Research proposals generally consist of three main sections: (1) the introduction, where you spell out your purpose and research questions; (2) the literature review, where you provide a synopsis of the most relevant literature related to your topic; and (3) the methodology section in which you explain how you will go about answering your research question. Although the format of this document differs depending on the guidelines or rules of your institution, all research proposals contain these elements.
The methodology section of your proposal is extremely important. It answers the ‘how’ question of your research and this is where you develop your technical competency as a researcher. When you are done with your project you will be able to say that you are competent in the methodology you used.
In this post, I write about the ‘how’ section or the methodology section of your proposal. There is a technical distinction between a ‘methods’ section and a ‘methodology’ section (you can read more about this distinction in this post). As the purpose of this post is to discuss some of the practical considerations of the methodology section, rather than to debate the technical differences between these two, I will generally refer to the overall section as the ‘methodology’ and the tools you will use in your research as the ‘methods’.
Your methodology organisation should reflect your chosen methods
I find that the way in which students design their proposals is often related to the specific expertise which is available within the institution where they are registered. Some schools or departments have a strong focus on qualitative (or quantitative if you’re studying marketing) primary data methods, as these are the types of methods that many of their academics use to conduct their own research. Consequently, there will be a large focus on data collection. In many economics departments, where use is made of secondary quantitative data, you might not find a data collection section, and the data analysis section will be very detailed.
However, what I have also found is that in multidisciplinary schools, students often find it difficult to design this part of their proposals, given the large range of methods and expertise available in their departments or schools. It consequently becomes difficult to use a templated version of the proposal, as one template will not necessarily work for every type of project undertaken.
In such instances, it is incumbent on the student to recognise the sections needed and where emphasis is needed in the methodology section; bearing in mind word count limitations. If you will not be collecting primary data, then there is no need to write two pages about your data sources, however, you may need to place more emphasis on the analysis section. Alternatively, if your study is a systematic review or meta-analysis, then the secondary data collection process will form an important part of the validity of your results. You would thus need to provide more detail on how you will go about conducting your review.
The point: You need to craft your proposal to suit your project and try and steer away from blindly following templates.
Don’t be scared to try something new
Often students will work backwards, choosing their methodology and then crafting a research question to suit their preferred method. While this works in some exceptional instances, one should generally steer away from doing so. You should technically choose your research question first and based on that decide on the most appropriate methodology to use.
An important factor to remember when writing your methodology is that undertaking your research project is part of your training as a researcher, and most jobs in the labour market require some research skills. Many students feel like they want to take the path of least resistance when doing their research. But as a researcher, I can safely say that the best time to try new things is actually when you have the firm hand of a supervisor guiding you. This is also how you learn; through application.
The above does apply within reason, though. If you have never done any sort of econometrics or statistics, it’s probably not the best time to attempt complex panel data models, but nothing should stop you from designing a quantitative study with a relatively manageable model; especially if you have a supervisor with the relevant expertise.
The point: Don’t be afraid to try new things. This is part of your learning journey.
Practical details are often left out
A great, but often overlooked, purpose of your methodology is to demonstrate that your project is feasible. This will be judged by the amount of time you have to complete your research (scope of your project), the methods you are proposing (your expertise as a researcher), and any resources you may need to successfully complete your project.
Let’s unpack each of these briefly:
The scope of the project really refers to whether the ‘amount’ of work you are proposing is suitable for the type of degree you are registered. The scope of a PhD project will be very different to that of an honours project. Similarly, there may be differences between an honours level project and a 50% master’s research report. You need to ensure that the scope of your project is not too wide, but that it is also sufficient for the level of study you are currently at.
We just discussed not being scared of trying new things, but certain methods may require that you acquire new skills during your research journey. This will be dependent on your current skill level in the proposed methodology at the time of presenting your proposal for approval, as well as the amount of work that will be required to learn new skills.
For instance, if you need to do an entire semester module to learn a new research skill, but you also only have 6 months left to complete your research, your proposed methodology might not be feasible unless you can demonstrate that there is some other way that you can up-skill yourself in a shorter period of time. If you have a few more years to completion, you could easily demonstrate that your methodology can be done.
People often do not consider the resources needed to complete a particular project. This is where the timeline and budget become an integral part of the proposal, although I often find that people tend to treat these two items as an afterthought.
The timeline in your proposal demonstrates that the project can be completed within a given amount of time, while the budget shows how much money you will need for your project, and you can also hash out where your funding might come from. If you need R15 000 for your proposed methodology and you have no plans to try and find the money, the project becomes potentially unworkable.
The point: Try and think about the details as far as you can, this will allow for a smoother research journey.
The upside to doing the methodology section right and acing it in your research is that you would have learnt a new skill and will confidently be able to say that you are competent in your acquired skill. But you have to try and write a section that is as detailed as possible to minimise any hiccups when you get into your data collection and/or analysis processes.