What is research?

Research is … the systematic investigation into, and study of materials, sources etc in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

A research project can aim to achieve one, or both, of the following:

  1. teach you about how to do research, the research process and how to write a report
  2. find an answer to a problem or research question.

A successful research project

What does a successful research report look like?

The key attributes of success include some, or all, of the following:

  • demonstrates a command of knowledge and authority in the relevant fields
  • use of appropriate research and methodological techniques
  • shows application of specialist technical or professional knowledge to the research problem
  • a careful, rigorous, professional piece of work
  • makes a contribution to the body of knowledge, including originality of approach, interpretation of findings, discovery of new facts and/or application to a specific field or geographic area
  • effectively communicates the research findings to the professional community.

Success can only be in the mind of the recipient – whether that be your supervisor, examiner, project team or client, or the professional community.

In planning a research project it is helpful to keep the following questions that the end user might ask in mind. Does the report:

  • clearly articulate the research question or problem statement?
  • demonstrate sufficient understanding and critical appraisal of current knowledge?
  • provide a sufficiently comprehensive investigation of the topic?
  • justify and demonstrate appropriate application of the research methods and techniques used?
  • present the findings, critical analysis and interpretation of the research in a clear, concise manner?
  • test and answer the research question adequately?

Expect the unexpected. In most research projects there are unexpected elements, that is things that were not anticipated when the research commenced.

The classical ‘scientific method’ requires a researcher to develop a hypothesis, then design an experiment to test the hypothesis.

One of the problems with this approach is that if the hypothesis is not well constructed, or the experiment is not robust then the results can be disappointing. This requires both creative thinking to generate the hypothesis and rational and critical thinking to design the experiment and analyse the findings.

How to define your research question

To undertake a research project, you first need to describe the purpose of the research, in the form of a research question.

The questions you need to be able to answer early in your research project are:

  1. Problem: what is the problem I am trying address?
  2. Question: what is my question my research is trying to answer? Is it the right question?
  3. Realistic: is the proposed research realistic, considering time and resources available?
  4. Clarity: is the research question clear and focussed?

Narrow the focus and finding clarity

A clear focus in your research question means there is a chance of success – without a clear focus you can never be sure what you are trying to answer. While it may be of little comfort, lack of focus in the research question is very common.

An initial research topic or question almost always needs to be narrowed in scope.
Defining the research question is usually best done as an iterative process – develop an idea or ideas, an carefully review them in terms of the questions above, to ensure you have a realistic, clear and focussed research project.

Once a preliminary version of your research question is formed, then start a review of the literature, to better understand the topic area and then you can further refine the question if needed.

Presenting the proposed research question to others (such as the project team) or someone independent (such as a research advisor, project manager or consulting client) helps refinement and focus. By having to write it down in a form to communicate it to others assists in the clarification process.

Uncertainty and change

There are usually many forks along the research path, sometimes leading to a dead end. It is common to adjust the focus or direction during the research process. At some time though you need to commit to a course of action.

One approach that may be worth considering is to restrict the topic scope early on to what is readily achievable, and if there is time, resources and/or interest expand the investigation before the project is completed to examine an expanded scope or to follow a lead.

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