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Tips and Tricks when Doing a Research Family Medicine Resident Project

Conducting research for your resident project can be rewarding and challenging. The following is intended to provide guidance and suggest resources to help with the research endeavor so you can competently complete your project with the time and resources you are prepared to expend.

This guide is divided into five Steps:

  1. Select a topic, identify the research problem, and state a clear research question
  2. Choose a research method
  3. Find an appropriate supervisor
  4. Write a research proposal
  5. Ask the expert

Step One: Select a topic, identify the research problem, and state a clear research question

Topic requirements are

  • It needs a strong relationship to family medicine
  • You need to be curious/passionate about it
  • It needs to addresses a gap in the research literature
  • It needs to be doable within the allotted time and your skill set

Identifying your research problem/research question

Selecting your research question can be one of the most agonizing and critical steps in developing a solid research study. It defines your whole process, from what background literature you need to read, guiding what method you should use, analysis required, and the findings to report in order to answer the question. Your question should be clear, focused, concise, complex and arguable. This will take time. Step away from your computer; consider what drew you to your topic. What about it animates and matters to you? Listen to yourself and start formulating your question by following your own interests. Remember, you will spend a lot of time researching and writing about the proposed project: if it does not interest you in the beginning, it will certainly become very difficult to write about in the end.

Next, extensively research your topic. What have experts published in peer reviewed journals? How have they framed their research? What gaps, contradictions, or concerns arise for you as you read, talk to people, and visit places? Would doing a local project using existing studies enhance knowledge? Consult the literature! If you aren’t sure how to do this, consult a subject librarian.

More on research question formulation

Edited from source: Practical Advice on how to formulate your research question

Keeping the Research Process in Focus:

  • heart of the research project is the problem
  • must articulate an acceptable problem
  • formulate a problem that is carefully phrased and that represents the single goal of the research effort

State the Problem Clearly and Completely

  • "Always state the problem in a complete grammatical sentence in as few words as possible."
  • be specific
  • limit areas studied so that the study is of manageable size

Think, Consider and Estimate

  • be sure of the feasibility of your study

Edit Your Writing

  • choose your words carefully
  • rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
  • keep your sentences short

Every Problem Needs Further Delineation

  • eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding
  • give full disclosure of what you intend to do and not do
  • give the meanings of all terms used
  • state the assumptions
  • state the hypotheses and/or research question

Sample Research Questions

Source: The Writing Center

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately Complex
: What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective.

Step Two: Choose a research method

There are several methods to choose from for conducting research.

Qualitative/Exploratory Research

  • Qualitative research focusses on the interpretation of a situation, set of behaviors, or a setting
  • Analysis must take place within a context
    • Note: Different researchers may view the same situation and obtain different results
  • Qualitative research answers "how" and "why."
    • e.g.: How do patients perceive?

Quantitative/Explanatory Research

  • Focuses on causal relationships and their impact (outcomes)
  • Quantitative Research answers “what” questions

Descriptive Research

  • Descriptive research describes data and characteristics about the population or phenomenon being studied
  • Descriptive research answers the questions "who", "what", "where", and "when"
  • The research cannot describe what caused a situation. Thus, Descriptive Research cannot be used to create a causal relationship, where one variable affects another.
  • Descriptive research classifies phenomena
    • e.g.: We may simply wish to describe the participants in a study and how they act, believe, perceive the world, or look
  • Examples of research questions for descriptive studies:
    • What is the clients’ degree of satisfaction with the services provided though the clinic’s open access model?
    • What percentages of people living in Cairo have incomes below the poverty line?

Step Three: Find an appropriate supervisor

A supervisor should be interested in your project and available to guide you. If you are having trouble finding one, talk to your resident project site coordinator.

Step Four: Write a research proposal. This will also be required for ethics REB approval.

A research proposal is a study plan that is to be followed in the course of a research study. It is important for you to understand your objectives, method, analysis plan, any budgetary requirements, as well as how prepared you are to do the work required and if you have the needed skills. From this you can identify where you will need assistance.

