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. It was also suggested to us to read: Williams, K. 2018. Planning your dissertation. London: Macmillan.
Note: your methodology options will also be dependent on which degree you are doing. For example, you might be more limited in options if you are doing a science based degree.