Once you have completed your literature review you will be in a position to write your aim and objectives. These allow your reader (marker!) to understand the purpose of your research and help you to structure the remainder of your thesis. Although the precise marking criteria will differ at each institution, usually the presence of achievable objectives, and evidence of the extent to which they have been met, will be key.
A research aim can be thought of as the overall intellectual endeavour of the dissertation. What is it that your work is aiming to understand or explain? The aim should be brief, and easy for a reader to understand.
Research objectives are the steps you will take to achieve your aim. How many objectives a dissertation should have is debatable. As a general guide I suggest that the final objective should be related to theory (for a Ph.D this is likely to be the theoretical development). Objectives should be ‘doable’, rather than abstract. Each objective needs to be distinct – i.e. not just rewording a previous objective.
Objectives are useful for structuring the remainder of your thesis. In your methods chapter you may want to consider a table which maps the objectives to the research design. This helps the reader to clearly understand how the objectives will be met and the relationship between the literature/theory and the data collection tools.
Consider framing your sub-headings of the findings and discussion chapters around the objectives. This helps to develop a clear thread through the dissertation. Finally, in your conclusions chapter you can clearly state how each objective has been met – this could be in a table also.
Give the aim and objectives some careful thought, show them to your friends and family – can they make sense of what you intend to do and understand in your research? Once these have been finalised (although they may shift slightly as the research progresses), you are in a position to write your research questions. These research questions, along with the aim and objectives will dictate how you go about your study. Imagine one of your objectives was to:
‘Understand what women academics perceive to be the criteria for promotion to professor’
Here, we are not talking about measuring how many women achieve chair, or the selection criteria are for promotion panels. The objective is about understanding perceptions, which requires a research design sensitive to this, likely a qualitative approach.
Remember that the aim and objectives have to be achievable, ‘doable’ (i.e. concrete rather than abstract) and clearly linked to the preceding literature, subsequent research design, findings and analysis.