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How to Write the Methods Section of a Research Proposal

The methods section is a critical component of your research proposal, as it outlines the specific techniques and approaches you plan to use to investigate your research question or test your hypothesis.

A well-written, comprehensive methods section demonstrates your deep understanding of different research methodologies and justifies why your selected approach is the most appropriate and rigorous for accomplishing your stated aims. This section should provide enough detail that other researchers could potentially recreate your study based on the information provided.

What is the Purpose of the Methods Section?

The main purposes of the methods section in a research proposal are as follows:

  1. Describe your proposed study design – Explicitly state whether you will employ an experimental, quasi-experimental, survey, ethnographic, phenomenological, case study, or other established research methodology. Providing a clear overview of your overarching design shows that you recognize the distinctions between different methodological approaches.
  2. Specify your methods of data collection – Outline the precise techniques you will use to gather data, such as interviews, focus groups, participant observation, document analysis, tests/measures, or surveys/questionnaires, among others. Clearly explain why these methods are suitable for your research objectives.
  3. Explain your sampling strategy – Describe the target population you wish to study, the specific criteria for inclusion/exclusion in your sample, your sampling technique (e.g. random, stratified, cluster, convenience/purposive), and your justification for the anticipated sample size.
  4. Present your plan for data analysis – Discuss in detail how you will organize, analyze, and interpret the qualitative and/or quantitative data you collect. This could include coding methods, statistical tests, analytical tools/software, etc.
  5. Address potential limitations and ethical issues – Acknowledge potential weaknesses, constraints, or shortcomings in your proposed methodology. Discuss strategies to enhance validity and credibility. Explain procedures to protect participants’ rights and obtain informed consent.

Step 1: Describe Your Study Design/Research Methodology

The first major section is clearly describing the overarching design or methodology that will guide your research study. Some common approaches include:

  • Experimental research – Collecting data through establishing different treatment groups and comparing the outcomes. This allows you to identify potential causal relationships by manipulating independent variables.
    • Example: “This study will utilize a randomized controlled trial design to examine the effect of a new teaching method on student performance…”
  • Survey research – Gathering quantitative and/or qualitative data through questionnaires or structured interviews from a sample population. This allows collecting original data about practices, attitudes, characteristics, opinions, etc.
    • Example: “The quantitative portion will consist of a cross-sectional online survey of a representative national sample to assess consumer opinions…”
  • Ethnography – Observing and documenting the practices, behaviors, interactions and belief systems of a specific group, community or culture over an extended period through participant observation.
    • Example: “An ethnographic approach will be employed, with the researcher embedding herself as a participant-observer for 6 months…”
  • Phenomenological study – Exploring and capturing the subjective, lived experiences and meanings that individuals or groups ascribe to a particular concept, phenomenon or situation.
    • Example: “Using a hermeneutic phenomenological methodology enables an in-depth examination of the lived experience of chronic illness…”
  • Case study – An in-depth investigation and analysis of a single case, contemporary event or entity through multiple data sources and perspectives.
    • Example: “A revelatory single case study design will be used to understand the implementation and outcomes of a new policy…””

Step 2: Specify Your Data Collection Methods

Next, you need to thoroughly describe exactly how you plan to collect data based on your overarching methodology. Be sure to justify why the selected methods are optimal for answering your research question(s). Common techniques include:

