Research Design

Why should we care about research design? | What makes a strong research proposal? | 10 steps to good research design | Writing your dissertation, thesis or grant application | Further reading |

Watch the video

You can watch the video of a lecture I gave as part of the APECS Webinar series here:

Ten Steps to Good Research Design from APECS Webinars on Vimeo.

Why should we care about research design?

If you’re an undergraduate or masters student, you will need to undertake a significant piece of independent study. Your dissertation will form a large part of your degree, and it is important that it is correctly put together. Your dissertation or piece of independent research has important added value and has many ‘learning outcomes’. No matter what you go on to do in your later career, being able to put together a proposal, argue its merits, and design a project, will be valuable skills that you are likely to rely on.

PhD students should consider research design early in their first year. The way that you design and plan your research will have significant implications for the success of your project. Although you will probably write the introduction to your thesis last, a well-designed research project should first work through these steps right from the start.

You may also be writing small grant proposals for awards and fellowships to attend conferences or pay for fieldwork. Nowadays, grant writing is a significant part of my job, and I spend a lot of time writing applications for money. So, good research design is important and a vital part of your skills toolbox, and a few successful small grants on your CV is a must for anyone considering an academic career.

The scientific methodology that you use underpins your entire project, and flawed assumptions or a flawed methodology will result in a questionable integrity of your results. Poor scientific methodology can also mean that you are liable to have biased results.

What makes a strong research proposal?

Good research proposals will achieve Closure by showing how impacts and deliverables will answer their ‘Big Question’.

What is research? There are varied definitions, and they include:

  • a systematic investigation to discover facts or collect information’ (Collins Gem English Dictionary, 1992)
  • ‘a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding’ (Cambridge Dictionaries online, 2008)
  • a process of investigation leading to new insights effectively shared’ (REF consultation document, 2009)

A key factor in all of these definitions is the focus on new and original facts, information and understanding.

Strong research proposals must skilfully combine and blend a ‘Big Question’, with wide implications, impact and importance, with a novel approach and a sound methodology. Good proposals will have a unique question or a new method, and the methods and study area will be appropriate. Finally, good proposals will achieve closure by bringing their proposal full circle, demonstrating how their outputs and deliverables will feed back into the ‘Big Question’.

After Alon, 2009. Project difficulty versus time spent. For a PhD or Post-doc student, projects in the upper right (not too much time, but large gain in knowledge) are best. For an undergraduate or MSc dissertation, projects in the bottom right are best. But no one wants projects in the bottom right – little gain in knowledge but very difficult. Where does your project fit?

It is very important that you consider, as a starting point, whether your research is achievable. Research projects can provide us with varying amounts of information, and vary in size from small to large projects. Different problems are suitable for people to tackle at different stages of their careers (cf. Alon, 2009). Is your project of a suitable difficulty for you to tackle, and does to add enough to our body of knowledge?

The best proposals are appropriate to the career stage and time available of the person concerned. They are concise, clear and complete – not asking to do too much. They have a strong rationale and a wider justification, with a Big Question clearly situated within this. The rationale and wider justification should clearly demonstrate the importance and impact of the ‘Big Question’. Finally, the best proposals are novel, but not too novel. ‘Me-too’ science is likely to not be funded – but so is large, speculative science, that is likely to have unachievable aims and targets.

Whether you are writing a proposal or a thesis or dissertation, you should follow these steps for good research design. You should also take a look at my blog post, “Climate Change Skeptics“, which also talks about research design.

10 steps to good research design

Below, I have put together a list of 10 steps for you to think about when designing a research project. Follow these steps for good research design, and for writing a good grant application or introduction to your dissertation or thesis. Of course, I have only covered this topic briefly here; there are many further resources that you can look at that discuss research design in more detail.

10 steps to a well-designed research project.

