Writing a Research Proposal with Example
A research proposal is a document which contains details of your research plans including why you are doing your research, what questions it asks, and how you are going to collect data and analyze them to answer the questions.
This blog addresses these frequently asked questions and relevant issues. At the end of the blog, we provide exercises that will help you write a solid research proposal.
What Should You Include in Your Research Proposal?
In essence, your research proposal includes any relevant details of your research plan. The research proposal serves two main purposes. First, it spells out every detail of your plan, and by showing it to your professors, supervisors, and ethics review committee, you will have a chance to obtain valuable feedback to improve the overall plan.
Second, a written proposal helps you maintain focus despite any new developments and distractions you may encounter in the research process. You will be able to remember important details for each phase of the research and keep track of your progress against your initial plan.
A good research proposal lays a solid foundation for the successful execution of your research and a meaningful research report or thesis.
There is no universally applicable format for a research proposal; different universities have different requirements. But there are some standard items common to proposals. If your university has a unique format or requirements, follow them.
If your university and your project supervisor do not have specific requirements, we recommend you include the following parts. You can use these as subheadings in your proposal.
Key Elements of Research Proposals
1. Title of research project
3. Literature Reviews
4. Research Methods
5. Research Timeline
6. Potential Problems and Remedies
Do You Need a Title for Your Proposal?
Yes. The title of your proposal is likely to be the same as or similar to the title of your research project. We do not recommend using “Research Proposal” as the title of your proposal. Use a title that tells you something about the whole project. It should be direct and accurately reflect the contents of your proposed research.
For example, if your research is about the relationship between family’s socioeconomic status and children’s educational achievements, then the title for your research proposal could be “A Study of the Relationship between Family Socioeconomic Status and Educational Achievement.”
If your research explores the distribution of bank branch locations in higher income and lower-income areas, a suitable title could be “Bank Branch Locations and Income Inequality.”
Of course, you may also add “A Research Proposal” as the subtitle so that the readers would know this is just a proposal and not the final report of the findings. For example, “Bank Branch Locations and Income Inequality: A Research Proposal.”
As you can see in the examples, your title should be descriptive and concise. Descriptive titles convey the topic of your research so that readers immediately understand what your research is about.
It is a common practice to include main concepts or variables in the title. Concise titles are short and effective. If your title is more than two lines long, think of how to shorten it without reducing what it is telling.
If you choose to, you can also include your research methods and population in the title. When your research employs a unique research method, it may be worth highlighting in your title.
For example, if you use longitudinal data tracking a group of families to study how family relations affect children’s development; you could have the proposal entitled, “A Longitudinal Study of How Family Relations Affect Children’s Development.”
Similarly, if your proposed research is on a special and narrowly defined group of people, you may also indicate that in the title. If you are focusing on judges’ attitudes towards the death penalty, you could choose “Judges’ Attitudes towards the Death Penalty.”
An effective title actually helps you in clarifying the research focus to yourself. Think of a title, even a tentative one, when you start to write your research proposal.
After you have completed writing your proposal, you should take another look at your title to see if it really matches the contents of the research. You may need to revise your title at that point to accurately reflect the contents you end up writing.
After deciding on a title, write your introduction and literature reviews. They can be combined into one section or written as two separate sections.
Whether you write them separately or as a combined section may depend on the convention of your discipline, any format requirements you need to meet, the type of research you do, and the advice of your project supervisor.
Either way, you will cover similar information necessary for your research proposal. In this blog, we will discuss your introduction and literature review separately.
What Should You Write in Your Introduction?
Make your introduction (or statement of the problem) succinct and to the point, but include these four items:
First, write an explicit topic statement. Introducing your readers to the problem or issue you are about to investigate is the most important mission of your introduction. Background knowledge may include a brief history of how the issue has developed or the extent to which the issue has affected or been important to society.
Basic statistics may help to establish that your topic is worthy of investigating.
For example, if you are researching adolescent substance use because you believe it seriously affects school performance, give your readers the percentage of adolescents using substances, what substances they use, and how serious the problem is for the society.
You might include the percentage of adolescents whose school performance has been affected by their substance use and how serious the impact has been. You can emphasize the significance of your topic by discussing the inadequacy of our understanding of the issue and the need for your study.
Second, if your topic statement includes theoretical concepts, you want to provide clear and specific definitions of these concepts in the introduction. It is a good idea to draw upon the definitions researchers use in their published work.
For example, if you wish to use the terms “intrinsic work value” and “extrinsic work value,” the meaning of these terms may not be self-explanatory to your readers, or there may be multiple definitions scholars have used for these terms.
Wang (1996) defined intrinsic work values as the primary psychological needs that employees desire and seek direction from their work activity. Extrinsic work values are the physiological and social needs that employees desire and seek from their work organization and working context.
If this is the way you want to use these terms in your proposal, you should state them upfront so that you will establish a common ground for understanding your research.
Similarly, if you are conducting deductive research and would like to start with a theory, you should briefly explain the theory even if you assume many of your readers already know it.
After establishing a common understanding of the terms and theories, you may discuss why it is necessary and appropriate for you to test the theory with your research project.
Third, inform your readers of the objectives or purposes of your research, and tell them what you expect to find out from your research. Do you intend to provide some descriptive data on a social issue or a phenomenon?
Are you testing the relationship between two variables, or testing a theory? Are you investigating a new issue which has not been studied by other scholars? Or, are you planning to evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention program?
Use the introduction to communicate what you want to achieve in the research project. Do you have two objectives for your proposed research? List them both.
Fourth, explicitly state the significance of your research. Tell your readers why the proposed research is worth doing and explain its social or academic significance.
For example, if your research project may increase our understanding of an important social problem or a timely policy issue, state it in the introduction. If your research project will have great social applicability, let readers know that your research project may help a great number of people.
What Should You Write in Your Literature Reviews?
Most student research proposals require a literature review. As we explained your literature review should be comprehensive, up to date, and include all major studies on your topic.
The quality of your literature review will depend on whether you have spent sufficient time completing a comprehensive literature search and a thorough review of the literature, and whether you were able to synthesize, rather than simply list and juxtapose, the literature. When you write your literature reviews, include the following elements.
