How to Write the Methodology for a Dissertation

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The ‘methodology’ chapter tells the reader exactly how the research was carried out. So, it needs to be accurate.

After all, the benchmark of a ‘good methodology’ is whether or not the reader feels confident enough to replicate it. To inspire that level of confidence in your reader, you’ll need to be clear and precise.

But how do you write a clear and precise methodology chapter? Well, begin by identifying the key elements of a research methodology.

What should a methodology include?

Methodology chapters do vary, so it’s difficult to provide an exhaustive checklist. Having said that, most good methodologies tend to include:

  • An outline of the research design-including how it will answer the research question(s)
  • A description of the research philosophy
  • A description of the research approach
  • An outline of the research strategy
  • A description of the research methods: This may include sub-sections such as: Sampling, Procedure, Data Collection, Data Analysis, Validity & Reliability, Ethics, etc., – this largely depends on the degree you are studying.

Each element can be quite tricky to get your head around, so let’s explore them in a bit more depth.

1. An overview of the research design

Before writing your methodology, you should know which research design you are using. Broadly speaking, there are three types of Research Design: Experimental, Descriptive, and Review. Under these headings, there are various sub-types, as shown in the table:

Research DesignDescriptionSub-typeMost common uses
ExperimentalThis is when two (or more) groups are tested in relation to a specific intervention or phenomenon.Field-experiment, controlled experiment, quasi-experimentPsychology, Health, Natural Sciences, Education, Computer Science.
Non-Experimental (or Descriptive)This does not compare one group with another; rather it explores the relationship between a particular intervention (or phenomenon) and its effects on a population.Case-study, Naturalistic Observation, Ethnographic study, Survey (including Questionnaire or Interview)Commonly used in Sociology and Social Psychology. Also, Business and Marketing, Health and other disciplines.
ReviewThis is when you collect and evaluate existing secondary research to see what new insights can be gained. You might also consider how these insights could impact policy.Systematic review, Meta-analysisNursing and Health.


Review dissertations are less common than experimental or descriptive ones.

Most methodology chapters begin with a description of the research design. Then, with reference to the research question(s), they explain why the research design was a suitable choice.

E.g. “This dissertation adopted a descriptive research design. Specifically, it conducted a survey of students’ attitudes towards university-led climate change campaigns. Since the primary research question was to understand why university-led climate change campaigns do not seem to be having the desired effect on students, a descriptive design was considered to be the most appropriate. This is because a descriptive design enables the researcher to explore the relationship between a particular phenomenon and its effects on a given population”.
If you are a Humanities student, your research design probably won’t fit neatly into any of these categories. This is because Humanities dissertations are ‘theoretical’ rather than ‘empirical’, and don’t tend to have a separate ‘Methodology’ chapter. However, you will probably have a sub-section (in the Introduction) to explain how and why you approached the research questions in the way that you did.

2. Define the research philosophy

Secondly, you should clearly describe which research philosophy (or epistemology) you adopted.

This might seem like a waste of time, but it’s not!

If you clearly communicate your research philosophy to the reader, they’ll be able to understand what assumptions you made whilst conducting your research. This will not only make your research simpler to understand, but it’ll also make it easier for someone to replicate.

According to Saunders et al., (2009), there are, broadly speaking, 5 philosophical approaches:

Research Philosophy (Epistemology)Main Assumptions
PositivismThere are objective ‘truths’ about the world that can be understood through robust, objective research. The researcher can be objective and unbiased.
PragmatismOur understanding of reality is in a state of flux so there are no ‘fixed truths’. Indeed, the job of the researcher is not to unearth absolute ‘truths’ about the world. Rather, their purpose is to discover useful/practical insights that can provide solutions to current problems.
Critical RealismUnlike positivism, the researcher acknowledges that they are biased, but they attempt to be as objective as possible.
There are no ‘absolute truths’ to uncover since social reality is historically/socially-constructed. As such, it is assumed that studying social and historical data can help us to understand our shared social realities.
InterpretivismUnlike positivism and critical realism, the researcher assumes that they cannot be objective because the social world is difficult to understand. Moreover, the existing theories we have for understanding the world may be limiting. As such, the researcher believes that their interpretations of the data play a key role in shaping the findings and developing new theories.
Post-modernismWhat counts as ‘knowledge’ in society is constituted through dominant ideologies and complex operations of power (I.e. Sexism, Racism). As such, the job of the researcher is to expose these operations of power, whilst recognising that they are also embedded within them.

You should be clear about which ‘world view’ you adopted when you carried out your research. Importantly, this can help you to consider the strengths and weaknesses of your research. It’s this kind of critical thinking that’ll earn you the best grades!

E.g. “In this dissertation, a pragmatic epistemology was adopted. One of the main aims of this dissertation was to determine why university-led climate change campaigns are not having the desired impact on students. A pragmatic epistemological approach was most suitable since “Pragmatist researchers start with a problem, and then aim to contribute practical solutions that inform future practice” (Saunders et al., 2009, p.143).