It goes without saying that your teacher or supervisor is the real expert here and they should be consulted at every step of the way. Make use of their years of training and expertise. Discuss your ideas with them, and where you want your research to go. The joy of research is that you get to decide what to do and how to do it. But you should check with your supervisor that your methods are appropriate, that your research is relevant (and hasn’t been done before!), and that it is achievable within your timeframe.

Step 1. Why are you doing this research?

The first phase of your research design is to decide what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Many people become so immersed in their project, they cannot see the wood for the trees, and assume that everybody knows why their work is important. This is not the case; you need to be able to explain to non-specialists the importance of your work. Your examiner will be looking to see that you understand the relevance. Whether you are writing a proposal or an introduction to your thesis, you should start with a rationale.

Grants are awarded competetively on the basis of their relevance and importance. Papers are only published if they are relevant. The rationale is probably one of the most important parts of your research design, and you skim over it or ignore it at your peril.

Step 2. Identify the key unknowns

Once you have decided on the broad area of your research project, and you have established a good rationale and reason for undertaking it, you need to read up on previous work. What are the key unknowns and key research questions? What gaps can my research project fill? Write a ‘Wider Justification’ where you explore previous work, but where you identify gaps in knowledge.

If you are doing a PhD or MSc dissertation, you should expect to spend a considerable amount of time at the start of your research project reading the available literature. Make a list of research questions and key unknowns as you come across them. This is a vital step to becoming an expert in your area.

Finally, this stage is imperative to make sure that your research has not already been done!

The best projects are novel, but not too novel (which is risky and difficult – see the graph by Alon, 2009, above), and should avoid ‘me-too’ science. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon because everyone else is doing it. Your project must have clearly defined research questions. Equally, large, speculative science is unlikely to get funded.

Step 3. What is your aim and what are your objectives?

Once you have worked out a rationale for your research, you need to decide on an aim. This is the most important part of your research design, and it should address the key unknowns identified in Step 1 above. Ideally, you should be able to express your aim in one sentence, e.g.,

Aim: to reconstruct the glacial history of the NE Antarctic Peninsula on centennial to millennial timescales.

Your objectives should help you to achieve your aim. You can identify, typically, 3-5 objectives that will each bring you a step closer to your achieving your aim. Ideally, each objective should be associated with research questions so that you are always trying to achieve something new and original. This will also keep your research focussed and on the right lines.

Good aims and objectives usually have the following characteristics:

  • Specific, achievable and feasible
  • Clear sense of deliverables
  • Specific, clear, over-arching research question
  • Realistic about methods and timescale available
  • Use words like Compare, determine, characterise, explain, quantify, interpret, measure

Alternatively, poor aims and objectives typically have the following characteristics:

  • Vague, broad, unspecified titles
  • No hypothesis or research question
  • Overambitious and not realistically achievable

Step 4. What hypotheses are you testing?

For reasons that are covered in more detail in this blog post, as scientists, we need to test hypotheses. These hypotheses should be indentified by your analysis of previous work and key unknowns. We work within a Research Programme: this means that there are key things that we hold to be true (evolution, plate crustal movement, basic processes of glacier movement), and that there are areas that are continuously under development and being questioned (details of past glacier history). You need to write one or two hypotheses that you will test. A good scientist should attempt to falsify her hypotheses. Your hypotheses should be based on the literature, your identification of the key knowns and unknowns, and should move the science forward.

Step 5. Identify the key deliverables.

What are the key outcomes and deliverables of your research going to be? The deliverables should use words such as, understanding, quantification, conceptual, process, analysis, characterisation, determination. For example:

  • An improved understanding of process XX
  • Glacier velocity maps
  • Process-based conceptual models of process YY
  • Quantification of ZZ
  • Analysis of glacier fluctuations over time (glacier outlines submitted to GLIMS)

These deliverables should enable you to test your hypotheses and achieve your aim. They should be specific and achievable, and help you achieve closure with your ‘Big Question’.

