Writing your dissertation methodology

What is a Methodology?

Your dissertation’s literature review should be completed immediately before your methodology section. This section should flow from the literature review. Your methodology section should be written after you have identified your research question and reviewed what other scholars have to say about it. You will have reviewed the methodologies used by other scholars to arrive at their conclusions. This includes the assumptions and theoretical frameworks used and the methods used to gather, marshal, present and analyze their data. These dissertationmethodology.com observations, together with conversations with your supervisor, will help you plan how your research question will be addressed. This could be how you gather data or the models that you’ll employ to process it or what philosophical points will most influence your work. The dissertation methodology is an in-depth description of your approach to your dissertation, as well as the reasons for your decision.
What should my approach look like?

Your methodology must clearly connect your research question to the scholarship in your field, which you have surveyed in your literature review, as well as the method by which you will reach your conclusions. No matter your subject, your methodology section will contain the following:

A summary of your research question(s).

Your methodology must be justified by proving that it can solve the research problem you asked at the beginning. Your methodology should be summarized. This doesn’t necessarily have to be word-for-word.
A description of your design/method

This is the core of the methodology, but it is not the whole methodology. This section of the methodology describes how you approach your research question or gather data. This should be clear and concise enough to allow another scholar to understand it and then apply it in some way. If you’re presenting a new theoretical view on a literary piece or a philosophical issue, your reader should understand enough to be able apply it to another text. If you’re explaining a scientific experiment your reader should have the knowledge necessary to replicate your experiment in a lab. After having read the methodology section, your reader should know how to apply a new type statistical model to their own data.
The background and reason for your design decision

Your methodology does not simply describe your method. Instead, it explains why you chose it, and what it means for you. It will also draw on your literature review. You should present your decisions as informed, soundly scholastic, and, ideally, with innovation and creativity. The rationale behind your choice of method should be clearly linked to your research problem. This will make it clear that your method is an intelligent and tailored answer to the questions you are asking.
A description of the limitations and your method choice.

There is no one research method that is perfect. You may have to make compromises. One example is that you may have chosen to interview a small group of people because they offer more insight than a large set of data about the same problem. You’ve also sacrificed an important quantitative approach to your problem, which might have given you more insights. Be open about your choices and don’t be afraid to admit your limitations. You can also justify why they are the best.

While your methodology section outline will look similar regardless of what discipline it is, the details could be very different depending on the area of study. Let’s take an overview of some of the most common types and how they are described in the methodology sections.
Different types of dissertation methodology

A scientific study
In order to be considered a scientific study, your methodology section must stress rigour as well as reproducibility. Your methods must be clear to the reader and not have any obvious flaws in execution or design. It is important to include details about your equipment, your lab setup, and your procedure so that another researcher can reproduce your method. You also need to show that you have a plan in place to deal with any variables that might distort or alter your data, such as false positives.

It is important to include details about the statistical methods you use to analyse your data. Scholars might take any part of your methodology and use it as a basis for their own research.

Study in the behavioral or social sciences
A methodology in social or behavioral sciences must, as with scientific studies, demonstrate both rigour, reproducibility and allow another researcher access to your study. Due to the complexity involved in working with human subjects, there are many other questions to be asked. You will first need to ask some broad questions about the type and nature of analysis you are conducting. You will be interviewing your subjects and asking them to fill out questionnaires or watching them do some type of activity. You can also avoid human subjects research and rely on documented evidence or pre-existing data. What is the extent of your data and what are your conclusions? Is it possible to generalize it to other contexts or are the conclusions very specific to your particular cultural context?

Not only should you answer these questions but you also have to show that you have addressed all ethical questions related to your research. While part of this involves obtaining the approval of appropriate ethics bodies for your research design, some aspects of your study (e.g., inviting subjects to recall traumatizing episodes or discussing sensitive cultural issues with a target audience) could still be controversial or problematic for some readers. Be sure to address them head-on and, if necessary justify your methods by highlighting their potential value.

A critical dissertation in arts and humanities
As in the sciences and social science, the value of methodological rigour in the arts and humanities is as high as it is in the sciences. You will need to communicate your rigour, and convince your audience, differently if you write an arts or humanity dissertation. An arts or Humanities dissertation will have a methodology section that is more closely linked with the literature review than a study in social sciences or science. A dissertation in the Arts or Humanities can often combine X and Y to form a new theoretical framework. You might be tempted to ignore the methodology section in an arts- or humanities dissertation and go straight from literature review to analysis. You must explain why you chose these frameworks, and how they relate with your research question. If you don’t provide this justification, a critical reviewer may be dissatisfied with your whole analysis.