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Synthesize the Literature
Avoid narrative reviews, and instead, synthesize the literature. You need to figure out what is the story the literature tells as a whole. Following the grouping, you came up with while sorting the literature, write a systematic literature review.
For example, in your research on the relationship between the death penalty and violent crime, you may have found that the relationship is inconclusive; some researchers find positive relationships while others find negative relationships between the two variables.
In this case, you can start the literature review with a statement that the literature is divided, and then present the two groups of argument, while critically evaluating the sources of the conflicting findings. Was it because of the different measures used in different studies? Was it because of the lack of individual-level data?
Or, was it because of the difficulty to separate out the influence of complex contextual variables? In order to evaluate and synthesize, you need to take each study as a puzzle piece, ask how it fits with the rest, and find out what the emerging picture is when all of the puzzle pieces are put together.
Think about Effective Organization for the Review
When you have an idea what the “big picture” looks like after putting the puzzle pieces together, think about what would be the most effective way to present it. We often recommend our students to use subheadings, when they find sub-groups of research within the literature.
For example, if the literature that you reviewed can be categorized into the study of urban population and the study of rural population, you may discuss the studies on urban populations first, and then review studies on rural populations.
If the articles you reviewed are published over several decades and you want to indicate the historical development of the research on the topic, follow a chronological order by decades while summarizing the research trends in each decade.
If your literature reviews include several relationships, such as the relationship between gender and marital satisfaction, between religion and marital satisfaction, and between communication styles and marital satisfaction, then, you may present the findings in these three groups.
You can use tables, diagrams, or figures to summarize, make comparisons, and organize the results of your literature review when they are appropriate.
In fact, it is not unusual to find diagrams and tables in the literature review section of published research. A Venn diagram can vividly demonstrate a series of causal relationships among variables.
A table with multiple columns presenting competing theoretical perspectives or methods may be effective for certain projects. Use subheadings when your review is long or when there are clearly separate issues that classify the literature.
In doing so, you may “place them strategically to help advance your argument and allow the reader to follow your discussion more easily”. After you finish your review, you should edit and revise it several times to improve your argument’s flow, coherence, and clarity.
Write the Optimal Length
How long should your proposal literature review be? Generally speaking, it should be brief enough not to become tedious but extensive enough to inform proposal reviewers about the study’s topic. The actual length of your literature review should be determined by what it takes to provide sufficient theoretical grounds for your proposal.
Sometimes, even if you ask your supervisor or professor how many references are required, or how may page they expect, you are unlikely to receive a definite answer because it is almost impossible to give a set answer.
The number of pages in your literature review or the number of references in your proposal should be determined by the scope of your study.
Limit the Use of Quotations
If you look at published articles carefully, you will notice very few direct quotes appear in the literature review section. We recommend you to avoid direct quotes in the literature review if you can. Paraphrasing with citation is always a better style in literature reviews. Do not start paragraphs with a quotation.
Your review of a study should be comprehensive, instead of highlighting particular quotes which can be taken out of context. The rule of thumb is to paraphrase or rephrase, whenever possible, the ideas you borrow from sources.
If you use acronyms, spell them out for the first time you use them, and never assume that your readers will understand them as you do. Avoid using slang, colloquialisms, and idioms in your writing.
What Else Do You Include in Your Proposal?
Your Research Timeline
To complete your research on time, you need a specific working schedule for your research project. For example, you should list the date when you will have all your data collected and when you will have the analyses done.
In this way, you can show your project supervisor that you will be able to meet the deadline and that you can carry out your research within a reasonable time frame.
Allow extra time, as some parts of your research may not go as planned. Having your schedule specified in your proposal will help you focus on your goal and keep you motivated.
Potential Problems and Remedies
Any research has potential problems. Although you cannot predict them 100%, try to anticipate possible problems and include a “plan B” in your research proposal.
In this way, you can show that you have a planned remedy to avoid or minimize the potential problems. Usually, there are three sources of potential problems. One is related to your research design itself.
Although you strive to design the most careful and methodical research plan under given circumstances, no research design is perfect. Furthermore, even if you have planned your research well, things may not turn out the way you had anticipated.
For example, if you mail out 400 survey questionnaires, you may get only a small percentage of them back. If this is the case, you either have insufficient data for the analysis, or low response rates may introduce biases to your data.
You may experience a problem with your sample. Suppose you plan a snowball sampling design for an interview-based study of people who run marathons to mark milestones in their lives.
Snowball sampling is a method of increasing the sample size by acquiring references from participants who completed interviews. As a byproduct of its design, it has the potential of producing a relatively homogenous sample since new participants are usually friends or relatives of previous participants.
If you use a snowball sample, you should anticipate the potential lack of diversity within your sample and prepare strategies to resolve this problem; you may try to recruit interviewees from multiple geographical locations, or try to only select acquaintances, instead of friends and family of old participants who will share more commonalities.
If your research is related to highly sensitive topics, such as death, stressful family conflicts, traumatic past, or criminal behaviors, you may run into difficulty obtaining information from the participants. Many people may choose not to answer some of the key questions you wish to ask.
Think beforehand about how this may affect your research outcomes. Extra measures to protect anonymity and confidentiality, or using other means than face-to-face conversations such as writing can be helpful to address this type of challenge.
The second type of source involves issues arising as matters of routine social life during the field research process. For example, your key informant may experience personal difficulties which prevent him/her from helping your research.
Or, the social service program where you were conducting your research was cut off from its funding source and closed down in the middle of your field research.
Other times, you may realize that your presence at a research site alters participants’ behaviors, and you feel that the validity of the data is compromised. It is also possible that you have to suspend your research for personal reasons and the first batch of data you collect becomes too old and obsolete.
These are not problems inherent to your research design, but they are things often happen in real life. Even if you can never fully prepare yourself for events like these, it would be helpful at the proposal stage to think carefully about possible back up ideas for any changes in informants, research sites, or your personal circumstances that can affect the course of your research.
