Whether you’re preparing a thesis, a paper or an essay, if you’re reporting on a study you have conducted, the method is crucial. This is the section that your readers will use to check how you conducted your research, so it’s vital that you clearly demonstrate what you did and how you did it. You can have the most beautifully nuanced findings in the world, but if the reader doesn’t know how you got to them, they won’t be able to trust in the validity of your work.
This sounds super serious, but don’t panic – although important, methodologies are one of the easier sections to write, as they tend to follow a specific structure and are all about reporting what you did. The good news is, you did that stuff! So you are the most uniquely qualified person to write about it. Check you out.
The level of detail you need in your method section will vary depending on the type of paper you’re writing. For example, a systematic review will need a much longer and more detailed method section than a small interview study. The following tips will be useful no matter what type of method section you’re working on.
- Write your method first; in fact, start whilst still doing the study
When you’re in the midst of recruiting participants, juggling interview schedules or scouring databases for papers, it can feel like you will never forget the steps you took to get from A to B (and then to C and E and H). However, you’d be amazed at how quickly these details can vanish if you haven’t been taking careful notes. As such, we recommend starting to write your methodology section almost in real-time – as you’re doing the actual study. Yes, you’ll need to edit it later, but getting those key facts down while they’re fresh in your mind can save you a whole host of hair-pulling further down the road. Additionally, since the method can be straightforward to write, this is a great way to combat empty page syndrome. Yes, you’ve still got some of the longer sections to write, but you’ve made a start, and that’s always a good feeling.
- Follow the subheadings set out by your target journal or your institution
In their guidance for authors, journals often include a list of subheadings that they expect to see in a method section. This can be helpful, as the headings make it clear exactly what you need to include and what you can leave out. If you’re writing up a thesis, check with your supervisor or in your institution’s handbook to see if they also suggest subheadings. If they do, use them. Start by writing each subheading into a Word document, then make bullet points of all the relevant info for each one. You can shape those points into paragraphs in the next step.
- Succinctly provide enough information so that someone can follow the steps you took and (where possible) replicate the study
Traditionally, the point of the method section is to give your readers enough information to replicate the study if they want to. This idea is more suitable for quantitative experiments – where you have a certain amount of control over the various variables – than qualitative research, which is led by participants and their stories. However, the principle still applies. Following the suggested subheadings, as per the point above, should help with this.
You need to tell the story of what you did and how you did it. How did you contact and recruit participants? Where did you conduct your interviews? How did you record them? Which methodology did you use to analyse your data? Did you use any software to help you? Who gave you ethics clearance? All these questions will need to be answered. And, importantly, they should be answered using as few words as possible. This section is about presenting the facts, not flowery language. If you’re writing for a peer-reviewed paper, you’re likely to have quite a tight word count. If your method section is concise as possible, this frees up more words for your findings.
- Think carefully about anonymisation vs information about participants
If you’re writing up a qualitative study, as most PGPR clients are, you need to think carefully about how much information you’re going to provide about your participants. Demographic details about the participants which have a bearing on the research question need to be provided, but participants’ identities must be protected. This information will often be presented in a table. Let’s say you’re writing up a study about what it’s like to give birth to your first child. Your table might include participants’ pseudonyms/ID numbers, their age, the age of their child and their ethnicity. You might choose to leave out where they live and their occupation. However, if your study is about young working mothers, occupation is more important, so you would include that, but perhaps leave out other details. Always check your consent form to be sure you’re not conveying any information that participants haven’t given you permission to share.
- Ensure you provide enough info about the fit between your research question and your method
Unfortunately, there are still quite a few reviewers and examiners out there who don’t understand or trust qualitative methods. As such, you need to ensure that your justification for using the methodology you’ve picked is ironclad. You may only need a sentence or two, but do include some lines to explain why qualitative methods are the perfect fit for your study, even if it seems really obvious to you!
- Save discussion of difficulties for the limitations section
Research is unpredictable. Things go wrong, and that’s fine. You might not have been able to recruit as many participants as you’d hoped. Some interviews might not have recorded perfectly. You might be new to qualitative methods and have struggled with analysis. None of these are reasons to beat yourself up; we’re all learning, all the time. If things have gone less than brilliantly, state that plainly in this section. You can then go on to talk about the implications of those hiccups and what you might do next time in your limitations section, all whilst reminding yourself that even the most esteemed professors run into difficulties at times. You’ve still completed your study and that is brilliant.
- Contact PGPR
If you’re struggling with your method section – or any other area of your write-up – just get in touch with us via the box below. We’re a friendly team of qualitative and mixed methods experts who can help you with feedback, proofreading and word reduction on this and any other section of your thesis or paper.