What are acceptable dissertation research methods?

August 16, 2023

Reading time: 3–4 minutes

Doctoral research is the cornerstone of a PhD program.

In order to write a dissertation, you must complete extensive, detailed research. Depending on your area of study, different types of research methods will be appropriate to complete your work.

“The choice of research method depends on the questions you hope to answer with your research,” says Curtis Brant, PhD, Capella University dean of research and scholarship.

Once you’ve identified your research problem, you’ll employ the methodology best suited for solving the problem.

There are two primary dissertation research methods: qualitative and quantitative.


Qualitative research focuses on examining the topic via cultural phenomena, human behavior or belief systems. This type of research uses interviews, open-ended questions or focus groups to gain insight into people’s thoughts and beliefs around certain behaviors and systems.

Dr. Brant says there are several approaches to qualitative inquiry. The three most routinely used include:

Generic qualitative inquiry. The researcher focuses on people’s experiences or perceptions in the real world. This often includes, but is not limited to, subjective opinions, attitudes and beliefs.

Case study. The researcher performs an in-depth exploration of a program, event, activity or process with an emphasis on the experience of one or more individuals. The focus of this kind of inquiry must be defined and often includes more than one set of data, such as interviews and field notes, observations or other qualitative data.

Phenomenological. The researcher identifies lived experiences associated with how an individual encounters and engages with the real world.

Qualitative research questions seek to discover:

  • A participant’s verbal descriptions of a phenomenon being investigated
  •  A researcher’s observations of the phenomenon being investigated
  • An integrated interpretation of participant’s descriptions and researchers observations


Quantitative research involves the empirical investigation of observable and measurable variables. It is used for theory testing, predicting outcomes or determining relationships between and among variables using statistical analysis.

According to Dr. Brant, there are two primary data sources for quantitative research.

Surveys: Surveys involve asking people a set of questions, usually testing for linear relationships, statistical differences or statistical independence. This approach is common in correlation research designs.

Archival research (secondary data analysis). Archival research involves using preexisting data to answer research questions instead of collecting data from active human participants.

Quantitative research questions seek to address:

  • Descriptions of variables being investigated
  • Measurements of relationships between (at least two) variables
  • Differences between two or more groups’ scores on a variable or variables

Which method should you choose?

Choosing a qualitative or quantitative methodology for your research will be based on the nature of the questions you ask, the preferred method in your field, the feasibility of the approach and other factors. Many programs offer doctoral mentors and support teams that can help guide you throughout the process.

Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella doctoral programs and doctoral support.

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