The third type of problem is ethical issues which develop in the process of research, especially in qualitative research. This could include obtaining consent for vulnerable populations, and conflicts between the need for data and the protection of the participants.
For example, if you are surveying or interviewing people with limited power, such as prisoners or minors, you must obtain permission from prison authorities or the guardians of the children; this could cause unexpected challenges and long delays.
By including your strategies for these occasions in your proposal, you are making yourself fully prepared for the field research. You can also show to your supervisor how likely you are to carry out effective research.
By preparing remedies to your potential problems, you will be ready for a more smooth and successful execution of your research.
It is customary to attach any relevant supplementary documents to your research proposal. What may be included in appendices varies widely.
It is best that you consult your faculty supervisor to understand which documents you should submit. For example, if you are going to use a questionnaire to collect data from your respondents, you should include a copy of your survey instrument in your proposal.
Your project supervisor or professor is likely to read carefully your survey questionnaire or interview guides to evaluate your measures for the study.
Institutional Review Boards and ethics committees also require survey instruments, interview questions, or other measures and coding schemes for ethics reviews.
If you have research site information which you could not include in your methodology section, you may also attach that as an appendix to your proposal. If an itemized budget statement is required as part of your assignment, you may submit it as an appendix document.
What Writing Styles Are Appropriate for Research Proposals?
When you write your research proposal, you should write it clearly, logically, and formally. Clearly means you state your ideas unambiguously so that your readers will understand what you intend to do.
The best way to check the clarity of your writing is to ask someone to read your proposal to see if that person has any difficulty understanding your writing. You may also team up with a classmate and read each other’s proposal so that you and your classmate may comment on them.
Logically means that you organize your writing with a clear sense of order and structure.
Formally means that you use formal language and avoid slang, colloquial expressions, or professional jargon which others cannot easily understand. One way to write formally is to use the passive voice in quantitative studies.
But for qualitative research, you may need to use the active voice. As in the case of any professional writing, careful proofreading is necessary.
Do not simply rely on computerized spelling and grammar checks; take the time to proofread your proposal, or ask a trained person to proofread your writing. Finally, maintain consistent formatting, including consistent first and second level subheadings and uniform font size and style. Also, the document should have numbered pages.
Incorporating Feedback from Faculty Supervisors
After your project supervisor, faculty mentor, or thesis committee members review your research proposal, they will provide you with helpful comments and suggestions.
Take good notes about their comments, and think about how to incorporate them to revise your research plan. Do not hesitate to ask questions, if any of the comments is unclear. This should be a productive dialogue and a good opportunity to improve your proposal and research.
Your thesis committee or your research project supervisor will approve your proposal when your research plans meet scientific and ethical standards. This means that they support your research questions and the means by which you intend to answer those questions.
When you carry out your research, you are expected to execute it according to the approved proposal. However, also keep in mind that sometimes you may not be able to do your research exactly as your research proposal stated.
As we indicated in this blog, unexpected things occur during research, which requires you to make adjustments to your research plans.
This is quite common. But if you need to make significant changes to your research plans either theoretically or methodologically, or you see your research deviating considerably from your original proposal, you need to consult your supervisor or professor for further guidance or approval.
Proposal Outline Check List
Use below outlines to structure your research proposal, if there is no required format for your assignment.
1. Title of research project
3. Literature Reviews
4. Research Methods
a. Sample size and sampling methods
b. Measures (if your study is a quantitative study)
c. Data Collection Strategies
d. Site information (if your study is done at a particular site or at a community)
e. Ethical concerns and ethical safeguards
f. Methods of data analysis
5. The significance of the Current Study
6. Research Timeline
7. Potential Problems and Remedies
9. Appendix (e.g., survey instrument, interview schedules)
Constructing a Table-format Research Timeline
Meeting the deadlines for the completion of your research is an important part of your goals. Creating a timeline at the proposal stage is essential for a balanced allocation of time for each phase of the research process.
As shown below, write in the tasks you plan to complete for each of the weeks during the research period. Below is our suggestion for a 16-week semester project. But you can modify the time allocation to fit your schedule and needs.
Week 1 Topic selection
Week 2 Information search Topic approval by the supervisor
Week 3 Reading/literature review
Week 4 Literature review
Week 5 Literature review
Week 6 Methodological design
Week 7 Proposal writing
Week 8 Proposal-completion Ethics approval and Supervisor approval
Week 9 Data collection/Field (If qualitative study) research Transcription
Week 10 Data collection/Field (If qualitative study) research Transcription
Week 11 Data collection/Field (If qualitative study) research Transcription
Week 12 Data collection/Field (If qualitative study) research Transcription
Week 13 Analysis of data
Week 14 Analysis of data
Week 15 Report-writing
Week 16 Report-writing
Practical Issues While Carrying Out Research
Even when you go on a journey with a well-prepared map, you sometimes run into unexpected obstacles. Some roads are blocked by construction. Bumper-to-bumper traffic jams highways. Or you make a wrong turn by accident and are late to your destination.
Likewise, when you carry out research and collect data in the field, you face unexpected problems. For example, your surveys could have a low response rate. Funding cuts closed down the community center where you had planned to conduct client focus groups.
Or the parents of middle school students whom you want to interview do not send the informed consent forms on time. Sometimes, you face an ethical dilemma while collecting or handling the data. You may fall behind schedule and cannot complete your research on time.
These are quite probable scenarios, even if you have a solid research proposal. Here are some questions that students ask frequently when carrying out their research project or writing their theses:
Do I have to get my research project approved by the university?
How do I carry out my data collection effectively?
What problems will I encounter in data collection?
How do I appropriately handle ethical issues?
How do I maintain good communications with my project supervisors?
How do I complete my research project on time?
These questions are not always a basic part of your research design or research report writing, but they are practical issues that you need to handle and resolve. In this blog, we discuss these issues and provide you with some practical suggestions.
Do You Have to Get Your Research Project Approved by Your University?
What types of approval you need to obtain from your university will vary by institution, but, at the minimum, you are likely to need an ethics clearance and approval from your project supervisor on your readiness for the field research project.
At this time, you should check what the official requirements are for the project you are working on.
