Constructing a Study Design: Aligning Research Question with Methodology, Design, and Degree Program

Constructing a Study Design: Aligning Research Question with Methodology, Design, and Degree Program

The topic is set and the background for the problem is on the page. After starting and stopping, then staring at the computer screen and looking around the room a few times, a question begins to form: What is it that I want to know? Still more starting and stopping, staring at the computer screen, perhaps adding pacing around the room, until a new question emerges: How do I form the research question that will help me as well as others understand why the problem I’m posing really is a problem for my field of study?  Such moments occur in every researcher’s experience. Ensuring a quality topic and research problem that is manageable and aligned with a method, a design, and one’s degree program or field area is a challenge for most researchers, but is especially challenging for emerging researchers who often want to change the world with a single study. A strong research study is a study that has a narrowly focused problem in one’s discipline that is well-defined; well-defined problems can be carried out to conclusion in a timely manner with accuracy, meticulousness, clarity, and focus.

Booth, Colomb, and Williams (2008) observed that a two-part structure occurs for both practical and conceptual problems: A situation exists and there are undesirable outcomes caused by the situation (p.54). The research question then becomes a way to begin to understand the “so why is this significant to know” portion of the practical or conceptual problem. As Booth, Colomb, and Williams (2008) noted, for practical problems, there is a cost involved to someone or some organization if nothing is done; for conceptual problems, there is a consequence involved if nothing is done (p.57). Most academic research problems are conceptual, and Booth, Colomb, and Williams (2008, p. 56) proposed that conceptual problems are often more challenging because the conditions and costs involved with the problems are not tangible but theoretical. Therefore, it is up to the researcher to be able to explain clearly what it is not known or understood currently about the problem, why the problem has significance, and what the potential practical application might be once the problem is addressed.

The research question also has to align with a methodology (quantitative, qualitative, or mixed) as well as with a specific design that is supported by the methodology. The language of research methods is critical in shaping the research question to align with a methodology. Quantitative methodologies measure or count or experiment. Quantitative research questions generally begin with words or phrases like “What factors” or “What is the relationship between…” or “How will X relate to Y….” or “Why does Group A outperform Group C…” Language such as “relationships,” “affect,” “influence,” “cause,” “number,” “validity,” and “amount” are terms linked to quantitative research methods and should be used only with quantitative studies for correct alignment. Quantitative method research questions need some type of hypotheses to test.

Qualitative methodologies focus on understanding a range of lived human experiences, describing a social phenomenon/culture, or generating a theory to be tested in future research. Typical qualitative research questions begin with words or phrases like “How” or “In what ways” or “What,” which establish an open approach to gathering information. Mixed methodologies blend the two methods in particular sequences and use designs from each method that not only align with the specific methodology but also be mixed in specific ways to address the research question (Plano Clark & Ivankova, 2016, p.106).   

An important rule of thumb for a well-designed, well aligned research study is a clearly developed central research question and either strongly developed sets of hypotheses for quantitative research or a strongly developed set of 2-4 sub-questions for a qualitative research study. Mixed methods will need an overarching central research question for the entire study as well as a research question to govern the quantitative research portion of the study (with hypotheses) and a central research question with appropriate sub-questions for the qualitative research portion of the study. Both the quantitative research portion and qualitative portion of the study must answer the overarching central research question. A key point to remember is that the more questions and hypotheses that exist in a study, the more difficult the study is to conduct, to manage, and to write up. Well-defined, well-scoped studies are easier for researchers to conduct, to manage, and to write. Take the time to prepare the study by reading critically, widely, and exhaustively in all aspects of the study – from content and background through the methodology and design that will be used.

Lastly, for dissertations and publications, aligning the study to a degree program or field of study is necessary. For dissertations, the emphasis on alignment to degree program or field of study is to ensure that the doctoral candidate can conduct discipline-specific research on a problem within the given field within an appropriate timeframe. The tradition in doctoral education is for the dissertator to make some insightful contribution to the field in which he or she receives the doctorate. For future publications, aligning studies to a degree program or to a larger field of study ensures the researcher can find grants, journals, conferences, and other publication venues where his or her work can be received well by colleagues and to continue building the discipline’s or field’s knowledge base.

In short, a research study that is in alignment across all aspects – research question, methodology, design, and degree program or field of study – are “solid, display mastery of the field, and are executed competently and confidently” (Lovitts, 2005, p. 19). The studies are thoughtful, have a proper use of the methods, yield relevant results that are interpreted well. The dissertator demonstrates that he or she can manage a full-scale large research project in the discipline; the seasoned researcher demonstrates an original, current contribution to the field.



                Booth, W., Colomb, G. & Williams, J. (2008) The craft of research. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                Lovitts, B.E. (2005 November-December) How to grade a dissertation. Academe: 18-23.

Plano Clark, V. & Ivankova, N.V. (2016) Mixed methods research: A guide to the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE


Guillermina Trevis's picture Guillermina Trevis | February 22, 2017 11:11 am MST

Hello Dr. Gavin,

I had you in my second year residency. I have gone to SAS central, and contacted everyone who matches what I am looking for. Is it common only to see 4-5 people who meet my criteria. I have sent emails to four of the fice dissertation chairs, two cannot help me. One has not responded to my second response. Do you have any advice?




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