When starting a PhD, there is often a great mystique surrounding the selection (and writing-up) of the proposed methodology. It is important to remember that the term “methodology” means more than simply describing the methods that are intended to be used for the collection of research data, it is the constructed system of methods proposed, and how they interact. Importantly, in order to understand the data which might be generated by the research, it is critical to first understand the rules which govern the various research methods selected, their strengths and their limitations. The selection of a variety of methods will enable the researcher to gather different types of data, and to look at the research area from complementary angles. As always, it is the role of the supervisor to help the research student put together the best methodology for the research project, that is to say, the best combination of methods through which the student proposes to gather new data on the topic. In most circumstances the supervisor will already have an established preference for one or more methods. It might be necessary to include a second, or third, supervisor who has expertise in a complementary a different set of methods, particularly for multi-disciplinary research.
There are many ways of gathering research data, but broadly they can be divided into three major methodological approaches; these are quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. I do not propose to go into much more detail here – there are whole volumes written on even the specific sub-categories of these approaches – but briefly, quantitative research explores through the measurement of phenomena, while a qualitative researcher looks for the emergence of themes or patterns in the evidence provided. A “mixed-methods” approach is not simply a randomly constructed “a-bit-of-one-and-a-bit-of-the-other” style, but it does use both qualitative and quantitative analysis to provide complementary perspectives on the same research topic.
The reason that so much early attention is given to establishing the methodology of the proposed research project is partly because the confirmation of the methodology will determine how the researcher looks at the world emerging through the data; partly, also it will condition the forms of analysis, the reliability, and the compatibility of the research data produced. Any fool can go out and collect data, but getting hold of the type of data which will allow reasonably reliable conclusions to be established is a different matter. In some cases, the choice will be easy. There may be a very limited number of tried-and-tested ways in which an experiment can be constructed, or there might be a very similar study already published, the replication of which to the new subject area might facilitated a useful extension and comparison of knowledge. The supervisor may even have pioneered a particular combination of methods over a long research career and therefore be in a position to give the research student advice on very practical issues, as well as the theory. The literature review is, of course, one element of the methods of research, and the published academic records will likely reveal a quite precise range of options to follow. In any event, it is worth thinking hard right at this stage, in order to avoid false starts and perhaps false data later on.