TIPS ON CHOOSING A RESEARCH TOPIC IN COUNSELLING, PSYCHOTHERAPY OR COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY
Prof Mick Cooper
The University of Strathclyde
1. Read through previous counselling/psychotherapy/counselling psychology research papers
Invaluable! Essential! Probably the most useful thing you can do to get you started. This will give you a real sense of the ‘shape’ of a research paper, what is expected of you, and the kinds of questions that you might want to ask. Try just flicking through papers in a journal like Counselling and Psychotherapy Research or the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling.
2. Think about what really interests you
What are those questions that have been really nagging away at you through your training, and which you’ve always wanted to find answers to? What are the problems or dilemmas that you’ve really struggled with and are dying to find some answers to? For instance, ‘Are therapists really able to keep on giving unconditional positive regard?’ ‘What do people coming into a GP surgery imagine counselling to be?’
3. Read through the literature
Once you’ve got some idea of what you’d like to look at, find out how other people have tried to answer that question. If no-one has tried to answer it before, that’s great, but you need to be really sure about that before going on to furrow your own path – after all, you don’t want to get to the end of your research to find out that somebody ‘discovered’ the same thing as you decades ago. So have a look on the internet, or on Amazon, and particularly on social science search engines like ISI Web of Science. Undertaking such searches also ensures that your research will be embedded within the wider research field, and it may well give you ideas about the kinds of questions that are timely to ask.
3. Make sure it's about therapy
Choose a topic which is clearly related to the field of therapeutic practice. This may include things like: the experiences of clients, how psychological interventions are perceived from those outside the field, or the applied role of counselling psychology in such fields as nursing or education. Watch out that you don’t slip into psychology, per se, where you’re asking questions about how people are (e.g., ‘Do attachment problems in childhood lead to adult difficulties?’) that aren’t directly related to what happens – or might happen – in the therapeutic relationship.
4. Find yourself a clearly-defined question
Try to find a single, clearly defined question as the basis for your dissertation. This can then serve as your title. If you can't encapsulate your research project into a single question/sentence, the chances are, you're probably not clear about exactly what it is you are asking.
5. That's ‘question’, not ‘questions’
One of the biggest problems students face is that they ask too many inter-related questions, and end up getting very muddled about what it is they are trying to find out. Three of the main reasons for doing this are cited below – along with the things you may need to remind yourself if you find yourself in this mire:
- 'I won't have enough material otherwise.'
– Your word limit may seem like a lot, but you'll be amazed at how quickly it goes. If you just focus on one question, you will be able to go into it in a great amount of depth – far more appropriate than trying to answer a number of questions and subsequently coming away with numerous superficial answers.
- 'There's lots of different aspects of this area that I'm interested in.'
– That's great, but you won't be able to cover it all in this one project. You can always do further research after this one. In limiting yourself to just one question, you may well experience feelings of loss or disappointment as you let go of areas you're really interested in, but it's better to feel that loss now than after you've put months of work into areas that are just too dispersed.
- 'I've already started to ask this other question, and I don't want to lose the reading that I've already done'.
– Again, it can be painful letting go of things, but there is no value in ‘throwing good money after bad.’ Sometimes in research you need to be brutal, and cut out areas of inquiry that don't fit in – even if you've sweated blood over them. Authors say that the quality of their book is defined by what they leave out!
6. That’s ‘question’, not ‘answer’
Some of the worst research projects come about when researchers try to show that a particular answer is the correct one, and consequently won’t let anything – including their own findings – get in their way. So if you really believe something about psychological therapies, like ‘person-centred therapy is much more effective than cognitive-behavioural therapy’, or ‘women make much better counselling psychologists than men’ then you may want to steer clear of this topic. That is, unless you can really get yourself into a frame of mind in which you are open to the possibility that you might find the absolute opposite of what you want – and you can enthusiastically write about the implications of this finding. Good research is like good therapy: you put to one side your own assumptions as much as possible, so that the reality of whatever you are encountering can come through.
7. But make sure there’s not too much literature on it
If you ask a question on which much has already been written – like the effectiveness of person-centred therapy – then you’re likely to be drowned in material before you even get to the end of the literature review. So narrow down your question – e.g. the effectiveness of advanced empathy in person-centred therapy – until you’ve got a manageable number of references in your sights. Don’t worry if it seems too few, you’ll no doubt pick up more references as you go along. And remember, you need to have full mastery of the literature regarding the question your asking, and it is a lot easier to master the information in five or six papers than it is in hundreds.
What’s often ideal is if you can move one step on from some pre-existing literature: e.g. extending a study about depression in men to looking at depression in women, testing out a theory that you’ve found in a book, or using qualitative research to address a question that has previously only been addressed through quantitative research. In thinking of a research project, you don’t have to be wholly original – in fact, often if you try to be too original you’ll end up in a sea of confusion with no theoretical or methodological concepts to anchor yourself to. Having an original twist is often much more productive – you’re saying something new, but you’re building on what’s already been laid down.
8. Think methodology from the start
It’s no good coming up with a brilliant question if there is no way of actually answering it, or if answering it is going to be such a headache that you’ll wish that you never started in the first place. So as you come up with ideas, think about how feasible it might actually be to put them into practice. This is something you may really want to discuss early on with a colleague or supervisor.
9. Respondents MUST be accessible
In terms of the feasibility of the study, probably the most important question is whether or not you are actually going to get anyone to participate – to respond to your interviews, questionnaires, etc. It is essential to the success of your study that you get a good response rate, so thinking about who you do research with is often as important as thinking about what you do. A number of factors will determine how good your response is likely to be: how big the population is in total, their motivation to help you, how easy it will be for you to get in touch with them, how cautious you will need to be as a consequence of ethical safeguards. but don’t just come up with an idea and hope blindly that someone out there will be interested. However hard you think it will be to get participants, you can guarantee that it will actually be several times harder than that, so make sure this is something you think about, and address, at an early stage.
10. Ethics come first
The principles of non-maleficence – doing no harm to your respondent – and, ideally, beneficence – promoting the respondent’s well-being – should be an integral part of your research design. So, right from the very start of your project, think about ways in which your research might benefit those that are involved; and also make sure that you have read and familiarised yourself with appropriate ethical guidelines, as well as any other sets of relevant standards.
Aside from ‘doing the right thing’, the issue of ethics will be an important one for you because, in any research study, you will need to submit your project to an ethics committee (see above), and the more sensitive your work, the more committees and the longer the time this is likely to take. For instance, if you wish to carry out research in the National Health Service, you will almost certainly need to go through an NHS ethics committee, which can take many months to consider and respond to proposals. So, as you start to develop your research ideas, be aware of the ethical issues and processes that it might raise, and try to find out about the ethical submissions that such a study is likely to entail. That way, you won’t suddenly find yourself facing a long and uncertain wait before you can proceed with your work – or, if you do, at least you’ll be prepared for it.