Step 6. Identify key resources

What resources will you need to complete this research project? Will you need to do fieldwork, and if so, for how long? Will you need any specific computer resources, packages, programmes, remotely sensed images, computer codes?

Step 7. Timeframe for research

Simplistic gantt chart (they do not need to be complicated). You should identify the key outputs in your caption. Needless to say, they should match the identified project deliverables.

Your research design should incorporate a realistic assessment of the time committments for each objective. Write a Gantt Chart (you can just do this in Excel or on paper!) that outlines each objective and the amount of time you have available. Work out in detail how much time each objective will take you, and be realistic about whether it is achievable in your time available. Typically, students underestimate the amount of time a specific objective will take them, so be cautious in your estimation.

Step 8. Draw up a work-flow model

An example of a stylised workflow model.

Once you have worked through the steps above, you are ready to put it together into a coherent workflow model. I think these should be included in all dissertations and grant applications, as they clearly set out how the different objectives fit together.

Write the aim at the top, and then the hypotheses beneath it. Include your resources or inputs below this. Then, each in a separate box, outline each objective and the key deliverables associated with this objective. Finally, at the bottom, give your end result; e.g., hypotheses accepted or refuted; a general model or process XX; quantification of YY. This makes it very clear how your research project will fit together, what you will achieve, and how it fits with your aims and hypotheses.

The workflow model should illustrate your deliverables and thus provide closure for your ‘Biq Question’.

Step 9. Risks and risk mitigation

If you are planning on doing fieldwork, you will need to do a risk assessment and clearly identify hazards and how you will mitigate or prevent them. But you should also be aware of more general risks; do you have the relevant knowledge? Are the resources that you need available? Will the costs change? Risks could include:

  • Unreliable exchange rates
  • Wildlife hazards (polar bears?)
  • Weather (hot / cold / blizzards)
  • Environmental hazards and disposal of waste
  • Equipment failure
  • Not being able to obtain key datasets
  • Access to field areas

Step 10. Undertake your research!

Now that you have spent some time carefully planning your research, you are ready to begin. You are going to research something that is important, interesting, and something that you will enjoy. You have written a good research plan, and know that your work is relevant to society and other scientists. Have fun!

Evaluate and refine your research as you go.

Evaluate your work as you go, and be prepared to change your methodology or objectives as you go along, if you find something is not feasible or too difficult. In fact, you may find that your work needs to go full circle if your methods do not work or it turns out to not be feasible! So, your final research design might look something like the figure opposite…

Always remember Occam’s Razor: In the case of several competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is most likely to be true.

Writing your dissertation, thesis or grant application

Now that you have done some excellent research design, you’re already well on your way to a top grade! So go off and complete your research. Write up your dissertation or thesis, but write your introduction last. Your introduction should follow something like the outline below (although your supervisor, teacher or advisor will give you more advice that is relevant to your project).

If you are writing a grant application, then the format should be similar to that below (check the application details carefully as they might be specificied), but you should include a timeframe for research as well.

  1. Rationale for the research. Why the work is important.
  2. Key unknowns and research questions.
  3. State aim, hypotheses and objectives clearly and succinctly.
  4. Show the Progamme of Research or Workflow Model.
  5. Go into each objective in more detail. Pepper them richly with research questions. Be clear about the resources and timeframe available.
  6. You may want to include a section on risks and risk mitigation, a wider justification of the work, and for grant applications, why it might benefit you personally.
  7. If you are writing a dissertation or thesis, you might want to give an outline of your thesis chapters here.

Grant applications in particular will need a careful justification or resources. You will need to account for every penny requested! Think carefully through all the things that you will need to cost in.

Further reading

Here are some excellent articles to help you on your way.

Alon, 2009. How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem. Molecular Cell.

Erren et al., 2007. 10 simple rules for doing your best research. Computational Biology.

Schwartz 2008. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of cell science.

Rhoads and Thorn 1996. The Scientific Nature of Geomorphology.

Article by Bethan Davies.

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