If this is a term project required for a class, you should revisit the assignment requirements. Most of you who are using this blog are likely to be working on more substantial projects, such as Bachelors theses, honors papers, postgraduate research reports, or Master’s theses.
Typically, your university has format requirements and/or templates for these types of research papers. There may be pages of required front matters (such as an official title and signature page, an ethics statement, a copyright page, an abstract, and so on).
More importantly, there may be required sections and particular citations styles requirements for your report. It is very helpful to clearly understand these guidelines before embarking on your field research.
Before you start collecting information through interviews or questionnaire surveys, also check the procedure for a research ethics review. They may be called institutional review boards or IRBs (in the United States), or research ethics committees (in the United Kingdom).
The procedures and timeline for ethics reviews differ from one institution to another, and in different countries.
In the United States, for example, both biomedical and behavioral research protocols are reviewed by your university’s IRB. Information on the forms and procedures for student research is usually specified on your university’s IRB website.
In the United Kingdom, depending upon your type of research, you may need to obtain an approval from a research ethics committee under the UK Health Department’s Research Ethics Service or from your institution’s ethics committee through your department.
You should consult your project supervisor or professor about the procedures, forms, and documents required at your institution and apply for the ethics review.
For postgraduate research, you may be required to complete a research ethics training program before you receive the ethics approval on your research project. Keep in mind that you should not begin your data collection until you receive approval from your IRB or ethics committee.
The most important requirement for ethics approval is to make sure that the human rights of your research participants are being respected and that they will not be harmed physically, psychologically, or socially.
If there is a potential risk for your research subjects, you must take steps to minimize or avoid the risks to your research subjects. At the same time, the researchers must follow relevant policies and regulations and do their research according to the professional ethics standards.
For example, when you use a questionnaire or other research instruments to collect data from your participants, you must inform them of the purpose of your research and that their participation is voluntary.
If any participants refuse to participate in your research, or refuse to participate in parts of your research, or refuse to answer some of your questions, you should always respect their decisions. Additionally, you must tell your participants how you are going to use the data you collect from them.
The participants should know that the information you collect from them will remain confidential and for research purposes only. Whenever possible, you need to make sure that respondents’ participation in your research remains anonymous.
These can be made aware by including informed consent statements in the introduction of your survey questionnaire. In qualitative studies, obtaining signatures from the participants is often necessary.
How Can You Carry Out Your Data Collection Effectively?
Starting your field research or interviews and being effective, like anything else in life, requires a management plan.
“Successful” field research means that you are able to collect a sufficient amount of relevant data within the projected time frame. In addition, you should pace yourself appropriately, maintain your health, and avoid emotional burn-out.
But, even if you have a sound methodological design, things do not always go as planned. You need to remain flexible enough to handle unexpected developments during field research but focused enough to continue with the data collection despite distracting circumstances. Here are a few important things you need for effective field research.
Time Management Plan
Time management is an essential skill in today’s professional life that we probably do not need to explain it twice here. Constructing a realistic timeline for field research and remaining close to your timeline is one of the most important determinants of well-managed field research.
Do some mathematics; calculate the time you need to spend on each case and multiply that number by your sample size. This is the approximate number of hours you need to spend on your field research.
In addition to the time spent on data collection, you also need to add to your calculation the time you need to spend on making arrangements for site visits, travel, and contacting and recruiting participants.
Keep in mind that gaining access to your field research site (e.g., getting approval from organizational leaders, establishing relationships with people who are willing to talk to you) can take several weeks or even months before you can actually begin data collection.
In qualitative research, you should allow sufficient time to introduce your research to your informants.
Find out the maximum number of hours you can realistically set aside for your field data collection. It will vary depending on your individual situation; some of you may have most of the day available for research while others can set aside only a few hours a week because of demanding responsibilities such as work and family.
Consider the time you can reasonably allocate for your research per week, and estimate the weeks or months you will have to spend on data collection. If you plan to complete your research project within a semester, setting up a realistic timeline is extremely important.
We recommend marking weekly schedules on your calendar. Make a reasonable goal about how much progress (e.g., number of interviews or visits to research sites) you want to make each week. Your reasonable goal may be to complete two interviews per week because you can only set aside weekends.
If you can dedicate more time, set a goal to complete five to eight interviews per week. You should pace yourself considering the general routine of your life. Pushing yourself is not a bad thing, but setting an overly ambitious goal may end up producing a feeling of defeat. The key is to set realistic goals and meet those goals each week.
Consider ways to save time. If you have to visit different sites for your research, you should map out your route ahead of time and consolidate nearby site visits or interviews, for instance, visiting two sites in neighboring towns on one weekend.
If your surveys are out in the mail and you are waiting for the responses to come in, spend the waiting time preparing follow-up letters, organizing a system for the returned responses, or another task.
If you need to contact individuals for interviews, use small slots of free time during your day for phone calls so that you do not cut into larger chunks of time dedicated to research.
Small Steps, Specific Targets, and “Chipping Away”
When we ask our most productive researcher colleagues about the secret of their academic success, the most common answer we get is “making small goals and meeting them.”
You might have also heard from your supervisor or faculty mentor the importance of “baby steps.” To carry out your research effectively, it is important that you make specific goals in terms of timelines, objectives, and outcomes.
Break down your goals into specific daily, weekly, and monthly targets and record them in a table, on a calendar, or onto an organizer app on your smartphone. Even more important is to achieve those goals as planned.
Focus on the specific day’s or week’s goals rather than thinking about the entirety of work waiting to be done. Assess each day whether you met the goals for the day and record your reflections.
If you missed a goal one day under unexpected circumstances, think of a way to make up for it soon. If you are able to meet the small goals each day, you will maintain a sense of accomplishment and make steady progress without overwhelming yourself.
Keeping in Contact with Site Personnel
If your research occurs at particular sites (e.g., within an organization, a school, a government agency, or a community), your communication and relationship with people at the site will affect your research greatly. Usually, before you construct your research design, you will need to contact the leader(s) or key informants at a site to gain access.
We advise that you have an open and honest discussion with these people about your research. You probably do not need to tell them details about your hypotheses and research questions.
