Successful research projects are largely the result of good planning. Before you even start to think about when and how you might conduct a research project in-house, you need to sit down and ask yourself and some key questions. These will be your guiding principles throughout the course of your project which will not only keep you on track throughout but ensure you get the insight you really need.
What do you want to achieve from the research?
Ask yourself, ‘what are the research aims and objectives?’ and then frame these aims and objectives in a series of research questions, to help you focus…
For example, if the Department of Computer Science is looking to develop a new Artificial Intelligence degree, what insight are they going to need from potential students and local employers, about similar courses already offered by competitors to make an informed decision about whether to go ahead and develop the course? Your research questions might be:
- What is the appetite among prospective students and key employers for the proposed course?
- What are competitors already offering in this area and how will your offering sit alongside this?
- What should the course cover?
- Who are the key stakeholders within your university, what do they need to know and why? Make sure you have these at the forefront of your mind as you develop your methodology to ensure you remain on track and the project is of maximum value.
How you go about doing the research will vary according to the nature of the project and the types of questions you are looking to answer.
If you require statistically robust data on which to base a decision, for example to explore potential interest in two new degrees, then you’re going to need to undertake some quantitative primary research to understand the appetite for these courses among your potential students. You might also want to consider the value of talking to current students on similar courses or even graduates with experience of the labour market who will be able to talk about how they have used their degree and whether a slightly different degree would have been more useful to getting a job or progressing
And if you are thinking about conducting a quantitative study, give some thought as to who will be able to interpret and make sense of the findings at the end. What sort of analysis will be required?
- If you want to better understand the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’, for example how the reputation of your university is perceived among different audiences, then you’d want to explore these issues in depth through qualitative methods like online focus groups or extended one-to-one interviews. Importantly, how you go about talking to students is going to be different to what works best for employers. And even among employers, how you approach smaller local employers will be different to how you talk to large national or global companies.
- In some cases, your starting point might be secondary research i.e. looking at research findings, market trends or other material already in the public domain. For example, you might want to understand what courses, similar to the one your university is considering developing, are already offered by your key competitors, in what form and at what cost.
- What is the scale of the project, both in terms of how many students / businesses you need or want to talk and the geographical spread?
Of course, you will need to consider the skill set of your team. If there are any elements that are essential but that you just cannot do in-team, spend some time thinking about who is best placed to help you (either someone else in your organisation, or someone external). Another option would be to tweak your methodology.
Budgets are always tight, never more so than now, so it is very important to weigh up the benefit and potential impact a project will have. This will help inform ‘budgets’ for specific projects for example how many of your team you can afford to work on the project and for how long as opposed to them doing something else.
As obvious as it sounds, a key factor in delivering a project successfully is how well you stick to the timetable which will keep up momentum. As with any internal project, it is easy for things to slip as competing priorities are juggled and internal resource is vied for.
Also spend some time thinking about the key milestones of the project; at each stage agree what needs to be done and when. For example, when it comes to launching an online survey, how far in advance before that point will you need to agree the question set and who, if anyone, will you want input from? What contingency might you need to build into the timetable?
What will success look like?
Good quality research doesn’t just produce findings, but also real insight and understanding which culminates in a set of helpful actionable recommendations. Think about…
- How the recommendations will line up against the research aims and objectives. At the end of the project give some thought as to whether all the questions you set out to answer have been sufficiently answered. Has the research thrown up more questions and is more research needed?
- What will be the most useful way to share the recommendations with your colleagues and stakeholders? What sort of discussion, if any, will be needed about the recommendations?
- How and when will any recommendations be implemented? What impact will the project have both in the immediate and longer term?
- What will change as a result of having conducted the research? For example, what will be different about the student experience and how will this change be measured? What do you want students to be saying about their time at their university that they aren’t already saying?