10 Tips for Conducting Your Psychology Research

By Martin Dempster, Donncha Hanna

The prospect of conducting a research study in psychology can be overwhelming. There are many things that you need to consider. Here are ten tips to help make the process a little easier.

Don’t try to do it all yourself

A research study is rarely a solo effort. You depend on other people. Not least your supervisor, but you may also depend on people to, for example, provide access to participants or provide some of the technical expertise necessary for your study. Involve these people early in the research process and ensure that they continue to feel involved.

Don’t forget about the practicalities

Undoubtedly, you have a brilliant research idea – grounded in psychological theory and supported by a well-thought-out research design. But sometimes simple, easy-to-overlook things can trip you up, such as how you find potential participants or how you access the appropriate software to run your analysis. Don’t forget about these practicalities – think about these possible problems and identify solutions as early as possible.

Be realistic

You probably have a time limit on your research study; you probably also have limited resources to support your research. Your research proposal needs to be tailored with these aspects in mind. You may have a great idea for a research project, but if it’s not realistic, it won’t get finished – no matter how brilliant it is.

Be clear about your research aim, question or hypothesis

You need to explicitly state your research aim, question or hypothesis in your research proposal and in your subsequent research report. It’s the lynchpin of your entire research project! You arrive at your research aim, question or hypothesis (the type of research you’re doing helps to determine which is most appropriate) by reviewing the relevant literature, and you then use this research aim, question or hypothesis to drive your analysis and your study conclusions.

To ensure that your conclusions make sense, your research aim, question or hypothesis needs to be clear, precise and consistent throughout your proposal and research report.

Justify each variable you include in your study design

When you want to explore a research area, you may think of many variables that you can measure in the context of your research study. That’s good – it demonstrates that you understand the complexity of psychology and that many variables can influence our thoughts, behaviours and emotions at any one time. But, you can only measure so many things in a research study before either you run out of time or your participants run out of patience. You need to think carefully about which variables to include in your study.

Justify each variable in your proposal; in other words, make a case for its inclusion in your study. To ensure that your variable choice is practical and workable, keep in mind the burden on participants and ask yourself whether you really need to include each variable.

Be clear about your research design

Sometimes students believe that the most important thing about describing the design of a research study is to find the correct label. For example, they may spend a considerable amount of time deliberating over whether they have an independent-groups design, a repeated-measures design or a survey design. Of course, these classifications provide a useful taxonomy of research designs to choose from. But if it’s not clear which label applies to your study, you don’t have to use one – just clearly describe the structure of your study and what you’re going to ask your participants to do.

Stick to your analysis plan

After going to the trouble of collecting a considerable amount of data in the course of your project, it can be tempting to look at all the additional research questions that you can answer with this data, even if you hadn’t thought of them in advance. This can lead to an unnecessarily huge analysis!

Although it may be very interesting, you should never include this additional analysis in the write-up of your research report: it may confuse your reader and you may also lose the main message from your findings. Instead, develop a clear plan of analysis that is based on your research question, and stick to this plan as you write your research report.

Try to make sense of your findings

‘Make sense of your findings’ may seem like an obvious thing to say, but some research reports show little evidence that the researcher truly understands their findings. By the time students start to write up their report, they can easily become caught up in the technical language of their analyses – and they may not be able to see the wood for the trees.

Sometimes you need to stand back from your project and ask yourself, ‘What does this all mean?’ Then, when you have a handle on your findings, try to express your answer to this question in a way that non-psychologists can understand.

Plan for everything going wrong

Always remember Murphy’s Law: ‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’. It may seem a pessimistic view, but sadly you need to anticipate problems when you conduct a research project. For example, you may be depending on other people (not least your research participants) or technical equipment for the success of your research project – these are things you have little or no control over.

You can never be 100 per cent sure that everything will go to plan, regardless of how carefully you plan your study. A good research plan builds in some extra time for dealing with unforeseen problems.

Enjoy the learning experience

This is perhaps the most important tip of all – try to enjoy your psychology research project! If you don’t get something out of it, you won’t want to do another one, and all the hard-earned learning from your first project will be wasted.

Of course, you won’t enjoy every aspect of your research project, but try to look back on the skills and knowledge that you’ve gained along the way. Think of the new information that you’ve generated and how it may be useful to other researchers on future projects. Think of what you can do with your newly acquired skills too – the (psychology) world is your oyster!