You’re ready, you’re aimed, and now you have to fire off the objectives. But you’re a bit confused. What”s the difference between the two?
An aims-objectives confusion might arise when you are writing thesis proposal and the introductory thesis chapter. It’s always an issue in research bids. The what’s-the-difference question can have you going around in ever smaller unproductive circles if you can’t figure out a way to differentiate between the two things. And the difference is something I’ve recently been asked about, so I’ve decided to post something of an answer.
Dictionaries are only vaguely helpful when thinking about aims and objectives. My desk dictionary says that an aim is to do with giving direction. An aim is “something intended or desired to be obtained by one’s efforts”. On the other hand an objective is to do with achieving an object, it’s about actions, “pertaining to that whose delineation is known”. Now who actually speaks like this? The fact that these definitions are offered in this very formal language doesn’t help clarify matters. But, once past the antiquated expression, you might discern that the difference between the two is somehow related to a hope or ambition (aim) versus a material action (objective). Or we might say – and it is what is commonly said about aims and objectives – the aim is the what of the research, and the objective is the how.
So taking this what-how as a kind of loose and sloppy differentiation between the two, the rough rule of thumb with aims and objectives is generally that:
(1) The aim is about what you hope to do, your overall intention in the project. It signals what and/or where you aspire to be by the end. It’s what you want to know. It is the point of doing the research. An aim is therefore generally broad. It is ambitious, but not beyond possibility.
The convention is that an aim is usually written using an infinitive verb – that is, it’s a to + action. So aims often start something like.. My aim in this project is … to map, to develop, to design, to track, to generate, to theorise, to build … Sometimes in the humanities and social sciences we have aims which attempt to acknowledge the inevitable partiality of what we do, so we aim ‘to investigate, to understand, and to explore… ‘ But lots of project reviewers and supervisors prefer to see something less tentative than this – they want something much less ambivalent, something more like to synthesise, to catalogue, to challenge, to critically interrogate ….
(2) The objectives, and there are usually more than one, are the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim. This is where you make the project tangible by saying how you are going to go about it.
Objectives are often expressed through active sentences. So, objectives often start something like In order to achieve this aim, I will… collect, construct, produce, test, trial, measure, document, pilot, deconstruct, analyse… Objectives are often presented as a (1) (2) (3) formatted list – this makes visible the sequence of big steps in the project. The list of objectives spells out what you actually and really will do to get to the point of it all.
You have to make the objectives relatively precise. Having a bunch of vague statements isn’t very helpful – so ‘I will investigate’ or ‘I will explore’ for example aren’t particularly useful ways to think about the research objectives. How will you know when an investigation has ended? How will you draw boundaries around an exploration? In thinking about the answer to these questions, you are likely to come up with the actual objectives.
Objectives have to be practical, do-able and achievable. Research reviewers generally look to see if the time and money available for the research will genuinely allow the researcher to achieve their objectives. They also look to see if the objectives are possible, actually research-able.
Because the objectives also act as project milestones, it’s helpful to express them as things that are able to be completed – so for example scoping an archive of materials will have an end point which may then lead on to a next stage/objective. Even if objectives are to occur simultaneously, rather than one after the other, it is important to be clear about what the end point of each step/objective will be, and how it will help achieve the aim.
What not to do
It’s really helpful to think about what can go wrong with aims and objectives. There are some predictable problems that you want to avoid when writing them. These are some common aims-objectives issues:
• There are too many aims. One or two is usually enough. (I might stretch to three for other people’s projects if pushed, but I usually have only one for my own projects.)
• Aims and objectives waffle around, they don’t get to the point and the reader doesn’t have a clue what is actually intended and will be done – aims and objectives need to be concise and economically expressed.
• Aims and objectives don’t connect – the steps that are to be taken don’t match up with the overall intention.
• The aims and the objectives are not differentiated, they are basically the same things but said in different words.
• The objectives are a detailed laundry list rather than a set of stages in the research.
• The objectives don’t stack up with the research methods – in other words they are either not do-able, or what is to be done won’t achieve the desired results.
The final thing to say is that aims and objectives can’t be rushed. Because they generate the research questions and underpin the research design, sorting the aims and objectives are a crucial early stage in planning a research project. Aims and objectives are a foundation on which the entire project is constructed, so they need to be sturdy and durable.
