Things to think about when writing your Methodology or Methods

We held a write-club discussion group to chat about writing the methods section of your work at UCLIC. The following blog is based on discussions from the entire group. I am writing my thesis, so my main discussion points are related to this; however, the discussion also focused on writing methods for publications.

The first thing to acknowledge is the difference between methodology and methods. My interpretation is that methodology covers the methodological approach you are taking. This can be in your thesis, your project or a study, whatever it may be. Methods describe what process you followed. Each project will require a methods section, but it may not always be appropriate to construct a methodology.

To decide which section you are planning, think about whether you are writing your actual methods; what you did (indicates methods), or are you describing your approach (suggests methodology)?   

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Tip: Although the methodology chapter would come early in the thesis, it doesn’t mean you need to write it first. Don’t stress about it; decisions can be made at any point.

Referenced from Rowena Murry’s book “How to write a thesis” (p182) are some questions to consider when crafting your methodology.  

  • What did you set out to do?
  • How did you set out to do it?
  • What approach did you take?
  • Why did you choose that approach?
  • What were your research questions?
  • How did your methods fit the research questions?
  • What topics do you need to cover to explain your methods?

These questions can help you think about what you can include in the methodology. What may be relevant to explain to your reader?

To decide whether you want to include a methodology chapter in your thesis, you can consider whether it is important for the reader to understand your methodological approach. You can set up the approach at the beginning, was it constructivist, semantic, positivist etc.

Also, consider whether you undertook several studies where the methods were similar or different. If you think you will be repeating yourself at the beginning of each study chapter, does the reader need to read it more than once? It could be helpful to present the methods initially and then refer back to them where relevant.

To consider whether it was appropriate for me, I looked at past students’ theses. I found that not all included a methodology chapter; some only described the methods used at the beginning of the relevant study chapters. So think about whether it is appropriate for your thesis to have one, but then again, it may be helpful to set up your work.

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Consider what your research questions are? What is your philosophical approach? What are you doing? Are you aiming to understand a theory or concept, or are you designing? Do you need to articulate what is important about your approach?

Think about what is relevant for the reader at each point of your thesis. For example, when is it suitable for the reader/examiner to understand what methods you used? Don’t tell them at the beginning and make them remember till the end of the thesis.

Tip: An idea to try if you are unsure whether you need a methods chapter is to write the method for each study/chapter and see if you are repeating yourself, and then you can combine it.

Generally, as with the entire thesis, signposting is really helpful for the reader. Tell them where the methods will be so they aren’t waiting for it or wondering why you haven’t explained something you plan on introducing later.

The methodology can encompass the methodological approach, data collection, analysis, etc., so be clear about what you are talking about and what portions of your methods are relevant.

It is helpful to remember is the ability for replicability. Can someone read what you have written and understand and repeat what you have done, if relevant? Can you demonstrate rigour through the description of your methods?

Tip: Read it in the third person and see if you can fully understand what you have done? Or you can also swap it with another student outside of your research group for them to see if it makes sense. Can check if anything is missing, as it can be difficult to identify yourself. Always remember to return the favour!

There is no one way to write methods. There is advice, not strict rules. However, different disciplines have different traditions and guidance. i.e. for Psychology, there are APA guidelines of what should/can be included in the methods and what reviewers may look for.

Tip: Some systematic reviews that have reviewed the methods of papers could generate a checklist as a part of their analysis. It could be an idea to look for a systematic review in your domain to see if such a list exists.

Final point: A methodology chapter is not mandatory in your thesis but writing your methods and the approach is.