Developing Your Research Skills
Contribution from Jenny Bimrose, Warwick Institute for Employment Research (2003).
The following materials provide an introduction to some key issues for designing and progressing a research project in guidance through to successful completion.
Links to subsections:
STAGE 1: Identifying a research need within a guidance (or related) context
STAGE 2: Reading for research
STAGE 3: Selecting appropriating methods and procedures
STAGE 4: Research models, traditions and approaches
STAGE 5: Writing a research report
Research in Practice website
Harvard Reference Style
STAGE 1: Identifying a research need within a guidance (or related) context
This section will help you plan your research project.
To carry out research, you will need to carry out a variety of tasks. Robson (1993:pxvii) identifies the main ones as:
deciding on the focus;
developing the research question(s);
choosing a research strategy;
selecting the method(s);
arranging the practicalities;
collecting the data;
preparing for, and carrying out analysis;
reporting what you have found;
and possibly acting on your findings
There is no shortage of advice in books on how to approach your research (see the References and Bibliography sections - though, please note, that there are many other standard texts which contain the same type of general information). It is worth spending time reviewing the advice and suggestions contained in a selection of these texts, since learning from the experience of the experts who have written these texts can often save you time and effort in the longer term.
1.2 Objective: stage 1
The first stage in conducting successful research involves identifying a realistic and achievable research need which is relevant to your professional area, then undertaking some initial planning of your project.
By the end of this stage of your research project, you should have:
gathered and selected information from a variety of sources which is appropriate to your broad area of interest;
synthesised this information to identify a research need;
identified constraints associated with your chosen research focus together with possible solutions to potential problems they represent;
considered likely trends related to the prospective research area;
written a brief research proposal outlining your ideas for research (see 1.8 below).
1.3 Keeping a research diary
It is usual for initial ideas to change as you become more and more involved with the process of research. Because of this, it is worth keeping some informal notes about your progress, like a personal diary, which keeps a reasonably accurate record of key issues. These could include:
how and why you selected the particular focus for your study;
difficulties anticipated and actually encountered;
how and when difficulties are overcome;
sources of inspiration;
thoughts and feelings;
insights and anxieties;
critical turning points, etc.
To ensure you do actually keep a diary, it’s important to select an approach to keeping a diary with which you feel comfortable. A small notebook would suffice or, alternatively, Blaxter et al (1996) suggest that diaries can also be kept on tape or a word processor. Whichever method of recording your choose, try to keep it readily accessible, so that ideas can be jotted down as and when they arise.
1.4 Models of research process
‘A rationale for the methods used to gather and process data, in what sequence and on what samples, taken together, constitutes a research methodology.’
Cryer, 1996: 45
The task of carrying out a research inquiry is complicated by the fact that there is no consensus about the way this should be done (Robson, 1993). A fundamental difference relates to the sequence and relationship of activities involved. One model says that you collect all the data before analysing it. One other model requires that data collection and analysis are intertwined. Another difference relates to views about the role of theory. Such differences can be categorised into two main traditions: quantitative (positivist, natural-science based, hypothetico-deductive) and qualitative (interpretative, ethnographic). The implications of adopting one as opposed to the other of these models are discussed later (4.5 and 4.6 below). However, whichever of these approaches (or combination of approaches) you decide to adopt, you will still need to develop your focus at an early stage of your research.
1.5 Selecting a topic
If you are reading this information, it is likely that you already have one (maybe several) idea(s) or a particular area of interest that you would like to research. To help you make your final selection, try to find out just how much has been written each topic. You probably won't have time to read extensively on each topic, so using a library catalogue can be a useful way of identifying relevant material. For example, try the catalogue linked to the careers library that can be accessed through this Forum). Additionally, talk to colleagues and others who might be interested. Discussing ideas about possible topics and the associated problems is an essential part of planning your research. Views may differ from (even conflict) with your own and you may be able to identify alternative approaches as a result of this process. For example, colleagues may be aware of sensitive aspects of certain topics that could cause difficulties at some stage. Use the discussion facility of the Forum to test out your ideas. If you are hoping to carry out research in your own employing organisation, early consultation with relevant individuals is essential to avoid later difficulties.
In selecting a topic, there is often a tendency to be over-ambitious. With limited resources (including time) at your disposal it’s important to prepare the ground carefully. Discussions and inquiries will help you select a topic which is likely to be of interest, which you have a good chance of completing and which may well have some practical application in a guidance context.
1.6 Ethical considerations
At a very early stage of your preparations to carry out research it is vital that you give serious thought to the ethical aspects of the enquiry you are proposing. Ethics refers to rules of conduct, and adopting an ethical approach involves conformity to a code or set of principles. Ethical problems can start at the very beginning of study. Some issues, which may be relevant to your research, are identified by Robson (1993:31):
Do individuals have the right not to take part? Even if they do, are there any overt or covert penalties for non-participation (e.g. 'it will look good on your reference if you have taken part in this study').
Do they know what they are letting themselves in for? Is their consent fully informed?
Will individuals participating be protected, not only from any direct effects of the intervention, but also by the investigator ensuring that the reporting of the study maintains confidentiality?
Is confidentiality always appropriate? If people have done something praiseworthy and put extra effort and time, should they get credit for this? Conversely, if inefficiency or malpractice is uncovered in your study, should the guilty ones be permitted to hide?
What responsibility do investigators have for the knowledge they have acquired? Should those undertaking applied research target their knowledge and take responsibility for the consequences?
These are just some examples. Each needs careful thought for your particular situation. Robson (1993: 32) lists ten questionable practices in social science research, relevant to a guidance context.
Involving people without their knowledge or consent.
Coercing them to participate.
Withholding information about the true nature of the research.
Otherwise deceiving the participant.
Inducing them to commit acts diminishing their self-esteem.
Violating rights of self-determination (e.g. in studies seeking to promote individual change).
