You can use two basic types of research approaches for a dissertation, theoretical or empirical. A theoretical study is one that does not depend upon an experiment, manipulation of variables or empirical evidence. It is based on testing, exploring or developing theories, and it generally involves observation or the compilation of information. An empirical study involves observation and measurement and demonstrates relationships among variables.

Identify a Purpose

Every dissertation is designed to serve a purpose. It may be to solve a problem, validate an existing theory, determine a relationship, better understand something or add to the existing body of knowledge. Empirical studies deal with the “what” of a situation, and theoretical studies deal with the “why” of a situation. Therefore, in a theoretical study, you might be interested in understanding why more women have entered the workforce rather than demonstrating that they have. A theoretical study can be a solution to a problem or a prediction regarding the behavior of variables.

Review the Literature

In order to understand the existing research, articulate the need for your study and ensure you have included major relevant constructs, you must explore the existing research. You accomplish this by reviewing scholarly articles related to your topic. These scholarly articles should be taken from peer-reviewed journals to ensure their credibility and scientific merit. Because knowledge evolves rapidly, you should include only articles that have been published within the last seven years unless it is seminal research in your discipline.

Develop a Framework

As you review literature relevant to your study, you come to understand salient concepts and theories, as well as their relationships with each other and the analytic models that are presented or can be formed. From there, you can build a theoretical framework that can provide the boundaries for your study and its place within the context and perspective of other studies, generally within the same discipline. A solid framework will support the building of a new theory, the testing of an existing theory or the advancement of an existing theory.

Select a Design

The research design is a work-plan as well as structured assurance that data collected will be able to meet the purpose of the study. An empirical study is likely to use an experiment as the research design, whereas a theoretical study could use a review of archival documents or ethnography in order to understand subjective meaning. The selected method of data collection is part of the research design. Theoretical studies are generally qualitative rather than quantitative. They seek to understand why someone answers an interview question a particular way rather than how many people state a particular answer.