Saturday, November 3, 2012

Developing Research Aims and Objectives

Research (Photo credit: suttonhoo)
by Andreas JW

Step 1: Choose an area you are interested in (obvious I know but too often ignored). If you are going to spend a significant amount of time on the study you may as well choose something that is of interest. Your study will be better for it. Jotting down a couple of areas or ideas might be a good first step to take.

Step 2: Try to uncover what else has been written in these areas that interest you. Are there any dilemmas, things that don't add up, issues that could do with further research? (Very often the authors of research papers will tell you what, in their opinion, future research avenues may look like - take the tip).

Step 3: Scanning (note, I don't mean reading) the literature for areas that have recently attracted much research attention might help your idea generation. Be careful though, just because something hasn't been done before doesn't mean it is a good research project. There might be a very good reason why no one has bothered to explore a particular issue to date.

Step 4: Once you have come up with what you think is a good aim, try to develop some objectives. This detailed work on the proposed study will assist you in uncovering any pitfalls with the aim. There are numerous definitions as to what an aim is and also what an objective might be.

For our purposes, the aim is the overall purpose, the objectives can be regarded as milestones, interim steps that will help you achieve your overall aim. There is no hard and fast rule as to how many objectives to have.

If you have too many it is likely your research is too broad. If you have too few, you may lose track of your study. The key purpose of the aim and objectives is to provide you with a guide to keep you on track (it is very easy to become sidetracked in research).

Step 5: Objectives usually cover things like key areas in the literature that need to be explored, an outline data collection statement, and possibly some comment on data analysis (e.g. the study will apply X's framework to assess job satisfaction in company Y).

Avoid these common pitfalls

Don't choose an aim which is unachievable. There could be various reasons for this relating to lack of resources:

o Time (e.g. longitudinal studies take a long time, the clue is in the title!)
o Money (yes, it's a nice idea conducting face-to-face interviews across five continents but who is going to fund your round the world trip?)
o Research Skills (now you've distributed your survey and got your 500 questionnaires returned all you need to do is conduct a series of factor analyses ... while it is laudable and indeed the purpose of the course to extend your knowledge, unless you have some affinity with statistics do not propose a method you have no or little understanding of).
o Research material (e.g. data analysis software ... how else were you going to undertake the factor analyses?)
o Contacts (yes, we'd all love to interview Richard Branson, and why not Bill Gates while we're at it ...)

Be careful not to choose an aim that is too ambitious/unrealistic

o If a zillion people have already tried to answer a specific research question/aim but to no or little avail then be very careful going down the same path (unless you are convinced you are bringing something novel to the show!). Yes, please work out how to turn base metals into gold and then reveal your secret to me!
o "This study aims to explain how leadership affects company performance." Nothing is ever this straightforward in the social sciences. How leadership affects performance will depend on a multitude of contextual factors, not least what you mean by leadership and performance. An interest in better understanding the impact of leadership on performance is a good starting point but your study needs to be more specific.

Do not ignore the literature

o You could be reinventing the wheel
o I know of no study that was entirely inductive.
o Without some knowledge of the literature in your area, how do you know what your contribution is to be?
o It would be impossible to value your contribution if not set in the context of existing knowledge.

Bear these tips in mind and you won't go too far wrong - Good Luck! For further advice on many aspects of studying, from writing essays to avoiding plagiarism, visit

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