Research Design

Aristotle distinguished between the formal, final, material, and efficient causes, of which only the last survived the scientific revolution. Now that, after the industrial revolution, engineering returned to the academia, we should hasten to put the final cause back on its track.

Dr. S.D. (Sjoerd) Zwart

Course description

At a university of technology, the greatest challenge for the first year PhD candidate is to design a correct research plan. Candidates must come to grips with the different types of engineering projects. The main types concern descriptive knowledge, engineering know-how, and design. The first is mainly concerned with hypothesis formulation and testing; iterative cycles characterize a design project. These cycles cover the choice of the problem field, the design brief, the prototype, and the tests of the latter. The second is less well-specified in the literature and concerns engineering means-end knowledge that is about intervening engineering actions. It requires a clear description of the envisaged end and its specific context and assumptions. This intervention knowledge has to become credible by scientific foundations or practical experiments. At least one quarter of engineering PhD activities concerns engineering know-how. Besides the three main types, we also consider modeling, optimization and mathematical engineering projects. During the course, we encourage the candidates to choose a main deliverable. Doing so, their projects get a form of a type mentioned before; next, the candidates must design their method according to their choice of type. Finally, they must break down their four-year project in subprojects of the types above, and design a subproject hierarchy of their activities. These subprojects must all coherently serve the achievement of the main project deliverable. Of course, the final plan is a dynamic one. At the end the candidates are very well equipped to update their plans during the developments in the four years of their PhD project.

The workshop focuses on the following themes:

  • Project problem area, purpose statement, project question, methods
  • Identification and operationalization of key-variables and constraints.
  • Differentiating between scientific knowledge, know-how, design, modeling, optimization, and mathematical projects
  • Regarding the various types introduce: Research, design and know-how questions; hypotheses, working principle, and canonical know-how rules; empirical, design and means-end cycle.

The participants of this course develop the skills to identify and formulate: the project problem area, the purpose (of) statement, and the project question (purpose in), of an engineering research project. Moreover, they learn to decide what method to follow to achieve their project purpose, distinguishing between the main types of projects. The outcomes of this course cover the choice of the project deliverable, a subproject hierarchy, and a crisp presentation of their research design. Additionally, at the end of the course the candidates know how to update their project plans according to the developments of the years to come. They can make all activities cohere and serve the main deliverable, taking into account the methods that characterize the six types of engineering projects.

The purpose of this course is to deepen the individual designs of research of every individual candidate. Consequently, the teaching method is 100% hands-on; candidates receive specific reactions on their own, personal project by the teachers of the course and by their colleagues. Because of this intensive personal teaching we cannot allow in more than ten candidates.


The workshops use the following format:

  • Short introductions to the themes of course and the projects of the participants;
  • First plenary with group presentations of the project problem area, the explicit project question, key variables and preliminary answer; be it: a hypothesis, a design brief or working principle, or a know-how claim.
  • Second plenary with group presentations regarding the method of the main purpose; a breakdown into subprojects with their specifics; and the subproject hierarchy.
  • Only the first meeting there is a general lecture on the materials of the course—all the rest concerns tailor-made individual feedback.

1. Zwart, S. D., & Vries, M. J. de. (2016). Methodological Classification of Innovative Engineering Projects. In Philosophy of Technology after the Empirical Turn (pp. 219–248). Springer

2. Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research Design (3rd or 4th edition). (only descriptive knowledge!)

3. Roozenburg, N. F. M., & Eekels, J. (1995). Product design (only artefact design!)

4. Bright Wilson, Jr. E,. (1991). An Introduction to Scientific Research (lab. experiments!)