What Is the Research Process? | Steps & Explanation

Tackling your thesis or dissertation can be daunting. However, there are several steps you can follow to make the process less daunting and more systematic.

The research process usually starts with choosing a general topic you want to concentrate on. After reading up on the topic, you can identify a research problem that hasn’t been addressed yet by other researchers.

The research problem can be used to formulate research questions, which in turn inform the research design. Once you have these elements, you can write up a proposal outlining your ideas and plans.

The steps of the research process are detailed below to help guide you through developing your ideas into a feasible research project.

Step 1: Choose a topic

Deciding on your research topic is the first step, and you can choose something broad initially. Consider the general field that interests you. This might be something you’ve studied before in classes or something you already decided on by the time you applied to your program or wrote your statement of purpose.

While you may have some background knowledge of your topic already, preparing for your research project requires reading up on the topic in more depth to build a solid foundation of knowledge and begin narrowing your focus.

A literature review can be a starting point for useful sources. Take notes of what you read and any potential problems, gaps, questions, or debates. In this way, you can identify a specific niche for your research to occupy.

When deciding on the scope of your work, be sure to be pragmatic. Your program requirements, time constraints, and access to sources and data all pose limitations on the extent of the research you can undertake. Be sure to communicate with your advisor regarding your topic selection.

Step 2: Identify a problem

Useful research is specific and purposeful. Defining your research problem is key to ensuring that your research addresses a given need.

Your research problem can relate to something practical, such as an organizational issue, a challenge impacting a particular group of people, or a practice that isn’t producing the desired results.

You can also research a theoretical problem, such as a conflict between models or theories, a point of debate, or a phenomenon or relationship that has received little attention thus far.

To situate the problem and determine the specific objectives of your research, write a problem statement. This statement lays out who the problem impacts, why further research is necessary, and how your work will help to solve the issue.

Step 3: Develop research questions

Once you’ve singled out the research problem you want to address, you can move on to formulating your research question(s). Effective research questions aim to evaluate, explain, describe, or compare aspects of the research problem.

Research questions should be precise, focused, and answerable using qualitative and/or quantitative methods. The question should be complex enough that it requires careful research and analysis to find the answer. As such, “yes/no” questions are not suitable research questions.

Certain types of research may also require the development of a conceptual framework and hypotheses at this stage.

Using AI tools (e.g., ChatGPT) to brainstorm research questions and hypotheses can be a helpful way of considering different ideas, but you shouldn’t use AI-generated text for your actual research project. Doing so is considered plagiarism and is likely to be flagged by any plagiarism checker or AI detector tools your university uses.

Step 4: Create a research design

Your research design lays out how you will answer your research questions. The research design determines the type of data you’ll use, your methods for collecting and analyzing it, and the location and timeline.

There are numerous approaches you can take to your research project, and the one you choose will depend on your objectives. For example, do you want to solve a specific issue, describe an overarching phenomenon or trend, or identify the causes and effects of the problem?

The type of research you are conducting will influence whether you use qualitative or quantitative methods and primary or secondary sources.

Step 5: Write a research proposal

Once you have completed the first four steps, you can tackle writing your research proposal. In this text, you will present the context, relevance, purpose, and plan of your research project.

Beyond providing an overview of the background and detailing the problem statement and research questions, your research proposal should include a literature review showcasing how your work relates to and expands upon existing research on the topic.

Another section of the proposal should be dedicated to the research design, including your approach and the steps you will take.

Your advisor may need to approve your proposal before you can dive into the research process, and the proposal will remain a reference point for you throughout your research and writing process.

Frequently asked questions about the research process

What is the first step in the research process?

Before you can conduct a research project, you must first decide what topic you want to focus on. In the first step of the research process, identify a topic that interests you. The topic can be broad at this stage and will be narrowed down later.

Do some background reading on the topic to identify potential avenues for further research, such as gaps and points of debate, and to lay a more solid foundation of knowledge. You will narrow the topic to a specific focal point in step 2 of the research process.

How many steps make up the research process?

The research process comprises five steps.

Once you’ve written your proposal, you may need your advisor’s approval of your plan before you can dive into the research process.

What is a research design?

The research design is the backbone of your research project. It includes research objectives, the type of sources you will consult (i.e., primary vs secondary), data collection methods, and data analysis techniques.

A thorough and well-executed research design can facilitate your research and act as a guide throughout both the research process and the thesis or dissertation writing process.

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