But you should at least clearly disclose your identity and your purpose and explain what you will ask participants to do. Risks and benefits of participation should also be explained up front.
Ethnographic researchers typically receive help from particular contacts, or “key informants,” at the sites or in the community. During your research, keep a list of the contact information of the site leaders and key informants and any emergency numbers you need to know.
Make your contact information (e.g., emails, phones) and your research schedules available to them and keep communication channels open at all times. Their cooperation is likely to be critical for your research, and it is best if you keep amicable and collaborative relationships with them.
Keeping Records Using Field Notes and Journals
Field notes and field journals can be the same documents, but for the purpose of clarification, we will make a distinction here. Field notes are the notes of your observations, questions, and theoretical thoughts during your data collection activities.
For example, while you are conducting tape-recorded interviews, you may take notes on the interviewee’s observable characteristics, facial expressions, gestures, interview surroundings, and the interviewee’s reactions to unexpected comments or situations during the interview. Any theoretical questions or thoughts you have can also be recorded in the field notes.
Bear in mind that it is most often impossible to take detailed notes on the spot. Many researchers initially “jot down” some short notes and elaborate them into longer notes as soon as they have a chance to be away from activities.
Diamond, for example, during his research in nursing homes, wrote that he took notes “on scraps of paper, in the bathroom or otherwise out of sight, jotting down what someone had said or done”.
Research logs or journals are daily records of your research activities, assessment of your activities in light of your management plans, “to do” lists, problems and your handling of them, and your daily reflections. Like a diary, this could be a space for your personal thoughts and sometimes emotional reactions to the daily happenings.
Theoretical ideas and questions can also be a part of your research journal. As you can see, there is an overlap between field notes and research journals, and we are making the distinction for a heuristic purpose.
Some of you may want to keep the log or journal as personal narratives, while others may decide to use one document to record all of these. We think this is fine as long as you have solid records of all of the elements discussed above.
Here is why notes and journals are important for you. First, as a scientific researcher, you need to keep a chronicle of the research process, as you would do when doing experiments in a science lab.
These records will be useful in examining the scientific validity of your research, gaining feedback from your supervisor and collaborators, and allowing later researchers to replicate your study if needed. Second, you need to keep a record of issues and problems during the actual research and how you respond to these problems.
This is a natural aspect of conducting research in the real world, especially if you are conducting qualitative research. Keeping notes on how you resolve unanticipated problems will allow you to develop consistent responses to repeated issues, and assess what principles you apply to unexpected problems.
Third, if your research is a qualitative study, your reflections on the daily situations and people you encounter are a part of your data. Thus, you need to record your thoughts and reflections as much as possible.
We suggest you develop a disciplined habit of writing, recording, and even photographing. You should include several relevant items in your field notes and journals.
What Are Common Practical Problems in Qualitative Research?
It is difficult to predict the full range of practical problems that you may run into during your data collection. Here are some of the more frequently encountered problems:
Gaining Access to Study Sites
Catherine was a student who wanted to conduct an interview-based study of domestic violence victims.
She contacted a few shelters but the shelter directors were reluctant to have an inexperienced student researcher conduct interviews at their sites. She then turned to her personal network to find anyone who knew any domestic violence victims.
Through a friend of hers, she connected with a young woman who goes to a local support group. The woman told her that her group meets about twice a month. After establishing a relationship with her, Catherine was introduced to the participants of the support group and was able to conduct her study.
When you are going into a community to conduct your study, gaining an introduction to the community or the group can be difficult. Gaining entry into the community is not only a challenge but also a critical factor that can shape your research outcomes. There are a few different ways in which you can make your entry into the field.
Find someone in the community who can introduce you to the community. For example, in his classic ethnographic study, Street Corner Society (1955), William Foote Whyte, needed the help of a respected figure in the community, “Doc,” to gain entry into Boston’s Italian neighborhood after he failed on his own to make contacts on the streets.
Some researchers apply for positions or sign up as volunteers to gain entry into an organization or a community. If you intend to take a job or work as a volunteer at your study site for your participant observation, you may need to obtain some qualifications.
For example, volunteering at an afterschool program as a care-taker to observe the dynamics between children may require some type of certification as a teacher’s assistant or some basic training as a childcare worker.
When you go into a community other than your own, acculturating yourself to the subcultures may be necessary. Without familiarizing yourself with the subcultures, you may experience a “culture shock,” and find yourself standing out awkwardly in the community.
If you intend to study rave culture in clandestine rave parties, for instance, you need to dress and conduct yourself in a manner that will allow you to blend in with its members.
If you select your sample from the sampling frame (i.e., the list of everyone in your study population) and have a list of their contact information (e.g., addresses, email directory, phone directory, etc.), reaching out to your participants is straightforward.
But very often, student researchers do not have access to the sampling frame. If you are using an availability sample, or snowball sample designs, you may face difficulties recruiting participants during your research.
One difficulty is finding willing participants.
When using these non-probability sampling strategies, you may use a variety of methods to find available participants, including approaching people in a public space, using your social networks to find potential participants who fit your sampling criteria.
or asking previous participants to refer you to additional participants. Keep in mind that if you are relying on the above methods, your sample is not considered a random sample (i.e., probability sample).
Your ability to generalize your findings from this type of sample to the target population is highly limited. Thus, you will need to specify the limitations of your study when you write your report.
If you are working with a population that is not clearly defined or identifiable, you may have a research design based on snowball sampling methods. Examples of such populations include homeless people, undocumented immigrants, members of secret organizations, drug dealers, or sex workers.
When you conduct a study on this type of population, you are likely to rely on the help of your participants to recruit additional participants, which is the case with snowball sampling methods.
A frequent challenge with the snowball sampling method is when the chain of referral breaks because a participant refuses to introduce an additional contact. This happened to one of us during field research on immigrant women.
After about the eighth or ninth interview, she could not obtain any additional contacts from a working mother who thought that her friends were all too busy to meet with an unknown researcher to talk about their lives.
