How to choose the research methodology best suited for your study

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How to choose the research methodology best suited for your study

Conducting research is often the stepping stone when you are writing your dissertation, thesis, or any report. Choosing the correct research methodology can determine the success and overall quality of your report. It is hence essential to get the initial stage of your research right. In this article, we discuss the research methodologies in detail and help you identify which method should you choose for your study.

Understanding the different research methods

There are two general approaches to collecting data: quantitative and qualitative research. Let us understand in detail.  

Quantitative research

In this type of research, the data collected is generally expressed in numbers and graphs to confirm theories and assumptions. The data collected are factual information on the topic. Under the quantitative research method, the factual information can be collected in many ways such as:

  • Surveys: Surveys consist list of questions in the form of multiple-choice or ratings asked either in person, over phone, or online. In your report, before you mention the findings of the survey in the data form, you can walk your readers through the survey by introducing information like when and where you conducted the survey, how long the participants took to respond to the questions, the response rate, etc. Additionally, you could include the list of the full questionnaire as an appendix so that your reader can see exactly what data was collected.
  • Experiments: In this method, you perform a test in a controlled environment, and you obtain the data from it. This type of data is used for a situation in which variables are controlled and manipulated to establish cause-and-effect relationships. It is good to include full information in your report on how you design the experiment (e.g. between-subjects or within-subjects), what tools, techniques and procedures you used to conduct the test.
  • Existing data: Here, you would gather data from an existing source (such as publications or archival data) for inclusion in your analysis. Post inputting your data in the report, include information on where did you source the material from, how the data was initially produced, and what criteria you used to select the date range.
  • Observations: This involves observing people in their natural environment where variables can't be controlled.
  • Content analysis: This refers to systematically recording the presence of certain words or a set of texts to analyze communication patterns.

In quantitative research, you can include information on:

  • How the data was prepared
  • Software used to analyze the data (e.g. Stata or SPSS)
  • Statistical methods used (e.g. regression analysis)

An example of quantitative research approach

Consider this scenario. You are surveying some 300 students at your university and ask them questions such as: "On a scale from 1-5, how satisfied are you with your professors’ teaching skills?"

You can perform statistical analysis on the data and draw a conclusion such as "On an average, students rated their professors 4.4."

Qualitative research 

This method is used to understand thoughts, concepts, or experiences of people via interviews, focus groups, case studies, discourse analysis, and literature review. It is basically a survey done to gather people thoughts and experience.

Let us look at the techniques in qualitative research. 

  • Interviews: This method involves asking open-ended questions verbally to respondents. Describe when, where, and how the interviews were conducted. Include information on: how you found and selected participants
  • how many people took part?
  • what form the conversations took (structured, semi-structured, unstructured)
  • how long the interviews took
  • how they were recorded (e.g. audiovisual recordings and note-taking)
  • what group or community you observed?
  • how you gained access to the participants
  • Focus groups: Gathering opinions by having a group of people discuss a topic.
  • Case-study: An in-depth study of an event, an organization, a person, or a group. Explain how you selected your case study materials (such as texts or images) for your analysis, the type of materials you analyzed, and how you collected and selected them.
  • Literature-review: A survey of published works by other authors.
  • In qualitative research, the analysis will be based on image, language, and observations (generally involving form of textual-analysis). Specific methods might include:
  • Content-analysis: Discussing and categorizing meaning of sentences, words, and phrases.
  • Thematic analysis: Coding and carefully examining the data to identify broad themes and patterns
  • Discourse analysis: Studying communication and purpose concerning their social context

Qualitative research approach example

Let us consider a situation where you conduct in-depth interviews with say 20 students and ask them questions like: "How content are you with your curriculum study?", "What is the positive aspect of the study program?", and "What the students feel can be done to improve the study program?" Based on the answers you get you transcribe all interviews using transcription software and find commonalities and patterns in the responses.

Mixed methods

This includes a combination of in-depth exploration and numerical measurement.

Let's say you conduct interviews to find out how satisfied the students are with their studies and their answers provide new insights. Later, you use the survey as a tool to test the insights on a large scale.

Another approach could be to start with a survey to find out trends or opinions or beliefs, followed by interviews to better understand the reasons behind the trends.

Understanding differences between quantitative and qualitative research

Quantitative and qualitative research methods collect data in different ways, and they allow you to answer different kinds of research questions.

Quantitative researchQualitative research  
Focuses on testing theories and hypotheses                                  Focuses on exploring ideas and formulating a theory or hypothesis
Is analyzed through math and statistical analysisIs analyzed by summarizing, categorizing, and interpreting
Mainly expressed in numbers, graphs, and tablesMainly expressed in words
Requires many respondents Requires few respondents
Closed (multiple choice) questionsOpen-ended questions
Key terms: testing, measurement, objectivity, replicabilityKey terms: understanding, context, complexity, subjectivity 


When to use qualitative vs quantitative research

A thumb rule for deciding whether to use qualitative or quantitative data is:

  • Using quantitative analysis works better if you want to confirm or test something (a theory or hypothesis)
  • Using qualitative research works better if you wish to understand something (concepts, thoughts, experiences)

For most research topics, you can choose between qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods approach. Which type you want depends on, among other things, whether you're taking an inductive vs deductive research approach; your research question(s); whether you're doing experimental, correlational, or descriptive research; and other considerations such as money, time, availability of data.

Analyzing qualitative and quantitative data

Once you obtain data using the quantitative method, you can analyze the combined data by using statistical analysis to discover patterns or commonalities in the data. The results can be reported in graphs and tables.

  • Applications such as SPSS, SAS or Excel can be used to calculate parameters like:
  • Average score
  • The number of times the particular answer was given
  • Correlation between two or more variables
  • The reliability of the results

Qualitative data is more challenging to analyze than the quantitative data. It consists of images, text or videos instead of numbers.

Some conventional approaches to analyze the qualitative data are: 

  • Qualitative content analysis: To track the position, occurrence, and meaning of words or phrases
  • Thematic analysis: To closely examine the data to identify the main themes and patterns
  • Discourse analysis: To study how communication works in social contexts


Remember that your aim is not just to describe your methods, but to show how and why you applied them and demonstrate that your research was rigorously conducted. You should be able to convince the reader why you choose either qualitative or quantitative method and how it suits your objective. The approach used must be clear to answer the research question and the problem statement. Always, relate the choices towards the main purpose of your dissertation, throughout the section.


You may be interested in taking up this insightful course: How to write the perfect methods section

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Published on: Feb 17, 2020

Nikita Thattamparambil is a researcher with a degree in chemical engineering
See more from Dr. Nikita Thattamparambil


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