How to write a methodology

In your thesis or dissertation, you will have to discuss the methods you used to undertake your research. The methodology or methods section explains what you did and how you did it, allowing readers to evaluate the reliability and validity of your research. It should include:

  • The type of research you did
  • How you collected and/or selected your data
  • How you analysed your data
  • Any tools or materials you used in the research
  • Your rationale for choosing these methods

The methodology section should generally be written in the past tense.

Step 1: Explain your methodological approach

Begin by introducing your overall approach to the research. What problem or question did you investigate, and what kind of data did you need to answer it?

  • Quantitative methods (e.g. surveys) are best for measuring, ranking, categorising, identifying patterns and making generalisations
  • Qualitative methods (e.g. interviews) are best for describing, interpreting, contextualising, and gaining in-depth insight into specific concepts or phenomena
  • Mixed methods allow for a combination of numerical measurement and in-depth exploration

Depending on your discipline and approach, you might also begin with a discussion of the rationale and assumptions underpinning your methodology.

  • Was your aim to address a practical or a theoretical problem?
  • Why is this the most suitable approach to answering your research questions?
  • Is this a standard methodology in your field or does it require justification?
  • Were there any ethical or philosophical considerations?
  • What are the criteria for validity and rigorousness in this type of research?

In a quantitative experimental study, you might aim to produce generalisable knowledge about the causes of a phenomenon. Valid research requires a carefully designed study with controlled variables that can be replicated by other researchers.

In a qualitative participant observation, you might aim to produce ethnographic knowledge about the behaviours, social structures and shared beliefs of a specific group of people. As this methodology is less controlled and more interpretive, you will need to reflect on your position as researcher, taking into account how your participation and perception might have influenced the results.

Step 2: Describe your methods of data collection and/or selection

Once you have introduced your overall methodological approach, you should give full details of the methods you used to conduct the research. Outline the tools, procedures and materials you used to gather data, and the criteria you used to select participants or sources.

Quantitative methods

Surveys
Describe where, when and how the survey was conducted.

  • How did you design the questions and what form did they take (e.g. multiple choice, rating scale)?
  • How did you find and select participants?
  • Did you conduct surveys by phone, mail, online or in person, and how long did participants have to respond?
  • What was the sample size and response rate?

You might want to include the full questionnaire as an appendix so that your reader can see exactly what data was collected.

Experiments
Give full details of the tools, techniques and procedures you used to conduct the experiment.

  • How did you design the experiment (e.g. between-subjects or within-subjects)?
  • How did you find and select participants?
  • What tools or technologies did you use in the experiment?

In experimental research, it is especially important to give enough detail for another researcher to reproduce your results.

Existing data
Explain how you gathered and selected material (such as publications or archival data) for inclusion in your analysis.

  • Where did you source the material?
  • How was the data originally produced?
  • What criteria did you use to select material (e.g. date range)?
Quantitative methods example

The survey consisted of 5 multiple-choice questions and 10 questions that the respondents had to answer with a 7-point Lickert scale. The aim was to conduct the survey with 350 customers of Company X on the company premises in The Hague from 4-8 July 2017 between 11:00 and 15:00. A customer was defined as a person who had purchased a product from Company X on the day of questioning. Participants were given 5 minutes to fill in the survey anonymously, and 408 customers responded. Because not all surveys were fully completed, 371 survey results were included in the analysis.

Qualitative methods

Interviews or focus groups
Describe where, when and how the interviews were conducted.

  • How did you find and select participants?
  • How many people took part?
  • What form did the interviews take (structured, semi-structured, unstructured)?
  • How long were the interviews and how were they recorded?

Participant observation
Describe where, when and how you conducted the observation.

  • What group or community did you observe and how did you gain access to them?
  • How long did you spend conducting the research and where was it located?
  • How did you record your data (e.g. audiovisual recordings, note-taking)?

Existing data
Explain how you selected case study materials (such as texts or images) for the focus of your analysis.

  • What type of materials did you analyse?
  • How did you collect and select them?
Qualitative methods example

In order to gain a better insight into the possibilities for improvement of the product range, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 8 returning customers from the main target group of Company X. A returning customer was defined as someone who usually bought products at least twice a week from Company X. The surveys were used to select returning customer participants who belonged to the target group (20-45 years old). Interviews were conducted in a small office next to the cash register, and lasted approximately 20 minutes each. Answers were recorded by note-taking, and seven interviews were also filmed with consent. One interviewee preferred not to be filmed.

Step 3: Describe your methods of analysis

Next, you should indicate how you processed and analysed the data. Avoid going into too much detailyou should not start presenting or discussing any of your results at this stage.

Quantitative methods

In quantitative research, your analysis will be based on numbers. In the methods section you might include:

  • How you prepared the data before analysing it (e.g. checking for missing data, removing outliers, transforming variables)
  • Which software you used to analyse the data (e.g. SPSS or Stata)
  • Which statistical methods you used (e.g. regression analysis)
Quantitative methods example

Before analysis the gathered data was prepared. The dataset was checked for missing data and outliers. For this the “outlier labeling rule” was used. All values outside the calculated range were considered outliers (Hoaglin & Iglewicz, 1987). The data was then analysed using statistical software SPSS.

Qualitative methods

In qualitative research, your analysis will be based on language, images and observations. Methods might include:

  • Content analysis: coding and categorising themes and ideas
  • Narrative analysis: looking at storytelling structures and tropes and interpreting their meaning
  • Discourse analysis: looking at communication and meaning (including language, images, and nonverbal interactions) in relation to their social context
Qualitative methods example

The interviews were transcribed and open coded to categorise key themes and identify patterns. Each theme was analysed to gain a deeper understanding of participants’ perceptions and motivations.

Step 4: Evaluate and justify your methodological choices

Your methodology should make the case for why you chose these particular methods, especially if you did not take the most standard approach to your topic. Discuss why other methods were not suitable for your objectives, and show how this approach contributes new knowledge or understanding.

You can acknowledge limitations or weaknesses in the approach you chose, but justify why these were outweighed by the strengths.

Lab-based experiments can’t always accurately simulate real-life situations and behaviours, but they are effective for testing causal relationships between variables.
Unstructured interviews usually produce results that cannot be generalised beyond the sample group, but they provide a more in-depth understanding of participants’ perceptions, motivations and emotions.

Tips for writing a strong methodology

Remember that your aim is not just to describe your methods, but to show how and why you applied them and to demonstrate that your research was rigorously conducted.

Focus on your objectives and research questions

The methodology section should clearly show why your methods suit your objectives and convince the reader that you chose the best possible approach to answering your problem statement and research questions. Throughout the section, relate your choices back to the central purpose of your dissertation.

Cite relevant sources

Your methodology can be strengthened by reference to existing research in the field, either to:

  • Confirm that you followed established practices for this type of research
  • Discuss how you evaluated different methodologies and decided on your approach
  • Show that you took a novel methodological approach to address a gap in the literature

Write for your audience

Consider how much information you need to give, and don’t go into unnecessary detail. If you are using methods that are standard for your discipline, you probably don’t need to give lots of background or justification. But if you take an approach that is less common in your field, you might need to explain and justify your methodological choices.

In either case, your methodology should be a clear, well-structured text that makes an argument for your approach, not just a list of technical details and procedures.

Discuss obstacles

If you encountered difficulties in collecting or analysing data, explain how you dealt with them. Show how you minimised the impact of any unexpected obstacles. Pre-empt any major critiques of your approach and demonstrate that you made the research as rigorous as possible.

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

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