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Getting started with research

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The word ‘research’ has a certain mystique about it. To most of the people outside the research community, it represents an activity that is exclusive to an elite group of scientists. The perception of a researcher is one detached from the outer world, isolated in his laboratory or scholarly library. This was certainly the image in my mind as I embarked on my physiotherapy career. Over the years, this has not only been dispelled, I am now able to introduce myself to general public as a researcher. So in the next few articles in this series, I will aim to unravel some of the myths about research as well as focus on practical research methods. 

In academic terms, 'research' is a systematic investigation of an idea, subject or topic for a specific purpose. It enables researcher to extend knowledge or explore theory, resulting in further interpretation and greater understanding of a concept.

For most of physiotherapy students, undergraduate (BPT) dissertations are the first step in undertaking research. Some like me escaped it at undergraduate level, but it did finally catch up with me when doing my MSc. So I feel that this series would be of interest to students undertaking/ planning their dissertations. I also hope that it would interest the senior academics as a refresher and a 'how to' guide for explaining how students should be managing their research projects.   

Choosing a research topic

There is a high probability that you will be asked to start thinking about the research topic long before you actually have to start work on your dissertation. Of all the issues, the choice of a research area and more importantly, a research topic can be a daunting task for many. Usually the choice of a research area from an undergraduate level forms the basis for future career in research, as a clinical physiotherapist, a post doc fellow or as an academic professor. Infact, your appointment in any academic position may depend on your research interests. Thus it is vitally important that the choice of area and topic is done wisely and with considerable thought.

As you would be spending quite a lot of your time following up on the selected topic, reading, writing and publishing papers, it is imperative that your chosen area should be of interest to you. Genuine passion for any area or topic would make the task less tedious and more enjoyable. For e.g., there is no point selecting a topic related to shoulder pain when you are much more interested in managing patients with stroke and therefore read much more about recent advances in neurological management techniques than manual therapy techniques for shoulder pain.

Most institutions which have a research component as a part of the degree allocate students to supervisors.  If you have been allotted a supervisor, choose a topic that is within his/her area of expertise and knowledge. This would help garner the interest of the advisor and make collaborating with him more congenial. If, the interests clash, and you do not want to pursue the interests of your supervisor, it is always safer to consider a change of supervisor (may not always be possible at undergraduate level), rather than a change of topic.

Another constraint to consider before deciding on a research topic is the time allocated for your dissertation. Systematic and quality research takes time, so planning and setting a timetable is really important. There is no point being highly ambitious with your research ideas if those will only end up delaying your degrees. It is important to remember that while you want to undertake research that does add to the body of knowledge, at Bachelor's or Master's level, the aim of having research components is to help you understand the nuances of research and not make you independent researchers. You decide on a topic and then having done a brief literature review, the power calculation indicates that 1100 participants are needed, there is no way you are going to be able to manage such a research project at BPT or even MPT level. So it is important to be realistic in your expectations. It is best to discuss the timeline of your project with your allocated supervisor in the early stages of planning your project. Remember that you have to account for not only the actual data collection, but also the initial literature review, drafting a proposal (not a requirement in all universities), data analysis and then writing up. You will also need to consider time for gaining access to hospital or other institution for participants and following their guidelines for setting up the study.

In summary, your research topic should be dependent on your interest, your supervisor's research area and expertise as well as consider the time available for your research.

Next steps

Once the research question has been identified, the next step would be development of a detailed research proposal. While this may not be a requirement for many universities, it is generally considered good practice for two main reasons. It allows you to critically examine your own plans and also helps your supervisor understand exactly what you are planning. He/ she will then be able to suggest modifications or their own preferences for the way you collect and analyze data which might save you time later on redoing things the way they like it. Several physiotherapy journals have now started compulsory prospective registration of trials which they publish, so your proposal can serve this purpose as one of the aspects of conducting research is disseminating the findings of research.

A research proposal needs to provide details about your research questions, the background of the research topic, previous literature on the topic, methods of data collection and data analysis. The proposal should also outline the timeline for your research along with any ethical issues which might arise.

In this article, I have looked at choosing a research area and then developing a research question. However development of a research proposal needs further detailed literature review to understand the background related to the area as well as determine previous research on the topic. In the next article of this series, I will discuss means of undertaking a literature review and presenting it in your dissertation.

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