  • Interviews – Conducting in-depth conversations to elicit detailed narratives, perspectives and experiences from individuals. These can be structured (set questions), semi-structured (guided by topics), or unstructured/open-ended.
    • Example: “Data will be collected through a series of one-on-one, semi-structured interviews with open-ended questions to allow participants to freely discuss their views…”
  • Focus groups – Facilitating a guided discussion among a small group of people (typically 6-10) in an interactive setting to explore beliefs, perspectives and motivations around a topic.
    • Example: “Four focus group sessions will be conducted with homogeneous groups of 6-8 millennial consumers to examine attitudes and decision processes…”
  • Participant observation – The researcher immerses themselves in the environment/group they are studying to systematically document behaviors, interactions, processes and rituals as they naturally occur.
    • Example: “The primary data collection method will involve overt, non-participant observation on the factory production floor over a 3-month time period…”
  • Document analysis – Examining existing documents, records, artifacts, archival materials or other relevant texts to extrapolate meanings, develop empirical insights, and uncover contexts around phenomena.
    • Example: “A historical document analysis will be conducted on the organization’s archived memos, meeting minutes, reports and correspondence…”
  • Surveys/Questionnaires – Administering a standardized set of questions to a sample population to record self-reported qualitative and/or quantitative data about their characteristics, attitudes, behaviors, opinions, etc.
    • Example: “The self-administered questionnaire will contain a mix of closed-ended items with Likert scales and open-ended questions to capture nuances…”

Be sure to sufficiently detail any materials you will use, such as interview protocols, observational templates, survey instruments, etc. Describe processes for piloting or pre-testing tools before actual data collection.

Step 3: Explain Your Sampling Strategy

You must provide a clear rationale for how you will select a sample of participants from the target population of interest, including details on:

  • Target population description – Outline the key defining characteristics of the population group or phenomenon you want to study.
    • Example: “The target population encompasses all adults ages 60+ currently receiving home-based healthcare services in urban areas of State X.”
  • Sampling technique(s) – Explicitly name and define the sampling approach(es) you plan to use, such as:
    • Probability sampling: Simple random, stratified random, cluster random sampling, etc.
    • Non-probability sampling: Convenience, purposive, quota, snowball sampling, etc.
    • Example: “A stratified random sampling technique will be employed to ensure the sample properly represents key demographic subgroups…”
  • Sampling criteria – Clearly state all specific criteria that must be met for participants/cases to be included or excluded from your sample.
    • Example: “Inclusion criteria are: being a first-time mother, having given birth in the past 12 months, residing in County Y, and being 18-40 years old…”
  • Estimated sample size and justification – Specify your target sample size, providing a sound rationale based on statistical power considerations, data saturation principles, etc.
    • Example: “A minimum sample of 350 completed survey responses will be sought based on power analysis for detecting a medium effect size with p<0.05…”

Step 4: Present Your Data Analysis Plan

Outline in detail how you plan to organize, analyze, interpret, and extract insights from the qualitative and/or quantitative data you will collect, including:

  • Processes for qualitative data analysis – Describe any specific methods, frameworks, or approaches you will utilize to code, categorize, and derive themes/patterns from non-numerical data.
    • Example: “Thematic analysis will be used to inductively analyze interview transcripts, following Braun & Clarke’s (2006) six-step process: …”
  • Statistical tests and analysis for quantitative data – Name the statistical models, software, and specific tests you plan to conduct based on your study design and variables.
    • Example: “SPSS will be used to analyze survey data through descriptive statistics, exploratory factor analysis, correlation analysis, multiple regression, etc…”
  • Tools and procedures – Identify any specific tools, programs, or technological solutions you will use to manage, organize and analyze your data.
    • Example: “All qualitative codes will be tracked and analyzed using NVivo qualitative data analysis software to aid in cross-case comparison.”

If using mixed methods, specify your procedures for integrating and triangulating the different data streams during analysis and interpretation.

Step 5: Address Limitations and Ethical Considerations

While your goal is to propose a rigorous methodology, all studies have inherent limitations. A strong proposal should openly discuss potential shortcomings and how you plan to mitigate or counterbalance them:

  • Limitations of sampling approach – Explain why your sample may not fully represent the broader population or why certain sampling issues/biases may exist.
    • Example: “A key limitation is that the convenience sampling technique may overly represent those who have internet/computer access and self-select into the study.”

Constraints of data collection methods – Acknowledge potential sources of bias, measurement error, reactivity, or other issues with your chosen methods.

