Writing your dissertation methodology

What is a methodology?

The methodology section should appear immediately after your literature review and flow naturally from it. You will have established your research question, and reviewed the work of other scholars on the topic. You will also have dissertationmethodology.com reviewed how other scholars arrived at their conclusions, including the assumptions they made, the theoretical frameworks they used, and the methods they used to collect, marshal, and present their data. These observations will be used to help you plan your research. These could include planning how you will gather data, what models you’ll use, or which philosophical views best inform your work. Your dissertation methodology is a detailed description of how you will approach your dissertation and the reasons you chose to do so.
How should my method look?

Your methodology should establish a clear connection between your research question and the scholarship in your field you have reviewed as part of your literature search, and how you will arrive at your conclusions. No matter the subject you are working in, your methodology section should include the following:

Your research question(s), summarized

Justifying your method is essential to justify it. When introducing your method, you should briefly summarize the key questions that you are trying to answer. However, this does not have to be a complete recap. You might also want to rephrase the problem to make it more compatible with your literature review and your methodology.
Description of your design/method

Although this is the core of your methodology, it is not a methodology in and of itself. This section of your methodology explains how you gather and analyse data or approach your research question. It should be clear enough for another scholar to be able read and apply it outside of the context of your dissertation. Your reader should be able understand the theory you offer and then apply it to other texts or problems. Your reader should be able to reproduce your scientific experiment in a laboratory if you are describing it. After reading the methodology section, you should be able for your reader to apply the new statistical model to their data.
Your background and reasoning for your design selection

It’s not just about how you chose your method. It also discusses why you choose it and the reasons you think it will produce the best results, most insightful analysis and conclusions, or offer the most unique perspective. Your literature review will be part of your methodology. This will present your choices as well as your research findings, but also show innovation and creativity. It is important that your rationale for the method you choose is clearly related to your research problem. Your reader should know that your chosen methodology is thoughtful and tailored to the questions that you are trying to answer.
A review of the method you chose and a description of its limitations

There are no perfect research methods. It is possible that your chosen one has some trade-offs. For example, you might have selected a smaller number of interviews to get the individual views of the interviewees about the problem. This is because you are more likely to gain valuable information from them than you would from a larger collection of data on responses to the same question. This means that you have sacrificed a quantitative approach that could have provided valuable insights. Be open and honest, but not apologetic, about the limitations of the method you choose. Then, be prepared to explain why it is the best for your needs.

Although the structure of your methodology section will be the same regardless of the discipline you are in, details can vary depending on what subject you are studying. Let’s look at the most popular types of dissertation and what information is required for each methodology section.
There are several types of dissertation methodology.

A scientific study
For a scientific study, the methodology section must emphasize rigour and reproducibility. The reader must see that your methods are robust and have no apparent flaws in their execution or design. Not only should you include information about your equipment, laboratory setup, and method to enable another researcher to replicate your method, but you must also show that you have considered any variables that could distort your data (for instance, false positives in your design) and have a plan for dealing with these.

You should include justifications and details about the statistical models that you will use to analyse your data in your methodology. A scholar may use any part of your methodology to start their own research. They might choose to follow your experiment design, but use a different method for analysing the results.

Study in the social and behavioural sciences
A social or behavioral sciences methodology must be able to replicate your study either in its entirety or in part, just as a scientific study. There are many additional questions that must be considered due to the complexity of working on human subjects. You’ll need to answer some basic questions about the type of analysis that you are undertaking. Is it quantitative or qualitative? Or a mixed approach that uses quantitative data to provide context and background (or vice versa). Are you going to be recording interviews with your subjects? Or will you ask them to fill out a questionnaire or observe them doing some other activity? Will you do your own research using human subjects? Or will your research be based on pre-existing evidence or documentary evidence? Is your data and conclusion broad? Are there reasons to believe that it can be applied to other contexts or is it very specific to the context or location in which your research was conducted?

You must answer all of these questions and also show your reader that your research has considered ethical issues. This includes obtaining approval from the relevant ethics bodies for your design. However, there may be aspects of your research – such as inviting participants to experience grief or trauma or discussing culturally sensitive issues within a specific target group – that readers might find problematic or contentious. These concerns should be addressed head-on. If necessary, justify your methods by highlighting the potential value of your findings.

A critical dissertation in the arts and humanities
In the arts and humanities, methodological rigour can be just as important as in the sciences or social sciences. The way you communicate this rigour and convince your audience is different if you are writing an arts or humanities thesis. An arts or humanities dissertation’s methodology section will likely be more closely related to the literature review than a social science or scientific study. Even the most innovative dissertations in the arts and humanities often involve applying X’s theories to a new context or combining X with Y’s insights in order to create a new theoretical framework. It can be tempting to skip the methodology section of an arts or humanities dissertation and just move on to analysis. It is important that you explain your frameworks and their relationship to your research question in this section. Without this, a critical reader could be skeptical of your whole analysis.

