Dissertations are highly important not only as standard evaluation tools in awarding degrees to undergraduates, Masters, or PhD students – these are also important because they teach students how to work with academic literature and information sources within their fields, how to analyse, integrate, present complex data from different sources, how to properly cite evidence, formulate research goals, objectives, hypotheses, etc. Importantly, they also teach students to work with dissertation methodology – an ability that is of great use in the UK’s information society.
What Is Methodology?
A methodology section is the dissertation part that answers two key questions: how exactly research is performed and why exactly it is performed the way it is? These questions address: data collection techniques, sampling techniques, data analysis strategies, theoretical frameworks used to model processes and phenomena – their use must be justified considering alternative techniques/ methods.
A proper dissertation methodology structure is expected to:
- List the original research questions and argue that the methods used are suitable for approaching these questions, based on what is known from literature.
- Inlist and describe methods, models, design strategies, statistical methods, data analysis pipelines, etc. in such a manner that they can be applied by others outside the immediate context of this project.
- Present explanations and arguments supporting utilisation of these methods to the detriment of alternative ones. Careful consideration must be taken to select reliable methods (or innovative methods with big potential) that are able to address the research questions.
- Describe the pros and cons of selected methods. It must be clear that you are aware of both the advantages and trade-offs but nevertheless consider that these methods will perform best when compared to others.
Common Types of Dissertation Methodology
Depending on the discipline, one can distinguish several types of studies:
Scientific studies. Methods should be described precisely, concisely, comprehensively, without leaving place for speculation – all these to prioritize transparency and reproducibility. Such studies normally list and describe, equipment, techniques, model organisms, experimental designs, including various controls.
Studies in social or behavioural sciences. These studies might use qualitative, quantitative, or mixed approaches, particularly surveys, interviews, observation, controlled experiments. Methods must be compliant with ethical norms as stated, for instance, by the UK’s Research Ethics Service supports ethical research in the NHS.
Critical dissertations in arts or humanities – here, methodology is not as defined as in scientific works, but is still required. Methods may be represented by innovative and creative theoretical frameworks, for instance, combining different schools of thought, or by application of a certain framework in a new context – all these need to be clearly justified.
Creative arts dissertations. Some UK and international programs in arts require a creative sample or portfolio of written or visual artwork along with a critical auto-evaluation text that tries to make authors take a detached perspective and reflect on the methodology of creating their own art.
5 Common Dissertation Research Methods
The methodology section of dissertation is typically a combination of methods, many of which are discipline-specific. Some frequently employed methods are as follows:
interviews – these are direct face-to-face (or telephone/ Internet) conversations in which comprehensive and personal answers can be provided, which qualifies them as primarily qualitative methods. Questions can be adaptive.
questionnaire – subjects are presented with lists of questions, typically with standardized answers to pick from, hence, questionnaire-based surveys typically serve as quantitative tools.
observation – this involves observing individuals/ animals/ systems, typically, to make conclusions about their behaviour in specific circumstances.
controlled experiments – these are experiments that are manipulated so that a single variable is tested at a time. Independent variables are altered to witness how systems, organisms, on dependent variables are impacted.
computer simulations – these implement models that aim to describe and predict the behaviour of various systems, including living systems.
Example of a Methodology Section
Below is a dissertation methodology example for a biological project focussing on just one objective:
Objective: to prove successful creation of a fusion protein between a DNA-binding domain (zinc-finger) recognizing a unique DNA sequence and an enzyme participating in a bacterial biosynthetic pathway, which produces a violet pigment from a precursor chemical; and to prove that this fusion protein has not lost its function, while also becoming capable of binding DNA specifically. This objective is very easy to test using very simple biophysical laboratory techniques.
Methodology (2 controlled experiments):
To test whether protein function has not been impaired, the unaltered enzyme was compared to the fusion construct by using a colorimetric assay – the concentration of the violet end product is assessed by measuring light absorption at the wavelength-specific for violet light – 450 nm. (Increased light absorption indicates presence end product adundence, hence, an active enzyme). Equivalent amounts of each enzyme were added to 1 ml vials containing solution with the chemical precursor (5% concentration). Synthesis of the violet-coloured end product was monitored at time intervals of 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 minutes for each protein and obtained time-series were compared. This assay is the most direct, simple, and effective way of testing protein function, hence, it was chosen as a preferred method – especially considering that it yields quantitative results (and even allows temporal resolution).
To test whether this fusion construct forms a complex (binds) the target DNA sequence, electrophoretic mobility shift analysis was used on a polyacrylamide gel of X% for a total duration of 20 minutes. This assay is an electrophoresis experiment that tests migration of three biological samples in three distinct lanes: lane 1 has only DNA with the target sequence (negative control), lane 2 contains DNA and non-binding protein, and lane 3 contains DNA plus binding protein (our fusion construct). Only DNA is imaged. Unlike in lanes 1 and 2, in lane 3, the heavier DNA-protein complex formed is expected to migrate slower in an electric field, which demonstrates DNA binding. This assay is a standard molecular biology technique and was chosen because it is very straightforward, cheap, easy to perform, and very informative. In particular, one can also assess DNA-protein complex stability – if binding is weak, dissociation happens, which yields another band in lane 3 (corresponding to the unbound DNA in lanes 1 and 2).
Now that we’ve explored how to write a methodology for a dissertation as well as the studies types and their corresponding methodology, it should be easier to visualize and conclude which type is suitable for a given research paper or project. Besides, it should be clearer now how to produce a good methodology structure.