Writing your dissertation methodology
What is a methodology?
Your methodology section appears immediately after the literature review in your dissertation, and should flow organically from it. Up until the point of writing your methodology, you will have defined your research question and conducted a detailed review of what other scholars in the field have to say about your topic. You’ll have also reviewed the ways in which these scholars have arrived at their conclusions – the assumptions on which their work is based, the theoretical frameworks they've used, and the methods they've used to gather, marshal and present their data. You will have used these observations, along with discussions with your supervisor, to plan how you're going to tackle your research question. This could be planning how you'll gather data, or what models you'll use to process it, or what philosophical positions most inform your work. Following this, your dissertation methodology provides a detailed account of both how you'll approach your dissertation and why you've taken the decision to approach it in the way you have.
What should my methodology look like?
Your methodology needs to establish a clear relationship between your research question, the existing scholarship in your field that you have surveyed as part of your literature review, and the means by which you'll come to your conclusions. Therefore, no matter what subject area you're working in, your methodology section will include the following:
While the outline of your methodology section will look much the same regardless of your discipline, the details are liable to be quite different depending on the subject area in which you're studying. Let's take a look at some of the most common types of dissertation, and the information required in a methodology section for each of them.
Common types of dissertation methodology
A scientific study
The methodology section for a scientific study needs to emphasise rigour and reproducibility above all else. Your methods must appear robust to the reader, with no obvious flaws in the design or execution. You should not only include the necessary information about your equipment, lab setup, and procedure to allow another researcher to reproduce your method; you should also demonstrate that you've factored any variables that are likely to distort your data (for example, by introducing false positives into your design), and that you have a plan to handle these either in collecting, analysing, or drawing conclusions from your data.
Your methodology should also include details of – and justifications for – the statistical models you'll use to analyse your data. Remember that a scholar might use any single part of your methodology as a departure point for their own work; they might follow your experiment design but choose a different model for analysing the results, or vice versa!
A study in the social or behavioural sciences
As with a scientific study, a social or behavioural sciences methodology needs to demonstrate both rigour and reproducibility, allowing another researcher to reproduce your study in whole or in part for their own ends. However, the complexity of working with human subjects means there are a number of additional questions to consider. First of all, you'll want to answer certain broad questions about the kind of analysis you're undertaking: is it qualitative or quantitative, or a mixed approach that uses qualitative data to provide context and background to quantitative data (or vice versa)? Will you be conducting recorded interviews with your subjects, asking them to complete a written questionnaire, or observing them undertaking some activity or other? Or will you avoid doing your own research with human subjects at all, and base your research on documentary evidence or a pre-existing data set? What is the scope of your data and conclusions? Is there reason to believe it can be generalised to other contexts, or is it highly specific to the particular location or cultural context in which you conducted your research?
In addition to answering all these questions, you must satisfy your reader that you have considered all the ethical questions associated with your research. Part of this, of course, entails obtaining sign-off for your design from the appropriate ethics bodies, but even then there might be aspects of your study – inviting subjects to relive episodes of grief and trauma, for instance, or broaching culturally sensitive matters within a particular target group – that some readers could consider contentious or problematic. Make sure you address such concerns head-on, and if necessary justify your methods by emphasising the potential value of your conclusions.
A critical dissertation in the arts or humanities
Methodological rigour is just as valuable in the arts and humanities as in the sciences and social sciences. However, if you're writing an arts or humanities dissertation the way in which you convey this rigour – and convince your audience of it - is a little different. The methodology section in an arts or humanities dissertation is likely to be much more closely linked to the literature review than a scientific or social sciences study; even the most innovative dissertation in the arts or humanities typically involves applying X's theories in a new context, or combining X and Y's insights to yield a new theoretical framework. For this reason it can be tempting to gloss over the methodology section in an arts or humanities dissertation, and move more or less seamlessly from literature review into analysis. But it's crucial that you provide a detailed justification of your chosen frameworks and how they relate to your research question here too; without this justification a critical reader may very well take issue with your entire analysis because you've failed to convince them of the appropriateness of your theoretical underpinnings to the material you're analysing.
In particular, it's vitally important that your dissertation methodology shows an appreciation of the historical and cultural contexts of the theoretical frameworks you use, especially where there's fundamental disagreement between theorists. If you use the work of theorists from differing or even opposing schools of thought to support your readings, your methodology section should show a clear understanding of how these schools of thought disagree and a justification of why there are nevertheless aspects of each approach that you've decided to use in your own work.
A creative arts dissertation
Many programmes in the arts offer the option of completing a creative rather than critical dissertation; that is, of submitting a piece of creative writing or a portfolio of artworks, rather than an extended critical project, for the dissertation component of the programme. However, in virtually all cases, your creative project must be accompanied by a substantial critical essay (or introduction, or commentary) that theorises your creative practice. Critically engaging with one's own work is a notoriously difficult thing to do, which makes the development and adherence to a rigorous methodology especially important in this context. You need to not only show that you're capable of detaching yourself from your own creative work and viewing it through an objective lens, but that you are able to see your own creative practice as methodology – as a method of creating work that is grounded in theory and research and that can be evaluated against clear target goals.
