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The Top 3 Types of Dissertation Research Explained

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Preparing for your doctoral dissertation takes serious perseverance. You’ve endured years of studies and professional development to get to this point. After sleepless nights and labor-intensive research, you’re ready to present the culmination of all of your hard work. Even with a strong base knowledge, it can be difficult — even daunting — to decide how you will begin writing.

By taking a wide-lens view of the dissertation research process, you can best assess the work you have ahead of you and any gaps in your current research strategy. Subsequently, you’ll begin to develop a timeline so you can work efficiently and cross that finish line with your degree in hand.

Types of Dissertation Research

Dissertations can take on many forms, based on research and methods of presentation in front of a committee board of academics and experts in the field. Here, we’ll focus on the three main types of dissertation research to get you one step closer to earning your doctoral degree.

1. Qualitative

The first type of dissertation is known as a qualitative dissertation. A qualitative dissertation mirrors the qualitative research that a doctoral candidate would conduct throughout their studies. This type of research relies on non-numbers-based data collected through things like interviews, focus groups and participant observation. 

The decision to model your dissertation research according to the qualitative method will depend largely on the data itself that you are collecting. For example, dissertation research in the field of education or psychology may lend itself to a qualitative approach, depending on the essence of research. Within a qualitative dissertation research model, a candidate may pursue one or more of the following:

  • Case study research
  • Autoethnographies
  • Narrative research 
  • Grounded theory 

Although individual approaches may vary, qualitative dissertations usually include certain foundational characteristics. For example, the type of research conducted to develop a qualitative dissertation often follows an emergent design, meaning that the content and research strategy changes over time. Candidates also rely on research paradigms to further strategize how best to collect and relay their findings. These include critical theory, constructivism and interpretivism, to name a few. 

Because qualitative researchers integrate non-numerical data, their methods of collection often include unstructured interview, focus groups and participant observations. Of course, researchers still need rubrics from which to assess the quality of their findings, even though they won’t be numbers-based. To do so, they subject the data collected to the following criteria: dependability, transferability and validity. 

When it comes time to present their findings, doctoral candidates who produce qualitative dissertation research have several options. Some choose to include case studies, personal findings, narratives, observations and abstracts. Their presentation focuses on theoretical insights based on relevant data points. 

2. Quantitative

Quantitative dissertation research, on the other hand, focuses on the numbers. Candidates employ quantitative research methods to aggregate data that can be easily categorized and analyzed. In addition to traditional statistical analysis, quantitative research also hones specific research strategy based on the type of research questions. Quantitative candidates may also employ theory-driven research, replication-based studies and data-driven dissertations. 

When conducting research, some candidates who rely on quantitative measures focus their work on testing existing theories, while others create an original approach. To refine their approach, quantitative researchers focus on positivist or post-positivist research paradigms. Quantitative research designs focus on descriptive, experimental or relationship-based designs, to name a few. 

To collect the data itself, researchers focus on questionnaires and surveys, structured interviews and observations, data sets and laboratory-based methods. Then, once it’s time to assess the quality of the data, quantitative researchers measure their results against a set of criteria, including: reliability, internal/external validity and construct validity. Quantitative researchers have options when presenting their findings. Candidates convey their results using graphs, data, tables and analytical statements.

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3. Mixed-Method

Many PhD candidates also use a hybrid model in which they employ both qualitative and quantitative methods of research. Mixed dissertation research models are fairly new and gaining traction. For a variety of reasons, a mixed-method approach offers candidates both versatility and credibility. It’s a more comprehensive strategy that allows for a wider capture of data with a wide range of presentation optimization. 

In the most common cases, candidates will first use quantitative methods to collect and categorize their data. Then, they’ll rely on qualitative methods to analyze that data and draw meaningful conclusions to relay to their committee panel. 

With a mixed-method approach, although you’re able to collect and analyze a more broad range of data, you run the risk of widening the scope of your dissertation research so much that you’re not able to reach succinct, sustainable conclusions. This is where it becomes critical to outline your research goals and strategy early on in the dissertation process so that the techniques you use to capture data have been thoroughly examined. 

How to Choose a Type of Dissertation Research That’s Right for You

After this overview of application and function, you may still be wondering how to go about choosing a dissertation type that’s right for you and your research proposition. In doing so, you’ll have a couple of things to consider: 

  • What are your personal motivations? 
  • What are your academic goals? 

It’s important to discern exactly what you hope to get out of your doctoral program. Of course, the presentation of your dissertation is, formally speaking, the pinnacle of your research. However, doctoral candidates must also consider:

  • Which contributions they will make to the field
  • Who they hope to collaborate with throughout their studies
  • What they hope to take away from the experience personally, professionally and academically

Personal Considerations

To discern which type of dissertation research to choose, you have to take a closer look at your learning style, work ethic and even your personality. 

Quantitative research tends to be sequential and patterned-oriented. Steps move in a logical order, so it becomes clear what the next step should be at all times. For most candidates, this makes it easier to devise a timeline and stay on track. It also keeps you from getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of research involved. You’ll be able to assess your progress and make simple adjustments to stay on target. 

On the other hand, maybe you know that your research will involve many interviews and focus groups. You anticipate that you’ll have to coordinate participants’ schedules, and this will require some flexibility. Instead of creating a rigid schedule from the get-go, allowing your research to flow in a non-linear fashion may actually help you accomplish tasks more efficiently, albeit out of order. This also allows you the personal versatility of rerouting research strategy as you collect new data that leads you down other paths. 

After examining the research you need to conduct, consider more broadly: What type of student and researcher are you? In other words, What motivates you to do your best work? 

You’ll need to make sure that your methodology is conducive to the data you’re collecting, and you also need to make sure that it aligns with your work ethic so you set yourself up for success. If jumping from one task to another will cause you extra stress, but planning ahead puts you at ease, a quantitative research method may be best, assuming the type of research allows for this. 

Professional Considerations

The skills you master while working on your dissertation will serve you well beyond the day you earn your degree. Take into account the skills you’d like to develop for your academic and professional future. In addition to the hard skills you will develop in your area of expertise, you’ll also develop soft skills that are transferable to nearly any professional or academic setting. Perhaps you want to hone your ability to strategize a timeline, gather data efficiently or draw clear conclusions about the significance of your data collection. 

If you have considerable experience with quantitative analysis, but lack an extensive qualitative research portfolio, now may be your opportunity to explore — as long as you’re willing to put in the legwork to refine your skills or work closely with your mentor to develop a strategy together. 

Academic Considerations

For many doctoral candidates who hope to pursue a professional career in the world of academia, writing your dissertation is a practice in developing general research strategies that can be applied to any academic project. 

Candidates who are unsure which dissertation type best suits their research should consider whether they will take a philosophical or theoretical approach or come up with a thesis that addresses a specific problem or idea. Narrowing down this approach can sometimes happen even before the research begins. Other times, candidates begin to refine their methods once the data begins to tell a more concrete story.

Next Step: Structuring Your Dissertation Research Schedule

Once you’ve chosen which type of dissertation research you’ll pursue, you’ve already crossed the first hurdle. The next hurdle becomes when and where to fit dedicated research time and visits with your mentor into your schedule. The busyness of day-to-day life shouldn’t prevent you from making your academic dream a reality. In fact, search for programs that assist, not impede, your path to higher levels of academic success. 

Find out more about SNU’s online and on-campus education opportunities so that no matter where you are in life, you can choose the path that’s right for you.

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