(Last updated on: 31/08/2021)
Many students will find themselves asking how to structure a research project, dissertation or thesis whilst undertaking their degree. In many aspects of life, we are encouraged to be individual and unique. We are encouraged to develop our own style and personality. In academia, however, this is often not the case. Formats to be used for student work are generally pretty standard and structuring a research project is no different.
In this post, I will guide you through the various chapters of a research project, whether this is at undergraduate, masters or PhD level. To see an example in practice, feel free to take a look at my PhD thesis on TEFL tourism.
How to structure a research project
Most universities will require you to structure a research project in a way similar to the one I am about to outline. I do, however, recommend that you check with your institution for any specific guidelines and requirements that they may have.
This is the first page that readers of your research project will see and it will influence their first impressions. First impressions are very difficult to change so make sure that this page looks professional. Your university might require you to place the institution logo or include a particular phrasing- this is something you should check.
Whilst you won’t get any direct marks for the acknowledgments section, it is a good idea to put some thought into this. Traditionally, this is the place where you will pay reference to anybody who has been involved in your research project. This will usually include paying homage to your research project supervisor(s), any relevant lecturers, your research respondents and anybody else who has supported you (academically or otherwise) including friends and family.
This should be a concise overview of your research project. It will include the key elements such as the conceptual framework, the research methods employed and the key findings.
Your contents page should be clear and well organised. Don’t rush this at the end or there might be mistakes.
It should list each chapter, headings and subheadings with pages. It should also include a list of tables and figures.
The introduction chapter will set the scene for your research project. This should provide some context and rationale for the research project (i.e. why are you doing it). It should also demonstrate clear aims and objectives. These aims and objectives are the foundations of your research project and should be well developed, giving specific details. You should pay reference to these throughout the various chapter and then demonstrate how they were addressed at the end of the research project in the conclusion chapter.
For help on aims and objectives visit this post- ‘How to write awesome aims and objectives’.
You will also need to demonstrate a clear research question or hypothesis for your research in the introduction chapter.
This should be a review of all of the relevant literature in your subject area. You need to demonstrate a clear conceptual framework. You also need to ensure that you are analytical throughout the chapter. EVERYTHING must be referenced appropriately.
A literature review requires a lot of reading so you need to ensure that you develop some effective reading strategies. You might also want to do an annotated bibliography.
For tips on how to make this chapter great visit my post- ‘How to write an awesome literature review’.
Your methods chapter provides the theoretical underpinning to your research project methodology. It gives (or doesn’t give) your research credibility. In this chapter you need to demonstrate that your findings are based on a well-developed and scientifically credible methodology.
Things that should be included in this chapter are: research philosophy; ontology and epistemology; research approach (qualitative or quantitative); methods (interviews, surveys etc), sampling and ethics. Many people recommend using the research onion to help organise this, I’ve written a simple explanation of it here- ‘The research onion for beginners’.
I also recommend that you use some of the excellent research methods books available to you- I recommend Social Research Methods by Bryman and Research Methodology: A Step by Step Guide for Beginners by Kumar.
This is where you will present and analyse your results. Most students lose marks here because they simply do not know what to do with the data once they have it. It is also common that students have not planned their time very well and are rushing this chapter (which is usually worth a fair chunk of their marks!).
The way that you present your results will differ depending on the type of data that you have collected. Generally, qualitative data lends itself to the use of diagrams, charts and quotes. Quantitative data lends itself to the use of tables and graphs.
You will need to develop a method of analysis. This might be a coding system if you are analysisng qualitative data. It could be the use of descriptive statistics, bivariate analysis or multivariate analysis for quantitative data.
This is the most important section of a research project, dissertation or thesis, yet it will typically receive the least attention. This is largely due to students running out of time or having a poorly integrated project (i.e. the literature does not link with the research findings).
This section needs to bring the whole project together. It should discuss your findings in relation to the literature. It should analyse these points. You might also develop models or new theories.
For more on how to write an awesome results and discussion chapter check out this post- ‘How to write an awesome results and discussion chapter‘.
Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Work
Lastly, you will need to conclude your research project. Don’t rush this, this will be the last bit that your supervisors will read and you want to leave them with a good impression!
In this chapter you need to re-visit your aims and objectives, clearly stating how these have been achieved. You should summarise the key findings and demonstrate how your research has contributed to knowledge.
You will also need to reflect on what aspects of your research was subject to limitations. Don’t make yourself look bad here, just acknowledge that your research isn’t perfect and that there is scope for improvement. You might, for example, discuss limitations in terms of resources such as money or time. You might also state the areas that the research project did not investigate due to the size and scope of the project.
Everything that is cited in the text should be referenced and visa-versa. Make sure that you use your institution’s chosen referencing style.
Use this section to include any content that is relevant to your project but that you did not feel should be included in the main text. This often includes examples of consent forms, survey questions and supplementary diagrams or images.
Lastly, you will need to make sure that your project is suitably formatted. Alongside being pretty strict on how to structure a research project, many universities will ask you to provide a bound copy of you research, so make sure that you allow time for this. They might also have specific requirements for font size and style, word count, margin size etc.
How to structure a research project
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into a research project! It is important that you know how to structure your research project, but also that you plan for all of the stages of the research from writing your aims and objectives right through to your discussion chapter. Planning your time is a key element in this and I recommend that you take a look at my post ‘How to plan your time for a research project’ to help with this.