What should my methodology not contain?
No part of your dissertation should be hermetically sealed off from the others, and there will undoubtedly be some overlap between your methodology and literature review section, for example. You might even find yourself moving material back and forth between sections during edits. But you should resist the temptation to include the following in your dissertation methodology, even if they seem to belong there quite naturally:
Deciding on your methodology
When you start your dissertation project, you may already have some broad ideas about the methodology you want to use. You'll refine these ideas in conversation with your supervisor and develop them further as you read about the previous work that has been done in your field, and other scholars' approach to your subject area. If you're completing a postgraduate dissertation, the chances are you already have a broad awareness of the different theoretical positions and schools of thought in your field, and you may well have a good idea of the schools of thought with which you most closely identify (and, just as importantly, those you don't identify with). If you're writing an undergraduate dissertation, this may very well be the first time you've been asked to engage with such a broad field of literature, and categorising this into distinct approaches and schools of thought may seem like an overwhelming task at first.
Regardless of your level, your dissertation methodology will develop as you review the literature in your field and refine your initial research questions. Your literature review and methodology will therefore develop in tandem with each other. Your response to the literature will help you decide on the approach you want to take to your research question, but your methodology will probably already be decided by the time you actually write up your literature review, meaning that you can frame it so as to position the methodology as a clear, organic and natural progression from your survey of the field. It should be noted, of course, that your methodology won't only be determined by the modes of inquiry or schools of thought that appeal to you most; there are likely to be practical considerations that determine how you approach your problem. Unless you happen to have access to a particle accelerator at your university, the chances are your quantum physics project will be based on theoretical projections rather than physical experimental data.
What makes a great methodology?
The answer to this question depends in part upon whether you're writing an undergraduate or postgraduate dissertation. For most students, an undergraduate dissertation is their first opportunity to engage in detail with scholarship in their fields and to design and conduct a rigorous research project. In an undergraduate dissertation, you therefore need to show a capacity to engage with a broad field of research, to synthesise diverse and even opposing approaches to a problem, and to distil this down into a design for a research project that will address your research questions with the appropriate level of scholarly level. The ability to synthesise what you've learned from scholars in your discipline, and to shape that into a methodology that you can use to shed light on your research question, is, therefore, key to a successful undergraduate dissertation. The best undergraduate dissertations will of course show originality of thought and may even be able to make an original contribution to their field – but the focus will generally be on demonstrating that you have the fundamental research skills to undertake investigative work in your field.
"The ability to synthesise what you've learned from scholars in your discipline, and to shape that into a methodology that sheds light on your research question, is key to a successful undergraduate dissertation."
A postgraduate dissertation, by contrast, can be expected to make a substantial contribution of high-quality, original research to its field. The best postgraduate dissertations will be publishable by leading journals, or even as scholarly monographs. As you build your career as an early career researcher, the impact of your dissertation on its field – as measured by citations in the work of other scholars – will be crucial to enhancing your academic reputation. It's important to remember that the dissertation's value to other scholars won't just be its findings or conclusions, and that your research's emerging importance to the field will be measured by the number of scholars who engage with it, not those who agree with it. Although some scholars may well cite your conclusions as a basis for their own work, a far greater number of citations is likely to result (regardless of discipline) from your development of a framework that other scholars can use as a point of departure for their own work. If you've come up with a methodology that is both original and grounded in the research, this will probably be the aspect of your work that other scholars value the most. Their own work might build upon, develop or modify your methodology in some way; they might apply your methodology to a different data set in order to contest your findings, or they might even take it and apply it in a new context that hadn't even occurred to you!
The best postgraduate dissertations are those that convince at every level – that are based on a rigorous engagement with the field, that develop reproducible frameworks for engaging with that field, and that supply high-quality and convincing results and conclusions. But the methodology is the central point around which the dissertation – and its potential impact to the field – pivots. When developing and presenting your dissertation methodology, you should therefore think not just about how well it can answer your particular question, but also about how transferable it is – whether it can be used by other scholars to answer related questions, or whether it can be made more adaptable with just a few tweaks (without compromising your own use of it, of course). And when presenting your dissertation, don't forget to emphasise the value of the methodological framework you develop, if it is indeed adaptable to other related contexts. You're underselling your research if you suggest its only value lies in its conclusions, when the approach it takes to your data or source material in arriving at those conclusions is potentially of equal if not greater value.
