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Project Planning for the Beginner: Defining a Topic

This Sage Research Methods tool is designed for the first time researcher to guide you through your research project.


Before you start your research, you need to define your topic and develop a research question or hypothesis. You already know your general area of interest, which is probably linked to your discipline of study. Next, you have to specify a particular area of interest which is appropriate for research and which you will enjoy working on. Before choosing a topic, it might be useful to read some of the basics about why we do research, if you haven’t already.

How Can I Decide What to Study?

First, you should think about these three points:

  1. Your project must be something that interests you enough to keep you motivated to start researching it, keep researching it and finish writing it up. If possible, do research on something you are fascinated by or on an issue you are passionate about.
  2. You must have enough understanding of the area you’re interested in to do something useful when you investigate it. Think about what you know about the way that social scientists engage with your topic area and be willing to read around your topic to learn what you don’t already know.
  3. You may be lucky enough to be able to embark on a project which is entirely your own. You may be working on a project which your university supervisor has designed already. Or, you may be employed as a professional researcher on a project defined by someone else. Whatever your circumstances, choice remains an important consideration. You need to like your topic to have the motivation to succeed.

Top Tips for First Time Researchers

What Practical Things Should I Think About Before I Start My Research

A research project has to be doable. That means that you must be able to see not only what it should be and how it might be done in the most ideal possible set of circumstances, but also how you could do it given your time, money, existing resources, knowledge, and expertise. You should be able to do enough to fulfill the aim of your research and, in one way or another, add to our knowledge of the social world.

Every research project is constrained because we never have limitless resources. So, you have to make sure that you have enough resources in hand to get the job done. These constraints include:

• Time available

• Material resources required

• Ethical approval

The first constraint is always your own time. The following aspects are all important, but some will be more vital to you than others.

What is the deadline for the production of the research output? This could be a submission deadline for students or any other deadline for other researchers.

How much of your own time can you devote to the project? There are always other calls on your time, some of which you can anticipate. For example:

Other work: An undergraduate or Master’s student might have to get other assignments done alongside their dissertation/thesis. A PhD researcher might have teaching or research assistant commitments.

Other aspects of your life: Remember you should have one! Friends, family, work—it’s good to have balance.

Think as if Murphy’s Law always holds—if something can go wrong it will. This might not be the case, but if you anticipate what could go wrong and how you could deal with it, then you won’t be overwhelmed if it does happen.

You will usually need a computer of your own and access to secure back-up storage. For researchers without access to a personal computer, it is still possible to do good research with no more than a pen and a pad of paper, but it is harder.

It’s important to have somewhere to work—this could even be your own bedroom, but you have to have somewhere to think and to write in reasonable peace and comfort.

Do you need to travel to do your research? Is there transport available? Do you have the money to pay for travel?

Do you need to employ assistants? Have you got the money to pay them?

Do you have access to the people or the place that you will be researching, or can you get it?

Depending on your research area, gaining ethical approval may involve differing amounts of time and effort. You will likely have to produce one of the following before beginning your research.

You may simply require an adequate statement about ethical issues in your research proposal. “Adequate” means you have identified the potential ethical issues and said how you would handle them in doing the research.

For most research in Health and related areas, such as Social Care, you will have to submit a detailed ethical statement to a formal body for approval. You will have to be able to justify not only the ethical conduct of the research, but also argue for the appropriateness of the methods you deploy. This can be tricky when the approval body does not include members who understand your approach.

You may have to get some sort of certification before you can engage with your research subjects. For example, if you are doing any research with children, you may have to get police clearance, which demonstrates that you have no record of child abuse which would make it inappropriate for you to engage with them. Remember, this takes time.

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