Exposing participants to physical or mental stress.
Invading their privacy.
Withholding benefits from some participants (e.g. in comparison groups).
Not treating participants fairly, or with consideration, or with respect.
He goes on to identify ethical principles relevant for 'action research' - one approach that you may choose to adopt, relevant to a guidance context, characterised by a collaborative effort between researcher and 'researched'. Ethical guidelines for this type of research emphasise the need for negotiation and involvement in the research process. These include:
Ensure that the relevant persons, committees and authorities have been consulted and informed and that the necessary permission and approval has been obtained.
Encourage those who have a stake in the improvement you envisage, shape the form of the work.
Negotiate with those affected:
Remember that not everyone will want to be directly involved. Your research should respect this.
Keep the work visible and remain open to suggestions to that both anticipated and unanticipated developments can be dealt with. All involved must have the opportunity to raise concerns with you.
Negotiate descriptions of people's work.
Always allow those described in your research to challenge your accounts on the grounds of fairness, relevance and accuracy.
Negotiate reports for various levels of release.
Different audiences demand different levels of reports.
1.7 Planning your research project
Bell (1993:23) provides a useful checklist for planning your project, which identifies the following stages:
Draw up a short list of topics;
Select a broad topic for investigation;
Refine the precise focus of the study;
Decide on the aims and objectives;
Draw up an initial project outline;
Read enough to ensure you’re on the right lines;
Devise a timetable to enable you to check that all stages will be covered and time allowed for writing.
By the time you have completed all of these planning phases, you will be ready to write your Research Proposal.
1.8 Research proposal
It is good practice to produce a brief research proposal after your preliminary investigations. This need not be long or complicated, but helps order thoughts and organise subsequent action. It is also good preparation for when you may wish to submit a formal application for funding for research. It should include:
a statement of the research (including, aims and objectives), sources to be examined and identification of any potential ethical issues;
a provisional timetable for carrying out the research and writing the report;
a rationale for the research, which identifies probable outcomes (what you hope to achieve);
a provisional outline of your research report, which can be expanded as your research progresses.
Cryer (1996:51) identifies some examples of research outcomes, which are relevant to a guidance context:
A new product e.g. a book, a video, worksheets, etc.
A development of or an improvement on something that already exists.
A new theory.
A reinterpretation of an existing theory.
A new research tool or technique.
A new model or perspective.
An in-depth study.
A critical analysis e.g. an analysis of the effects of a particular policy.
A collection of general findings or conclusions.
Once you have written your research proposal, you are ready to move on to second stage of your research.
STAGE 2: Reading for research
This section will help you focus on identifying and managing the reading materials for your research project.
Carrying out any worthwhile research project will involve a significant amount of reading. The purpose of research is to extend and develop knowledge and understanding. Reading is an integral part of this process. Reading for research in guidance will probably involve reviewing or refreshing your current knowledge base (e.g. theories on which practice is based) as well as undertaking new reading. The types of skills required with reading for research (e.g. how to read, deciding what to read, how to interpret your reading) can be a source of anxiety, so the following sections have been designed to support and/or develop these skills.
2.2 Objective: stage 2
By the end of the second stage of your research you will be able to:
communicate effectively and clearly with others in the discipline area;
develop information storage and retrieval strategies;
develop skills relevant to library and resource use;
develop skills relating to the organisation of reading, research time and tasks;
use information to construct a rationale for your research project.
2.3 Information storage and retrieval strategies
For successful research, you will need to be familiar with the sound methods of keeping records and making notes. Whilst locating information for the first time can be difficult, re-locating it can be even more of a problem unless you have developed systematic record-keeping procedures. As well as keeping a record of useful sources, you should also keep a record of sources that proved to be of no interest (and why) to save valuable time later if you come across the same reference again. Remember that for all your sources, you need to record sufficient information for constructing your bibliography (see 2.7 below).
A number of texts on research suggest adopting a card index system (e.g. Bell, 1993 and Cryer, 1996). The merits of using different size cards are discussed (e.g. to contain more or less information) and the potential for keeping cards for various sources in different sections (e.g. cards on books in one section, cards on articles in another, etc.). Other methods could include using part of your 'Research Diary' (see 2.3 above), or using a computer to develop systems of recording.
Adopting a system may prove challenging because breaking off from reading an interesting report, article or chapter to record the necessary details requires a good deal of self-discipline – especially when you’re working under pressure. It is, however, worth persevering since your recording system will undoubtedly be a key feature of producing a high quality research report.
2.4 Reading for research
You may already have been involved in research connected with your professional role and this may have been undertaken without much direct reading (e.g. if you have been involved in administering questionnaires on someone's behalf). However, for research requiring more in-depth involvement, reading is essential since it will both be stimulated and informed by the knowledge acquired by your reading. Blaxter et al (1996:94) usefully suggest that reading should be undertaken at different stages of your research and for different purposes, as follows:
At the beginning of your research: to check what other research has been done, to focus your ideas and to explore the context for your project.
During your research: to keep you interested and up to date with developments, to help you better understand the methods you are using and the field you are researching, and as a source of data.
After your research: to see what impact your own work has had and to help you develop ideas for further research projects.
Purposes of reading for your research are to familiarise yourself with:
research which has been undertaken on topics similar to your own;
research methods being applied in ways which are similar to your own plans;
accounts of the context relating to your project
2.5 Potential difficulties
One common difficulty is getting hold of relevant books, reports or journal articles. The careers library which can be accessed through this website, is one obvious source of relevant materials. However, remember that there is often competition for popular and scarce resources, so careful planning may be necessary to ensure you manage to access key texts for your research when you need them. It may also be necessary to negotiate access to libraries near to where you live. Local libraries can be very helpful - ordering specialist books on request – and you may be lucky enough to live near a University library, which often allow access to researchers. Wherever you access literature, you probably need to give some careful thought and planning to how and when you will access the material you wish to read.
Apart from libraries, you will need to use a wide variety of other sources for your reading. Your employer, colleagues, supervisors, friends, relations - even clients and research subjects - can prove to be a rich source of relevant material. The Internet can also produce relevant information and can be invaluable for identifying and locating possible material.
Blaxter et al (1996) identify four common concerns about reading for research:
the volume of literature: how do you get to grips with this?
the variety of literature: how do you go about using the vast range of sources available?
lack of boundaries: how do you decide which areas of literature are relevant?
conflicting arguments: how do you assess and evaluate competing explanations?
If you can identify with any, or all, of these concerns it is probably worth spending some time developing strategies for reading for research. Again, a number of texts that are readily available provide helpful hints on dealing with these sorts of problems. Some of these are summarised next.
2.6 Basic reading strategies
What to read
Read as much as possible from as many sources as possible - books, journals, computer-based materials, reports, the popular media (daily and weekly press, magazines), memos, minutes, internal reports and even letters.
Remember that, even though it is important to be as up-to-date as possible, this does not preclude older sources like classic texts. Edited texts and literature reviews are also particularly useful for research purposes. The careers library accessed through this website is a rich source of this type of material since it contains historical collections of guidance materials. They can provide invaluable overviews of an area as well as excellent introductions to an area – though try to balance these with references to original materials where possible. Methodological accounts are also valuable sources.
Make sure you understand the extent to which the texts that you are using make use of original data:
primary sources: contain original data;
secondary sources: contain discussions and interpretations of data, in which the author typically argues for a particular point of view;
tertiary sources: presents information and references to the sources of that information.
It’s best to try to draw from a mix of sources for your research report.
Familiarise yourself with key texts relevant to your research topic and then supplement with a broader, but selective, reading around the topic. Develop a selective approach by, for example:
Taking advice from available sources: for example from your colleagues or manager at work. Use the discussion section of this website under different section headings (e.g. Equal Opportunties; Improving Practice; Impact Analysis).
Locating books or journals that appear relevant in a careers library by asking, browsing or using a catalogue. Keyword searches on computer-based catalogues are very useful.
Following up interesting references from your original sources.
Identifying key texts by noting those that are referred to repeatedly.
If you haven’t already done so, you will need to develop the skill of selective reading because you will not have time to read thoroughly all the written sources with which you need to be familiar. The following tips can help develop this skill:
record the author(s), title, publisher and date of the book, report or articles. Keep this safely and any notes you make on the content;
look for an introduction, concluding chapter, abstract or executive summary. If it exists, read quickly, scanning the contents. If the book or report has a cover, the information printed there can be useful;
with books and reports, look for the contents page. Identify any chapters that you think may be of particular relevance and focus on them, again starting from the introduction and/or conclusion. You can find your way through a chapter or section by using the sub-headings;
in the text itself, key points will often be highlighted, or in the first or last paragraphs. Similarly, the first and last sentences of paragraphs are often used to indicate and summarise their contents.
Remember - you should be able to understand the key points of a book or article in no more than five minutes. This should enable you to decide you need go no further, or decide which parts of the book or article you need to read in depth.
This requires careful examination of what others have written (or said) on a particular subject. It is a difficult skill to develop but important for successful research. The types of questions you will need to ask as you are reading: does the author present convincing arguments or evidence to support assertions? Is information easy to find? Are the views expressed consistent? Are clear distinctions made between fact and opinion?
Blaxter et al (1996:106) suggest that critically sound sources:
go beyond mere descriptions by arguing their position - making a personal response to what has been written;
relate different writings to each other, indicating their differences and contradictions, and highlighting what they are lacking;
do not take what is written at face value;
are explicit about the values and theories which inform and colour reading and writing;
view research writing as contested terrain, within which alternative views and positions may be taken up;
show an awareness of the power relations involved in research, and of where writers are coming from;
use a particular language (e.g. the author asserts, argues, states, concludes or contends).
There are several acceptable ways of recording sources and other information. The Harvard method is a common method that has various advantages. For example, it avoids footnotes and all sources mentioned appear at the end of your dissertation rather than at the end of each chapter. When sources are referred to in the text, only the name(s) of author(s) and year of publication appear. Even though there are different styles of referencing, they will probably contain the information identified below.
For all books you wish to include in your Bibliography, you will need the following information:
Author's surname and initials
Year of publication (in brackets)
Edition, if relevant (in brackets)
Place of publication
Name of publisher
Hodkinson, P., Sparkes, A.C. & Hodkinson, H. (1996) Triumphs and Tears: young people, markets and the transition from school to work, London, David Fulton Publishers.
References in the text should be given as follows:
Smith and Brown (1998:175) or (Smith and Brown, 1998:175)
Where there are three or more authors, only give the name of the first:
Smith et al. (1997:203) or (Smith et al., 1997:203)
When an author has published two or more items in one year, the references should be distinguished by:
and so on.
Where more than one reference has to be given at a single point in the text, they should be listed chronologically:
Brown (1986:47), Jones (1992:106) and Kaput (1997:427)
Articles and Chapters in Books
quote the following:
Author's surname and initials
Year of publication (in brackets)
Title (in inverted commas or italics)
Source of journal or book, that is:
~ Title of journal or book (underlined)
~ Volume number, issue and page numbers in journals
Savickas, M.L. (1995) Current Theoretical Issues in Vocational Psychology: Convergence, Divergence, and Schism in Walsh, W.B. and Osipow, S.H. Handbook of Vocational Psychology: Theory, Research and Practice, (2nd ed) Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Articles in Journals
quote the following:
Author's surname and initials
Year of publication
Title (inverted commas or italics)
Title of journal (underlined)
Volume number, issue and page numbers
Betz, N.E., Harmon, L.W. & Borgen, F.H. (1996) The Relationships of Self-Efficacy for the Holland Themes to Gender, Occupational Group Membership, and Vocational Interests in Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43, 1, p90-98.
