Pinning down the vision & objectives of your research project
I recently attended a project planning workshop for research. The reason why this workshop was primarily aimed at research projects is because things hardly go according to plan in a research project. A number of planning tools were presented in this workshop and I thought it might be useful to discuss some of them in a series of blog posts over the next few months.
In this blog post, I will be focussing on the vision and objectives of the project. In other words, when you have pinned this down, you should be able to tell someone what are the required and/or intended outputs of your project.
I always tell my students that this is the most challenging part of the project. It is articulated at the proposal stage and this is usually the point at which students have grand schemes of what they want to do and how they want it to impact the world around them. While many are keen to get to the ‘how’ part (the methodology), I always encourage backtracking to the ‘what’ and ‘why’.
In the workshop on planning, emphasis was placed on the scope of the work or what will be included and what will be excluded, a clear description of what the outcome of the project will be, and the milestones of the project. I will cover each of these in this post.
Scope of the project
It is incredibly difficult to pitch work with an appropriate scope if you are a novice researcher. Often you don’t have the knowledge that is required to understand what degree of work will be involved in answering certain questions. This is why students are allocated supervisors who are experienced in designing projects which are realistic and manageable.
At this stage, students are often ambitious, wanting to write papers that will change the way things are done in their places of work or wanting to create something that is practically useful for some real-world organisation. While all of these are great ambitions, it tends to distract from the primary objective of a research report or dissertation, and that is to produce an academic output for examination – similar to writing an exam.
This does not mean that one cannot produce research that is practically useful, it just means that this should not necessarily be the primary focus of the project as there are many dangers involved in doing so. The scope of the project, for instance, may be too large or it may take too long to complete (I will say a bit about this under the milestones heading).
The point is, different projects have different outputs, but all of them are primarily undertaken with the purpose of getting a degree.
Description of outcomes
Providing a clear description of your outcomes is incredibly difficult if you have not pinned down a clear problem statement. Many students have the urge to want to ‘wing’ their research, especially if they are using qualitative methods (assuming that the data will provide clarity on what the project should be about). Without a problem, you won’t be able to define your outcomes. Once you have your problem, it will be easier to determine what your outcomes will be, and here the scope matters.
Be aware of having a ‘change in policy’ listed as an outcome. This is very ambitious and surprisingly many students list something like this, albeit using different words. For a coursework master’s you want to list outcomes that are achievable within a few months. If you cannot do everything you have listed within the specified timeframe, this might raise questions about the feasibility of your project. If you are doing a PhD, on the other hand, you have more room for ambitious outcomes, but remember that it is an academic project. You don’t need to change the world, you just need to make sure that your academic contribution is sufficient.
Milestones of the project
Milestones of the project are closely related to the outcomes and the scope of the work and are a useful tool to do a reality check on what you are proposing. Think about when you need to submit your final project (your degree standing orders should help you determine this) and work your way backward. If you are in February 2022 and you need to submit in February 2023, you have about 12 months to get your project done. But this project will include multiple steps including, for instance, presenting your proposal to a committee, applying for ethics, collecting data, transcribing your data, writing up your results, and the list goes on. Twelve months is not a long time, especially if you have additional responsibilities related to your work and private life, and of course, you also need to factor in time to rest – when will you take leave from your project? Even as a full-time student, this can still be a tight timeframe.
So let’s take a step back and go back to the outcomes you have proposed. Think about what steps you need to take to reach the outcomes and list them. What are the important milestones and when do you need to reach them? If your project is not looking realistic in terms of the time frames, then your scope is probably too broad.
The point is that this is an iterative process and you will probably need to take stock of these three steps regularly throughout the process. It is also a dynamic process, so just because you proposed something in your proposal, does not mean that it will necessarily work out that way in the end. This is why it is best to start small, because you don’t know what could go wrong. If you put forth too much at the beginning, you may become very discouraged when you realise there is no way you will be able to achieve your proposed outcomes. This is tough, but it’s really important that you are honest with yourself about what is and what isn’t doable. And if you’re unsure, talk to your supervisor or a past student who has gone through the process.
In the next post, we’ll discuss the resources you’ll need to get to the finish line.