How to write a simple research methods section

Photo by Mel Hattie | unsplash.com

Photo by Mel Hattie | unsplash.com

Yesterday I read a research application that contained no research methods at all.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

In an eight-page project description, there were exactly three sentences that described the methods. Let’s say it went something like this:

  • There was to be some fieldwork (to unspecified locations),
  • Which would be analysed in workshops (for unspecified people), and
  • There would be analysis with a machine (for unspecified reasons).

In essence, that was the methods section.

As you might imagine, this led to a difficult (but very productive) discussion with the project leader about what they really planned to do. They knew what they wanted to do, and that conversation teased this out. I thought that I might replicate some of that discussion here, as it might be useful for other people, too.

I’ve noticed that most researchers find it easy to write about the background to their project, but it’s much more difficult to have them describe their methods in any detail.

In part, this is a product of how we write journal articles. Journal articles describe, in some detail, what happened in the past. They look backwards. Research applications, in contrast, look forwards. They describe what we plan to do. It is much harder to think about the future, in detail, than it is to remember what happened in the carefully documented past.

As a result, I often write on draft applications ‘less background, more methods’. Underlying that statement is an assumption that everybody knows how to write a good methods section. Given that people often fail, that is clearly a false assumption.

So, here is a relatively simple way to work out what should go into your methods section.

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Five reasons to ignore the big schemes

Jo + Kerryn, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Pop quiz, peeps. Name a funding agency.

Quick, what’s the first one you thought of?

If you are from the US, you probably said ‘National Science Foundation’. If you are from Europe, you probably said ‘FP7′. In the UK, Canada, or Australia, you probably named one of the national Research Councils.

In each country, there are a handful of funding agencies that tower over the research imagination. Applicants mythologise them. Recipients revere them. Universities lionise them. They dominate the academic funding conversation to such an extent that the names of all other funding sources are drowned out.

In Australia (where I come from), we only talk about two: the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). You might hear some highfalutin’ talk about the Australian Competitive Grants Register (ACGR), and ‘Category 1’ funding, but it’s just code for those two funding agencies.

Don’t believe me? There are almost seventy ‘Category 1’ funding bodies on the Australian Competitive Grants Register. I’ll bet most Australian researchers can’t name another three with any certainty.

The problem with this is that researchers, particularly new researchers, only ever hear about those funding agencies. They never hear about the smaller, more targeted government schemes, funding from state and local government agencies, local or international philanthropic funding agencies, or new possibilities like crowd funding. That’s just crazy! Read more of this post

What do research developers do?

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Isn’t it brilliant when you learn something within a week of the new year?

When one of my academic buddies asked me in late 2013 what research developers are meant to do, I happily said, “Let me write a blogpost on that!”, and rubbed my hands with glee at the gift of an easy post to knock off in the new year.

I sat down to write this post, and was immediately bogged down in pondering the specificities and individualisation of the role. I realised that it wasn’t as straightforward as I’d thought.

Let me explain:

When I started this job three years ago (thank you, LinkedIn, for the congratulations), I was one of three research developers who were stepping into new positions. My Research Whisperer buddy @jod999 is another from this cohort. We each had responsibility for one of our institution’s colleges (similar to faculties). There was no-one there before us, and no standing expectations to fulfil.

There were expectations, of course, and these are otherwise known as our job descriptions.

As it turns out, though, each of us has cultivated different processes and priorities when carrying out our basic job of helping researchers find money to do their research.

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