Citing Web Pages
As with printed references, the title should be either in Italics or underlined. Note that round brackets are used for (year) and (edition). Where there is no year given on the web material, your would record this as (no date).
Note also that square brackets are used for [medium] and [access date]. The access date is the date you last accessed that reference. This is important, given the volatility of web material, because it offers some indication of the currency of the reference. Without your access date, there might be no intention of how old the material is.
Author/editor. (Year). Title (edition).[Type of medium].Producer (optional). Available Protocol (if applicable):Site/Path/File[Access date].
Equal Opportunities Commission (2003) ‘The Development of Gender Roles in Young Children’. [Online]. Available: http://www.eoc.org.uk/PDF/gender_roles.pdf [2003, May 22].
Whichever method you select for your Bibliography and referencing, remember that it is important to be consistent.
STAGE 3: Selecting appropriating methods and procedures
This section will help you to decide how to collect the evidence you require for your research project.
Once you have decided on a research topic, you will be able to decide how to collect the evidence you require. This section will be concerned with general issues associated with the selection of methods and appropriate procedures for the project.
3.2 Objectives: stage 3
By the end of this stage of your research project, you will be able to:
identify appropriate criteria by which to judge the validity of a guidance project;
approximate and estimate time involved, necessary materials and the quantities in which they are required, costs of the research, etc.;
identify design principles relevant to the chosen research area;
identify the major issues or problems in the specific research area;
demonstrate the ability to re-formulate research design in response to unexpected circumstances;
synthesise material, evidence and arguments to select appropriate methods and procedures for the project.
3.3 Validity, Reliability and Relevance
When judging the quality of any research, reliability, validity and relevance are important.
The validity of research refers to the credibility of the results. Has the research actually done the things it claims to do? Does an item measure or describe what it is supposed to measure or describe? In considering these issues, it needs to be acknowledged that discussions about validity provoke controversy amongst researchers. Some have rejected the concept of validity as inapplicable since it implies the possession of knowledge that is absolutely certain and, in this sense, knowledge can never be certain. McLeod (1999) argues that the concepts of validity and reliability that have been developed for use in quantitative research can’t be applied in the same way in qualitative studies. Nevertheless, in deciding the value of our own and other research, we need to be able to make reasoned judgements about it as a new contribution to knowledge.
Measuring the extent of validity can become extremely involved and there are different levels at which the question of validity can be considered. Put simply, if your research is valid, then you are observing, identifying or measuring what you say you are. A rough guide would be to ask the question: ‘would another researcher using my research instrument get the same responses?’ Additionally, ask other people whether the questions or items you have devised are likely to achieve what you want. Three different aspects of validity are discussed below:
How plausible is this claim: that is, do we judge it to be likely to true, given our existing knowledge? Some claims may be so plausible that we can reasonably accept them at face value without needing to know anything else.
Does it seems likely that the researcher's judgement of matters relating to the claim is accurate, given the nature of the phenomena concerned, the circumstances of the research, the characteristics of the researcher, etc.?
Where a claim is neither sufficiently plausible, nor sufficiently credible, then we require evidence. When examining the evidence, we need to employ much the same means to assess its validity as we applied to the claim itself (plausibility and credibility) - and may require even more evidence!
McLeod (1999:101) outlines nine criteria suitable for evaluating the validity of qualitative research, which include:
Sufficient contextualisation of the study: Since qualitative research is more concerned with developing knowledge that is relevant and useful at particular times and places, it is necessary to contextualise the study in its historical, social and cultural location.
Credibility of the researcher (reflexivity):A reflexive account of internal processes of research, covering, for example, how contact was made with informants, issues of trust and rapport, how mistakes and misconceptions were dealt with, whether there was agreement over goals and tasks.
Catalytic validity: Defined as the degree to which the research process reorients, focuses and energies participants. Implicit in this is the idea that research should empower those who take part in it.
McNiff (1992) discusses the issue of validity in relation to action research, and distinguishes three types: 1) self validation, 2) peer validation and 3) learner validation. Action research is an approach that often has particular appeal to researchers working on issues related to professional practice. Because much of what McNiff (1992) discusses is applicable to a careers guidance and counselling context, a summary of some of the points she makes on validity follows.
Self-validation: If you are researching within the broad area of guidance and counselling, you are likely to be involved in interpreting your own practice and in making decisions about improving it. The implication of self-validation in this context refers to the potential of these interpretations of your own practice being recognised. McNiff (1992:133) discusses how certain criteria justify an individual's claim to knowledge. They include:
Practice as a realisation of values: where guidance and counselling research starts with a declaration (spoken or written) of values – for example, 'my clients have a right to self-determination'. Often the research inquiry is stimulated because those values are being denied in practice. If clients are being denied the service you think they deserve, this is where a cycle of imagined solutions, implementation, observation, evaluation, re-planning is enacted.
Intentional critical reflection: where research inquiry occurs as a result of critical reflection, a desire to explore an intuitive understanding of practice and communicate it to others.
Disciplined enquiry: where a researcher demonstrates publicly that s/he has followed a system of disciplined enquiry in arriving at a hypothesis.
Personal interpretation as a basis for dialogue: where individuals recognise the potential in their interpretations of their own practice.
Peer validation: This relates to the notion that a claim to knowledge or expertise derived from practice must be validated externally. It is the process whereby your findings are made available to and scrutinised by others who can agree that these findings are of interest and could be useful to their own practice. This external validation can come from a number of sources, including colleagues, manager or supervisor, the wider guidance and counselling community, other students, etc. Peer validation can be effective in moving your ideas forward. Questions may be asked which provide new insights and ways of thinking about your research, and invariably you will gain more confidence to progress your research from the process of peer validation.
