Outlining the Purpose of the Study
Developing a purpose for your research can be a bit confusing. There are so many pieces that need to be arranged in a logical flow. Finding the specific problem that will be the research question is a critical part of developing the dissertation proposal because it tells you where you want to go with your research. Equally important is clearly and concisely presenting your plan to address the problem; this is the purpose of the research.
In previous posts, I discussed how to find and support a research-worthy problem but that is only a part of the initial process. Once you have the problem, what do you do with it?
A Clearly Presented Purpose Demonstrates Your Competence
No doubt you already have some ideas about how you want to conduct your research. While they may be good ideas, they must be effectively communicated to anyone who reads your proposal. First and foremost, your committee must understand what you plan to do and approve it because how you present your proposed research plan is a reflection of how well you understand your selected method and design. Everyone including your committee—your participants, and the organizations giving you permission— want to know that you are competent to conduct your planned research. Win their confidence by clearly and concisely presenting your plan!
Logically Presenting Your Purpose of the Study
The easiest way to develop a clear and concise purpose for your research is to begin by walking through the process on paper. What is the logical sequence of actions when conducting your research?
Why Is My Study Important?
Why are you conducting this research? This is usually the last thing included when presenting your purpose but it is something that you should know beforehand. While some students might disagree with me, the purpose of conducting research is to expand the existing knowledge of a field of study. While investigating your specific piece of the puzzle might seem insignificant, that small piece of knowledge could be the key to a broader understanding. The way that you can be sure your work is significant is to find support in the field for your specific problem. Others recommending further research will be interested to read your findings and conclusions because it relates to a clearer understanding of that problem. Knowing that your research is important helps you stay focused in this long and demanding process.
What Data Do I Need to Adequately Address the Problem?
Once you grasp the importance of your research, you must decide what type of data you will need to address the problem. Many students get lost at this stage of the proposal because they choose a convenient method and design without first considering the kinds of data that will be needed to address the problem. The result is often confusion and unnecessary revisions to get it right. If you want to avoid wasting time and effort, decide in the beginning, what you will need to know to draw conclusions.
Who Can Provide the Necessary Data to Address the Problem?
Once you have an idea of what kinds of data you need, think about who might be able to provide that data. Can it be found in an existing database or will you need to use some instrument(s) to gather it? Will you need participants to provide accurate data? What characteristics of those participants will qualify them to be participants? For example, if you want to know how teachers’ perceptions of their students has changed over the last five years, it would make little sense to include first year teachers as participants. Having some idea of who will provide the data to address the research question should be determined before deciding how you will gather it.
How Will I Gather the Data?
Once you have some idea of what you need to address the research problem, you can consider how you will gather the data. First, will you use a qualitative or quantitative method? Or will you use a combination of both? You might choose a quantitative method if you want to establish a relationship between two or more variables. However, if you are interested in understanding why a relationship exists, you might choose a qualitative method. Mixed methods involves both but usually takes more detailed planning and time to gather the data. Both quantitative and qualitative methods have multiple designs/approaches to gathering and analyzing the data.
Before choosing the method and design, there are other considerations. The main concern is how competent you are with a given method and design. If all of your previous experiences and education have focused on quantitative methods, it will be difficult for you to grasp many of the concepts related to a qualitative method. The same is true if your background is in qualitative methods. However, you may want to pause long enough to learn a different method and design if it is necessary to gather the desired data. This is a discussion to have with your mentor/chair early in the development of your dissertation proposal. Note: don’t try to make the data fit the method as the results can be disastrous.
Where Will I Find the Data?
I have seen numerous students with grand plans to conduct their research only to discover late in the process that the data they want to collect is not accessible. While this usually happens for studies involving participants, it can also happen for those seeking to access existing databases. This is one more reason for advanced, detailed planning of the purpose of the study. While participants cannot be recruited before gaining Institutional Review Board approval, researchers can determine accessibility by contacting the appropriate gatekeepers. Before making any contact, have a clear and logical research plan to present as you will most likely be asked to provide one. If applicable, it is also a good idea to show the organization how they might benefit from your research. Doing both increases the likelihood of getting preliminary approval.
Always have a backup plan! Regardless of preliminary approvals, continue to investigate possible sources you might use in case. I have worked with several students who were sure that they would be given access to a university or school only to discover otherwise. If you are committing to the dissertation process, why take the chance?
When Will I Conduct the Research?
There is a saying that timing is everything. This is so true in the dissertation process. Whether you like it or not, you are subject to others’ schedules and plans. Each committee member has other obligations besides reading your draft work. You already know this from working with your committee and can plan other activities while awaiting feedback. The same is true for colleges, universities, as well as primary and secondary schools. Most of my students are teachers and plan research related to their school districts. Unless the school is on a full year calendar, access to either students or faculty can be an issue during the summer break. While it is not possible to know when you will be ready for data collection, try to plan ahead as much as possible to avoid concerns later.
Taking some time to think about your research together with some basic planning will result in a clear and concise purpose and make you look like a competent budding scholar!