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Blog post Part of series: BERA Early Career Researcher Network Symposium Series 2023

Into the labyrinth: Choosing the research method/ology

Vienne Lin, Doctoral researcher at University of Bath

As a doctoral researcher, I always have three questions on my mind. The first question is linked to my specific research project, and I wonder if I have chosen the ‘right’ research methodologies and methods for my study. The second question is related to the first concern about whether I should use a more ‘advanced’ research method. The third question relates to researcher identity: ‘Should I take sides now as a qualitative, quantitative or mixed-methods researcher?’ Drawing on my personal experience, this blog post seeks to shed light on the shared challenges faced by many early career researchers (ECRs) as we are navigating the research labyrinth.

In response to my first question, I intended to conduct a mixed-methods case study but was unsure if my choice would be ‘good enough’. My insecurity creeps in partly because a case study has often been criticised for its small sample size (Stake, 1995), and partly because any piece of research seems to be a case per se (Cohen et al., 2018). I could use a quasi-experimental design or a participatory research design, while collecting multiple sources of data through interviews, images, videos and documents. Because of its high flexibility in research implementation, I am somewhat confused by what, in effect, makes a case study different from other types of research? As I read further, case study can be defined by its types, such as intrinsic, instrumental and collective (Stake, 1995), while emphasising its ‘bounded system’ – in other words, it is the context, the people and every single detail that defines the case (Creswell, 1994, p. 12) . While my mind runs less wild after learning how to define my case, the idea that many pieces of research resemble a case study still springs into my mind occasionally. I may not be wrong, as case studies are frequently used in the field of education or applied linguistics. But my perception could also be attributed by the notion that ‘research traditions exert a powerful influence over the thinking of academic researchers’ (Graham, 1999, p. 76).

The second question explored whether some research methods are perceived as more ‘advanced’ than others. As ECRs navigate the wide array of research methods, they are expected to familiarise themselves with the analysis of text/words, especially if they choose to be a qualitative researcher. While the selection of a research method is often tied to the research questions, the choices remain plentiful. For instance, why should one opt for thematic analysis over discourse analysis, conversation analysis, or grounded theory? As the discussion unfolded, we acknowledged that there are seemingly fancy research approaches, particularly with the advancement of technology. However, conducting a robust thematic analysis (TA) is not necessarily an easy task. This sentiment aligns with Braun and Clarke’s (2019) reflection that TA has been commonly misapplied across disciplines. I was reminded that as long as I could justify my choice, it would be considered valid and valuable. I learned that part of this doctoral journey is to demonstrate our doctorateness, as in the way we defend our choices.

Regarding my third question, which revolves around my identity as a researcher, let me draw a parallel between cooking and research (see also Rituparna (2023) for her analogy of a research kitchen). As a chef, I am interested in learning different cooking techniques because the way we cook definitely shapes the taste of the dish. For example, I can bake gingerbread or gingerbread cookies. But can I bake ginger? Technically yes, I can, but the question is, ‘Would people cook or eat ginger this way?’ We may also consider deep-frying lettuce. However, this technique may not go well with lettuce. What about deep-fried seaweed? The crispy seaweed chips are taste-bud brilliant. All these yes, no, or maybe scenarios point to the notions of ‘convention’ and ‘innovation’, as well as the individual (I) and collective (We) approaches to cooking and can be applied to research. I believe it is essential for us to cultivate a fluid research identity. Depending on specific research topics and research questions, we should be open to being flexible with our research methods and methodologies. However, it is equally important to actively acquire the necessary skills from different research paradigms in order to implement this dynamic mindset. In other words, achieving a body-and-mind alignment is crucial, as relying solely on a research-fluid mindset is insufficient; it must be complemented by the acquisition of relevant skills.

‘Achieving a body-and-mind alignment is crucial, as relying solely on a research-fluid mindset is insufficient; it must be complemented by the acquisition of relevant skills.’

On this journey, I am excited to be venturing into the unknown as each research pathway is intricate and ever evolving. As Braun and Clarke (2019, p. 591) remarked, ‘… qualitative research is about fun, play, and creativity’; I believe this proposition applies to any research, regardless of its paradigmatic differences.


Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2019). Reflecting on reflexive thematic analysis. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 11(4), 589–597.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2018). Research methods in education. Routledge.

Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.

Graham, E. (1999). Breaking out: The opportunities and challenges of multi-method research in population geography. The Professional Geographer, 51(1), 76–89.

Rituparna. (2023, December 6). The research kitchen: How PhD and cooking are more alike than you think. Medium.,the%20research%20methods%20and%20techniques

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Sage.