Client validation: It is particularly useful to get the reactions of the clients themselves. This may be presented in short, written statements, recordings (tape or video), reports, etc. For example, data about the use of labour market information by guidance practitioners could be collected during focus group discussions. This could be written up into a report that was circulated to the practitioners who were asked to validate the accuracy of the reports. The findings could then be circulated more widely to the guidance community who are asked to comment on the relevance of these findings to their own experiences. This represents a powerful chain of validation.
Overall, validation of research findings in a guidance and counselling or related context is likely to involve the development of self-knowledge followed by a genuine attempt to share that knowledge with others.
Whatever procedure is used for collecting data for research, it should always be examined critically to assess to what extent it is likely to be reliable, as well as valid. Reliability is the extent to which a test or procedure produces similar results under constant conditions on all occasions. Bell (1993:65) suggests two questions to ask yourself when checking items on a questionnaire or interview schedule you may devise to collect data. They are:
would two interviewers using the schedule or procedure get a similar results?
would an interviewer obtain a similar picture using the procedures on different occasions?
There are a number of devices for checking reliability in scales and tests. For example:
test-retest method: administering the same test some time after the first;
alternate forms method: where equivalent versions of the same items in the test are given and results correlated;
split-half method: where the items in the test are split into two matched halves and scores then correlated.
These methods are not always feasible or necessary, and there are disadvantages and problems associated with all three. Such mechanisms are not usually necessary unless you are attempting to produce a test or scale. The check for reliability will come at the stage of wording questions and piloting your research instrument(s).
A third criterion for judging research in the area of guidance and counselling is relevance. Since the purpose of any research inquiry is to extend knowledge and understanding, it follows that this must be communicated to a wider audience. When we communicate with people, they assume that we are telling them something that is likely to be of significance to them. It follows that what is communicated should be relevant in some way to the chosen audience. Who are the appropriate audiences for your research and what sort of relevance should your research have for them? Audiences for research reports vary. If you are undertaking a research project within your employing organisation, its primary audience is likely to be members of that organisation. Additionally, your research findings should have some relevance to other audiences. These may include other researchers, a particular practitioner audience or even a more general audience. Whatever audience(s) you select as your target(s), you will need to consider two aspects of the relevance of your research:
importance of the topic: must relate to an issue of importance to the intended audience;
contribution to existing: must add something to our knowledge of the issue to knowledge which they relate. Research that merely confirms what is already beyond reasonable doubt makes no contribution to the existing knowledge base.
No researcher can demand access to an institution, an organisation or to materials. People will be doing you a favour if they agree to help, and will need to know exactly what they will be asked to do, how much time they will be expected to give and what use will be made of the information they provide. They will have to be convinced of your integrity and of the value of your research before they decide whether or not to cooperate. Bell (1993:58) provides a useful checklist of points to consider when negotiating access, including:
Clear official channels by formally requesting permission to carry out your research as soon as you have an agreed project outline.
Speak to the people who will be asked to co-operate.
Maintain strict ethical standards at all times.
Submit the project outline to the principal, senior staff member.
Decide what you mean by anonymity and confidentiality.
Decide who will receive a copy of the report and/or see drafts of interview transcripts.
Inform participants what is to be done with the information they provide.
Prepare an outline of intentions and conditions under which the study will be carried out to hand to participants.
Be honest about the purpose of the study and about the conditions of the research.
Remember that people who agreed to help are doing you a favour.
Even when strict protocol is adhered to, things can go wrong. Blaxter et al identify the following strategies to consider if access is denied (1996:144):
approach other individuals. If one person refuses to be interviewed or answer a questionnaire, try approaching another person in a similar position or sharing similar characteristics;
approach another institution;
approach another individual within the same institution (more risky because of possible communication with the institution);
try again later, when people are less busy. Attitudes may have changed, people may have moved on, and you may have more to show to demonstrate the value of your research;
change your research strategy. This is probably something you should be prepared to do, and plan for, throughout the research process. It may involve using other, perhaps less sensitive, methods for collecting data, or focusing on a slightly different set of issues, or studying alternative groups or organisations.
3.5 Managing your research project
Constraints operate on any research process. This section discusses time and costs, as well as identifying some others which may well be relevant for the type of research you are planning.
Inevitably, the nature and extent of your data collection will be constrained by your access to various resources – in particular time. Whatever the competing demands for your time and attention, it is important to think about what strategies you need to develop to manage the new demands of your research project in parallel with all the established demands.
A key strategy for managing your time effectively is to be realistic, initially, about the methods you are going to use to collect data and the amount of data needed. One common problem with new researchers is over-ambition. Since it’s likely that you will have a limited timescale to complete and write up your research, it follows that the methods you select will have to be informed by these (and other) considerations. For example, time available will limit the amount of any cross-checking you can undertake, and the size of your research sample.
The costs of research can mount up, so it is advisable to undertake a rough costing of the methods of data collection and analysis that you have considered to make sure they are affordable. The process of costing research activities will be very useful if you are, at any stage of your professional career, ever likely to apply for research funding. For applications for external funding, a detailed costing has to be submitted, and if successful, it is likely that you will have to adhere fairly closely to the original costing submitted.
The costs of your research project could include:
travel costs to your research sites and/or libraries;
costs of consumables, such as paper, tapes, batteries, etc.;
equipment purchase or hire costs (e.g. word processor, tape recorder, software);
book, report and journal purchases;
photocopying, printing and binding costs;
postage and email/telephone costs.
In addition to time and costs, there are bound to be other constraints you need to take into account when designing your research: for example, the willingness of people to be interviewed or observed. If you need to observe meetings or training sessions, you will be limited by the schedule of meetings or training events that will take place during the data-collection phase of your project. If you need to research some aspect of guidance and counselling that requires involvement with schools, colleges or universities, you are likely to be constrained by examination timetables and vacations.
