How to Plan a Piece of Research

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by Dr. Catherine Armstrong

It is a real challenge to give advice on planning a research project because the procedure is so different for each academic discipline. A social scientist, a scientist and a humanities scholar are going to have contrasting methods and theoretical frameworks that need to be accommodated and satisfied, so consequently the idea that ‘one size fits all' when it comes to research projects seems increasingly unworkable.

However, there are some general rules that will apply to everyone and may give you that extra piece of advice and encouragement needed to set you off on your own project, whether at postgraduate, post-doctoral or senior levels.

1. Working alone or with others?

Whether you are the sort of person who prefers to work alone or in a team of people, there are some general rules for research. For many a research project is a lonely time that calls for long periods of working in an isolated way, perhaps in a library, archive or laboratory. You have to be incredibly self-motivated (we'll come to that in a minute!) and confident in your abilities to complete the task at hand. However, at other times during your career you may be required to work on collaborative projects, perhaps with a single supervisor or mentor, or in a large team that could stretch across different sites around the world. Many funding bodies are keen to support research projects that bring in members of the team from different disciplines, so you might find yourself working with scholars from all sorts of backgrounds. This can prove challenging for methodological reasons: an historian and a literature scholar do not have the same ways of working, do not use the same tools to analyse their source material, for example. It can also be difficult for personal reasons. Dividing up tasks, trying to find common ground, combining research results can be challenging for those scholars more suited to working alone.

2. Time management

The key to a successful research project is being a good time manager. It is the difference between cramming for a project or exam at the last minute at undergraduate level and moving on to a more mature way of working at postgraduate level and beyond where you work slowly and steadily towards your goal. Research is not an exact science of course. There will be times when you are waiting, idly, for results to come in, and others when everything seems to be happening at once. But if you plan your project meticulously from the start then time management should naturally emerge from that plan.

3. Careful planning

Whether working in a group or alone, planning is extremely important. You need to have an idea of how and why you are conducting the project and how you will record and report the results. Nothing ever goes exactly to plan, so it is a good idea to have a little flexibility built in to your timetable in order to allow for those unforeseen problems or results. The best advice here is ‘be realistic'. Do not try to set yourself deadlines that simply cannot be achieved. Your university and funding bodies will be far more impressed with looser targets that are met rather than ambitious ones that are missed.

4. Funding

This is often the crucial factor in a research project. The amount of funding won can determine the extent of the project and frequently its direction too. Funding can mean you are able to hire your own research team and run international events, while lack of it can mean that you are struggling to make ends meet while finishing the project. Funding can be acquired from many different sorts of bodies, depending on your discipline. If you are unsure where to start looking, ask your supervisor or a senior member of your university department. Funding applications are long and complicated affairs so allow plenty of time for this part of the process. Many universities now have administrative departments that will support scholars trying to make funding applications. If this is the case then take full advantage of that support as any help you can get at this stage will be useful. Some funding bodies have key ‘buzz words' that they look for in a particular funding application round, so talk to those who have successfully applied. Ask what is popular in your discipline and try to tailor your project to that if possible, without compromising its integrity.

5. Institutional support

As well as helping you with funding applications, you will probably find that your university will be keen to support your research in other ways. This is because of the increased prestige it brings and also the government funding that they will receive if they are seen to be promoting research activities in this way. You may be provided with secretarial support to help bring your project to fruition; as mentioned previously there could be support in producing funding applications. In a practical, financial way your university might match any external funding you have received. They might provide you with office or lab space to conduct your research or house research assistants.

6. Dissemination

The final key factor to think about is how to disseminate your research to other scholars and the wider public. You will almost certainly have to consider this at the start of the process because funding bodies will want to know how you plan to communicate your results to your peers. There are many alternatives to consider; you can run workshops or conferences based on the themes of your research to allow experts in the field to come together and discuss your findings. Or you could think about publications, perhaps in a journal article or even a monograph or edited collection. Decide whether online or print media would be the best option for you and try to work out the appropriate timescales for getting your work published, bearing in mind the long turn-around times that many journals and publishers have for processing proposals. Again, build all this in to your plan and as long as nothing has gone wrong, you should have some concrete findings to present to your audience in a recognisable format at the end of the process.

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