On Getting Started in Research and Asking Good Questions: Thoughts from Members of the NCDA Research Committee

By Doug Gardner, Debra Osborn, Melissa Wheeler, Brian Calhoun

“We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
Walt Disney [Walt Disney Quote No. 14: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/286080 ]

Whether educator, student, counselor, or citizen, we all participate in research. We do so when making hiring decisions, buying a new car, or locating a new restaurant on Yelp . In its simplest form, research is information seeking, asking questions, or being curious. So, research can be synonymous with evaluation, as in investigating the outcomes of a counseling intervention, or assessment, as in appraising individuals’ suitability for graduate studies. In this article, members of the NCDA Research Committee hope to help aspiring researchers take first steps towards beginning the research process.

Goals and Process Decisions

When research activities are connected specifically to career development, our goals may include: solve a problem, answer questions, evaluate interventions and programs, identify what works and does not work and for whom, inform a policy decision, or just understand. Regardless of why we are conducting research, decisions about the process should be grounded in existing theory, prior research, or observations about our practice (Sampson et al., 2014). A useful source for keeping current with career-related research is the “Practice and research in career counseling and development” reviews that appear in Career Development Quarterly.

Practice-driven research questions focus attention on the everyday efforts of counseling professionals and ask if what we are doing really has an impact on clients. For example, research questions for practice might include:

  • How do we quickly identify the level of service a student needs?
  • How effective is our group counseling program for clients in career transition?
  • What are the perceptions and experiences of clients who are served by our office?

Another great starting point for developing research questions comes from reviewing and critiquing existing research. As we read the published work of others, we can identify what was learned from their efforts and what is missing. For instance, research studies frequently focus on a specific population; now, we can ask if the outcomes are true for a different population or even the general population. In so doing we may replicate and expand upon published studies and identify gaps to fill in by additional studies.

After a general goal for inquiry is identified, the researcher should determine what questions will lead to the most useful answers. The table below, for example, depicts the planning process involved with designing a carefully conducted research study (Osborn et al., 2016). These researchers were interested in the effects of drop-in services with clients at a university career center. The text in the table shows the considerations that were discussed. The red circles indicate the decisions that were made. Had different decisions been made in another study dissimilar results would have likely emerged.


Research Planning


Several key decisions were made as the researchers asked themselves each question in the table above. The first question was what to measure. This was based primarily on the researchers’ interests. While many options existed, they settled on the items circled in red. The next question was “how can we best measure these?” Specific inventories were reviewed, and evaluated based on availability, cost, time-required, and psychometric properties, with the researchers settling on the assessments circled in red. The remaining decision points were the actual procedures, or how to go about gathering the data, which included how, whom, and when to measure. Because they were interested in both outcomes as well as changes, the researchers opted for a pre-post measure. As the goal was to examine the effectiveness of drop-in services, the researchers chose only to include drop-in clients. While surveying career advisors on the service effectiveness would have provided a different lens, the researchers thought that ultimately what was of greater interest and value were the clients’ experiences. Finally, the decision to survey clients as they dropped-in to use the service and immediately following an interaction with a career advisor was selected as this was seen as providing the most accurate information and was least intrusive to service delivery.

Researcher Recommendations

The four of us serve as members of the NCDA Research Committee. We also help our counseling graduate or undergraduate students identify, implement and write up the results of their supervised research efforts. We want to share with readers a few thoughts and suggestions:

Doug: My favorite word for research is learning—especially learning while doing undergraduate research with students who are working with me on a project or through mentoring students in carrying out their own research. My research influences most directly my practice through the things I share in the classroom with my students that help them in their major and career exploration process. The research question is what drives the research process, and if we have a really good research question it helps to focus the project.

Deb: Discovery is woven throughout research from start to finish. What information do practitioners need to help them with their clients? What’s influencing the issue at hand? What’s the best research design to use? What questions need to be asked (and how do we best ask them) to enable us to most fully understand the phenomenon? Which data analysis approach should we employ? What did we find? What does it mean? Where do we go next? For someone with an “I” in their Holland code, research rocks!

Missy: Starting the research process can be intimidating for all of us. Noticing areas of advocacy on behalf of clients and being passionate about discovering effective interventions can provide us with the energy to overcome our anxiety. The projects I am most excited about use research as a tool for effective advocacy and systems change. Being enthusiastic about a question and how the answer will help others makes research worthwhile.

Brian: There is a lot of support for research in NCDA. Financial and research support is provided by the NCDA research committee. With so much information to collect and process, embracing collegial support resources, such as campus research writing groups can be incredibly helpful. Starting is half the battle, and just talking with a fellow NCDA member can make a big project seem a little bit smaller. I always focus on how research will benefit my clients and students, and this helps me push through the difficult times.


Research Resources

Some of our favorite resources for research design and analysis include:

Abu-Bader, S. H. (2010). Advanced and multivariate statistical methods for social science research. Lyceum Books.

Balkin, R. S., & Kleist, D. M. (2016). Counseling research: A practitioner-scholar approach. John Wiley & Sons.

Cresswell, J. W. (2018). Research Design (5th Edition). Los Angeles, CA:SAGE. [A great go to for research design in print form. A classic in many graduate research design course]

Field, A. (n.d.) Discovering Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.discoveringstatistics.com/ [A great resource with step by step instructions for using and understanding quantitative analysis using SPSS.]

Hill, C. E. (2012). Consensual qualitative research: A practical resource for investigating social science phenomena. American Psychological Association.

Trochim, W. M. K. (2006). Research Knowledge Base. http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/contents.php  [An online resource for designing research.]

Yin, R. K. (2008). Case study research: Design and methods. Los Angeles, CA:Sage.


Osborn, D., Hayden, S. C. W., Peterson, G. W., & Sampson, J. P., Jr. (2016). Effect of brief staff-assisted career service delivery on drop-in clients. Career Development Quarterly, 64, 181-187. Retrieved from https://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu%3A350215/datastream/PDF/view

Sampson, J. P., Hou, P.-C., Kronholz, J. F., Dozier, V. C., McClain, M.-C., Buzzetta, M., … Kennelly, E. L. (2014). A Content Analysis of Career Development Theory, Research, and Practice—2013. The Career Development Quarterly, 62(4), 290–326. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-0045.2014.00085.x


Members of the NCDA Research Committee contributed this article:

Doug GardnerDouglas S. Gardner
Associate Professor
Student Leadership & Success Studies
Utah Valley University


Debra Osborn 2016Debra Osborn
Associate Professor,
Educational Psychology & Learning Systems
Florida State University


Melissa WheelerMelissa (Missy) Wheeler
Counseling Core Faculty
Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Online Program
University of Phoenix


Brian CalhounBrian Calhoun
Associate Professor of the Practice
Department of Education
Wake Forest University


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1 Comment

Rebecca Dedmond   on Sunday 03/01/2020 at 06:43 PM

Thanks for a most useful article that I've shared with our students are preparing for their action research culminating projects!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.