A Graduate Student’s Guide to Academic Research Principles

The scientific method is used to explore, experiment, predict, and explain the various phenomena that occur throughout the observable universe.  In their book “Educational research: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed approaches”, authors Burke Johnson and Larry Christensen (2014) depict science as “an approach for the generation of knowledge that holds empirical data in high regard and follows certain norms and practices that developed over time because of their usefulness” (p. 14). This “empirical data” (2014) refers to the data generated by scientific exploration and can be used to explain how and why a phenomenon occurs (Johnson & Christensen, p.14). Essential to scientific explanation is fundamental knowledge of scientific research; knowledge, of which, can be attained through University graduate-level education. Through their studies of academic research principles and methods, graduate students gain the ability to formulate effective research questions, create well-designed research plans and agendas, and conduct appropriate testing protocols to complete their thesis research and earn their degrees.

Knowledge of fundamental research principles enables graduate students to formulate effective and meaningful research questions. By studying research principles early in a graduate program, students become educated consumers of academic research; meaning, students will develop sufficient critical thinking skills to effectively evaluate research papers (McMillan, 1996). Critical thinking skills enable graduate students to practice two key functions in their research: (1) the ability to differentiate between fictitious and factual research claims, and (2) the ability to critically evaluate the arguments put forth in research papers (Johnson & Christensen, 2014). The first function is critical as not all researcher reports are ethical. A researcher or author may manipulate the experimental data to support their own biases, resulting in a misinformed and fictitious research report. Using their critical thinking skills, graduate students are able to differentiate between fictitious and factual claims, effectively discrediting publications by bias or corrupt authors. The second function is also imperative as researchers are subject to error. Consider a secondary researcher who has misinterpreted the data of a primary research study and presented inaccurate statements in the conclusion of their report. Here, the secondary researcher has reported on the basis of factual evidence but failed to interpret the information correctly. Once again, critical thinking skills enable graduate students to identify such inconsistencies in the author’s conclusion, suggesting to students that a new interpretation is required to best purpose the primary research data. By relying upon their critical thinking skills to effectively evaluate academic papers, graduate students are able to distinguish which research topics are well supported, and which topics require further investigation, providing the sufficient insight needed to formulate appropriate and purposeful research questions or hypotheses.

Understanding scientific research methods allows graduate students to view the entire research process on a macro scale, enabling them to conceptualize the various steps required to plan and implement successful academic research. Scientific research involves two primary methods to generate evidential data: the exploratory method and the confirmatory method (Johnson & Christensen, 2014). Once a general research topic has been established, the exploratory method can be used to generate cause for investigation: “The exploratory method is the theory-generation approach: It follows a ‘logic of discovery’ that says to look at your world and try to generate ideas and construct theories about how it operates” (Johnson & Christensen, 2014, p.18). Using the exploratory method, researchers generate ideas by making observations, finding patterns in the observations, and developing generalized statements to explain specific phenomena (Johnson & Christensen, 2014). By understanding the exploratory research method, graduate students can generate purposeful hypotheses through observation, which will later be scrutinized through a process referred to as the confirmatory method.

The confirmatory method is used to produce empirical research data, known as evidence, to accurately support, or reject, a scientific theory or hypothesis (Johnson & Christensen, 2014). It tests exploratory ideas and predictions to reveal whether further scientific investigation and analysis is justified. Referred to as the “theory-testing approach” (2014), confirmatory evaluation is imperative to the validity of any research study, as without evidence, any associated conclusions will be deemed unsupported (Johnson & Christensen, p.18). Knowledge of the confirmatory method is of particular importance to graduate students since their initial research ideas and predictions will eventually require sufficient evidence to become credible theories.  Collectively, the exploratory and confirmatory research methods provide a clear and proven sequence for graduate students to follow when planning their thesis research. By making initial observations, identifying patterns to create ideas or predictions, and testing hypotheses and theories to produce convincing evidence, graduate students are prepared to conduct purposeful academic research that may return convincing evidence to the scientific community upon successful replication.

Once the entire research process has been conceptualized, or planned, graduate students can use the quantitative, qualitative, and mixed research methods to effectively test their theories or hypotheses, or to replicate existing research data. Qualitative and quantitative research methods are used to generate empirical data that accurately reflect the values or qualities of an observable phenomenon (Johnson & Christensen, 2014).  Consider the measurement of subjective phenomena. The qualitative research method is commonly used to reflect peoples’ experiences or perspectives, and can include topics on human behaviour, societal normativity, and religion (Johnson & Christensen, 2014). Johnson and Christianson (2014) note the function of qualitative research: “pure qualitative research relies on the collection of qualitative data (i.e., nonnumerical data, words, and pictures) to measure specific phenomenon” (p. 33). This is of particular importance to graduate students planning to participate in the exploratory phase of research. For example, to generate a research lead pertaining to virtual lecturing in the educational setting, researchers must not only evaluate student performance, but also their preferred learning experience; in this case, students need to feel comfortable with the course delivery to feel motivated to succeed at a high standard. Researchers can then measure this perceived level of comfort by administering surveys or questionnaires, both of which can be forms of qualitative measurement (Johnson & Christensen, 2014).

The quantitative research method is perhaps most recognizable to students whom are new to academic research: “Pure quantitative research relies on the collection of quantitative data (i.e., numerical data)” to measure observations of a given phenomenon” (Johnson & Christensen, 2014, p. 33). This form of research commonly aligns with the confirmatory method of research as its primary focus is to test theories or hypotheses (Johnson & Christensen, 2014). Going back to our qualitative research example in the previous paragraph, quantitative research can be conducted to measure the performance of in-person learners against virtual learners. By evaluating the grade averages in both groups, the researcher is prepared to make predictions as to how virtual lecturing may impact the performance of virtual learners. In this case, the confirmatory method is used to validate, or discredit, the original hypothesis, a vital step in the research process. In addition, this example illustrates that some research requires the measurement of both qualitative and quantitative phenomena, a process commonly referred to as the mixed research method. The mixed research method is typically used to generate supporting evidence when neither qualitative data, nor quantitative data, provide sufficient evidence to either support, or reject, a theory or hypothesis. In summary, graduate students will come to rely on the various research methods discussed throughout this section to generate conclusive data in support of their theories or hypotheses.

To be successful in academic research, graduate students are required to be well-versed in numerous scientific methods and principles. By studying fundamental research methods and principles, graduate students become critical evaluators of published works, never to believe what is said or written without sufficient evidence. They understand the various steps required to produce well-documented research reports and can conceptualize how to best measure a specific phenomenon. In conclusion, and by way of the evidence presented throughout this paper, graduate students will require moderate to extensive knowledge of fundamental research principles and methods to become sufficient in the research process, both as graduate students, and as future research professionals.



Johnson, R.B. & Christensen, L. (2014). Educational research: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed approaches (p.2-58). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McMillan, J.H., (1996). Educational Research: Fundamentals for the Consumer. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers.

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