It’s important to show appreciation for the historical and cultural contexts in which you are using the theoretical frameworks. To support your readings, you should include a methodology section that explains how you disagree with the theories and why you choose to continue using them.

A creative arts dissertation
Many arts programs offer the opportunity to complete a creative dissertation rather than a critical one. This means that you can submit a piece of writing or a portfolio with artworks for the dissertation portion of the programme. However, almost every case will require that your creative project be accompanied with a substantial critique essay (or introduction or commentary) that theorizes your creative practices. It can be difficult to engage critically with your own work. Therefore, it is crucial that you follow a consistent methodology. You must not only demonstrate that you can separate yourself from creative work and view it objectively but also that you can see your creative practice as a method of creating work grounded in theory, research and that can be evaluated against defined goals.

What should my methodology be missing?

The contents of your dissertation do not need to be kept separate from each other. There will likely be some overlap in your literature review or methodology section. You might find yourself moving material from one section to another during edits. Even though these seem like they belong in the dissertation methodology, you should resist the temptation.

Methodologies reviewed in detail

When describing your own method, you will most likely want to reference precedents. This is not the place to do an exhaustive review on methodologies you aren’t using. It belongs in your literature review chapter. Refer back to that chapter to understand why you chose that particular approach.
Very detailed, lengthy lists of equipment and excessive procedural detail

It should allow readers to reproduce your research. However it should also serve as a chapter within your dissertation. If you are able to communicate all the information a scholar would need to reproduce your work, include it in the body. However, if the methodology section begins to look like a shopping cart, add some detail to the appendix.
Raw data

Although you may be illustrating a questionnaire, or any other data-gathering method, the methodology section does not allow for reproduction of data. These information can be added to an appendix for future reference.

Deciding on your methodology

It is possible that you already have some basic ideas about the methodology you want for your dissertation. These ideas can be further refined with your supervisor. A postgraduate dissertation will likely give you a broad understanding of the theoretical positions and schools that are prevalent in your field. This may help you to identify the schools of thinking you most identify with, as well as those you don’t. For undergraduate students, this could be your first time writing a dissertation. Categorizing the literature into different approaches and schools may seem daunting.

Whatever your level, your dissertation will develop when you read the literature in the field and refine initial research questions. Your methodology and literature review will evolve in tandem. Your responses to the literature will help determine the approach that you choose to pursue your research question. But, your methodology will likely already be determined by the time your literature reviews are completed. In other words, the way you frame the literature review can make it seem like a natural progression, organic and natural from your field survey. Not only will your approach to your problem be determined by your preferred method of inquiry, or the schools of thought you favor, but there are likely practical considerations as well. Unless your university has a particle accelerator, quantum physics projects will likely be based more on theoretical projections than actual experimental data.
What makes a great approach?

It depends on whether you are writing a postgraduate or undergraduate dissertation. A student’s first chance to get involved in scholarship in their chosen fields and to plan and carry out a rigorous research project is an undergraduate dissertation. Your undergraduate dissertation should demonstrate your ability to engage in broad fields of research, to synthesize multiple approaches to a particular problem, and then to reduce this into a design that addresses your research question at the appropriate level. An undergraduate dissertation is successful if you are able to draw on the information you have received from your discipline’s scholars to develop a methodology that will help you answer your research questions. Although the best undergraduate dissertations show originality, they may be able and even have a unique contribution to their discipline. The focus is on demonstrating your basic research skills in order to do investigative work within your field.

An example of a postgraduate dissertation is one that makes a significant contribution to the field. The most outstanding postgraduate dissertations are likely to be published in leading journals, or as scholarly monographs. It is crucial that you establish your academic reputation as an early-career researcher by measuring the impact of your dissertation on the field. This can be done through citations of other scholars. Remember that the dissertation’s significance to other scholars is not just its findings and conclusions. The importance of your research to the field will be measured not by those who agree with it but by the number who engage with the work. Even though some scholars may cite your conclusions for their work, there is a higher likelihood of others citing them. This can be due to the fact that you have created a framework other scholars can use for their work. This will likely be the part of your work that scholars most value, if you have a method that is both unique and grounded in the research. Your methodology might be used in their work to develop or modify it.