She went back to her other participants to ask for more contacts and started a new chain of referrals. Another helpful tip when you use snowball sampling methods is to mobilize multiple chains of referrals.
Instead of starting with one person, start with two people in two different geographical locations or two different groups. Since people in the same social network tend to share some commonalities, recruiting participants belonging to different social networks has the added benefit of increasing the heterogeneity of the sample.
Making Cultural Adjustments
You should be prepared to make cultural adjustments when you conduct interviews with people from different backgrounds. You will often learn that norms of personal interaction are quite different.
For instance, in reflecting on her interview research experiences in Malaysia, Sharan B. Merriam discusses how in a culture that values and emphasizes relationships she spent substantial time in personal conversation before she asked interview questions.
Furthermore, in most interviews, family members and her contacts were present, and she had to get used to conducting interviews more publicly, instead of the one-on-one interactions she was used to in the United States.
She also learned that she needed to allocate a lot more time for an interview, considering the socializing before the interview.
Respecting the values and norms of the interviewee’s culture is not only an important element of ethical research, but it also helps you establish trust and comfort with your interviewee.
Facilitating Focus Group Discussions
Focus group discussions are group discussions facilitated by the researcher on topics that are relevant to the study. Common problems in focus group research include facilitating discussions, mediating relations between group members, and note-taking while facilitating discussions.
If you have multiple focus group discussions planned for your study, standardization of questions and facilitation of discussions need to be considered for consistency.
In facilitating focus group discussions, pay attention to allowing all participants to voice their ideas and opinions. As is the case in most group dynamics, there may be people who are marginalized in focus group discussions for various reasons (e.g., gender, race, age, or language barriers).
While emerging interactional dynamics are a natural part of focus group data, you can play a role as the facilitator in giving opportunities for quieter members of the focus group to speak their thoughts.
Though focus group styles vary tremendously, you are likely to want to maintain some level of control over discussions rather than surrender completely to developing group dynamics.
For instance, suppose you are conducting a focus group study on mothers’ ideas on healthy school lunch menus. When you ask a question about what the mothers think about the current menu offered at their children’s schools, the conversations can easily get bogged down in children’s unhealthful eating habits and idiosyncratic food choices.
Participants can become passionate about what their children do with food. In this case, you will need to decide whether to intervene and bring the conversation to the original topic of school menus or to let the conversation evolve for a while to gain insights about children’s food-related habits.
Another challenge in focus groups is to take notes while facilitating discussions. You want to follow the flow of the conversation without interrupting it to write notes;
It is best if you quickly jot down shorthand notes and elaborate them into longer notes later. If you have received informed consent forms from the participants, record the discussions using a voice-recording device.
You will later transcribe the recording and add your notes to it. Consider having another note-taker/observer in the room. You will then have a second set of notes to compare and supplement yours.
Bear in mind that voice-recorders can malfunction more often than you think. It may not record at all, or the sound quality may be too poor to understand. Make sure you test your recording device before you start the discussions. In focus group discussions where you place the voice-recorder will matter for capturing everyone’s voice.
Sources of Stress
Data gathering in the field can be exciting and stressful at the same time. A major source of stress is the difficulties and problems you encounter during research, which you need to resolve within a relatively short amount of time.
Before you begin your data gathering, prepare yourself for a bumpy ride. Be open to the possibility that you will experience trouble so that you do not panic, should you encounter it. Have alternative plans built into your research design.
When you face difficult problems, you have at least two ways to proceed. One, seek advice from your supervisors, professors, teachers, or colleagues. Two, revisit the principles of your research design and ethical standards and consider how to apply them to the situation you encounter.
Other sources of stress include juggling research with your routine life responsibilities and isolation from your peers and research colleagues. As we explained above, have a clear and reasonable time management plan, especially if you have other demanding life responsibilities in addition to your research.
Look at your time management plan with family and others involved in your life and see if it is reasonable and allows personal time to decompress and relax. You should have a regular time for rest and enjoyment.
As a student researcher, field research moves you away from a collaborative class environment to a more isolated and autonomous workspace.
You may develop relationships during data collection, especially if you are doing qualitative research, but you may feel that none of the participants can truly identify with what you experience as a researcher.
We recommend that you have a support group or a “buddy” among your peer student researchers who understand your perspective and experience as a student researcher.
We strongly recommend having a support system along with regular communications with your mentor or supervisor. They will help you greatly in easing the stress and make your field research a more enjoyable and productive experience.
What Ethical Dilemmas Will You Encounter in the Field Research Process?
Even if you have an approved research design that meets the ethical standards, you still may encounter unexpected problems in the field. In the example of the Stanford Prison Experiment discussed in an earlier blog, researchers were unable to anticipate that the research situation would develop so quickly into a stressful and volatile environment.
Even with the best intentions, it is difficult to foresee potential risks and problems in a research plan. Potential ethical dilemmas may come from different sources.
Ethical dilemmas can arise because of a blurred line between the researcher-participant relationship and personal relationships you may develop in your sustained interactions. For instance, many ethnographic researchers form personal ties in the communities in which they work and study. You may become friends with community members.
Imagine someone at your research site confided in you, as a friend, with damaging gossip about another person at the research site. What if the gossip is relevant to what you were studying? Can you use this information as research data? Probably not. It is a piece of information shared with you as a friend, and not as a researcher.
You often have great leverage in a research situation either due to community respect is given to the researcher or due to your power to control the research environment.
Because of this power, it is often very easy to slip into a situation where you misuse or overuse your power as a researcher to extract information from participants.
For example, suppose you were interviewing a teenager about the use of contraceptives and the student was reluctant to reveal details about how she negotiates contraceptive use with her boyfriend. In this situation, you cannot use your position as a researcher to coerce the story out of her. She must volunteer for it.
Conflicts of interest are a more obvious source of ethical concern. If there is a personal gain to you, other than the scientific value of the data, from collecting information or treating participants (in the case of experimental research), then you should avoid the situation.
In biomedical research, for instance, it would be unethical for a researcher to use a particular experimental drug, if he is a stockholder of the company which sells the drug.
Another possible scenario is becoming aware of information about illegal activities or activities that could hurt someone. For example, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh conducted ethnographic research on urban gangs in a Chicago public housing project.