Presenting your methodology
Your dissertation methodology, as we've now discussed in some detail, is the engine that drives your dissertation, and as such it needs to be grounded, theoretically rigorous, and, where possible, sufficiently adaptable to be used in other contexts to answer different research questions within your field. However, in focusing on all this it's easy to forget that all dissertations – even the seemingly driest, most scientific of them – are fundamentally pieces of persuasive writing: their primary purpose is to convince readers of the quality of your research, the validity of your methods, and the merit of your conclusions. A crucial but often neglected component of this persuasive function is the role of rhetoric in persuading your audience of the merits of your work. Rhetoric has acquired something of a bad name in mainstream discourse (phrases like "pure rhetoric" or "empty rhetoric" tend to signify superficiality and/or dishonesty – and certainly nothing positive!) but it's an important component of all types of academic writing, and it's particularly valuable when you're attempting to convince your reader of the validity of a particular choice – like your choice of methodology.
In their seminal book on scholarly writing, "They Say / I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein discuss what they call the art of metacommentary, "a way of commenting on your claims and telling others how – and how not – to think about them". This kind of commentary allows you to control the agenda for discussion of your work, and to head off potential objections to your arguments and methods at the pass. Sound rhetorical presentation of your methodology is not just "decoration" – it forms an integral part of its overall rigour and structural soundness, and can make the difference between a 2:1 and a First, or between a merit and a Distinction. Here are some of the ways in which you can use metacommentary to shape your audience's response to your methodology.
The roads not taken
It's very likely that the approach you've taken to your research question is one of many approaches you could have taken – and in your literature review you probably engaged with or read about lots of approaches that, for one reason or another, you decided not to take. Your methodology chapter is not the place to go into detail about these methodologies (hopefully your literature review does this), but you should remind your reader that you actively considered these other methodologies before deciding on your own. Even if you decided on your methodology early on in your research process, it should appear rhetorically as the result of a careful weighing of competing factors, before you decided on the most logical choice.
A little reassurance goes a long way
Judicious use of metacommentary can also help to make up for any shortcomings in your methodology section, or simply create a sense of balance between scholarly groundedness and innovation if your methodology might seem to veer a little too much in one direction or another. If your methodology takes a bold new step that some may find off-putting, you can acknowledge this whilst taking extra care to emphasise its grounded relationship to established work in the field. You might, for instance, ensure that you refer back to your literature review frequently and use phrases like, "This approach may seem like a significant departure from established approaches to this field, but it combines the proven data-gathering techniques of X with the statistical analysis model of Y, along with the following innovations". Conversely, if your methodology is mostly derivative or a synthesis of what has come before, use the opportunity to spell out why this synthesis is in itself innovative, for example, "This project's key innovation does not lie in its approach to human subjects or in the statistical models it employs, but rather in the combination of approach of theory X and approach Y to problem Z”.
Flagging what each section of an argument is doing is vital throughout the dissertation, but nowhere more so than in the methodology section. You can significantly strengthen the justification you provide for your dissertation methodology by referring back to your literature review and reminding your reader of conclusions you've drawn – and if you're feeling really confident you can gently hint to your readers that they agreed with you, using a formulation like, "As we have seen, method X is extremely useful for approaching questions related to Y, but less applicable to problem Z". You should be careful with this approach, of course – claiming you've proved something when this transparently isn't the case isn't going to bring your readers onside – but if your argumentation is already strong, rhetorical techniques like this can help underline the structural coherence of your work.
Defining your own terms
If you don't define your own measures for success and failure, readers can infer from the overall structure of your argument the terms on which it was trying to succeed, and judge it accordingly. On the other hand, defining your own set of success criteria and help (within reason) helps to ensure that your readers evaluate your work on these terms. Again, your dissertation methodology is a critical space in which to establish these criteria: "This research does not make any claims about human social behaviour while consuming alcohol beyond the current context of X. It may, however, be possible to adapt the methodology to examine similar phenomena in contexts Y and Z”. By the same token, you can also prevent your readers from drawing unintended inferences from your work by anticipating them: "By adopting this methodology I am not suggesting that the statistical analysis of responses will be a reliable predictor of X; I do, however, believe that the strong correlation between Y and Z is in and of itself a valuable insight”.
Your methodology is a vital section of your dissertation, which both demonstrates your ability to synthesise the range of information you've read in your field, and your capacity to design original research that draws from the traditions and precedents of your discipline to answer your research question(s).
It's not only your results and conclusions that may prove valuable to other scholars in your field; they may decide to use or adapt your methodology in a different context that hasn't even occurred to you. Your dissertation methodology should therefore offer value in and of itself, and be both rigorous and reproducible.
Your methodology section allows you to rationalise and justify the approach you've taken to your research question(s), and to define your own criteria for the project's success. You should take care with the rhetorical presentation of your dissertation methodology to ensure its merits – and those of your results and conclusions – are presented in the best possible light. Many students consider applying an academic edit to their completed methodology section to ensure that it contains each vital step for a high quality submission.