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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Once you have completed your literature review you will be in a position to write your aim and objectives. These allow your reader (marker!) to understand the purpose of your research and help you to structure the remainder of your thesis. Although the precise marking criteria will differ at each institution, usually the presence of achievable objectives, and evidence of the extent to which they have been met, will be key.
A research aim can be thought of as the overall intellectual endeavour of the dissertation. What is it that your work is aiming to understand or explain? The aim should be brief, and easy for a reader to understand.
Research objectives are the steps you will take to achieve your aim. How many objectives a dissertation should have is debatable. As a general guide I suggest that the final objective should be related to theory (for a Ph.D this is likely to be the theoretical development). Objectives should be ‘doable’, rather than abstract. Each objective needs to be distinct – i.e. not just rewording a previous objective.
Some examples of aim and objectives
Objectives are useful for structuring the remainder of your thesis. In your methods chapter you may want to consider a table which maps the objectives to the research design. This helps the reader to clearly understand how the objectives will be met and the relationship between the literature/theory and the data collection tools.
Consider framing your sub-headings of the findings and discussion chapters around the objectives. This helps to develop a clear thread through the dissertation. Finally, in your conclusions chapter you can clearly state how each objective has been met – this could be in a table also.
Give the aim and objectives some careful thought, show them to your friends and family – can they make sense of what you intend to do and understand in your research? Once these have been finalised (although they may shift slightly as the research progresses), you are in a position to write your research questions. These research questions, along with the aim and objectives will dictate how you go about your study. Imagine one of your objectives was to:
‘Understand what women academics perceive to be the criteria for promotion to professor’
Here, we are not talking about measuring how many women achieve chair, or the selection criteria are for promotion panels. The objective is about understanding perceptions, which requires a research design sensitive to this, likely a qualitative approach.
Remember that the aim and objectives have to be achievable, ‘doable’ (i.e. concrete rather than abstract) and clearly linked to the preceding literature, subsequent research design, findings and analysis.