To manage your research project successfully, you will need to anticipate routine constraints affecting the research process. This will help you to develop strategies to cope with these limitations and avoid difficult situations arising in the first place.
3.6 Overcoming obstacles
The process of successful research will, inevitably, involve developing problem-solving techniques. Problems that may arise can range from those relating directly to the research process (for example, the response rate is very low), to problems in other areas in your life (for example, changing your job or falling ill). Blaxter et al (1996: 137) suggest the following ways of coping with difficulties:
remind yourself that the purpose of carrying out research, particularly as a new researcher, may be as much to develop your understanding of the research process and/or the use of particular research methods as to explore substantive issues;
remember that it may be just as valid to write up your research in terms of, for example, the problems of gaining access to a particular group, or of getting an adequate response from that group once access has been gained;
as part of writing your research report, reflect on your research strategy, explore what went wrong and why and include recommendations for improvement;
view research as being about the skills you have learnt and developed on the way. Part of doing research is about appreciating what is involved and where it may be leading you;
if you have time and resources, you may choose to redirect your research strategy when you become stuck.
STAGE 4: Research models, traditions and approaches
This section will help you understand the broader context of guidance research including consideration of both qualitative and quantitative approaches.
This section examines the two major traditions of research methods: qualitative and quantitative. It discusses the dominant effect that one of these traditions (quantitative research) has had on current careers guidance and counselling practice and considers the value of piloting research.
4.2 Objectives: stage 4
By the end of this stage of your research project, you will be able to:
distinguish between quantitative and qualitative research;
outline some key issues from current practice which link with research method;
describe the main features of qualitative research;
describe the main features of quantitative research;
pilot your research project.
4.3 Models of Research
The most common way of conceptualising the diversity of approaches to research is to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative models. It is this distinction that will be adopted here, though it should be stressed that this is a rather crude distinction that can be misleading. In reality, much social scientific research combines methods from the two traditions. So how are these two approaches different? Most obviously, quantitative research involves measurement on some numerical basis and usually employs statistical techniques, whereas qualitative research does not (at least to the same degree). Various other features of the research process are also associated with the different traditions. For example, quantitative research favours structured forms of data, which can consist of frequency counts or other types of measurements. In contrast, the data that qualitative researchers typically deal with are verbal descriptions in natural language often collected from an interview or some type of recorded conversation (for example, using audio tapes). They deal more in meanings, experiences and descriptions. This type of data cannot be directly subjected to counting or measuring, though, of course, they can subsequently be presented so that they can be analysed quantitatively.
Other differences have already been identified in 1.4 above. For example, the sequence and relationship of activities involved. A quantitative approach requires that the researcher collects all the data before analysing it. A qualitative approach requires that data collection and analysis are intertwined. One other important difference relates to views about the role of theory. These and other differences will be discussed in more detail later.
Methods of data collection are also varied. Some are clearly associated with quantitative research (for example, the scientific experiment) and other with qualitative research (for example, participant observation). Others are shared by both traditions (for example, questionnaires and interviews) though the precise design of the research instrument and the approach adopted by the researcher are likely to differ. There is a vast literature available on research methods. You will need to spend time reading about different methods and, once you have an idea of your research focus and methods, you will need to spend time researching issues related to different designs (for example, of questionnaires). Whichever approach (or combination of approaches) you choose to adopt for your research project and whatever methods, remember the underlying purpose is to extend knowledge and understanding about some aspect of careers guidance and counselling. As May (1996:3) expresses it more generally, the purpose of all research is:
'to understand and explain social phenomena, to focus attention on particular issues and to challenge conventionally held beliefs about the social and natural worlds'.
4.4 Research Traditions in Guidance and Counselling
The theories which underpin current careers guidance and counselling practice have come mainly from North America. Varied accounts exist which identify the main influences in the development of this body of knowledge (for example, Arthur et al,1989, Brown et al, 1990, Seligman, 1994, Scharf, 1997 and Zunker, 1998,). Despite disagreements about the particular strands of influence, there is agreement that Frank Parsons was the founding father of the vocational guidance movement. A seminal work by Parsons entitled Choosing a Vocation was published posthumously in 1909. His ideas about how people choose jobs came from differential psychology and were initially referred to as the 'talent matching' approach. They later developed into what became known as the 'trait and factor' theory of occupational choice, and were developed by theorists who had a major impact on practice such as John Holland (1966,1973, 1992) and Alec Rodger (1952). Parsons' core concept was that of 'matching'. He suggested that occupational choice occurs when people have achieved:
an accurate understanding of their individual traits (e.g. personal abilities, aptitudes, interests, etc.);
a knowledge of jobs and the labour market and then
made a rational and objective judgement about the relationship between these two groups of facts.
A key assumption is that it is possible to measure both individual talents and the attributes required in particular jobs which can then be matched to achieve a 'good fit'. It is when individuals are in jobs best suited to their abilities, they perform best, and productivity is highest.
This theory of occupational choice has dominated careers guidance and counselling practice for nearly a century, partly because of its practical appeal. It provides careers guidance and counselling practitioners with a clear rationale and framework for practice. Additionally, the underlying philosophy has suited policy makers since it lends itself to the servicing of labour market requirements. Consequently, it has been embraced enthusiastically by policy makers and barely questioned by the majority of practitioners.
The theory contains, however, fatal flaws. Scharf (1997) reminds us that:
There is little research supporting or refuting trait and factor theory itself as a viable theory of career development. Rather, the research that has been done, of which there is a large amount, has related traits and factors to one another or has established the validity and reliability of measurements of traits and factors.' (p26).