During his participant observation, he learned, among many other things, of a plan for a drive-by shooting, an act of violence that can potentially harm someone. What should he do with this information?
Does he alert law enforcement so that they can stop this plan? By doing this, he is likely to lose the trust of the gang members and may be unable to continue his research with this group. Obviously, this is an extreme case.
On the other end of the spectrum, you may become aware of an illegal activity that has no immediate threat to others, for example, a confession of steroid use by a football player in a professional league, whom you interviewed.
In encountering these instances, you will constantly measure the risks for people involved and the benefit of continuing data collection for the participants, their communities or for the field of knowledge.
In short, the ethical concern is not a one-time issue that can be “cleared” once and for all by obtaining approval from an ethics committee. Research ethics are an on-going process you will have to negotiate throughout the research process.
What Should You Do When You Face Ethical Dilemmas?
There are no set answers to many different types of ethical problems. You need to approach the case by case, making judgments based on the ethical principles you have established. Consult your supervisor, mentor, or ethics committee when you face difficult ethical dilemmas.
Otherwise, you have to make informed and conscious decisions on your own to sustain ethical research. There is no cure-all remedy for this, but we would like to suggest a few “bottom line” issues to keep in mind:
Always disclose your identity as a researcher up front and obtain informed consent from participants. Informed consent may be obtained orally if obtaining it in writing is difficult.
“Do no harm” is an important rule to remember at all times. If you think that participants may be harmed in any way by being a part of your research or your writing about them, you should avoid the situation.
Your standards should go beyond simply “doing no harm.” The principle of beneficence requires you to do your best to secure the well-being of participants.
Carefully safeguard participants’ identities by using pseudonyms at all times, not only in your submitted reports but in your field notes as well. Prepare contact numbers for emergency hotlines or help centers when you conduct research on sensitive issues.
Take the most conservative approach possible in deciding what to do with ethical dilemmas. If you are unsure if it is ethical to write about something, it is best to leave it out of your report.
Always remember that participants are your collaborators and not “subjects.” Treat them with respect. It is ethical to consult and negotiate with participants what information you should have access to and what information you should make public.
Imagine what your collaborators (participants) will think when they see what you write about them. In fact, many researchers show participants what they write and ask them for feedback so that the representation of their stories is accurate and not harmful to them.
Once again, seek advice from your faculty supervisor, department chair, or from a contact person in your school’s Institutional Research Board or ethics committee, if you are unsure of the right action to take.
What Problems Are Common in Questionnaire Surveys?
In conducting questionnaire surveys or interviews, you may encounter methodological problems which compromise the validity and reliability of your research or even derail your research project. Problems frequently encountered by student researchers follow.
Low Return Rates
For questionnaire surveys, a major problem is low return rates. For mail-in surveys, the return rate can be extremely low. One of us worked on a mail-in survey project about families in a large city in the United States. Three weeks after mailing out 3,000 questionnaires, only 250 were returned.
The same questionnaires were e-mailed to the 2,750 selected respondents who had not returned their questionnaires. Another three weeks after the second mailing, only 110 came back filled out.
The third mailing of 2,640 questionnaires only got about 50 returns. Such a low return rate may considerably jeopardize the representativeness of the data.
Sometimes, a student may want to distribute his/her questionnaires to a specific group of respondents and collect them personally. This may increase the returning rate but it can go wrong, too. For example, one of our students wanted to conduct a questionnaire survey on family and religion among his church members.
He distributed 300 copies of his survey questionnaire to the congregation of a large church and instructed them to answer the questions and bring them back the following Sunday.
When he placed a large box at the entrance of the church to collect his surveys the following week, however, fewer than ten were returned. The number of questionnaires returned was simply too few for an analysis.
Nowadays, online surveys are becoming more popularized. Online surveys can be a convenient and efficient tool. Nevertheless, it also needs to be done properly. A student, John, wanted to conduct an online survey on university students’ diet, exercise, and sleep habits.
He randomly selected 500 student email addresses from the university’s student email directory and sent the online survey link to them. John thought that if half of the contacted students would respond to his surveys, he would have enough number of responses for his study.
Three days after he sent the surveys links using emails, John checked his online surveys and was dismayed that only seven students participated in the survey. He waited another week, but only to add 11 participants. He had only 18 surveys returned, which was much lower than what he had anticipated.
Then, John sent the email one more time to all 500 participants, but only a handful more students took the survey after the second email. He had to revise his email introduction to make it more appealing and had to add additional participants into the sample to reach out to a larger pool of potential respondents.
John also realized that he should reach students at the right time; they were unlikely to respond to surveys if they read the email in the morning when they were about to go to classes.
He sent emails at various time during the day, including late evening hours when university students were most likely to be online. Eventually, he was able to collect enough surveys to complete the study.
Even when you have designed your survey questionnaire carefully, you may receive invalid answers to your questions. For example, one of the authors conducted an interview survey that studied parental supervision and juvenile delinquent behaviors.
To get information about parental supervision of the juveniles, one of the questions asked the juveniles if they told their parents where they were going during the weekend.
During the interviews, the young respondents almost always responded to the question with a “Yes” and some smiled. The interviewee’s smile made the researchers and interviewers suspicious of their responses.
Later, the interviewers were instructed to probe more deeply for the truth by asking again if the juveniles really tell their parents where they were going during the weekend.
This time, many juveniles said “No.” Some replied that had they told their mothers where they were really going, they would not let them out of the house. Without further probing, the interviewers would not have gotten honest responses and the research on the issue could be misleading.
Sometimes, survey respondents may either over or under-report their behaviors in responding to survey questions. One of us conducted a survey on juvenile drug use. To verify the reported information, the author’s questionnaire asked the juveniles how frequently they used a non-existent drug during the previous month.
After the survey was completed, the author found that about 1% of the juveniles reported that they had used the non-existent substance. Sometimes, respondents may also underreport their deviant behavior. Either way, the information collected through survey questionnaires may not be accurate.
How Can You Conduct Your Questionnaire Surveys Effectively?