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Formulating research aim and objectives in an appropriate manner is one of the most important aspects of your thesis. This is because research aim and objectives determine the scope, depth and the overall direction of the research. Research question is the central question of the study that has to be answered on the basis of research findings.
Achievement of research aim provides answer to the research question. Research objectives divide research aim into several parts and address each part separately. Moreover, research aim specifies WHAT needs to be studied and research objectives comprise a number of steps that address HOW research aim will be achieved.
As a rule of dumb, there would be one research aim and several research objectives to facilitate the achievement of this aim.
The following is an example:
Research title: Effects of organizational culture on business profitability: a case study of Virgin Atlantic
Research aim: To assess the effects of Virgin Atlantic organizational culture on business profitability
Following research objectives would facilitate the achievement of this aim:
- Analyzing the nature of organizational culture at Virgin Atlantic by September 1, 2018
- Identifying factors impacting Virgin Atlantic organizational culture by September 16, 2018
- Analyzing impacts of Virgin Atlantic organizational culture on employee performances by September 30, 2018
- Providing recommendations to Virgin Atlantic strategic level management in terms of increasing the level of effectiveness of organizational culture by October 5, 2018
Figure below illustrates additional examples in formulating research aims and objectives:
Formulation of research question, aim and objectives
Common mistakes in the formulation of research aim relate to the following:
1. Choosing the topic too broadly. This is the most common mistake. For example, a research title of “An analysis of leadership practices” can be classified as too broad because the title fails to answer the following questions:
a) Which aspects of leadership practices? Leadership has many aspects such as employee motivation, ethical behaviour, strategic planning, change management etc. An attempt to cover all of these aspects of organizational leadership within a single research will result in a poor work.
b) An analysis of leadership practices in which country? Leadership practices tend to be different in various countries due to cross-cultural differences, legislations and a range of other region-specific factors. Therefore, a study of leadership practices needs to be country-specific.
c) Analysis of leadership practices in which company or industry? Similar to the point above, analysis of leadership practices needs to take into account industry-specific and company-specific differences, and there is no way to conduct a leadership research that relates to all industries and organizations in an equal manner.
Accordingly, “A study into the impacts of ethical behaviour of a leader on the level of employee motivation in US healthcare sector” would be a more appropriate title than simply “An analysis of leadership practices”.
2. Setting an unrealistic aim. Formulation of a research aim that involves in-depth interviews with Apple strategic level management by an undergraduate level student can be specified as a bit over-ambitious. This is because securing an interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook or members of Apple management board might not be easy. This is an extreme example, but you got the idea. Instead, you may aim to interview the manager of your local Apple store and adopt a more feasible strategy to get your dissertation completed.
3. Choosing research methods incompatible with the timeframe available. Conducting interviews with 20 sample group members and collecting primary data through 2 focus groups when only three months left until submission of your dissertation can be very difficult, if not impossible. Accordingly, timeframe available need to be taken into account when formulating research aims and objectives and selecting specific research methods.
Moreover, research objectives need to be formulated according to SMART objectives, where the abbreviation stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.
|Ineffective (incomplete) research objectives||SMART research objectives|
|Study employee motivation of Coca-Cola||To study the impacts of management practices on the levels of employee motivation at Coca-Cola US by December 5, 2018|
|Analyze consumer behaviour in catering industry|
|Analyzing changes in consumer behaviour in catering industry in the 21st century in the UK by March 1, 2019|
|Recommend Toyota Motor Corporation management on new market entry strategy|
|Formulating recommendations to Toyota Motor Corporation management on the choice of appropriate strategy to enter Vietnam market by June 9, 2018|
|Analyze the impact of social media marketing on business|
|Assessing impacts of integration of social media into marketing strategy on the level of brand awareness by March 30, 2017|
|Finding out about time management principles used by Accenture managers||Identifying main time-management strategies used by managers of Accenture France by December 1, 2017|
Examples of SMART research objectives
My e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step assistance offers practical assistance to complete a dissertation with minimum or no stress. The e-book covers all stages of writing a dissertation starting from the selection to the research area to submitting the completed version of the work within the deadline.