There was no viable theoretical alternative during the first half of this century to this 'best fit' theory of occupational choice, and it was not until the 1950's and 1960's that theories originating from other academic disciplines such as sociology, and other branches of psychology like developmental psychology emerged as serious alternatives. Theories which were developed from these academic disciplines emphasised the context in which occupational 'choice' occurred and the importance of the maturation process of individuals, respectively. Since this time, the theories careers guidance practitioners have used to inform their practice have expanded dramatically. Whichever theories actually inform current practice, there is emerging consensus around the inadequacies of these theories. In particular, researchers are questioning the relevance of current theory for particular sectors of society.
Adequacy of Current Practice
There is a growing critique of the current practice of careers guidance and counselling which is based on theory derived from quantitative research methods. For example, Osipow and Littlejohn (1995) discuss serious weaknesses in applying current theory to Minority ethnic groups. They argue that a major problem is the manner in which all current theories use concepts which 'assume cultures that are relatively affluent and have good opportunities for education, upward mobility and family support and encouragement' (p255). Many members of minority ethnic groups, they argue, do not have access to these privileges.
Hackett (1997) identifies several problems in trying to apply current theory to girls and women: 'I am suggesting the need for formal testing of competing models as well as attempts at unification and integration....we also need to incorporate issues of sexism, racism and their interaction, along with considerations of relational orientation, support and barriers into all our developing conceptions of women's career psychology’ (p187).
Savickas (1995) relates current problems with theory to the more fundamental issue of different philosophical origins reflected in the two approaches to research. He identifies inherent tensions which arise from the academic traditions of different theories: 'sharp lines have been drawn on which philosophy of science to choose' (p15). He concludes that 'vocational psychology could benefit simultaneously from refinements forged within the distinct career theories, from advances produced by convergence among career macrotheories and from break-throughs induced by divergence in work-role microtheory' (p29).
Implications for Research Methods
Theories informing current guidance and counselling policy practice have been developed mainly by psychologists operating from scientific positivist paradigms of research using quantitative methods. What, then, are the concerns now being expressed about the limitations of this research method?
Taking just one example of careers guidance and counselling for girls and women, Harmon & Meara (1994) discuss the limitations of experimentally designed empirical inquiry that meets the criterion of internal validity for both policy and practice. They argue that 'those who are interested in career counselling for women seem to be swimming against this tide in an attempt to integrate science and practice' (p362).
Hackett (1997) reviews some of the criticisms made about the existing literature on women's career development which include research methodologies which have been used. In particular, she argues that there is a need to move beyond 'simple correlational designs' (p184) and suggests that qualitative research methods 'are highly appropriate in attempts of this sort to truly understand the experiences of a group that has received insufficient attention' (p185). She discusses the need to triangulate across different data sources using focus groups, diaries, archival documents, or observations, concluding that 'future research on this model will also benefit from the integration of qualitative and quantitative methods' (p186).
Others have also discussed the type of research methods which should be used for future research inquiry. For example, Rainey and Borders (1997) advocate the use of narratives, constructivist methods or other qualitative approaches to examine environmental factors for girls and women (p169). Edwards and Payne (1997) state simply that there is a need 'to embrace ideas from a wider moorland of study than is presently the case' (p537).
Overall, then, there is a growing consensus that scientific research methods from within a positivist paradigm have been found to be wanting in several respects. Knowledge and understanding built up from a particular approach to research needs to be complemented with knowledge and understanding derived from different ways of investigating social phenomenon.
4.5 Quantitative Research
'Quantitative research is concerned with the collection and analysis of data in numeric form. It tends to emphasise relatively large-scale and representative sets of data, and is often........... presented or perceived as being about the gathering of facts.' (Blaxter et al (1996:60).
Quantitative or traditional experimental approaches set out to quantify and measure the contributions of different factors to phenomenon (for example, occupational choice behaviour). It can be useful if you want to compare things, like test scores under different conditions or behaviour under different conditions. However, this approach to research has certain disadvantages for small scale studies. For example, you would need a large enough sample to ensure your data is statistically significant. Additionally, your sample must be representative so that you can be confident of getting the same pattern of results again when you repeat the same procedures on a different population. Only then would you be able to generalise your findings to a wider sample than the one you are testing.
Robson (1993:19) summarises the five sequential steps which are commonly regarded as typifying the 'scientific' or quantitative approach to research. These involve:
Deducing a hypothesis (a testable proposition about the relationship between two or more events or concepts) from theory.
Expressing the hypothesis in operational terms (i.e. ones indicating exactly how the variables are to be measured) which propose a relationship between two specific variables.
Testing this operational hypothesis. This will involve an experiment or some other form of empirical enquiry.
Examining the specific outcome of the enquiry. It will either tend to confirm the theory or indicate the need for its modification.
If necessary, modifying the theory in the light of the findings. An attempt is then made to verify the revised theory by going back to the first step and repeating the whole cycle.
So, adopting a quantitative approach to research involves searching for causal relationships which are conceptualised in terms of the interaction of 'variables', some of which (independent variables) are seen as the cause of other (dependent variables). It will invariably involve designing and using standardized research instruments (for example, tests, questionnaires, attitude scales) so that numerical data can be collected which will then be manipulated using statistical techniques.
Some suitable data for this research method already exists in the form of published or unpublished statistics. Often, though, researchers have to produce the data they need for analysis themselves. For example, from a laboratory experiment or from psychometric or personality tests which have been administered to relatively large groups of participants. As previously indicated, if responses to unstructured questionnaires can be coded and then counted in some way, this may also be a source of quantitative data.
4.6 Qualitative research
'Qualitative research is concerned with collecting and analysing information in as many forms, chiefly non-numeric, as possible. It tends to focus on exploring, in as much detail as possible, smaller numbers of instances or examples which are seen as being interesting or illuminating, and aims to achieve 'depth' rather than 'breadth'.' (Blaxter et al.,1996:60).
