A scholarly Literature Review & Research GapEnable Successful Alignment of aDissertation!
Dissertation Alignment Explained
Alignment is another word for consistency!
You feel you are well on your way towards finishing your dissertation. You have already chosen a topic, formulated research questions, and decided on your research design. You have already completed your full Review of Literature, so that you can justify the ways in which your study will fill the "gap" in the scholarly literature.
Now it is time to write Chapter 1 of your dissertation, but the issue of dissertation alignment come up. What is this? Read on for a quick explanation of alignment.
Most dissertations contain standard subheadings in Chapter 1. These are:
- Statement of the Problem
- Background of the Study (which should include mention of the gap)
- Research Questions and/or Hypotheses; Research Design
Dissertation alignment is the logical flow of information and topic consistency between the Problem, Purpose, Study, and Research questions and/or Hypothesis/Research Design.
Proper alignment of a dissertation provides many advantages and benefits. The two most major ones are:
- Correct alignment enhances the focus of your dissertation on its specifically stated problem and purpose.
- A well aligned dissertation bebefits from better logic and consistency of the study.
Dissertation Alignment How-To
Alignment simply means that the central topic of your dissertation must MATCH in all of the above subheadings of Chapter 1. This means that:
- You must be specific and narrow in your description of the Problem which has led you to your Study.
- Your Purpose must be to supply new and important and relevant information around your Study variables.
- Your Research Questions must focus on the overarching concerns you have described in the Problem Statement.
- Your Research Design must describe a population which is qualified to provide information on your Problem, and statistical or other techniques of inquiry.
The key to proper alignment is focus. There is no place for extraneous information or tangents; you cannot cite sources in support of your topic unless they are timely and relevant.
Always bear in mind that alignment equals consistency! The key questions to always ask yourself are:
- Are the concepts discussed in the Problem, the Purpose, and the Research questions/Hypothesis the same?
- Is the Purpose of the study logically derived from the Problem statement?
- Do the Research questions/Hypothesis reflect the Purpose of the study?
Pay special attention, as well, to your dissertation TITLE. It should summarize ALL of your study variables, but it should be a brief as you can make it while still including all of the basic information, and aligning with your purpose.
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The topic is set and the background for the problem is on the page. After starting and stopping, then staring at the computer screen and looking around the room a few times, a question begins to form: What is it that I want to know? Still more starting and stopping, staring at the computer screen, perhaps adding pacing around the room, until a new question emerges: How do I form the research question that will help me as well as others understand why the problem I’m posing really is a problem for my field of study? Such moments occur in every researcher’s experience. Ensuring a quality topic and research problem that is manageable and aligned with a method, a design, and one’s degree program or field area is a challenge for most researchers, but is especially challenging for emerging researchers who often want to change the world with a single study. A strong research study is a study that has a narrowly focused problem in one’s discipline that is well-defined; well-defined problems can be carried out to conclusion in a timely manner with accuracy, meticulousness, clarity, and focus.
Booth, Colomb, and Williams (2008) observed that a two-part structure occurs for both practical and conceptual problems: A situation exists and there are undesirable outcomes caused by the situation (p.54). The research question then becomes a way to begin to understand the “so why is this significant to know” portion of the practical or conceptual problem. As Booth, Colomb, and Williams (2008) noted, for practical problems, there is a cost involved to someone or some organization if nothing is done; for conceptual problems, there is a consequence involved if nothing is done (p.57). Most academic research problems are conceptual, and Booth, Colomb, and Williams (2008, p. 56) proposed that conceptual problems are often more challenging because the conditions and costs involved with the problems are not tangible but theoretical. Therefore, it is up to the researcher to be able to explain clearly what it is not known or understood currently about the problem, why the problem has significance, and what the potential practical application might be once the problem is addressed.
The research question also has to align with a methodology (quantitative, qualitative, or mixed) as well as with a specific design that is supported by the methodology. The language of research methods is critical in shaping the research question to align with a methodology. Quantitative methodologies measure or count or experiment. Quantitative research questions generally begin with words or phrases like “What factors” or “What is the relationship between…” or “How will X relate to Y….” or “Why does Group A outperform Group C…” Language such as “relationships,” “affect,” “influence,” “cause,” “number,” “validity,” and “amount” are terms linked to quantitative research methods and should be used only with quantitative studies for correct alignment. Quantitative method research questions need some type of hypotheses to test.
Qualitative methodologies focus on understanding a range of lived human experiences, describing a social phenomenon/culture, or generating a theory to be tested in future research. Typical qualitative research questions begin with words or phrases like “How” or “In what ways” or “What,” which establish an open approach to gathering information. Mixed methodologies blend the two methods in particular sequences and use designs from each method that not only align with the specific methodology but also be mixed in specific ways to address the research question (Plano Clark & Ivankova, 2016, p.106).
An important rule of thumb for a well-designed, well aligned research study is a clearly developed central research question and either strongly developed sets of hypotheses for quantitative research or a strongly developed set of 2-4 sub-questions for a qualitative research study. Mixed methods will need an overarching central research question for the entire study as well as a research question to govern the quantitative research portion of the study (with hypotheses) and a central research question with appropriate sub-questions for the qualitative research portion of the study. Both the quantitative research portion and qualitative portion of the study must answer the overarching central research question. A key point to remember is that the more questions and hypotheses that exist in a study, the more difficult the study is to conduct, to manage, and to write up. Well-defined, well-scoped studies are easier for researchers to conduct, to manage, and to write. Take the time to prepare the study by reading critically, widely, and exhaustively in all aspects of the study – from content and background through the methodology and design that will be used.
Lastly, for dissertations and publications, aligning the study to a degree program or field of study is necessary. For dissertations, the emphasis on alignment to degree program or field of study is to ensure that the doctoral candidate can conduct discipline-specific research on a problem within the given field within an appropriate timeframe. The tradition in doctoral education is for the dissertator to make some insightful contribution to the field in which he or she receives the doctorate. For future publications, aligning studies to a degree program or to a larger field of study ensures the researcher can find grants, journals, conferences, and other publication venues where his or her work can be received well by colleagues and to continue building the discipline’s or field’s knowledge base.
In short, a research study that is in alignment across all aspects – research question, methodology, design, and degree program or field of study – are “solid, display mastery of the field, and are executed competently and confidently” (Lovitts, 2005, p. 19). The studies are thoughtful, have a proper use of the methods, yield relevant results that are interpreted well. The dissertator demonstrates that he or she can manage a full-scale large research project in the discipline; the seasoned researcher demonstrates an original, current contribution to the field.
Booth, W., Colomb, G. & Williams, J. (2008) The craft of research. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lovitts, B.E. (2005 November-December) How to grade a dissertation. Academe: 18-23.
Plano Clark, V. & Ivankova, N.V. (2016) Mixed methods research: A guide to the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE