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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Critical thinking at each stage of the research process

At the very beginning of the research process is when you define your problem and formulate a research question. Depending on the type of problem and research question, you then need to come up with a research design. This is a crucial stage that requires detailed planning and reviewing, as it can shape the course of your entire research journey. Here’s how critical thinking can help during this initial stage.

  • Finding a gap in the research: Being able to identify existing arguments or evidence, evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, and synthesise a new area of inquiry based on these appraisals.
  • Coming up with a research question: Assessing a problem and then devising an approach best suited to its solution, and best suited to the researcher’s skillset/expertise.
  • Designing a study: Using creativity, sometimes collaboration, to weave ideas together and produce a design for a study. Comparing different methods and techniques of inquiry to arrive at the study plan that investigates the research question in a way that can contribute to furthering understanding of an issue or topic.
  • Building on previously conducted studies: Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your pilot study, or your priorly conducted study, and recognising how to address them, while still building on your wider research question in a coherent way. Appropriately acknowledging and addressing limitations of previous research in written presentations or follow-up studies.

A critical thinker may ask themselves the following questions at this stage:

Does my research question portray my area of inquiry in a succinct, clear and straightforward manner?

Is there a good fit between the purpose of my research and my research question?

Given the time, resources and expertise I have access to, is it feasible for me to answer my research question?

For your literature review, you will need to present a body of past research and relevant texts that provide the reader with an understanding of background and context for your research. You will usually consult a list of primary and secondary sources that have been written on the subject matter you are exploring with your research. When compiling the literature you intend to include and write about in your literature review, you need to make sure the texts are relevant to your research, the sources and reputable and the claims its author(s) makes are robust and clear. Here’s how critical thinking can help during this stage:

  • Reading past research: Identifying texts and reading them with focus and purpose. Making notes that summarise the main arguments. Selecting texts for the literature review based on their relevance, methodology, robustness of findings and clarity of arguments as opposed to their popularity or the status/familiarity of the author(s).
  • Analysing past research: Inferring the overall aims of the selected research, assessing the authenticity and validity of the written work on its own merit. Analysing and weighing up their relevance and contribution to the broader field of research as well as determining the value they add to your specific inquiry. Recognising gaps or areas of improvement in the literature that can be built upon by your research or future research.

A critical thinker may ask themselves the following questions at this stage:

What does the selected text claim that is relevant to my research question?

Am I keeping an open and fair mind when reviewing the literature, and not just looking for ways to be over-critical?

How do the texts I have selected and analysed for the literature review relate to each other and my research question in a way that paints an overall picture for the reader?

Depending on the nature of your research question, you may need to gather data or information. This could be primary or secondary, quantitative or qualitative, or even a mixture. You will make this decision based on the research or specific study you have designed. This can be an exciting stage where you get to be curious and practically explore your research question, but also where biases, faulty techniques and lack of transparency can diminish the reliability and validity of your research. Here’s how critical thinking can help during this exploration stage.

  • Choosing a data collection method: Identifying the various options available, assessing their merits and compatibility with the purpose of your research and reflecting on how such methods have been used before.
  • Collecting data: Utilising reliable methods to fulfil the main practical aim of your research question, all while being mindful of minimising any effect you as a researcher may have on the data or information you obtain.
  • Conducting data analysis: Identifying patterns and connections between data and forming conclusions based on a structured and guided method of analysis done in a transparent way.

A critical thinker may ask themselves the following questions at this stage:

Is this method of gathering information/evidence most befitting the purpose of my research?

Am I complying with ethical guidelines in how I gather this data?

Are any of my own biases or desire to see a certain set of results interacting with my process of analysing this data?

In a research context, for academic writing to successfully fulfil its purpose, it needs to be able to do a number of things. It needs to be tailored to its audience, it needs to have a logical structure with a consistent narrative, and it needs to address the research question in some way or another. This is the stage where you get to bring together all of the previous stages of the research process, everything you have learned and all the ways in which you have come to form a perspective or line of argument that sheds new light on your area of research. Here’s how critical thinking can help when writing academically about research:

  • Tailoring to the audience: Identifying the target audience, establishing their prior knowledge, anticipating potential knowledge gaps and gauging possible interests. Tailoring language, content and structure of the written work to the audience while still delivering the main aim of the research.
  • Writing the discussion: Describing the findings in relation to the aim of the research and the relevant literature, before evaluating them, both in the context of the study and beyond, on a wider scale. Exploring the implications of the research in various contexts, from different perspectives. Openly and fairly addressing limitations and how they influence the conclusions that can be drawn from the research.
  • Coming up with conclusions: Forming robust, well-supported conclusions that concisely draw together the aforementioned points while acknowledging the introductory sections of the work. Generating ideas for avenues of future inquiry based on presented conclusions, that both build upon the current work and contribute to the field of knowledge as a whole. Avoiding any sweeping generalisations.
  • Building an overall argument: Constructing a narrative that weaves through the academic work from beginning to end, explicitly informing the reader of how the narrative will be developed at each section.

A critical thinker may ask themselves the following questions when writing academically:

To what extent are my claims supported by evidence that has undergone an appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses?

How clearly and logically is my overall line of argument or narrative conveyed throughout my writing, in a way that addresses the research question?

Does my introduction tie into my conclusion, and does every section in between compliment the reader’s journey?

You can download a transcript of this audio.

A big thank you to Merve, Diana and Riadh for sharing their experiences so generously! If you would like to get in touch with any of them and learn more about their journey or hear about their research, you can get in touch via their social media: @mervemolla @DIANA_VAL @riadhghemmour.

Finally, critical thinking is also crucial during the PhD viva, which marks the end of the doctoral degree. I spoke to three researchers who recently crossed this milestone, and asked them about how elements of critical thinking were relevant during this stage. Listen below:

Wallace, M., & Wray, A. (2006). Critical reading and writing for postgraduates. United Kingdom: Sage Publications

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