  • Example: “The use of self-reported data is a limitation, as responses may be affected by social desirability or imperfect recall biases. However, the anonymity of the online survey aims to reduce desirability pressures.”
  • Ethical considerations – Discuss procedures to ensure ethical treatment of participants relating to voluntary consent, privacy, confidentiality, risks/benefits, etc.
    • Example: “All participants will provide informed consent after reviewing documentation outlining the study purpose, risks, benefits and their rights. Identifying details will be kept confidential through use of pseudonyms and secure data storage.”
  • Strategies to enhance validity and credibility – Describe specific techniques like triangulation, member-checking, peer debriefing, audit trails, reflexivity, etc.
    • Example: “To enhance validity, the study will use data triangulation through combining findings from interviews, focus groups and document analysis. A qualitative audit trail will document all research decisions and activities.”

By forthrightly discussing the limitations, you demonstrate self-awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of your methodology. Proposing validity strategies conveys methodological rigor.

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Examples of Strong Methods Sections

To illustrate a complete methods section, here are two examples from different fields:

Example 1 – Experimental Psychology:

“This study will employ a double-blind randomized controlled trial design to evaluate the efficacy of a new cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) program for treating anxiety disorders among adolescents ages 13-17.

Participants will be recruited through advertisements, physician referrals, and campus/community outreach in the Greater Boston area. Those meeting inclusion criteria through an initial phone screening (being 13-17 years old, having an anxiety diagnosis, not receiving concurrent treatment) will come to the research center for a comprehensive intake assessment by trained clinicians.

Using blocked stratified randomization based on gender and anxiety severity, 120 eligible participants will be randomly assigned to one of two conditions: the CBT treatment program or a wait-list control group. The manualized CBT program consists of 12 weekly 50-minute individual sessions covering psychoeducation, cognitive restructuring, exposure, and relapse prevention…

Pre, post and 6-month follow-up assessments will be conducted…by doctoral-level psychologists blind to condition using the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule for Children (ADIS-C), Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI), and other validated measures of anxiety symptoms, positive thinking, therapy engagement, and quality of life…

Data will be analyzed using SPSS statistical software, with two-tailed independent samples t-tests and repeated measures ANOVA to examine between-group differences in outcomes over time. The study aims to recruit a sample providing 80% power to detect a moderate effect size with alpha = .05…”

Example 2 – Ethnography in Anthropology:

“This ethnographic study will utilize participant observation and semi-structured interviews to examine the cultural norms, practices and belief systems surrounding food and meal consumption within a suburban U.S. Bengali community.

The researcher will adopt an overt role as a participant-observer by attending and documenting daily activities, gatherings and foodways over 12 months in the Bengali community of [City, State]. This will involve immersing herself in the local Bengali organization and selected households through a gatekeeper, while building trust and rapport.

Weekly participant observation field notes will be recorded in rich detail, capturing dietary practices, food procurement, meal preparation, and the symbolic meanings and rituals surrounding eating occasions. A minimum of 20 representative Bengali families across socioeconomic levels will be recruited through snowball sampling to participate in interviews…

In-depth interviewing will utilize an interview guide covering topics like: typical Bengali foods/meals, gender roles in food practices, evaluations of “authentic” Bengali cuisine, changes in practices since immigration, and social rules around food consumption. All interviews will be conducted in Bengali, audio-recorded, and later transcribed for analysis…

A coding procedure following constructivist grounded theory will be employed to inductively analyze the data and develop a theoretical model about Bengali-American cultural ideologies surrounding food and eating…”

By providing these level of specifics, the methods sections clearly lay out the specific plans to rigorously investigate the research questions in a valid, reliable and ethical manner


How do I write the methods section of a research proposal?
A Method section should show that the researcher(s) measured or described what they intended to, that they implemented research procedures in a precise and consistent manner, and that they interpreted their data in strategic, unbiased way. The section should provide readers with enough detail to replicate the study.

What is an example of a research methodology?
Five examples of research could be surveys, observations, generating research questions, interviews, and focus groups. These examples are dependent on the type of research methodology used.

How long should the methods section be?
You should be clear about the academic basis for all the choices of research methods that you have made. Methodology (1,500 to 2,000 words) Specific issues/debates. This should include two or three chapters, each addressing specific issues in the literature (4,000 to 5,000 words)

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