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A common struggle for graduate and post-graduate researchers is defining the scope of their investigations. Armed with tons of new knowledge and research on a topic of interest, choosing a research focus can make you feel like a kid in a candy shop. Especially if you have a deep, personal interest in your topic (which is ideal), narrowing the scope of your investigation can seem daunting. I recently reviewed some preliminary research questions drafted by a PhD candidate who was embarking on his dissertation journey. After talking with him, it became wonderfully clear that he was deeply passionate about the topic he’d chosen. While listening to him talk about the issues he wanted to research, I began to feel passion for those same issues – his excitement was contagious! The problem was that his research questions were so broad that he was really trying to cram about a dozen different studies into one.
To feel excited about your topic is wonderful, but it can create challenges if that passion makes you want to investigate every possible element of your topic or issue. Assuming your goal is to finish your dissertation and graduate, narrowing your research scope is absolutely critical. Otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for a project that will take several years to complete. Because my intention is always to help my clients move through the dissertation process as quickly and efficiently as possible, I’ve created a list of strategies you can use to help limit your research scope if this seems like something you’re struggling with.
1. Examine the structure of your research questions
Ask yourself if each question is truly only assessing one thing (relationship, perspective, experience, etc.). I’m going to give a hypothetical example about cookies (because I am hungry). This example is incredibly simplistic, by design. Let’s say you want to do a study on the most-loved cookies in the U.S. But you don’t just want to know which cookies are favored by the population, but also why they are favored. You discovered a number of factors (based on the existing research, of course) that make people favor different types of foods, including the food’s texture, sweetness, and aroma. So the aim of your study is two-part: (a) to discover which cookies are favored and (b) how texture, sweetness, and aroma make people gravitate toward certain types of cookies. Resist the urge to cram this into a single question, such as “How does texture, sweetness, and aroma determine the most favored cookies in the United States? No… you actually have four questions (which you could easily
organize into subquestions, if needed):
RQ1. Which cookies are favored by the U.S. population?
RQ2. How does texture affect individuals’ cookie preference?
RQ3. How does sweetness affect individuals’ cookie preferences?
RQ4. How does aroma affect individuals’ cookie preferences?
Each of the questions in this example are focused on one thing. Ensuring the simple focus of each research question will help prevent you from inadvertently trying to examine too much in a single investigation.
2. Consider how many research questions you have
Try to limit your investigation to no more than four or five questions – In my experience, 2-3 is optimal. If you’ve got more than five questions, I would strongly recommend looking at how you might streamline your scope and ditch a couple of those questions.
3. Look at the gaps your study will address
You don’t need to address every gap in knowledge or practice that exists relative to your topic — one or two is just fine. Be clear and specific, and leave the other gaps to future researchers (or you — if you go on to be an academic, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to expand upon your dissertation research).
4. Be realistic about your timeframe
Overachievers, listen up. Think about the time you have available to gather your sample, conduct data collection, and complete the analysis. If you’re on a tight schedule and only have a couple months available for data collection and analysis, you must keep that in mind when defining your scope. Generally, studies with a broader scope will require a larger sample and more intensive data collection and analysis processes. Really think about what you can achieve in your given time frame, and then narrow according to what you can realistically accomplish during that period.
5. Consider the resources available to you
This is a big one. Sure, we’d all like to conduct intricate population studies and wow the world with our findings, but large, detailed studies where massive samples are used and the relationships between a bevy of variables are examined tend to be very resource-intensive (read: $$$). Even utilizing smaller studies that leverage online survey companies, such as Qualtrics or SurveyMonkey, can end up costing a few thousand dollars. Maybe you’re dreaming about traveling overseas to conduct phenomenological interviews – be realistic about the associated costs. Maybe it is more feasible to interview 10 people from one village in Africa than to travel to five different villages to collect data.
Your goal is to finish. A streamlined investigation with well-defined boundaries will better serve you in the accomplishment of this goal than a study that is too broad or overly ambitious (and this advice is coming from someone who truly understands what it is to be overly ambitious). If you’re struggling with your scope (or any other aspect of your investigation), reach out to me for a free consultation!