3. Define the research approach

Next, you should explain whether your dissertation took a ‘deductive’ or ‘inductive’ approach. What’s the difference? Well,

  • Deductive research tests a specific theory, often in a novel setting or with a novel population group. It is most compatible with a positivist philosophy, but it works with other philosophies, too.
  • Inductive research explores a particular phenomenon and uses the findings to shape new theory. It is most compatible with interpretivism or post-modernism.

It’s best to thinking of deductive research as a “top-down” or “theory-led” approach, and inductive research as a “bottom up” or “findings-led” approach.

If you are not sure, ask yourself whether you formulated a hypothesis or not. If you have a hypothesis, your research is probably deductive.

E.g. “This dissertation adopted an inductive approach as no particular hypotheses or theories were being tested. Indeed, since the literature review revealed that existing theory may not fully explain the ineffectiveness of university-led campaigns, a findings-driven approach may be able to contribute to the development of new theoretical frameworks”.

4. Name the research strategy

The methodology should also define your chosen research strategy (quantitative, qualitative or mixed-methods). In brief:

A quantitative strategy collects numerical data, which is then analysed through statistical methods. In contrast, a qualitative strategy collects textual data, perhaps from interviews or media sources, and analyses it through a qualitative method such as thematic analysis. Finally, there’s the mixed-methods approach that combines both strategies in one dissertation.

When it comes to choosing a research strategy, there’s no ‘one best way’ as it really depends on the aims of your research. If you need help choosing a research strategy, one of our PhD Experts would be glad to assist.

E.g. “The research strategy for the dissertation was qualitative. More specifically, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 students”.

5. Research methods in focus

Once you’ve laid the groundwork, it’s time to get down the ‘nitty-gritty’. Indeed, most methodologies will cover some or all of the following:

  • Sampling – Clearly explain your sampling method.
  • Procedure – You should provide a clear description of how/where/when/ the research took place.
  • Data collection – How was the data collected and stored?
  • Data analysis – Provide a clear description of how you analysed the data. If you used a qualitative method like ‘thematic analysis’ (TA), make sure you cite which researcher’s TA method you followed.
  • Validity – Consider, did the results really measure what you intended them to? How did you make sure of this?
  • Reliability – Also, if this study was replicated, would similar results be produced?
  • Ethics – You should discuss the ethical implications of you research, put any Ethics forms in the Appendix, and then refer to these in the methodology.

Often, it helps to use these as subheadings to organise your ideas. But, bear in mind that some of the above headings might not be relevant to your dissertation.

How should I structure my methodology?

One of the most common questions students ask is ‘How do I structure the methodology for my dissertation?’. It’s quite difficult to advise on this because each dissertation varies.

However, as mentioned, most methodologies begin with an overview of the research design and a re-iteration of the research question(s). Then, a description of the research philosophy, approach, and strategy are provided. Finally, once all that is out of the way, the procedure, sampling, data collection/analysis, validity and reliability, and ethics etc., are usually discussed.

For further guidance, it’s advisable to:

  • Check your university’s dissertation guide
  • Speak to your supervisor
  • Take a look at dissertation examples from previous years
  • Consult your referencing style guidance (e.g. APA, Harvard) for any specific requirements.

Do all dissertations have a methodology?

If you are studying Natural Sciences, Computer Sciences, Psychology, Business/Management, or a Health-related degree, chances are your dissertation will need a ‘Methodology’ chapter. On the other hand, if you are studying a Humanities or Arts degree, you probably won’t need to include a ‘Methodology’ chapter.

In that case, you’ll probably explain your research design in the Introduction of your dissertation. As always, it’s best to check with your supervisor if you are unsure.

Tips for writing a robust methodology

Here are some final pointers by our dissertation writing service to keep in mind when writing your methodology chapter:

  • A common mistake students make is that they write too many words for the methodology chapter. Generally speaking, the methodology should account for around 15% of the full dissertation. Don’t make the mistake of spending too long evaluating every possible philosophy, design or strategy that you could have chosen. Instead, provide clear and succinct reasoning for the choices you’ve made, and this will allow your critical thinking skills to shine through. If you’re struggling to achieve this, our academic editors can show you how to write in a critical yet concise manner.
  • Use sub-headings as these help to make the methodology much more readable. However, make sure you observe any conventions from your dissertation handbook.
  • Write in the past tense. In a dissertation proposal, the methodology is written in the future tense (e.g. “The research design will be…”). However, when you come to write the methodology for the dissertation, this research has already been completed, so the methodology should be written in the past tense (e.g. “The research design was …”).
  • Don’t fill up your methodology with resources that belong in the Appendices. For example, if you’ve used a questionnaire as part of your research, this should go in the Appendices. When you refer to the questionnaire in the methodology, this can be followed by:
    “(See Appendix X)”.

Writing the methodology isn’t easy. In fact, it’s probably one of the hardest parts of the dissertation. But if you take it step-by-step and seek regular feedback from your supervisor, you’ll find it a lot easier.

Stuck with your dissertation?
Either it’s topic, proposal or final chapter, our academics are happy to help you.


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