I. Groups of Research Methods
There are two main groups of research methods in the social sciences:
- The empirical-analytical groupapproaches the study of social sciences in a similar manner that researchers study the natural sciences. This type of research focuses on objective knowledge, research questions that can be answered yes or no, and operational definitions of variables to be measured. The empirical-analytical group employs deductive reasoning that uses existing theory as a foundation for formulating hypotheses that need to be tested. This approach is focused on explanation.
- The interpretative group of methods is focused on understanding phenomenon in a comprehensive, holistic way. Interpretive methods focus on analytically disclosing the meaning-making practices of human subjects [the why, how, or by what means people do what they do], while showing how those practices arrange so that it can be used to generate observable outcomes. Interpretive methods allow you to recognize your connection to the phenomena under investigation. However, the interpretative group requires careful examination of variables because it focuses more on subjective knowledge.
The introduction to your methodology section should begin by restating the research problem and underlying assumptions underpinning your study. This is followed by situating the methods you will use to gather, analyze, and process information within the overall “tradition” of your field of study and within the particular research design you have chosen to study the problem. If the method you choose lies outside of the tradition of your field [i.e., your review of the literature demonstrates that it is not commonly used], provide a justification for how your choice of methods specifically addresses the research problem in ways that have not been utilized in prior studies.
The remainder of your methodology section should describe the following:
- Decisions made in selecting the data you have analyzed or, in the case of qualitative research, the subjects and research setting you have examined,
- Tools and methods used to identify and collect information, and how you identified relevant variables,
- The ways in which you processed the data and the procedures you used to analyze that data, and
- The specific research tools or strategies that you utilized to study the underlying hypothesis and research questions.
In addition, an effectively written methodology section should:
- Introduce the overall methodological approach for investigating your research problem. Is your study qualitative or quantitative or a combination of both (mixed method)? Are you going to take a special approach, such as action research, or a more neutral stance?
- Indicate how the approach fits the overall research design. Your methods for gathering data should have a clear connection to your research problem. In other words, make sure that your methods will actually address the problem. One of the most common deficiencies found in research papers is that the proposed methodology is not suitable to achieving the stated objective of your paper.
- Describe the specific methods of data collection you are going to use, such as, surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observation, archival research. If you are analyzing existing data, such as a data set or archival documents, describe how it was originally created or gathered and by whom. Also be sure to explain how older data is still relevant to investigating the current research problem.
- Explain how you intend to analyze your results. Will you use statistical analysis? Will you use specific theoretical perspectives to help you analyze a text or explain observed behaviors? Describe how you plan to obtain an accurate assessment of relationships, patterns, trends, distributions, and possible contradictions found in the data.
- Provide background and a rationale for methodologies that are unfamiliar for your readers. Very often in the social sciences, research problems and the methods for investigating them require more explanation/rationale than widely accepted rules governing the natural and physical sciences. Be clear and concise in your explanation.
- Provide a justification for subject selection and sampling procedure. For instance, if you propose to conduct interviews, how do you intend to select the sample population? If you are analyzing texts, which texts have you chosen, and why? If you are using statistics, why is this set of data being used? If other data sources exist, explain why the data you chose is most appropriate to addressing the research problem.
- Describe potential limitations. Are there any practical limitations that could affect your data collection? How will you attempt to control for potential confounding variables and errors? If your methodology may lead to problems you can anticipate, state this openly and show why pursuing this methodology outweighs the risk of these problems cropping up.
NOTE: Once you have written all of the elements of the methods section, subsequent revisions should focus on how to present those elements as clearly and as logically as possibly. The description of how you prepared to study the research problem, how you gathered the data, and the protocol for analyzing the data should be organized chronologically. For clarity, when a large amount of detail must be presented, information should be presented in sub-sections according to topic.
ANOTHER NOTE: If you are conducting a qualitative analysis of a research problem, the methodology section generally requires a more elaborate description of the methods used as well as an explanation of the processes applied to gathering and analyzing of data than is generally required for studies using quantitative methods. Because you are the primary instrument for generating the data, the process for collecting that data has a significantly greater impact on producing the findings. Therefore, qualitative research requires a more detailed description of the methods used.
III. Problems to Avoid
The methodology section of your paper should be thorough but to the point. Do not provide any background information that doesn’t directly help the reader to understand why a particular method was chosen, how the data was gathered or obtained, and how it was analyzed.
Unnecessary Explanation of Basic Procedures
Remember that you are not writing a how-to guide about a particular method. You should make the assumption that readers possess a basic understanding of how to investigate the research problem on their own and, therefore, you do not have to go into great detail about specific methodological procedures. The focus should be on how you applied a method, not on the mechanics of doing a method. An exception to this rule is if you select an unconventional methodological approach; if this is the case, be sure to explain why this approach was chosen and how it enhances the overall process of discovery.