It is vital that your dissertation methodology reflects an understanding of the cultural and historical contexts of the theoretical frameworks used, particularly where there is fundamental disagreement. Your methodology section should explain why you have chosen to use certain aspects of each school of thought, and give an explanation of why you used them in your work.

A creative arts dissertation
Many arts programmes offer the possibility of completing a creative dissertation, which is a shorter, more focused piece of writing or portfolio of artworks. In almost all cases, however, your creative project must include a substantial critical essay or introduction that discusses your creative practice. It is not easy to critically engage with your own work. This makes it crucial to follow a strict methodology. It is important to show that you can detach yourself from your creative work and see it objectively. You also need to demonstrate that your creative practice can be viewed as a methodology, which means that you can create work that is grounded and researched and can be compared against specific goals.

What should my methodology not include?

Your dissertation should not be sealed off from any other part. There will be overlaps between your methodology section and your literature review section. Sometimes, you might find yourself shifting material between sections during editing. You should not include the following in your dissertation method, even though they may seem natural:

A thorough review of all methodologies

As you write your own method, it’s likely that you will refer to precedents and the work of theorists and practitioners. This is not the right place to review all of the methodologies that you don’t use. That work belongs in your literature chapter. You should refer back there for context about why you are using (or not using) that approach.
Extensive procedural detail or lengthy, detailed equipment lists

The methodology section should be useful for readers to reproduce your research. However, it should also be a chapter in your dissertation that is readable and retains the reader’s attention. You can communicate all information that a scholar will need to reproduce your work in your dissertation’s body if you feel it is possible. However, if your methodology section looks like a shopping list, then you might consider moving some of the more detailed content to an appendix.
Raw data

Even if you are illustrating how a questionnaire works, the methodology section is not the right place to reproduce data. You can also place this information in an appendix so that you can refer to it.

Deciding on your methodology

You may have some ideas in mind about the method you want to use when you start your dissertation. These ideas will be refined by your supervisor, as well as further developed through reading about other research in the field and from other scholars. You may already be familiar with the various theoretical positions and schools in your field. If you are completing a postgraduate thesis, you might have an idea of which schools you identify most with (and those that you don’t). Writing an undergraduate dissertation may be your first attempt at categorizing literature into distinct schools of thought.

No matter your level of education, your dissertation method will evolve as you examine the literature and refine your initial research questions. The literature review and the methodology will develop together. The literature review will guide you in your decision making process. However, your methodology will be established by the time that you have completed your literature review. This means that your methodology can be framed so that it is a natural, organic, and natural progression of your field survey. Your methodology will not be determined solely by which schools or modes of inquiry appeal to you the most. There are likely to also practical considerations that will influence how you approach your problem. If you don’t have access to a university particle accelerator, your quantum physics project is likely to be based on theoretical projections and not physical experimental data.
What is the secret to a great method?

This question is dependent on whether your dissertation is an undergraduate or postgraduate one. An undergraduate dissertation gives students the chance to learn more about scholarship and design and execute a rigorous research project. You must be able to engage in a wide range of research and to synthesize different approaches to a problem. Then, you will need to design a research project to address your research questions at the appropriate level of scholarship. A successful undergraduate dissertation will require you to be able to synthesize the knowledge you have gained from experts in your field and create a method that can be used to answer your research question. While the best undergraduate dissertations will show originality and be able make a contribution to their fields, the main focus of a successful dissertation will be to demonstrate that you are able to perform basic research in your field.

Postgraduate dissertations, on the other hand, are expected to contribute substantial, high-quality research to their field. Postgraduate dissertations that are of high quality will be published in leading journals or scholarly monographs. Your academic reputation will improve as you begin your early career research career. The impact of your dissertation in its field, as measured by the number of citations to other scholars’ work, will play a crucial role in your academic career. Remember that your dissertation’s value will not be determined by its conclusions or findings. The field’s importance will be determined by how many scholars engage with it. While some scholars might cite your conclusions in their work, others will likely cite them as an example. However, it is possible to generate a greater number of citations (regardless what discipline) by creating a framework that other scholars can draw from for their own work. Your work will be valued by other scholars if it is original and grounded in research. Your work may be influenced by their own. They might use your methodology with a different set of data to challenge your findings. Or they might take your method and put it into a new context.

