Common Doctoral Study Limitations

Posted September 6, 2018

Every study that has ever been conducted, or will ever be conducted, has limitations. Identifying the limitations inherent to your study is not only an important part of the research process, but also important for future researchers to consider in framing their studies. Although anyone well-versed in research expects you to acknowledge weaknesses of your research, there is an art to describing these potential issues without devaluing your research. In fact, showing results of an analysis with due diligence given to identifying your limitations helps future researchers frame their studies and form a more comprehensive understanding of the topic. In this blog, I will outline a few ideas to get your limitations section started.

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Sample Size Limitations: The number one most common limitation to doctoral level research is sample size. Most often this limitation surfaces during data collection, though sometimes researchers may know early on that their sample will be either limited or difficult to solicit. Most quantitative analyses require a fairly large sample, and without funding to compensate participants, there may be little you can do to encourage more people to participate. Reduced sample sizes make p-values stray from significance, and this may be used to justify why you might not find the results you expect. You can explore the effect of this limitation more through post-hoc power analysis; sometimes it does not present a problem but can still be listed as a limitation!

Generalizability or Sampling Limitations: Another common limitation has to do with the degree of generalizability. For example, if your study data consisted of small business owners from the Midwest U.S., the results that came from these data might not translate to owners of larger businesses or small business owners outside of the Midwest. You can justify this based on your scope (i.e., maybe the purpose and problem of your study are only relevant to this population in particular) or you can use your findings as a springboard to suggest future researchers look at different populations given the evidence from your study.

Resource Limitations: Finally, many researchers also run into limitations regarding resources. These limitations can be in reference to time, access to participants, or even the fact that there is no good instrument for measuring your study’s concepts of interest. In many cases, doctoral-level research is not funded, and students are required to adhere to short timelines; both of these factors can be discussed your limitations section. Just be sure to explain how the lack of time or funding impacted your research. I already mentioned that not being able to provide compensation to participants may result in a smaller sample. Another example of a resource limitation might be that you wanted to administer some kind of treatment or intervention for four weeks, but you could only follow through with two weeks in order to meet your institution’s deadlines.

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