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 methodology section should generally be written in the past tense.

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?
In a quantitative experimental study, you might aim to produce generalizable knowledge about the causes of a phenomenon. Valid research requires a carefully designed study under controlled conditions that can be replicated by other researchers.
In a qualitative ethnography, you might aim to produce contextual real-world knowledge about the behaviors, social structures and shared beliefs of a specific group of people. As this methodology is less controlled and more interpretive, you will need to reflect on your position as researcher, taking into account how your participation and perception might have influenced the results.

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.

Quantitative methods

In quantitative research, for valid generalizable results, you should describe your methods in enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.

Explain how you operationalized concepts and measured your variables; your sampling method or inclusion/exclusion criteria; and any tools, procedures and materials you used to gather data.

Surveys
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.

Experiments
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.

Existing data
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)?
Quantitative methods example
The survey consisted of 5 multiple-choice questions and 10 questions that were measured on a 7-point Likert scale. The aim was to conduct the survey with 350 customers of Company X on the company premises in The Hague from 4-8 July 2017 between 11:00 and 15:00. A customer was defined as a person who had purchased a product from Company X on the day of questioning. Participants were given 5 minutes to fill in the survey anonymously, and 408 customers responded. Because not all surveys were fully completed, 371 survey results were included in the analysis.

Qualitative methods

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?

Participant observation
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)?

Existing data
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?
Qualitative methods example
In order to gain a better insight into the possibilities for improvement of the product range, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 8 returning customers from the main target group of Company X. A returning customer was defined as someone who usually bought products at least twice a week from Company X. The surveys were used to select participants who belonged to the target group (20-45 years old). Interviews were conducted in a small office next to the cash register, and lasted approximately 20 minutes each. Answers were recorded by note-taking, and seven interviews were also filmed with consent. One interviewee preferred not to be filmed.

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Step 3: Describe your methods of analysis

Next, you should indicate how you processed and analyzed the data. Avoid going into too much detailyou should not start presenting or discussing any of your results at this stage.

Quantitative methods

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)
Quantitative methods example
Before analysis the gathered data was prepared. The dataset was checked for missing data and outliers. For this the “outlier labeling rule” was used. All values outside the calculated range were considered outliers (Hoaglin & Iglewicz, 1987). The data was then analyzed using statistical software SPSS.

Qualitative methods

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
Qualitative methods example
The interviews were transcribed and thematic analysis was conducted. This involved coding all the data before identifying and reviewing six key themes. Each theme was examined to gain an understanding of participants’ perceptions and motivations.

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.

Lab-based experiments can’t always accurately simulate real-life situations and behaviors, but they are effective for testing causal relationships between variables.
Unstructured interviews usually produce results that cannot be generalized beyond the sample group, but they provide a more in-depth understanding of participants’ perceptions, motivations and emotions.

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

Our free citation generators can help you to create MLA citations and APA citations.

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.

Discuss obstacles

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.

Methods are the specific tools and procedures you use to collect and analyze data (for example, experiments, surveys, and statistical tests).

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.

Depending on the length and type of document, you might also include a literature review or theoretical framework before the methodology.

What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to test a hypothesis by systematically collecting and analyzing data, while qualitative methods allow you to explore ideas and experiences in depth.

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.

Is this article helpful?
Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

5 comments

Ines Veldkamp
December 28, 2020 at 2:26 PM

Hey, thanks a lot for your articles, it clarifies a lot! I am however still not sure about the difference between research design and research methodology. Is it true that a research methodology includes a research design? Do I include research design in my thesis, or is that only for thesis proposal? I'm confused.

Eventually I struggle with how to outline my methodology section. What would you recommend for a perfect outline of the methodology section for a qualitative, descriptive study? I do interviews as method and read academic papers too.

I hope to hear from you, thanks a lot in advance.
Ines from Bilbao, Spain

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
January 6, 2021 at 12:56 PM

Hi Ines,

The term research design generally refers to the overarching strategy or plan that you create for your research in advance (including the research questions, hypotheses, etc). It's also sometimes used to refer to the type of study being conducted (e.g. a longitudinal survey design or an experimental design). Research methods or methodology usually refers to the specific steps, tools, and procedures used to collect and analyze data. In a thesis, aspects of the research design will often be explained in both the introduction and the methodology chapter.

However, be aware that there's a lot of overlap between these terms, and the conventions for presenting them in your thesis really depends on the field. There's no universal template for a qualitative methodology chapter; you can try reading papers and past theses in your field to see how others have approached it, and it's a good idea to discuss these questions with your supervisor. But in any thesis, regardless of which terms you use, the most important thing is to clearly and accurately explain exactly how you conducted the research, and why.

I hope that's helpful!

Reply

Ines
January 21, 2021 at 1:10 PM

Thank you very much :)

Reply

Prince
December 27, 2020 at 2:46 AM

Hello Shona,
Thank you for this article. Please how do one write the methodology section when one is not going to do an actual research . Maybe just only a review of literatures that a relevant for your study ?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
January 19, 2021 at 3:28 PM

Hi,

If you are not conducting empirical research, a methodology section may not be necessary. For example, papers in the humanities (e.g. literary studies) rarely include a methodology section, because they focus on argumentation and analysis of sources rather than data collection.

But yes, it's always important to review relevant literature, and it's a good idea to include a theoretical framework that explains the assumptions and theories that support your approach to the topic.

I hope that helps!

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