Postgraduate dissertations that impress at all levels are the best. They are built on rigorous engagement in the field, provide reproducible frameworks for engaging that field, and deliver convincing results and conclusions. The methodology is what the dissertation and its potential impact on the field revolves around. You should consider how your dissertation methodology can answer your specific question. But, it also needs to be transferable – can other scholars use it to answer similar questions? If it can be modified with a few tweaks, it could be even more useful (without compromising your personal use of it). When presenting your dissertation, make sure to emphasize the value of any methodological framework that you have developed, if it can be used in other contexts. If you think your research is only valuable in its final conclusions, then it’s a mistake to suggest that. The approach it takes in reaching those conclusions with your data and source material could be of equal or greater value.

Prezenting your method

As we have discussed, your dissertation methodology is the engine driving your dissertation. It must be solid, theoretically sound, and flexible enough to be used in other contexts in order to answer different research questions in your field. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that dissertations, even those with the most scientific content, are essentially pieces of persuasive writing. Their primary purpose is to convince the reader of the quality and validity of your research as well as the merits of your conclusions. The role of rhetoric in convincing your audience about the merits and value of your work is a crucial, but often overlooked component of this persuasive function. In mainstream discourse, rhetoric has been given a bad rap. Phrases such as “pure rhetoric” and “empty rhetoric”, which are used to denote superficiality and/or dishonesty, and nothing positive! But it is an essential component of all academic writing. It’s especially valuable when you are trying to convince your reader that a particular choice, such as your choice of methodology, is valid.

Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and their seminal book, “They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing”, discuss metacommentary. This is a method of commenting on claims and telling others how to think about them. This type of commentary can help you control the discussion about your work and avoid potential objections. A sound rhetorical presentation of your methodology can be more than “decoration”. It is an integral part of the overall structure and rigour of your work and can mean the difference between a 2:2 and a 1:3. These are just a few of the many ways you can use metacommentary in order to influence your audience’s reaction to your methodology.

The roads not taken
Most likely, the approach you chose to answer your research question was one of many possible approaches. You probably read or engaged with many different approaches in your literature review, but you ultimately decided to not take them. Although your methodology chapter should not go into great detail about each of these methods (hopefully, your literature review will do this), you should remind your readers that you considered all other approaches before making your decision. Even if your chosen methodology was decided early in the research process, it should be presented rhetorically as the result a careful evaluation of all competing factors before you made your final decision.

Reassurance can go a long ways in calming nerves.
Metacommentary can be used to correct any weaknesses in your methodology section or to create a balance between innovation and scholarly groundedness if your methodology seems to drift too far in one direction. You can acknowledge that your methodology is taking a bold step, but also make sure to emphasize its connection to existing work in the field. For example, you might refer to your literature review often and say things like “This approach may seem to be a departure from established methods to this field but it combines data-gathering techniques of X with a statistical analysis model of Y along with the following innovations.” If your methodology is largely derivative or a synthesis from what has gone before, you can use this opportunity to explain why the synthesis is unique. For example, “This project’s key innovation is not in its approach to human subjects nor in the statistical models it uses, but in the combination of theory X with approach Y to problemZ.”

Signposting
It is important to identify the purpose of each argument in your dissertation. This is especially true for the methodology section. Referring back to the literature review can help you strengthen your justification for your dissertation’s methodology. If you feel confident, you can suggest to your readers that you agree with them by using a phrase like “As we have observed, method X can be extremely useful for approaching questions related Y but less applicable to problem Z.” This approach is not recommended. Claiming that you have proved something isn’t true isn’t going to win your readers over. However, rhetorical techniques such as this can be used to highlight the structural coherence in your work if your argumentation has already been strong.

Define your terms
If you don’t set your own criteria for success or failure, your readers will be able to infer from your argument the terms it was trying succeed on and then judge your work accordingly. However, your readers will be able to evaluate your work based on your set of success criteria. Your dissertation methodology is an important space to define these criteria. However, it may be possible to adapt the methodology for similar phenomena in contexts Z and Y. You can also prevent readers from making unintended inferences by anticipating their needs. “By adopting the methodology I am not suggesting the statistical analysis of responses is a reliable predictor for X; however, I do believe that the strong correlation of Y and Z are valuable insights in themselves.”
Let’s sum it up…

Your methodology section is an essential part of your dissertation. It demonstrates both your ability to synthesize the information you have read in your field and your ability to design original research that draws on the precedents and traditions of your discipline in order to answer your research question(s).

Your results and conclusions may not be the only thing that are valuable to scholars in your field. They may also decide to adapt or use your methodology in a new context, which may be something you didn’t think of. Therefore, your dissertation methodology must be valuable in its own right and should be both reproducible and rigorous.

The methodology section is where you can justify and justify the approach you have taken to answer your research questions. It also allows you to set your criteria for project success. To ensure that your dissertation methodology’s merits, as well as those of your conclusions and results, are best presented, you should be careful with its rhetorical presentation. Students often consider adding an academic edit to the completed methodology section in order to ensure it includes all necessary steps for a high-quality submission.

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