Process and Design

The importance of planning and timetabling

All research projects require meticulous planning before collection of data begins and before any writing commences. Look at the Project Management section for further advice. 

As part of your studies, you may be required to develop a suggested dissertation timetable. You should discuss this with your Supervisor.

Stages of your research project might include:

  • subject/topic selection
  • completion and agreement of research proposal
  • obtaining health and safety clearance and ethical approval for your study
  • completion of the literature review
  • carrying out any necessary pilot study
  • reviewing/refining any data collection method following the pilot study
  • data collection, handling and analysis
  • preparation of the first draft of your dissertation report
  • preparation of the second draft of your dissertation report
  • preparation for the ‘viva voce’, if applicable. Note that most taught masters programmes do not have this form of assessment, but research masters and PhD programmes do

Topic selection

The choice of research project is very important and is normally submitted in the form of a research proposal. Students are often encouraged to come up with their own ideas but members of academic staff may also offer topics for consideration. Projects linked with external companies or organisations may be acceptable, but please remember that there may be issues relating to intellectual property rights (IPR), resources, commercial confidentiality, etc. Such issues must be discussed thoroughly and resolved prior to commencing project work.

Whichever route you take, the research topic must be of an appropriate level and must demonstrate a degree of originality and analysis in your subject area.

Your project should be challenging, but feasible within the constraints of time and facilities, without being over-ambitious. When selecting or coming up with original ideas for a research topic you should consider the following points:


For further advice and guidance about ethics and applying for ethics approval see this section

Research projects based on secondary data present almost no ethical dilemmas, as the data for research is already “public” in some way. Examples might include:

  • research on the content of popular newspaper or television programmes
  • research based on data published in company reports
  • research based on data provided by a business in response to your letter asking for information and explaining how you will use it

The greater the sensitivity of the information you are asking for, the more you will need to protect and assure your participants. For example, details of company budgets, financial forecasts, marketing plans, pricing strategy, environmental performance, legal compliance, health and safety performance, are all sensitive information that many businesses will not be willing to divulge.

If you are not sure whether your research could cause possible harmful effects on the participants (people or business/organisation) seek the advice of your Supervisor.

Research Design

This section will discuss the processes involved in the selection of the most appropriate research design and methods for your project.

Selecting your research design

This section is adapted from Bryman, A. (2004). Social Research Methods (2nd Ed.) Oxford University Press, Oxford/ New York.

When selecting a framework for the collection and analysis of data, it is essential that you consider three important criteria:

There are five main types of research design:

Questions and Title

This section discusses the importance of selecting the most appropriate research titles and questions.

Writing research questions

It is important that your study is organised around a set of questions that will guide your research. When selecting these questions, it is useful to write them so that they frame the study and fall within the context of other contemporary research. It is important that these questions establish the link between your study and other research that has preceded it; they should also clearly show the relationship of your research to your field of study.

It is important to remember that you cannot answer all the research questions that occur to you and you should be guided by the principle that the research questions you choose should be related to one another. If you are stuck about how to formulate research questions, it is a good idea to look at journal articles, research monographs or past dissertations to see how other researchers have formulated them.

Aims and objectives

It is useful to consider your research questions in terms of aims and objectives.

The aim of the work should be clearly and concisely defined.

Aims and objectives should:

  • be concise and brief
  • be interrelated
  • be realistic in terms what can be done in the project
  • provide you and your Supervisor with indicators of how you intend to: 

    • approach the literature and theoretical issues related to your project
    • access your chosen subjects, respondents, units, goods or services
    • develop a sampling frame and strategy or a rationale for their selection
    • develop a strategy and design for data collection and analysis
    • deal with ethical and practical problems in your research

Aims and objectives should not:

  • be vague, ambitious or very broad in scope
  • just be a list of things related to your research topic

At the conclusion of your project you will need to assess whether or not you have met your objectives and if not, why not. However, you may not always meet your aims in full, since your research may reveal that your questions were inappropriate, that there are intervening variables you could not account for or that the circumstances of the study have changed, etc. Whatever the case, your conclusion will still have to reflect on how well the research design, which was guided by your objectives, has contributed to addressing your aims.


The title for your research should be a clear and precise description of the topic. A title can be phrased as a question or hypothesis (although it doesn’t need to be).

Preparing a good title means:

  • having the most important words appear toward the beginning of your title
  • limiting the use of ambiguous or confusing words
  • breaking your title up into a title and subtitle when you have too many words
  • including key words that will help researchers in the future find your work

Examples of good titles

  • The relationship between odour and the presence of sulphurous hydrocarbons in landfill leachate sampled from boreholes at Clifton March Landfill Site, Preston.

This title gives detail on target (“odour …hydrocarbons”), focuses on a clear subject (“landfill leachate”), a specific location (“Clifton Marsh Landfill Site, Preston”) and the nature of study (“relationship between”).

A less helpful, more ambiguous, version might have been:

  • A study investigating odour from landfill leachate in various boreholes at a landfill site near Preston.


This completes your research section. Move on to the Integrity and Ethics module.

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