Advice

Read the latest postgraduate news, along with essential course advice from universities, professors and former PhD students

Aims and Objectives – A Guide for Academic Writing

Summary

One of the most important aspects of a thesis, dissertation or research paper is the correct formulation of the aims and objectives. This is because your aims and objectives will establish the scope, depth and direction that your research will ultimately take. An effective set of aims and objectives will give your research focus and your reader clarity, with your aims indicating what is to be achieved, and your objectives indicating how it will be achieved.

Introduction

There is no getting away from the importance of the aims and objectives in determining the success of your research project. Unfortunately, however, it is an aspect that many students struggle with, and ultimately end up doing poorly. Given their importance, if you suspect that there is even the smallest possibility that you belong to this group of students, we strongly recommend you read this page in full.

This page describes what research aims and objectives are, how they differ from each other, how to write them correctly, and the common mistakes students make and how to avoid them. An example of a good aim and objectives from a past thesis has also been deconstructed to help your understanding.

What Are Aims and Objectives?

Research Aims

A research aim describes the main goal or the overarching purpose of your research project.

In doing so, it acts as a focal point for your research and provides your readers with clarity as to what your study is all about. Because of this, research aims are almost always located within its own subsection under the introduction section of a research document, regardless of whether it’s a thesis, a dissertation, or a research paper.

A research aim is usually formulated as a broad statement of the main goal of the research and can range in length from a single sentence to a short paragraph. Although the exact format may vary according to preference, they should all describe why your research is needed (i.e. the context), what it sets out to accomplish (the actual aim) and, briefly, how it intends to accomplish it (overview of your objectives).

To give an example, we have extracted the following research aim from a real PhD thesis:

Example of a Research Aim

The role of diametrical cup deformation as a factor to unsatisfactory implant performance has not been widely reported. The aim of this thesis was to gain an understanding of the diametrical deformation behaviour of acetabular cups and shells following impaction into the reamed acetabulum. The influence of a range of factors on deformation was investigated to ascertain if cup and shell deformation may be high enough to potentially contribute to early failure and high wear rates in metal-on-metal implants.

Note: Extracted with permission from thesis titled “The Impact And Deformation Of Press-Fit Metal Acetabular Components” produced by Dr H Hothi of previously Queen Mary University of London.

Research Objectives

Where a research aim specifies what your study will answer, research objectives specify how your study will answer it.

They divide your research aim into several smaller parts, each of which represents a key section of your research project. As a result, almost all research objectives take the form of a numbered list, with each item usually receiving its own chapter in a dissertation or thesis.

Following the example of the research aim shared above, here are it’s real research objectives as an example:

Example of a Research Objective

  1. Develop finite element models using explicit dynamics to mimic mallet blows during cup/shell insertion, initially using simplified experimentally validated foam models to represent the acetabulum.
  2. Investigate the number, velocity and position of impacts needed to insert a cup.
  3. Determine the relationship between the size of interference between the cup and cavity and deformation for different cup types.
  4. Investigate the influence of non-uniform cup support and varying the orientation of the component in the cavity on deformation.
  5. Examine the influence of errors during reaming of the acetabulum which introduce ovality to the cavity.
  6. Determine the relationship between changes in the geometry of the component and deformation for different cup designs.
  7. Develop three dimensional pelvis models with non-uniform bone material properties from a range of patients with varying bone quality.
  8. Use the key parameters that influence deformation, as identified in the foam models to determine the range of deformations that may occur clinically using the anatomic models and if these deformations are clinically significant.

Note: Extracted with permission from thesis titled “The Impact And Deformation Of Press-Fit Metal Acetabular Components” produced by Dr H Hothi of previously Queen Mary University of London.

It’s worth noting that researchers sometimes use research questions instead of research objectives, or in other cases both. From a high-level perspective, research questions and research objectives make the same statements, but just in different formats.

Taking the first three research objectives as an example, they can be restructured into research questions as follows:

Restructuring Research Objectives as Research Questions

  1. Can finite element models using simplified experimentally validated foam models to represent the acetabulum together with explicit dynamics be used to mimic mallet blows during cup/shell insertion?
  2. What is the number, velocity and position of impacts needed to insert a cup?
  3. What is the relationship between the size of interference between the cup and cavity and deformation for different cup types?

Difference Between Aims and Objectives

Hopefully the above explanations make clear the differences between aims and objectives, but to clarify:

  • The research aim focus on what the research project is intended to achieve; research objectives focus on how the aim will be achieved.
  • Research aims are relatively broad; research objectives are specific.
  • Research aims focus on a project’s long-term outcomes; research objectives focus on its immediate, short-term outcomes.
  • A research aim can be written in a single sentence or short paragraph; research objectives should be written as a numbered list.

How to Write Aims and Objectives

Before we discuss how to write a clear set of research aims and objectives, we should make it clear that there is no single way they must be written. Each researcher will approach their aims and objectives slightly differently, and often your supervisor will influence the formulation of yours on the basis of their own preferences.

Regardless, there are some basic principles that you should observe for good practice; these principles are described below.

Research Aims

Your aim should be made up of three parts that answer the below questions:

  1. Why is this research required?
  2. What is this research about?
  3. How are you going to do it?

The easiest way to achieve this would be to address each question in its own sentence, although it does not matter whether you combine them or write multiple sentences for each, the key is to address each one.