Research proposal sections

  1. One paragraph introduction to your research question/problem, why this is important to study, relevance to family medicine. A good first line of a research proposal begins: “The research objective of this proposal is…”
  2. Write a more in-depth introduction. After you have identified a pertinent problem and framed a purpose statement, then you need to craft an introduction. Among other things, the introduction to the proposal will include:
    1. The problem statement
    2. A brief summary of the literature
    3. A brief description of any gaps in the literature
    4. A purpose statement as to why you are proposing the study and why others should care about the subject matter of your research proposal.
  3. Background/literature review. Frame your project around the work of others. Remember that research builds on the extant knowledge base, that is, upon the peer-reviewed published work of others. Be sure to frame your project appropriately, acknowledging the current limits of knowledge and making clear your contribution to the extension of these limits. Be sure that you include references to the work of others. Also frame your study in terms of its broader impact to the field and to society, e.g. “If successful, the benefits of this research will be…”
  4. Methods. Determine the method of investigation. The method section is the second of the two main parts of the research proposal. In good academic writing it is important to include a method section that outlines the procedures you will follow to complete your proposed study. Many scholars have written about the different types of research methods in articles and textbooks. It is a good idea to site the method and provide a reference. The method section generally includes sections on the following:
    1. Research design;
    2. Sample size and characteristics of the proposed sample;
    3. Data collection and data analysis procedures
  1. Determine the Research Design
    1. The next step in good academic writing is to outline the research design of the research proposal. For each part of the design, it is highly advised that you describe two or three possible alternatives and then tell why you propose the particular design you chose. For instance, you might describe the differences between experimental, quasi-experimental, and non-experimental designs before you elaborate on why you propose a non-experimental design.
    2. Determine the Sample Size and the Characteristics of the Sample. There are several free online sample size calculators, though you will need a basic understand of statistics to know how to use and interpret them. Some sites include:
    3. In this section of your research proposal, you will describe the sample size and the characteristics of the participants in the sample size. Describe how you determined how many people to include in the study and what attributes they have which make them uniquely suitable for the study.
  2. Determine the Data Collection and Data Analysis Procedures
    1. In this section you will describe how you propose to collect your data e.g. through a questionnaire survey if you are performing a quantitative analysis or through one-on-one interviews if you are performing a qualitative or mixed methods study.
    2. After you collect the data, you also need to follow a scheme as how to analyze the data and report the results. In a quantitative study you might run the data through Mintab, Excel or better yet SPSS, and if you are proposing a qualitative study you might use a certain computer program like ATLAS.ti to perform your analysis using a specific qualitative approach such as a narrative study, grounded theory study, or framework analysis, that exposes the main themes from the proposed interviews (see Tips and Tricks on Statistics).
  3. Software and analysis: There are several options for creating a database, cleaning your data and conducting your analysis.
    1. The only free software for quantitative data analysis through Dalhousie is Minitab, found here. Note, Minitab is only available for PC (not Macs). User guides and tutorials can be found here. Additionally, students familiar with conducting statistics in Excel can download the free add-on package to a Windows suite. However, reviews demonstrate that Excel has many issues handling data correctly for analysis and is not as user-friendly as Minitab. If you can afford to buy, or find access to SPSS, it is user friendly and has a good tutorial, though it is not provided to students via Dal.
    2. The top qualitative software programs are Atlas.ti, NVivo, and MAXQDA. Atlas and MAXQDA have a student version for about $99. Atlas.ti is $199 for 12 months for students. Dedoose is available on six-month ($12.95) and nine-month ($10.95) contracts for students.
  4. Ethics. You will need to address any ethical considerations and how they will be dealt with including confidentiality, data storage, etc. If Research Ethics Board (REB) approval is required for your study, you should check the website for the relevant REB review. Each site has its own REB process.

Step Five: Ask the experts

Review your proposal with your supervisor and resident project site coordinator. Depending on your research needs, you may also consult with the Research Methods Unit (RMU) at Dalhousie University. An initial consultation is free, though to use their services for data analysis is $100 per hour. Consultation early can help you avoid costly mistakes.