How to write about methods and methodology in your PhD thesis

September 17, 2020

Too often, methods and methodology chapters get caught up in endless discussion about the philosophy or theory or history of a technique, but the relevance to the actual project is unclear.

So how do you write about methods and methodology in an engaging way?

How to write about methods and methodology

In general, the best way to approach any kind of academic writing is to present information as a response to a specific situation, problem, question or need (see this post on literature reviews for an example). By putting the problem or question first, the information you then present is placed in a context where the relevance is clear from the start.

In the case of your methods and methodology, the problem is; given the goals and constraints of this project, how are we going to approach it?

Your methodological choices are responses to the specific goals and constraints of your project, so by putting a specific need first, you give the reader a reason to be interested in the detail that follows.

An example

Let's say you're using an unusual approach in your work. You need to lead the reader to the conclusion that this approach is justified.

In order to understand X, we need a reliable measure of ... .

Here there's a problem to solve. Now let's say there are a few options you could have used;

A number of standard techniques are available to do this, such as A, B and C. However, because these techniques use ..., they may be unsuitable for use in ...

Now you've eliminated some options in response to the constraints or needs of the project, you can then introduce the new method;

To address this, we apply a novel technique combining...

You can then go into as much technical detail as you want about this approach.

Philosophical approaches

You can treat philosophical approaches the same way; as responses to the needs and constraints of your project.

Because this project aims to understand the subjective experiences of the individual participants and how these influence the collective culture...

The research paradigm is then framed as response to a specific need.

For more on research paradigms, ontology and epistemology, check out this excellent post by Salma Patel

Project constraints

The goal of a methods or methodology chapter is not to show how much you know about the techniques you use, but to show how you've approached your work and why you did it that way.

The examiner wants to see your thought process; how you've thought through the practicalities of your research and arrived at the decisions you've made.

There will be big decisions, like whether to use technique A or B. These will generally come first, so the reader gets an overview of the general approach. Then there may also a lot of small decisions and adaptations to the specific conditions of your project.

For example, if you're doing interviews involving young children, you may have to adapt the questions to ensure they understand. Or if your participants have time constraints, making sure you interview them at a convenient time.

Thoughtful responses to specific needs and constraints. That's all you need!

See also

Academic writing: context is everything

How to write a compelling literature review

How to write your PhD thesis without going insane (full lecture)

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