Qualitative research is concerned with life as it is lived, things as they happen or situations as they are constructed in the day-to-day course of events. Qualitative researchers seek lived experiences in real situations, try not to disturb the scene and to be unobtrusive in their methods. This is to ensure that data and analysis will closely reflect what is happening. Qualitative researchers are also interested in 'natural' experiments. For example, when ordinary processes are disrupted, basic rules and norms are thrown into relief. Usually, these types of rules and norms are tacit and understood, perhaps subconsciously, by people in a particular situation. A recent example relevant to guidance in the UK is the recent is the introduction of Personnel Advisers to work with disaffected young people in the Connexions service. Reformed organisational structures, different relations with schools, colleges, Youth Services, Social Services, Youth Offending Teams, and Educational Welfare Officers, different working practices with clients (e.g. over a two year period) are all examples of natural experiments which would be legitimate areas for research inquiry using a qualitative approach.
When studying in this way, it is important not to start off with too many preconceptions about what you might find. It is necessary to maintain an openness, not pre-judging issues and not even settling for the first (even second) impressions formed. Guesses might be made, tested along the way and abandoned, changed or revised in the light of later discoveries. This mode of study will have implications for the relationship fostered with the subjects in the research (refer to 'ethics' in 1.6, and 'access' in 3.4).
Six characteristics of qualitative research are identified by Blaxter et al (1996:61):
Events can be understood adequately only if they are seen in context. A qualitative researcher therefore immerses her/himself in the setting.
The contexts of inquiry are not contrived; they are natural; nothing is predefined or taken for granted.
Qualitative researchers want those who are studied to speak for themselves, to provide their perspectives in words and other actions. Therefore qualitative research is an interactive process in which the persons studied teach the researcher about their lives.
Qualitative researchers attend to the experience as a whole, not as separate variables. The aim of qualitative research is to understand experience as unified.
Qualitative methods are appropriate to the above statements. There is no one general method.
For many qualitative researchers, the process entails appraisal about what was studied.
This approach to research, therefore, involves considered selection and interpretation. It is therefore important to make the choice of focus for study principled and clear as well as being careful to make only reasonable claims in the research report or dissertation. In addition to making the basis of selections and methods clear, the researcher needs to include some biographical information because s/he cannot be regarded as an objective recorder of absolute truths, but rather a participant in the research process.
Piloting is the process whereby you try out the research techniques and methods you have in mind to see how well they work in practice. This enables you modify your plans before you commit too much time to one procedure. If you have spent time thinking about and planning your research project, you may be tempted to believe that you are clear about what you are doing. However, the value of piloting research cannot be overestimated. Things rarely work out the way you expect - respondents can answer a questionnaire or interpret an interview question in ways that you can never anticipate! Taking time to run a pilot can save you time, frustration and even anguish in the end.
In a small scale study, even an informal pilot can prove invaluable. Try out a couple of interviews, get some friends to fill out your questionnaires, go and observe some organisational activities - or whatever else you have in mind for the data collection phase of your project. You will almost certainly gain from doing this, even if it is a more accurate idea of the time collecting data can take. If you do this early enough, you can change your strategy before it's too late!
STAGE 5: Writing a research report
This section provides guidelines to help structure a research report.
When writing the main body of your research report, the following points may help with the structure:
Use your introduction to: set the context of your study (including information about your own role); explain why you approached your study in the way you did; what you hope to demonstrate by your results; and justify your approach with reasoned argument based on relevant theory and research evidence.
The literature review should employ a critical, analytical approach with an understanding of (relevant) competing perspectives. It must go beyond a descriptive account and should be logically and coherently organised. Your review should demonstrate a detailed knowledge of original sources and the field together with your understanding of main theoretical and methodological issues. Do not be afraid to add your own ideas, especially if your study challenges established wisdom.
The purpose of this section is to enable your reader to understand exactly what you did as part of the research process, together with the results and your interpretation of their meaning. It should include sufficient details to enable the reader to understand:
the overall design of the study;
details of participants (e.g. age, gender, experience, occupational role, etc.);
research instruments used;
procedures used in the study.
This section should also contain a description of the overall purpose, summary of content, structure and justification of why this particular approach was used. If an instrument (e.g. questionnaire) was designed especially for your study, you should also include details of its piloting and include the final version as an appendix. Issues of validity and reliability should also be addressed.
Your results should be presented in a form that enables the reader to understand exactly what your data consists of and sources. It should also identify any trends that have emerged and (where relevant) statistical techniques used as well as the results of these analyses. Finally, this section should address the way(s) in which the data illuminate your research question(s).
It is likely that the results section will be the most difficult to write. If your have undertaken a qualitative study or have huge quantities of data, then you may need to include some discussion and not just description in this section. You should not include extensive ‘raw’ data and the results must be organised, summarised and selective. Where appropriate, tables or diagrams should be used to summarise your results. It may not even be possible to include all the results, as this may overwhelm your reader and obscure your main findings.
The purpose of this section is to:
present your interpretation of your results;
justify your interpretation by anticipating counter arguments; and
urge caution in accepting your interpretation where there are defects in the design and execution of the study.
Few applied studies can be perfect, so demonstrate your awareness of flaws and weaknesses in your work and your understanding of how you might improve on your research. It is also important to comment on any practical difficulties you may have encountered, especially those out of your control. In summary, adopt a ‘reflective practitioner’ approach in reviewing the research process as a whole.
Your discussion should also highlight links between your own research and the literature review and evaluate your study's contribution to professional guidance practice.
Your conclusion should present a summary of what you have achieved in your research project, without containing any new material. It should also suggest the implications of the findings, identify future related research and emphasise issues which require further research or investigation.
Harvard Reference Style
The 'Harvard Reference Style' is one system of referencing sources used internationally by scholars and researchers. At Coventry University the Centre for Academic Writing have produced a website and downloadable guide to this system which may be of interest. It includes sections on referencing new technology sources such as websites and emails.
The link address is: http://home.ched.coventry.ac.uk/caw/harvard/index.htm