When you start to think about your research project, a useful way of remembering the important questions to ask is to think of the five ‘Ws’:
Once you have thought about these five ‘Ws’ you can move on to think about how you are going to collect your data.
What is your research? This question needs to be answered as specifically as possible. One of the hardest parts in the early stages is to be able to define your project, so much research fails because the researcher has been unable to do this. A useful tip is to sum up, in one sentence only, your research. If you are unable to do this, the chances are your research topic is too broad, ill thought out or too obscure.
Why do you want to do the research? What is its purpose? Okay, you might have been told to do some research by your tutor or by your boss, but there should be another reason why you have chosen your particular subject. It might be solely to do with the fact that you are interested in the topic. This is a good start as you need to be interested in your research if you are to keep up your enthusiasm and remain motivated. Or you might have identified a gap in the research literature – this is good as it shows you have carried out careful background research. Or perhaps you want to try to obtain funding for a particular service or enterprise and you need to do some research first to find out if there is demand for what you are proposing.
Whatever your reason, think very carefully about why you are doing the research as this will affect your topic, the way you conduct the research and the way in which you report the results. If you’re doing it for a university dissertation or project, does your proposed research provide the opportunity to reach the required intellectual standard? Will your research generate enough material to write a dissertation of the required length? Or will your research generate too much data that would be impossible to summarize into a report of the required length? If you’re conducting research for funding purposes, have you found out whether your proposed funding body requires the information to be presented in a specific format? If so, you need to plan your research in a way which will meet that format.
Who will be your participants? At this stage of the research process, you needn’t worry too much about exactly how many participants will take part in your research as this will be covered later. However, you should think about the type of people with whom you will need to get in touch with and whether it will be possible for you to contact them. If you have to conduct your research within a particular time scale, there’s little point choosing a topic which would include people who are difficult or expensive to contact. Also, bear in mind that the Internet now provides opportunities for contacting people cheaply, especially if you’re a student with free internet access.
Where are you going to conduct your research? Thinking about this question in geographical terms will help you to narrow down your research topic. Also, you need to think about the resources in terms of budget and time that are available to you. If you’re a student who will not receive travel expenses or any other out of pocket expenses, choose a location close to home, college or university. If you’re a member of a community group on a limited budget, only work in areas within walking distance which will cut down on travel expenses.
Also, you need to think about where you’ll be carrying out your research in terms of venue. If you’re going to conduct interviews or focus groups, where will you hold them? Is there a room at your institution which would be free of charge, or are you going to conduct them in participants’ own homes? Would it be safe for you to do so?
Would you be comfortable doing so? If you’ve answered ‘no’ to either of these last two questions, maybe you need to think again about your research topic. It can happen and you must never put yourself in a dangerous situation. Think very carefully about whether your chosen topic and method might have an influence on personal safety.
When are you going to do your research? Thinking about this question will help you to sort out whether the research project you have proposed is possible within your time scale. It will also help you to think more about your participants, when you need to contact them and whether they will be available at that time. For example, if you want to go into schools and observe classroom practice, you wouldn’t choose to do this research during the summer holiday. It might sound obvious, but some students present a well-written research proposal which, in practical terms, will not work because the participants will be unavailable during the proposed data collection stage.
Once you have thought about these five ‘Ws’, try to sum up your proposed project in one sentence. When you have done this, take it to several people, including your boss and/or tutor, and ask them if it makes sense. Do they understand what your research is about? If they don’t, ask them to explain their confusion, revise your statement and take it back to them. One can’t overemphasise the importance of this stage of the research process. If you get it right now, you will find that the rest of your work should flow smoothly. However, if you get it wrong, your problems could well escalate.