How to write a research methodology
In your thesis or dissertation, you will have to discuss the methods you used to do your research. The methodology chapter explains what you did and how you did it, allowing readers to evaluate the reliability and validity of the research. It should include:
- The type of research you did
- How you collected your data
- How you analyzed your data
- Any tools or materials you used in the research
- Your rationale for choosing these methods
The methodology section should generally be written in the past tense.
Academic style guides in your field may also provide detailed guidelines on what to include for different types of studies. For example, there are specific guidelines for writing an APA methods section.
Step 1: Explain your methodological approach
Begin by introducing your overall approach to the research.
What research problem or question did you investigate? For example, did you aim to systematically describe the characteristics of something, to explore an under-researched topic, or to establish a cause-and-effect relationship? And what type of data did you need to achieve this aim?
- Did you need quantitative data (expressed in numbers) or qualitative data (expressed in words)?
- Did you need to collect primary data yourself, or did you use secondary data that was collected by someone else?
- Did you gather experimental data by controlling and manipulating variables, or descriptive data by gathering observations without intervening?
Depending on your discipline and approach, you might also begin with a discussion of the rationale and assumptions underpinning your methodology.
- Why is this the most suitable approach to answering your research questions?
- Is this a standard methodology in your field or does it require justification?
- Were there any ethical or philosophical considerations?
- What are the criteria for validity and reliability in this type of research?
Step 2: Describe your methods of data collection
Once you have introduced your overall methodological approach, you should give full details of your data collection methods.
In quantitative research, for valid generalizable results, you should describe your methods in enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.
Describe where, when and how the survey was conducted.
- How did you design the questions and what form did they take (e.g. multiple choice, Likert scale)?
- What sampling method did you use to select participants?
- Did you conduct surveys by phone, mail, online or in person, and how long did participants have to respond?
- What was the sample size and response rate?
You might want to include the full questionnaire as an appendix so that your reader can see exactly what data was collected.
Give full details of the tools, techniques and procedures you used to conduct the experiment.
- How did you design the experiment?
- How did you recruit participants?
- How did you manipulate and measure the variables?
- What tools or technologies did you use in the experiment?
In experimental research, it is especially important to give enough detail for another researcher to reproduce your results.
Explain how you gathered and selected material (such as publications or archival data) for inclusion in your analysis.
- Where did you source the material?
- How was the data originally produced?
- What criteria did you use to select material (e.g. date range)?
In qualitative research, since methods are often more flexible and subjective, it’s important to reflect on the approach you took and explain the choices you made.
Discuss the criteria you used to select participants or sources, the context in which the research was conducted, and the role you played in collecting the data (e.g. were you an active participant or a passive observer?)
Interviews or focus groups
Describe where, when and how the interviews were conducted.
- How did you find and select participants?
- How many people took part?
- What form did the interviews take (structured, semi-structured, unstructured)?
- How long were the interviews and how were they recorded?
Describe where, when and how you conducted the observation or ethnography.
- What group or community did you observe and how did you gain access to them?
- How long did you spend conducting the research and where was it located?
- What role did you play in the community?
- How did you record your data (e.g. audiovisual recordings, note-taking)?
Explain how you selected case study materials (such as texts or images) for the focus of your analysis.
- What type of materials did you analyze?
- How did you collect and select them?
Step 3: Describe your methods of analysis
Next, you should indicate how you processed and analyzed the data. Avoid going into too much detail—you should not start presenting or discussing any of your results at this stage.
In quantitative research, your analysis will be based on numbers. In the methods section you might include:
- How you prepared the data before analyzing it (e.g. checking for missing data, removing outliers, transforming variables)
- Which software you used to analyze the data (e.g. SPSS, Stata or R)
- Which statistical tests you used (e.g. two-tailed t-test, simple linear regression)
In qualitative research, your analysis will be based on language, images and observations (often involving some form of textual analysis). Specific methods might include:
- Content analysis: categorizing and discussing the meaning of words, phrases and sentences
- Thematic analysis: coding and closely examining the data to identify broad themes and patterns
- Discourse analysis: studying communication and meaning in relation to their social context
Step 4: Evaluate and justify your methodological choices
Your methodology should make the case for why you chose these particular methods, especially if you did not take the most standard approach to your topic. Discuss why other methods were not suitable for your objectives, and show how this approach contributes new knowledge or understanding.
You can acknowledge limitations or weaknesses in the approach you chose, but justify why these were outweighed by the strengths.
Tips for writing a strong methodology
Remember that your aim is not just to describe your methods, but to show how and why you applied them and to demonstrate that your research was rigorously conducted.
Focus on your objectives and research questions
The methodology section should clearly show why your methods suit your objectives and convince the reader that you chose the best possible approach to answering your problem statement and research questions. Throughout the section, relate your choices back to the central purpose of your dissertation.
Cite relevant sources
Your methodology can be strengthened by reference to existing research in the field, either to:
- Confirm that you followed established practices for this type of research
- Discuss how you evaluated different methodologies and decided on your approach
- Show that you took a novel methodological approach to address a gap in the literature
Write for your audience
Consider how much information you need to give, and don’t go into unnecessary detail. If you are using methods that are standard for your discipline, you probably don’t need to give lots of background or justification. But if you take an approach that is less common in your field, you might need to explain and justify your methodological choices.
In either case, your methodology should be a clear, well-structured text that makes an argument for your approach, not just a list of technical details and procedures.
If you encountered difficulties in collecting or analyzing data, explain how you dealt with them. Show how you minimized the impact of any unexpected obstacles. Pre-empt any major critiques of your approach and demonstrate that you made the research as rigorous as possible.
Frequently asked questions about methodology
- What’s the difference between method and methodology?
Methodology refers to the overarching strategy and rationale of your research project. It involves studying the methods used in your field and the theories or principles behind them, in order to develop an approach that matches your objectives.
In shorter scientific papers, where the aim is to report the findings of a specific study, you might simply describe what you did in a methods section.
In a longer or more complex research project, such as a thesis or dissertation, you will probably include a methodology section, where you explain your approach to answering the research questions and cite relevant sources to support your choice of methods.
- Where does the methodology section go in a research paper?
In a scientific paper, the methodology always comes after the introduction and before the results, discussion and conclusion. The same basic structure also applies to a thesis, dissertation, or research proposal.
- What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?
- What’s the difference between reliability and validity?
Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:
- Reliability refers to the consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions).
- Validity refers to the accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).
If you are doing experimental research, you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.
- What is sampling?
A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population. Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research. For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.
In statistics, sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population.