By Mary Dereshiwsky, PhD
One of the most common reasons your dissertation may be sent back to you is for “alignment”. You may hear this repeatedly.. “your dissertation is not in alignment.” “Your problem statement and purpose are not in alignment.” It seems to be an endless battle! If you’ve ever put together a jigsaw puzzle, you know that feeling of accomplishment when all the pieces fit together perfectly so that you can see the big picture. This is also the idea behind alignment of the key components of a dissertation proposal.
Why is alignment important in research? When research components fit together, you can arrive more directly at the answers to your research questions. Your readers can follow along with you, step by step, to see what you studied, why and how, to get those answers.
Here are some specific ways to check for alignment in your dissertation proposal:
Tip 1: Does the purpose of your study map tightly to your preceding problem statement? The problem is where you point out a current need, gap, or lack of information. Someone needs to know something. But they don’t yet have the necessary information to solve a problem or answer a question. Your study purpose identifies what you will do or look at to solve this problem. It is the driving-force curiosity itself that you will research. If you have thought through the nature of the problem very specifically, the purpose should flow directly from it. If there is a shortage of literature in a specific topic area, your purpose should state how you will fill that shortage.
Tip 2: Does the literature synthesize “what we (think we) know so far” about your key concepts of focus? Be careful of accidentally meandering down rabbit holes when you search the literature. If your study purpose has to do with motivation, don’t accidentally get derailed into interesting but irrelevant literature on satisfaction. The internet has made it possible to access tons of information in a split second. This is helpful if you stay on track in specifying exactly the concepts you will be investigating when you search the literature. On the other hand, if you get distracted by literature that doesn’t directly map to your key concepts, your literature review won’t match the goals of your own study.
Tip 3: Does the ‘how’ of your study align with ‘what’ you want to research? Another term for ‘how’ in research is methodology and design. Let’s consider methodology as a first step. There are only three types of research methodologies: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. Think of them as three trees in the forest. Every tree has branches emanating from it. Those branches will be the research designs aligned with each methodology. Will your study consist of data in numbers? If so, you want a quantitative methodology. Or will your data be in the form of words? If so, qualitative methodology aligns best with your research study goals. If you are planning to collect data in both numbers and words, you will have a mixed-methods methodology.
Tip 4: Next, does your curiosity (as contained with your study purpose) match to the best research design? If you are ‘identifying/what is/what are’ something(s), you have a descriptive design. If you are instead looking at relationships, associations, or predictions, you have a correlational design. Interested in determining what causes what? Your research will match the experimental design family. Or are you only looking at between-group differences on something? If so, you have a causal-comparative (also known as ex post facto) design. What about qualitative studies? If your intent is to capture your subjects’ lived experience in rich detail, your study aligns with a phenomenological design. Or you may instead be gathering and analyzing multiple forms of evidence on a ‘case’ (however you have defined it), which means you have a case study. Maybe instead you are immersed in a setting or situation and want to investigate that setting and subjects in depth. This means you have an ethnographic design. These are just a few possible examples of how to map your study goals to a related specific research design.
Tip 5: Finally, do the tools of your (analysis) trade match your research goals? For quantitative studies, you want to ensure that the statistic you compute to test your hypotheses matches the study goals. A detailed discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this blog. For now, I’ll highlight just a few. If you are looking at relationships between pairs of variables, you will want some form of a correlation coefficient. If your goal is to predict something from something(s), you will likely want to apply regression analysis. Between-group mean differences suggest some form of the t-test or analysis of variance (ANOVA). Again, this only scratches the surface of how to pick the best-fitting statistic for the goals of your study. It is important to ensure that the statistical method fits the questions you are trying to answer and the related hypotheses you are trying to test, as well as the scales of measure of your variables.
Keeping the above components of your research proposal in alignment will help ensure that you reach your goal of answering the question(s) you started with in your research study. This will also make the results of your study useful to readers who also have an interest in your research topic. They will be able to follow your train of thought and how you arrived at your answers. They can then decide on any actions to take related to your study: for example, applying your findings directly to their own professional situations. Or they can continue to help build knowledge in this topic area by designing and implementing their own follow-up study. Either way, you are being a contributing responsible citizen of the wider research community by sharing what you learned in a way that others can apply.