It is almost a given that you will encounter problems when collecting or generating your data, or, gaps will exist in existing data or archival materials. Do not ignore these problems or pretend they did not occur. Often, documenting how you overcame obstacles can form an interesting part of the methodology. It demonstrates to the reader that you can provide a cogent rationale for the decisions you made to minimize the impact of any problems that arose.
Just as the literature review section of your paper provides an overview of sources you have examined while researching a particular topic, the methodology section should cite any sources that informed your choice and application of a particular method [i.e., the choice of a survey should include any citations to the works you used to help construct the survey].
It’s More than Sources of Information!
A description of a research study's method should not be confused with a description of the sources of information. Such a list of sources is useful in and of itself, especially if it is accompanied by an explanation about the selection and use of the sources. The description of the project's methodology complements a list of sources in that it sets forth the organization and interpretation of information emanating from those sources.
Azevedo, L.F. et al. "How to Write a Scientific Paper: Writing the Methods Section." Revista Portuguesa de Pneumologia 17 (2011): 232-238; Blair Lorrie. “Choosing a Methodology.” In Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation, Teaching Writing Series. (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers 2016), pp. 49-72; Butin, Dan W. The Education Dissertation A Guide for Practitioner Scholars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010; Carter, Susan. Structuring Your Research Thesis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Kallet, Richard H. “How to Write the Methods Section of a Research Paper.” Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004):1229-1232; Lunenburg, Frederick C. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Methods Section. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Rudestam, Kjell Erik and Rae R. Newton. “The Method Chapter: Describing Your Research Plan.” In Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. (Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2015), pp. 87-115; What is Interpretive Research. Institute of Public and International Affairs, University of Utah; Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Methods and Materials. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College.
Frequently asked questions regarding the PhD in Creative Writing
Why pursue a PhD in Creative Writing?
Good question! Very few poets and novelists have PhDs in Creative Writing, and it is important to think carefully about whether an academic path is the best one for you. While a doctoral degree might seem the logical next step for students who have successfully completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing, this is not necessarily the case. A PhD in Creative Writing will aid those who have a strong desire to teach Creative Writing, but if teaching is not your aim, a different route might serve you and your writing much better.
How is the degree structured?
Doctoral degree candidates in Creative Writing spend three years writing a manuscript in consultation with a supervisor.
This manuscript consists of two components:
- A creative component that comprises 75% of the final manuscript.
- An analytical component, which comprises 25% of the final manuscript.
In practical terms this amounts to the following:
- Candidates in fiction write a creative manuscript (novel or collection of short stories) that should not exceed 75,000 words in length.
- Candidates in poetry write a collection of poetry that should not exceed 75 pages of poetry.
- All candidates (fiction writers and poets) must also write an essay that is approximately 20,000- 25,000 words. This is the ‘analytical’ component.
What is meant by ‘analytical component’?
First, what it is not: the ‘analytical’ component is not where you explain your own creative work. Nor is it a space for delivering a scholarly analysis of your creative work. It is also not a place wherein students are expected to deliver an original piece of scholarly work, as one would be required to do when pursuing a conventional 80,000 thesis manuscript in literary studies. Rather, the ‘analytical component’ of a thesis manuscript in Creative Writing is where you analyse how a precise, focused theme or specific element of craft (character, versification, voice, etc.) operates in particular published works. The analytical component can take many different forms, as long as it offers an in-depth analysis of a question that relates to, or grows out of, the creative component of your manuscript. Sometimes, the analytical component will be a traditional academic or ‘critical’ essay, but this is not a requirement. Other times, this part of a thesis might tackle more craft-driven questions: in what ways does plot operate in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and how do these ‘operations’ affect readers? Or, how is narrative interest achieved and sustained in George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Or, how does a character’s desire get established, and how does this change throughout the course of X novel by Y author? For poetry, a candidate interested in switching between different registers in their poems might explore the aims and effects of code-switching in the poems of Ted Hughes and Janet Frame. If your poems invest heavily in figurative language, you may propose to analyse the operation of metaphor in the work of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds. Or perhaps you’re interested in writing in assumed voices—in which case your research question might be: How does the use of non-human personae in Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World and Edwin Morgan’s poetry reshape reader perceptions? A candidate writing a book of elegies might seek to explore the differing ways in which commemoration is achieved / attempted in Mark Doty’s My Alexandria, Michael Longley’s Gorse Fires and George Szirtes’s Bad Machine.