The first question, why, provides context to your research project, the second question, what, describes the aim of your research, and the last question, how, acts as an introduction to your objectives which will immediately follow.

Scroll through the image set below to see the ‘why, what and how’ associated with our research aim example.

Note: Your research aims need not be limited to one. Some individuals per to define one broad ‘overarching aim’ of a project and then adopt two or three specific research aims for their thesis or dissertation. Remember, however, that in order for your assessors to consider your research project complete, you will need to prove you have fulfilled all of the aims you set out to achieve. Therefore, while having more than one research aim is not necessarily disadvantageous, consider whether a single overarching one will do.

Research Objectives

Each of your research objectives should be SMART:

  • Specific – is there any ambiguity in the action you are going to undertake, or is it focused and well-defined?
  • Measurable – how will you measure progress and determine when you have achieved the action?
  • Achievable – do you have the support, resources and facilities required to carry out the action?
  • Relevant – is the action essential to the achievement of your research aim?
  • Timebound – can you realistically complete the action in the available time alongside your other research tasks?

In addition to being SMART, your research objectives should start with a verb that helps communicate your intent. Common research verbs include:

Table of Research Verbs to Use in Aims and Objectives

Table showing common research verbs which should ideally be used at the start of a research aim or objective.
Understanding
(Understanding and organising information)
Applying
(Solving problems using information)
Analysing
(reaching conclusion from evidence)
Synthesising
(Breaking down into components)
Evaluating
(Judging merit)
Review
Identify
Explore
Discover
Discuss
Summarise
Describe
Interpret
Apply
Demonstrate
Establish
Determine
Estimate
Calculate
Relate
Analyse
Compare
Inspect
Examine
Verify
Select
Test
Arrange
Propose
Design
Formulate
Collect
Construct
Prepare
Undertake
Assemble
Appraise
Evaluate
Compare
Assess
Recommend
Conclude
Select

Last, format your objectives into a numbered list. This is because when you write your thesis or dissertation, you will at times need to make reference to a specific research objective; structuring your research objectives in a numbered list will provide a clear way of doing this.

To bring all this together, let’s compare the first research objective in the previous example with the above guidance:

Checking Research Objective Example Against Recommended Approach

Research Objective:

1. Develop finite element models using explicit dynamics to mimic mallet blows during cup/shell insertion, initially using simplified experimentally validated foam models to represent the acetabulum.

Checking Against Recommended Approach:

Q: Is it specific?
A: Yes, it is clear what the student intends to do (produce a finite element model), why they intend to do it (mimic cup/shell blows) and their parameters have been well-defined (using simplified experimentally validated foam models to represent the acetabulum).

Q: Is it measurable?
A: Yes, it is clear that the research objective will be achieved once the finite element model is complete.

Q: Is it achievable?
A: Yes, provided the student has access to a computer lab, modelling software and laboratory data.

Q: Is it relevant?
A: Yes, mimicking impacts to a cup/shell is fundamental to the overall aim of understanding how they deform when impacted upon.

Q: Is it timebound?
A: Yes, it is possible to create a limited-scope finite element model in a relatively short time, especially if you already have experience in modelling.

Q: Does it start with a verb?
A: Yes, it starts with ‘develop’, which makes the intent of the objective immediately clear.

Q: Is it a numbered list?
A: Yes, it is the first research objective in a list of eight.

Mistakes in Writing Research Aims and Objectives

1. Making Your Research Aim Too Broad

Having a research aim too broad becomes very difficult to achieve. Normally, this occurs when a student develops their research aim before they have a good understanding of what they want to research. Remember that at the end of your project and during your viva defence, you will have to prove that you have achieved your research aims; if they are too broad, this will be an almost impossible task. In the early stages of your research project, your priority should be to narrow your study to a specific area. A good way to do this is to take the time to study existing literature, question their current approaches, findings and limitations, and consider whether there are any recurring gaps that could be investigated.

Note: Achieving a set of aims does not necessarily mean proving or disproving a theory or hypothesis, even if your research aim was to, but having done enough work to provide a useful and original insight into the principles that underlie your research aim.

2. Making Your Research Objectives Too Ambitious

Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time you have available. It is natural to want to set ambitious research objectives that require sophisticated data collection and analysis, but only completing this with six months before the end of your PhD registration period is not a worthwhile trade-off.

3. Formulating Repetitive Research Objectives

Each research objective should have its own purpose and distinct measurable outcome. To this effect, a common mistake is to form research objectives which have large amounts of overlap. This makes it difficult to determine when an objective is truly complete, and also presents challenges in estimating the duration of objectives when creating your project timeline. It also makes it difficult to structure your thesis into unique chapters, making it more challenging for you to write and for your audience to read.

Fortunately, this oversight can be easily avoided by using SMART objectives.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you now have a good idea of how to create an effective set of aims and objectives for your research project, whether it be a thesis, dissertation or research paper. While it may be tempting to dive directly into your research, spending time on getting your aims and objectives right will give your research clear direction. This won’t only reduce the likelihood of problems arising later down the line, but will also lead to a more thorough and coherent research project.

Recommended Advice
Research Assistant

What is a Research Assistant?

Research assistants are employed by research institutes to assist with academic or private research. Find out all you need to know about the role.

Professional Doctorate Degrees - real world Doctoral Degrees

What are Professional Doctorates?

Professional doctorates are advanced postgraduate degrees that combine taught components with independent research in a student’s area of expertise. Find out what they involve.