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Finding the Focus Topic

The learning units in this topic are all intended to help you to decide upon the focus of your research. In many ways this can be the most difficult part of the research process, as we often start with a vague idea of the issues in which we are interested. This is perfectly normal and very common, and actually forms a positive opportunity to be creative. When you are studying the learning units in this topic, you need to consider several questions, including: How long have I got to do this work? What skills do I possess? What do I really want to find out? What kind of support will I need? What really interests me?

Finding the focus > Defining aims > What are aims and what are objectives?

What are aims and what are objectives?

What are aims, and how do they differ from objectives? Well, it has to be said that the difference between aims and objectives is unclear, even to the compilers of dictionaries! In both the Concise Oxford and Webster's, aim and objective are synonymous. In research terms, the word "objective" is sometimes used to mean more detailed aims, but we'll come back to this in a moment.

Let's look at the easier question first. What are aims? Quite simply, they are statements of what the research sets out to achieve. Dissertation formats vary amongst, and across, universities, so it is very important to know the style that your course requires at an early stage. Typically, students are required to produce an overall aim for the research. This states the intention or purpose of your project in general terms, for instance:

  • "To produce a protocol for measuring operator exposure to vibration from industrial ride-on lawn mowers"
  • "To establish the extent to which the 'garbage can' model might influence risk management decisions in the public sector"

Some courses might require you to break down the overall aim into a set of more specific ones about what you are aiming to find out. There are usually around 3 - 5 of these more specific aims stated, but this is not a rule - more or less may be OK, depending on the circumstances. For example they might relate to

  • synthesising available literature on your chosen subject to find something out, or
  • carrying out a series of interviews with a group of people to find something else out,
  • and so on.

One word of advice - I was always told by my research supervisors not to use the word "investigate" in stating research aims. This is because what you are doing overall is an investigation, and the aims should be more specific. More appropriate words might be discover, explain, evaluate, explicate, infer and so on.

Back to this problem of the difference between aims and objectives. It isn't worth getting too distracted by this, but objectives are often another term for the more specific research aims - see, for example, the advice given by one faculty of Manchester Metropolitan University, in their resource, Formulating Aims and Objectives. Whether you need to create aims, objectives or both for your dissertation or thesis proposal, the most important matter is that you can answer the question "What do you want to find out?" Until you can answer this basic question, you really can't go any further in designing your research project.

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