Developing a conception of research

Dispel misconceptions of research by acknowledging its difficulties

To do so, supervisors and supervisees should discuss fundamental issues in research such as ethics and objectivity, and related concepts such as disinterest, fact, replicability, and dialectics. Scholars new and experienced should remind themselves that correct procedures sometimes fail, foregone conclusions are not productive research outcomes, and published works are open to question and debate.


Everyone is susceptible to the belief in misconceptions of research, including students, supervisors, researchers and individuals outside of academia. It is critical that students and supervisors discuss these ideas early in the supervisory relationship in order to reduce misconceptions and promote alternative conceptions where necessary.

Examples of misconceptions

Possible misconceptions about research include the following, as identified by Meyer, Shanahan, & Laugksch (2005) in interviews with students.

  • Correctly followed research procedures will always yield positive results.

  • When qualified people do research, the results are always unbiased.

  • It is acceptable to modify research data if it does not look exactly right.

  • Research becomes true after it is published.

  • If research is properly conducted, contradictory findings will never occur.

  • There is generally only one way to interpret research findings.

  • Research involves gathering data that support preconceived ideas or that will back a particular argument.

Discussing misconceptions

Discussing misconceptions can facilitate a more holistic approach to research and improved research outcomes (Trigwell & Dunbar-Goddet, 2005). When discussing conceptions and misconceptions of research with your supervisor or supervisee, consider the following questions.

  • How would you describe “research” to a someone with little or no experience in research?

  • How would you distinguish between academic research and other types of research?

  • What might your different views be (i.e., those of supervisor and supervisee)?

  • To what extent is your view the same as that of your colleagues or peers?

  • How might different views influence working together?

Supervisors can help their students develop a more mature conception of research by (Kiley & Mullins, 2005):

  • describing their way of doing research, such as how they select a feasible topic and find appropriate literature;

  • exposing students to the approaches of others, such as through peer support groups; and

  • questioning assumptions and methods.

If you are a student and feel that your supervisor, colleague or peer is demonstrating a misconception of research, don’t be afraid to bring this up in a professional and non-confrontational discussion. This may lead to a learning experience for everyone involved. Remember that everyone, including students and experienced researchers, are susceptible to misconceptions.

How big a contribution is originality in research?

Graduate students realize that originality involves doing something that no one has done before, or discovering something that has never been known or was lost or forgotten. Some also recognize, however, that most original contributions have little immediate influence on the field of study, and that influence grows over time, and usually through sustained work after graduate and postdoctoral study.


There are many ways that a research project can be original, such as investigating a new question, developing a new theory, or synthesizing previously independent concepts (more examples can be found here).

A small-scale qualitative study conducted at McGill revealed that, while variations exist, most final-year doctoral students stressed originality and the possible impact of research when talking about their projects. According to the students, originality often involves filling gaps and creating or finding something new:

[Being a researcher means] first of all being able to bridge a gap between practical things that are happening… in the world and …the theoretical investigations of what’s behind these phenomena ... and being able to draw on sources of evidence, sources of literature and so on to draw new links and create … new observations. (Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

Although learning about methodologies and understanding the potentially new contributions of research are crucial to doctoral students, a few students commented on the unlikelihood of changing the discipline before finishing the PhD:

In order to do something ground-breaking, you have to really do it after getting a PhD. I think in a PhD, the type of research we do is very incremental, it is very, very narrow; it’s very small. (Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

What do you think constitutes originality?

Do you think it is possible for original research conducted during graduate studies to impact the field of study?

Students and supervisors may have partly contrasting views of scholarship

Whereas students tend to conceive of research as focused on information and truth, supervisors tend to see it as technical and creative. Both, however, usually recognize that research is complex. We can infer from supervisors' views that research in universities is methodical, traditional and disciplinary, cumulative yet open to debate, and theoretical in orientation.


As with undergraduate students' conceptions of learning, it is likely that graduate students' conceptions of research and of a graduate degree guide the way in which they approach research and engage in the process of researching. Similarly, studies suggest that supervisors/experienced researchers hold varied conceptions of research (e.g., Bezzina, 2013) which may differ from those of students (e.g., Meyer et al., 2005; Kiley & Mullins, 2005).


Students’ conception of research

(Meyer et al., 2005; Kauwlich, et al.,2009; Stubb,et al., 2014)

Supervisors’ conception of research

(Kiley & Mullins, 2005)

Technical process

The gathering of information or collection of data

A scholarly process characterised by the rigorous application of systematic methods

Cognitive process

An insightful process of exploration and discovery, leading to a deeper understanding of the topic


Bringing together complex knowledge or data in new ways


The uncovering of what has been hidden, through reinterpretation or “re-search”


Supporting or developing a theory


Finding something that is not yet known or investigated

The creation of new knowledge, and innovative approaches to the discovery of that knowledge

Outcomes of research

The discovery of truth


Finding solutions to problems or answering questions


Bringing about change


Creating a concrete product (e.g., publication)

Research results in new ways of seeing the world, oneself or a problem


Another distinction in conceptions of research can be drawn between university and non-university research (Bills, 2004).  There is some overlap between the less sophisticated views of students, and the characteristics of non-university research. It may be worth discussing, supervisee to supervisor, the distinction between different types of research (Bills, 2004).



University research

Non-university research

Moving knowledge further

Contributing to the development of the discipline


Collection and reporting of information

Explaining, arguing and conceptualizing

Theorizing, thinking deeply and developing insights

Finding out something interesting, but it not necessarily new

Being rigorous and methodical

Situated within a theoretical or conceptual tradition

Not necessarily systematically investigated



Bezzina F., & Saunders, M. (2013). The prevalence of research methodology mis/conceptions among business and management academics. Proceedings of the European Conference on Research Methods for B, 40Bills, D. (2004). Supervisors' conceptions of research and the implications for supervisor development.International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 85-97.

Chen, S. (2012). Making sense of the public PhD dissertation defense: A qualitative multi-case study of education students’ experiences. (unpublished doctoral dissertation). McGill University, Montreal.

Kawulich, B., Garner, M. W. J., & Wagner, C. (2009). Students’ conceptions-and misconceptions-of social research. Qualitative Sociology Review, 5(3), 5-25.

Kiley, M., & Mullins, G. (2005). Supervisors' conceptions of research: What are they? Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 49(3), 245-262.

Meyer, J., Shanahan, M., & Laugksch, R. (2005). Students' conceptions of research I: A qualitative and quantitative analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 49(3), 225-244.

Stubb, J., Pyhältö, K., & Lonka, K. (2014). Conceptions of research: The doctoral student experience in three domains. Studies in Higher Education, 39(2), 251-265. doi:10.1080/03075079.2011.651449

Trigwell, K. and Dunbar-Goddet, H. (2005). Research experience of postgraduate students. Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, University of Oxford.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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