The best postgraduate dissertations convince at all levels. They are based on a thorough engagement with the field, which develops reproducible frameworks to engage with that field, as well as providing convincing results and conclusions. The methodology is the pivot point of the dissertation. It can have a significant impact on the field. Your dissertation methodology should be considered not only for how it answers your particular question but also how adaptable it is. This means that it can be used by other scholars to address related questions or if it can be improved with just a few tweaks. If your methodological framework is adaptable to other contexts, don’t forget about the value it brings to your dissertation presentation. When you claim that your research’s only value is in its conclusions, it could be misleading. Your approach to data and source material in arriving there are potentially equal or more valuable.

Prezenting your methodology

As we have seen, your dissertation methodology is what drives your dissertation. It should be grounded, theoretically solid, and adaptable enough to be used elsewhere to answer other research questions. It’s easy for people to forget that all dissertations are persuasive writing. Even the most complex and scientific, they serve the purpose of convincing others of the quality of your work, the validity of you methods, or the merits of what you have written. This persuasive function includes the crucial role of rhetoric in persuading your audience to accept the merits. In mainstream discourse rhetoric has taken a bad rep. Expressions like “pure” or “empty” rhetoric are often used to describe superficiality and/or dishonesty. This is certainly not a good thing! But, it is an important component of any type of academic writing.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein discussed metacommentary in their seminal book “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Make Academic Writing. They refer to it as “a way of commenting about your claims and telling people how – and not – they think about them.” This kind of commentary allows one to direct the discussion and can even prevent potential objections from others to your arguments or methods. The rhetorical presentation of your method is not only “decoration”, it is also an integral part its structural soundness and rigour. It can make all the difference in a 2:1 or First grade, or between a merit or a distinction. Here are some examples of how metacommentary can help you influence your audience’s response.

The roads not taken
It is likely that the approach that you’ve chosen for your research question is just one of many that you could have tried. And you likely read about many different approaches and engaged with them in your literature reviews. But you didn’t choose to use any of them. While your methodology chapter does not need to be detailed about all these methods (hopefully the literature review will), it is a good place to remind your reader that you had actively considered other methods before making a decision. Even if you choose your methodology very early in your research process, you should make it seem rhetorically. This is because you carefully considered all factors before you chose the best one.

A little bit of comfort can go a long way
The judicious use of metacommentary may also be helpful to remedy any deficiencies in your methodology section. It can also create a sense balance between scholarly groundedness, innovation, and caution if your method seems to go too far in either direction. It is possible to acknowledge the boldness of your methodology, while still pointing out its relationship to other established work in this field. For example, you could make sure to refer back to your literature reviews often. You might use phrases such: “This approach may look like a major departure from established approaches to the field, but it combines X’s data-gathering strategies with Y’s statistical analysis model, as well as the following innovations.” You can also use the opportunity for your methodology to be criticized if it is largely derivative of other methods.

Every section of the dissertation should be clearly identified, with the exception of the methodology section. Your dissertation methodology can be strengthened by drawing attention to your literature review. You might also remind your readers of the conclusions you reached. Finally, if you are feeling confident, you may gently hint at your readers that you agreed with them using phrases like “As our experience has shown, method X is very useful for approaching problems related to Y, but less suitable for problem Z”. It is important to be cautious with this approach. Claiming you have proven something is not going to get your readers on board. But rhetorical techniques like these can help highlight the structural coherence and strength of your work.

Your own terms
If you don’t define your own success criteria and fail, your readers can see the overall structure of the argument and determine the terms that it was trying for success. They will then be able judge the argument accordingly. It is better to have your own success criteria. This is where your dissertation methodology plays a crucial role. However, the methodology could be modified to look at similar phenomena in contexts of Y or Z. To prevent unintended consequences, you can also stop your readers drawing unintended conclusion from your work.
I will sum up…

Your methodology section is crucial to your dissertation. It shows your ability both to synthesize information from different fields and your ability design original research that uses the traditions and precedents in your discipline to answer your research questions.

Other scholars may find your results and conclusions useful. In fact, they may use your methodology in an entirely different context than you. Your dissertation methodology must therefore be of value and be both reliable and consistent.

The methodology section will allow you to explain and justify your approach to research questions and set your own criteria for project success. It is important to present your dissertation methodology in a professional manner. Many students will consider applying an academic editing to their completed methodology sections to ensure that each step is included in a high-quality submission.

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