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A year in the life of a Research Methods student

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Published: February 28, 2022

My name is Sam McBride and I recently finished our MSc Psychological Research Methods programme, after having previously graduated from our Psychology with Counselling undergrad in 2020, and this will outline how I found the year-long experience of the Masters during an uncertain period due to COVID. Something that’ll become apparent especially in the latter two thirds of the course is that most difficult aspects will be caveated by COVID and lockdown.

student in lecture

The year begins with two first semester modules, PSYM63 and PSYM67, both worth 30 credits, which I was lucky enough to have had half of each delivered face-to-face as we were out of lockdown during this period. PSYM63 is a module focused all around employability skills in psychology and research, and understanding research ethics; each assessment is focused on a different aspect of the content, the first being a portfolio that’s filled with smaller tasks, slides for an academic presentation (you do present this), slides for a non-academic audience (you don’t present this), a lesson plan, use of reference management software, and a job application. Starting with this may not be the best of ideas as my experience of development modules is that students often groan at the mention of them, myself included in second year, but at the end of the day they are important and useful, and I think it was a good experience to help with the application process and having more skills to talk about in the process for becoming an AT in our School of Psychology. Alongside lectures/seminars on all the topics in the portfolio assessment, we have a chance to have a mock interview for a psychology-related research job with a member of the university’s careers team, to help identify our strengths and weaknesses.


The module fairly seamlessly transitions from employability into research ethics in the week where the concept of “publish or perish” is covered, basically on how academics and researchers feel that they need to get projects regularly published in order to stay relevant and in a job, and how they can lead to breaches of ethics in order to make their work more likely to be published. From there, you go into questionable research practices, research integrity, and research ethics, which rounds off taught content for the module, and the classroom sessions finish with an ethics panel which is tied to the second assessment on the module. The assessment requires groups to make an ethics application for a replication study which you are assigned, and then the panel allows the different groups to give each other feedback and critique why they think it would either get ethical approval or not. The assessment is then to put all of your reviews and your responses to feedback into a portfolio, and the quality of feedback and your final ethics form are marked.


Back onto PSYM67, the module is all about advanced research methods – such as ANCOVA, MANOVA, logistic regression, and factor analysis – and goes a bit into the philosophy of research and how to go about acquiring funding. Week-to-week, there will typically be a stats-based task for you to complete in your own time around the methods we’ve covered in class, and then at the start of the following session, we go through it with Dr. Stephanie Wilkie to make sure we’ve understood it and to be able to identify where we may have gone wrong. This approach of learning stats by doing was really helpful and prepared us well for the exam as you then have experience of actually carrying out and writing up any analysis you may be given, rather than just having learned the theory for it. Away from doing stats, there are a few mini activities that are given throughout the module to show your understanding of the theory, including writing a couple of pages for a journal article on the strengths and weaknesses of null hypothesis significance testing and its alternatives, the former being what you’re almost exclusively used to doing in quantitative analyses at undergrad, and writing it up and being able to explain it shows that you’ve developed an understanding of the benefits and weaknesses that will likely have become second nature to you at undergrad. To fit into the written assessment of the module, we also cover grant writing, in terms of the process of completing one, where to apply, and what you need to include so that for the assessment we can do a mock grant application for a theoretical study that would need funding.


 When we reach the second semester, the modules we take are PSYM72 and PSYM73, the former being most practical by giving us a few months of research assistance on one of our academics’ projects and tying in more advanced stats with the lectures, and then PSYM73 being all about qualitative research. The aim of the research assistance is to get you working on something that is similar to your own research interests and provide good experience for if you would like to work in research after the degree, it was really enjoyable but stressful for me to feel as if I didn’t do well it wasn’t only going to have consequences for me but in the end, that’s why it’s a valuable experience to see yourself adapt and realise you’re capable. The assessments for the module are both varied to cover the learning outcomes, with the main one that you complete throughout the module being your portfolio, which asks you to keep a log of your activities – what you did, when, and how long for – and then to write a reflective commentary at the end. It’s really rewarding to look back on how much you’ve done and developed across the module and then have to challenge yourself to identify the strengths and weaknesses and look at how they can serve you going forward. The second assessment is more related to the lectures, which cover research experience aspects such as project management and open science, advanced stats with moderator/mediator analysis, cluster analysis, multi-level modeling, and how to conduct a systematic review or meta-analysis. So, the assignment my year had was a critical review, with a choice of either reviewing the quality of two meta-analyses in the same area, or to review the quality of a handful of advanced regression analyses that made use of mediator or moderator analysis, which sounds tough at first but the meta-analysis option was actually okay and easy to digest after having the content covered in lectures, although I’m not sure how I’d have fared with mediator/moderator analysis…


For PSYM73, the module goes a lot more in-depth with the philosophy of research after having touched on the issues with null hypothesis significance testing in PSYM67, and is a whistle-stop tour of all different qualitative viewpoints, with the single assessment being a portfolio of thematic analysis (TA), interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), and discourse analysis (DA) research that you carry out throughout the module, and report them in various different ways. For my year it was a mock journal article for TA, a summary of a presentation we delivered online (although would be in-class when COVID permits) for IPA, and a poster for DA. These may change year-to-year but all of the components remain the same even if they are configured a bit differently, and the final part of the assessment requires a reflective critique of scientific realism, which requires you to really think about all of the different stances you’ve taken across the various analyses and where you sit as a researcher on the spectrum of stats-to-DA (with TA and IPA falling somewhere between the two).


Second semester is the really tough part of the degree in my opinion, as although I found my activities really interesting it is a lot, and they really mean it when they flag this as a full-time degree, so time management is a massive part of getting through semester #2, but it’s doable.


In terms of the final semester – as this course is September to September, rather than September to May which most of us are used to at undergrad – it’s rather straightforward in that it’s one module, PSYM70, and it’s essentially your dissertation which starts with a project proposal presentation as 10% of the module grade (this is mostly there to make sure we have a project off the ground in a reasonable time), and then the project report itself is the final 90%, and is all you need to focus on for the final few months of the course.


 To summarise, the course is hard, but I feel it’s more to do with how intense it is than the sheer difficulty of it, as I think it’s as reasonable a step up as the differences between first and second year, second and third year, etc., but there is a lot to keep on top of and if you can do that’s probably more than half the battle with doing well on it. It’s really interesting, especially in the philosophy of research and getting into the research experience, and has a good variety of assessments throughout, and most importantly the course is really valuable for understanding research, as at undergrad level I felt like I knew what to do but never fully grasped why we did things in certain ways. If you’re thinking about going into a PhD or research as a career or an aspect of a career, it’s certainly an option as a course for you and is basically why I picked it as I knew I would need to get better in the things the course covers in order to be able to do a PhD down the line.


Sam McBride
MSc Psychological Research Methods

Topic: Course