Research: Getting organised

Last updated: Monday, May 06, 2024

There's no point doing research if it's not good quality, and a robust investigation requires careful planning. Time spent getting organised is therefore never wasted.

Poor planning may mean that your results are so meaningless that you are unable to meet your original aim. No amount of data massage will alter the fact that you forgot to exclude certain patients, made no allowance for confounding variables such as fluctuations in service demand, omitted key questions from your questionnaire, or recruited a lamentably small number of interviewees who had never used the service you were researching.

The way you organise yourself and your research is to some extent determined by your personality, but you can use the well-known acronym SMART to structure your thinking. Ask yourself if what you want to do is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and can be met in a Timely way. Here are some thoughts to assist you:

Specific (What precisely is the task?)

Look at the research aims and objectives that you established at the beginning. Are they clear and specific? Do they explain what you want to accomplish? The rest of your planning should be built around these objectives, and usually you would write a research protocol to explain your intentions to everyone involved with the project. A simple protocol might have this structure:

  • Background – explanation of what is already known, and a justification for undertaking your research.
  • Project aims and objectives.
  • Methods – a concise summary of what you plan to do: describing the research subjects, your intervention(s), and the methods of analysis.
  • Timetable
  • References
  • Appendices – may include things like your data collection form, questionnaire, or information leaflet for participants.

Measurable (What change are you looking for? How will you assess the impact of your intervention?)

What you want to find out determines the data that you must collect, so it is crucial to devote thinking time to this aspect. Your data could be measures such as numbers (quantitative) or less tangible things like opinions (qualitative). You may discover that you can use or adapt a method employed by someone who has already published research in your chosen field (e.g. copying a published questionnaire). So it is important to read around the subject, as well as completing a formal literature search, before finalising your approach. You must also consider how you will obtain your data.

Think about your method of analysis in advance, too. If your data will need statistical handling, are you capable of doing this or do you need help? Don't gather your data and think about analysis afterwards because you may find that you've gathered the wrong data or not enough of it.

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Achievable (Is it really feasible?)

Do you believe that you can complete the research within the time available, and with the resources that you have? It is common to be a bit 'too keen' in a research project and try to bite off more than you can chew. It's better to have more modest aspirations and to focus on a clearly defined goal. A helpful way to look at this is to anticipate what might go wrong. Think about these possible pitfalls, write them down, and consider whether you may need to change your approach or prepare contingency plans in case they happen. Again, reading around the topic will help you because other researchers often document obstacles that they encountered and the way they dealt with them.

Relevant (What's the bigger picture?)

This is really about strategy, and goes beyond your aims and objectives. It's concerned with a longer-term vision of the future. How does your research link in with your department's objectives, your Trust's vision, or with NHS plans? Are you just repeating a study that's been done countless times before or are you tackling something original that potentially breaks new ground? Is it easy for people to appreciate the potential practical benefits of your research in terms of, say, better patient care, increased income, enhanced efficiency, or improved safety?

If you think strategically, then it will help you achieve your research goals. For example, research that may enhance Pharmacy's contribution to your Trust's vision or targets is more likely to be supported by your line manager. An investigation that enables you to work with other professions is also likely to gather greater support because you will hopefully have a greater number of colleagues with an interest in its successful completion. If people can see that your project is relevant and they understand what you are trying to achieve, then funding may be easier to obtain. You will also find it easier to get time away from your other duties to conduct research if your employer can see that there are real potential benefits for its patients or staff.

Timely (When will you complete each stage?)

You must write down a timetable for your research project. It will keep you organised and help ensure you stay on track. There are various ways to do this. Some people like to use a detailed spreadsheet with precise dates for almost every individual task that will be involved. Others prefer a broader approach with only the main objectives described and less precise dates. Two examples are shown below.