To administer your surveys effectively, consider the following issues. First, schedule your surveys appropriately. If you plan to mail out your questionnaires, you may need to consider how many waves of mailing you plan to do and think about possible return rates.
Before you start, consider how you will space out the various stages of contacts with the participants; keep in mind that you will need to contact the participants multiple times to raise response rates.
You should space out the initial contacts (for introduction letters, emails, or calls), the actual surveys (e.g., calls, online, mail-in), the waiting period for surveys to return, any follow-up contacts, and additional rounds of surveys, as needed. Plan out the intervals between these phases and calculate how much time you will need for the data collection.
Since low survey return rates are a common problem, make your introduction convincing and send it at the most appropriate time, if you do it online. It is our experience that the return rates for mail and email surveys are usually low. As you can imagine, it is very easy for people to dismiss emails from a stranger.
Also, people are reluctant to open links or file attachments from a stranger in fear of computer viruses. A few things can make a difference in improving response rates.
Your introduction letter should be professional and convincing, and you need a follow-up plan because a few people will respond to your initial contact.
In the case of email surveys, you may even consider sending emails at different times of the day as John did since respondents are more likely to answer an email when they are not busy. The lesson is that you should prepare backup plans in anticipation of low response rates.
Collecting reliable and valid information is important when you conduct surveys or interviews. One step is to add questions at different points to verify the information collected by other questions.
For example, if you ask your respondents to tell you how they feel about a sensitive social issue at the earlier part of your survey, ask a similar question in the latter part of your survey to verify the respondent’s earlier answers.
If answers to similar questions are quite different, you may need to be cautious. If you conduct questionnaire interviews, you should also pay attention to the body language in addition to interviewees’ words. An unusual facial expression or gesture may reveal something important to your research.
When you design your questionnaire, it is appropriate to ask a little more than you may eventually use. Similarly, when you conduct highly structured interviews, you may probe further when you notice something unexpected. After you have collected your data, you may fully utilize it to improve the quality of your research project.
Do not sacrifice the quality of your research project simply because you are under the pressure of time or you do not know how to analyze data. If you need help, do not hesitate to ask for help, either from your professor or from your university’s academic support center.
Maintaining Good Communications with Your Supervisor
You probably have a project supervisor or a faculty mentor. They have different titles (e.g., supervisors, professors, tutors, committee chairs, advisors), but their role is usually to guide you throughout your research.
In some schools, you may participate in regular seminars as a part of your research course; in other schools, you are expected to arrange individual meetings with your supervisor or tutor. In most cases, it is understood that you will take the initiative in your own research.
You are expected to play the active role in coming up with ideas, constructing a plan and a schedule for your data collection or field research.
Your research supervisor or mentor will assist you in making decisions on what literature to review, what methods to use, and what approaches are appropriate for your research project. We assume that at this point you have been closely working with your project supervisor or mentor.
When and how you meet with your project supervisor will depend on the institutional setting. If you have regularly scheduled class meetings, then you will have that time to communicate with your supervisor. In some schools, you have to initiate and arrange individual meetings as needed.
If this is the case, there are a few points in your research process where you may particularly want to communicate with your supervisor. These include discussions on topics, literature reviews, research designs, data collection, and analysis. You can greatly benefit from your supervisor’s feedback at different phases of your research.
Professors, especially those with research expertise in your topic area, have a great breadth and depth of knowledge in this area, and are much more experienced in doing research in general.
They are wonderful resources and support systems for you, and will be able to help you substantially. If you have already designed your research plans in close collaboration with your project supervisor, you are likely to have a solid blueprint for your field research.
You should provide your supervisor with a copy of your research proposal when it is ready. We strongly recommend you to prepare in writing your time management plan, site information, and other organizational plans and share them with your supervisor.
If you have a thesis committee, you should give all of them copies of your proposal. Routine and open communication with your supervisor should continue throughout the field research process regardless of what type of data collection you are doing.
Keep your supervisor or mentor informed about the weekly or bi-weekly progress of your data collection, even if s/he did not require you to do so. We notice that students, when they feel they are not making efficient progress, tend to stay away from their supervisors or mentors, perhaps out of embarrassment or even a feeling of guilt.
We want to remind you that this usually makes the situation worse. Give him/her updates on how you are doing and what you have been able to (and unable to) accomplish.
Do not hesitate to ask questions and ask for help and advice whenever you encounter problems, including the problem of slow progress. Supervisors and mentors are there to support you.
During the data collection phase, your supervisor or mentor can advise you on strategies for effective data collection, on the quality of data collected, and on any ethical questions, you may have. Do not forget expressing your gratitude for their help.
Weekly emails can be a great way to give your supervisor or committee members updates on your progress. Some committee members may regularly reply to you with feedback, while others may not feel the need to send responses if you seem to be doing well with your research on your own.
In either case, you will stay on the same page with your supervisor or mentor throughout the research process by providing periodic updates. Then, your supervisor can help you effectively when you need his or her assistance.
If there are potential problems in your research project, your supervisor who is much more experienced in doing research is likely to be able to point them out.
How to Complete Your Research Project on Time
A problem that students commonly have in doing research or writing a thesis is finishing on time. Many students either cannot complete their project on time or rush the last part of their work.
When a student submits a research report or thesis in a hurry, the quality of the paper is compromised. Some have to rework their papers considerably to meet their professor’s requirements.
Generally speaking, there are three reasons for such a problem. First, many students do not realize that doing research and writing a research report is as time-consuming as it is.
They often underestimate how demanding the work is. Second, some students do not plan their research work or have an unrealistic timeline.
Some students simply do not adhere to their schedule even if they had a good timeline for the research project. Third, many students unconsciously give other classes priority.
When deadlines and exams in other classes press on, their research work tends to be pushed aside by the urgent demands of their other classes. It is generally not a good idea take many other demanding courses at the same time when you have to dedicate yourself to a research project.
To complete your research and finish writing on time, you should realize that a research project is time-consuming and demands a substantial work schedule.
While giving yourself some leeway in completing your research and writing your final report, you should do your best to follow your self-imposed research schedules.