These are all very diverse possibilities, but they share the following crucial trait: each topic is focused on specific authors and/or particular titles. Focus is crucial. You have only 20,000 -25,000 words for this essay, so when writing your proposal it is important to be as specific as possible.
Research and secondary sources still play an important role in the analytical component, but sometimes the sources a Creative Writing student draws on to support his or her claims are of a different nature than sources one would use for a ‘traditional’ scholarly essay. For instance, when discussing questions of plot or versification or imagery, one might rely more heavily on what practitioners themselves (e. g. published poets or novelists) have said about these elements of craft in, say, the Paris Review Interviews, or other similar publications.
What if the topic proposed in an application changes once my studies are underway?
This is very likely to happen. Your proposal is not a contract that you will be bound to follow. It is simply a description of the sort of project you envision undertaking at this point in time. As such, the proposal is a way to demonstrate that you have some grasp of what can reasonably be accomplished within a 20,000-25,000 word essay. Obviously, it's work yet to be undertaken; but you do need to convey a sense of its scope and viability.
What form does the application take?
Applicants are asked to supply a sample of either fiction (3,000 - 5,000 words; not exceeding 5,000 words) or poetry (10-15 pages of poetry; not exceeding 15 pages), as well as a shorter sample of your academic writing (circa 2,000 words). You’ll also need to supply a summary of your proposed project. This summary should cover a brief outline of your creative project (2-3 sentences) as well as a more detailed discussion of your 20,000-25,000 word analytical component. Because the creative writing sample of poems or fiction that you submit will largely speak for itself, the bulk of this summary should be devoted to outlining your proposed analytical essay.
Some questions that your proposal might address could be: what would be the proposed structure of the creative portion of your final manuscript? Which resources would you be using for your analytical portion of the final manuscript (mention a few critics and/or authors you will be discussing by name or, even better, specific titles)? Include a bibliography. Why would Edinburgh be a good place for this project?
The application also asks for a 'personal statement' separate from the proposal. This is where you'll provide information of your previous experiences and attainments as a creative writer, and you might also want to give a sense of why you want to do the PhD in Edinburgh.
How long should a proposal be?
Word counts vary. There is no official limit or minimum length for a proposal. As a general rule, however, effective proposals tend to be approximately 500-750 words long.
What is the deadline for submitting an application?
There is no fixed deadline, although if one wanted to begin studying in September, the application generally needs to be received by the end of April.
Are there any prerequisites?
Applicants must have completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing. This is a firm requirement. Successful applicants will normally have received a distinction.
If you are interested in pursuing a Masters in Creative writing, we offer a part-time MSc in Creative Writing by online learning as well as a full-time campus-based MSc degree. If you are interested in learning more about these programmes, information can be found at the following links:
MSc in Creative Writing
MSc in Creative Writing by online learning
Do I need to find someone to supervise my project before applying?
No. Applicants who receive an offer of acceptance are assigned a provisional supervisor, taking into account staff research interests and other factors.
Is it possible to pursue a doctoral degree in Creative Writing online?
No. We do not offer a PhD in Creative Writing through distance learning.
Do doctoral degree candidates have the opportunity to teach?
Yes. Subject to successful completion of our postgraduate teaching review process, doctoral degree candidates have the opportunity to teach pre-honours tutorial(s) during their third year of study.
Would I be teaching Creative Writing?
No. These tutorials are linked with pre-honours courses in literary studies.
Where can I find information about funding?
Funding for doctoral students is highly competitive, and applications for AHRC scholarships are subject to an internal and external review process. For more information on funding, please visit the following link:
Would my doctoral manuscript be made available through Open Access?
Conversations regarding Open Access are on-going and ever-evolving. At present, the same policy applies to Creative Writing doctoral manuscripts as to thesis manuscripts written by doctoral students in literary studies and other disciplines within the humanities. You can request a one year embaro on public access to your thesis by ticking the box on the CD cover sleeve when you submit the electronic version of your thesis. If no embargo is requested then the full text of the thesis is made freely available online via ERA (Edinburgh Research Archive). For more information on Access to Thesis restrictions, please contact the Scholarly Communications Team on:
or visit their website :
Scholarly Communications Team
Is there anything else I should consider before applying?
While you do not need to find a member of staff willing to supervise your project before applying, please do take some time to read over staff profiles, staff research interests, and publications in order to ensure that your project is something we can effectively supervise. For instance, if your project involves writing a book for children, there is currently no member of staff who has ever written for children. As a result, unfortunately, that is a project that we would not be able to supervise.
How do I apply?
You can apply online on the following page:
Apply for the PhD in Creative writing
Back to the PhD in Creative Writing