Method in the Madness… Writing About Methodology

I’m in deep-drafting mode with my dissertation proposal. Much of the past umpteen months has been spent defining topic, hitting a wall, and redefining the topic. Now I have a topic! And research questions! And direction! So I’ve got a draft of Chapter One: Introduction and Chapter Two: Literature Review (both currently in the Ugly-Draft-Undergoing-Growing-Pains Phase). And for the past several days, I’ve been expanding my Chapter Three: Methodology into a full draft, from the previous “draft” of a few sentences. That draft read something like this:


Selection of Participants

INPUT HERE: how to select academic library deans and assistant deans, sampling method


INPUT HERE: description of Greicar’s survey and modifications being made

Data Collection

INPUT HERE: survey posted online using Qualtrics software, email link to deans, etc.

Data Analysis

Um… stuff.

So you can see, there’s been a lot of work to be done.

My philosophy on drafting is the same for academic writing and creative writing: just write (see Claire Legrand’s excellent posts on this topic). When I come up against problem points or areas that I don’t have information for, I enter some particularly clever note to myself in caps, for instance, PUT MORE INFO HERE ABOUT MULTIPLE REGRESSION, or or DOES THIS CHARACTER HAVE A NAME?, or FIGURE OUT WHAT THE HECK I’M TRYING TO SAY LATER, and then I keep writing. When I go back and read a draft and I’m iffy about wording or content but can’t come up with an immediate solution, I highlight that section and keep going. When I’m feeling really fancy, I color-code the highlights (yellow for problem areas, pink for missing content or research fact-checking). At the moment, my Methods chapter is liberally sprinkled with yellow highlights, bolded words, and caps-comments of varying levels of distress.

And now for the sane people (translation: non-academics) in my life, a brief overview of what the heck a Methods chapter is. A Methods chapter explains exactly what you’re going to do in a research study, step by step. The idea is to write these steps so clearly and thoroughly that anyone reading it could replicate your study. In practice, I’ve read a bunch of dissertations and research articles that aren’t specific enough to replicate, particularly when they don’t include their survey questions (pet peeve alert!). Here’s the down-to-earth version of the dissertation template I’m using:

Chapter 1: Introduction

What’s your topic, what is the background of this topic, why is it important, are there practical implications for this research, what are the research questions you’re asking.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

What research have other scholars produced in this area? (Limit to the most relevant articles/books/studies, organize thematically.) What’s missing in this literature, that you plan to fill with your research?

Chapter 3: Methodology

How did you (or will you) do it? Who are the participants, how were they selected, what survey are you using, is it valid and reliable, how will you collect the data, how will you secure this data, how will you statistically analyze this data?

Chapter 4: Results

Give the results of the statistical analyses.

Chapter 5: Discussion

Interpret the statistical analyses: what do the numbers mean? What do they tell you about your initial research questions?

It sounds so much easier when it’s all listed out that way! I’m trying to keep this template in my head, to remember the succinct point of each chapter as I draft it. It’s easy to get off course, particularly in the Literature Review chapter, when you tend to start listing alllllllll the articles and books and websites and whatnot you’ve read in preparation for the dissertation. But that’s not the point of the chapter, so when it gets out of hand I go back and start cutting.

Turns out, the Methodology chapter is the most straightforward one to write. It’s a little odd writing out a bunch of steps (first I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do that, then I’m going to make a cup of tea…), but there’s little room for the kind of academic BS-ing that creeps into introductions in particular. You know, the fancy-schmancy sentences that don’t really say much but sound smart as all get-out? Yep. The kind that my brain loves to churn out automatically, and which I mercilessly slaughter when I come across them in revisions.

Honestly, my biggest road block at the moment is getting distracted by the literature. Whenever I hit a non-defined point in my methods (how will I select a sample from this population?), I look at a few studies I’ve selected as models. Inevitably, this leads to reading other, related studies… and then searching for other studies that are cited in those studies… then wasting two hours trying to locate copies of studies online… then being reminded of how this study should go in this spot in the literature review… A dissertation is an exercise in discipline and in managing distraction!


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