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A Guide to the Types of Research and How They're Used

You can use qualitative and quantitative methods to conduct different types of research, including fundamental, applied, theoretical and experimental research.
A woman sitting at her laptop reading about different types of research

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Research is the discovery of new ideas. By identifying a problem and devising solutions using source-based evidence, you can apply research to just about any academic area and to many professions, according to Dr. Matthew Schandler, an adjunct instructor of history and academic partner at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Schandler applies his background in political science, data science and history of technology to his work teaching a history research capstone course at SNHU.

Jeremy Pedigo, an adjunct instructor of history and academic partner at SNHU, said that research allows you to discover new ideas that are relevant to your academic field and profession. The process involves answering research questions using scholarly sources. Pedigo is a doctoral student in history himself (doctorates in history are not currently available at SNHU).

Overview of Research

Research is about much more than searching for keywords in a search engine. Schandler said that any type of academic research should center around first identifying a problem and then devising solutions to that problem. The process for devising those solutions depends largely on your content area.

Dr. Matthew Schandler, an adjunct instructor of history and academic partner at SNHU.Schandler also noted that quantitative research and qualitative research are two of the most common approaches to solving problems and answering questions related to one’s academic or career field.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), quantitative research is the more empirical of the two types, meaning it's based on observation or experience rather than logic. Generally applied to the research conducted with clinical studies or that has measurable outcomes, data tends to be numerical or deductive. Conclusions are typically based on results from studies and various survey methods. This type of research is well-suited for testing hypotheses and establishing cause-and-effect relationships.

Qualitative research tends to be more narrative in scope, as explained by NIH. Interviews measuring viewpoints and opinions, as well as historical or literary studies, are commonly used for qualitative studies. With this type of research, examining theories and describing decision-making or communication processes is common.

What are the Basic Types of Research?

An icon of an open book.Successful research leads to actionable outcomes. Schandler recommends staying focused on the core question you are trying to answer. Let that guide the type of inquiry you undertake.

Once you have determined your research question, you’ll need to decide if you are going to apply a fundamental or applied approach, according to Pedigo.

▸ Fundamental and Applied Research

Fundamental research, as its name implies, is the most basic type of research. “It seeks to answer a general question or find a causal relationship between multiple factors,” Pedigo said. This is particularly useful in undergraduate courses when students are building a foundation of knowledge in their subject area.

Pedigo lists these as common sources frequently used to conduct fundamental research:

  • Books, letters and private papers
  • Credible websites and interviews
  • Newspaper and magazine articles
  • Manuscripts
  • Peer-reviewed articles

Applied research seeks to understand societal problems and find solutions to improve everyday life. This involves applying concepts in business, natural sciences and behavioral and social sciences to improve aspects of society. Applied research allows you to apply what you’ve learned to solving problems, Pedigo said.

Common sources of applied research, according to Pedigo, are:

  • Academic books
  • Focus groups and surveys
  • Government reports
  • Interviews
  • Peer-reviewed articles

▸ Theoretical and Experimental Research

An scientific atom on a blue backgroundTwo more common research types include theoretical research and experimental research.

“Theoretical research attempts to measure a theory or phenomenon to determine its relevancy based on research findings,” Pedigo said. “Whereas experimental research is the study of two or more variables with a control group and an experimental group.”

Deciding which to use depends a great deal on the type of problem you're trying to solve:

  • Theoretical research is rooted in hypothetical situations.
  • Experimental research is where theories are tested for validity.

Jeremy Pedigo with text Jeremy PedigoWhile commonly used in the sciences, both types of research can apply to other fields as well. “Theoretical research lends itself well to studies attempting to determine the impact of a presidential election, for example,” Pedigo said. “And measuring political bias in the media is a potential topic for experimental research because you can conduct experiments to determine findings.”

Physics is another area where theoretical and experimental research types are commonly applied, according to Schandler.

“Theoretical physicists develop models to consider inexplicable phenomena,” he said. For example, famed astronomer Edwin Hubble conducted theoretical research to try to prove that nebulae existed beyond the Milky Way. Hubble later developed new telescopic equipment to test his theory using experimental research.

Which Careers Focus on Research?

Research skills can enhance virtually any career. Some careers, like scientists or college professors, focus on research as a core aspect of the work. Many other careers benefit from people who bring strong research skills to their roles.

According to Pedigo, some examples of careers where strong research skills could be particularly helpful are:

  • Data Scientist, where you could use research skills to gather and analyze data to develop algorithms or recommend systems and processes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for jobs in this role was $103,500 in 2022.* Explore a master's degree in data analytics.

  • Mechanical Engineer, where you could research new ways to build or enhance mechanical systems, or design new energy systems or other processes to solve problems. The median salary for jobs in this role was $96,310 in 2022, according to BLS.* Explore a degree in mechanical engineering.

  • Environmental Scientist, where research into climate change, pollution or water sources could help you make the world a cleaner and healthier place. BLS shows the median salary for this position was $76,480 in 2022.* Explore a degree in environmental science.

  • Historian, where you could specialize in any number of areas. Historians may work at universities, nonprofits, governmental organizations or museums, to name just a few of the possibilities. While salaries can vary widely, BLS lists the median salary for historians as $64,540 in 2022.* Explore a degree in history.

  • Management Analyst, where you could work in a variety of businesses researching market trends and making recommendations to improve business operations. The median salary for jobs in this role was $95,290 per year in 2022, according to BLS.* Explore a Master of Business Administration.

Find Your Program

What are the Top Skills Needed for a Research Career?

Having the desire to learn a new topic and discover new findings is critical to becoming a strong researcher, according to Pedigo. He noted the following skills in particular as stand-outs for conducting research, regardless of field:

  • Computational proficiency, including using online databases. Strong computer search skills enhance the ability to seek out information from different perspectives.

  • Documentation and note-taking, both of which are an absolute must, according to Schandler. “If you don’t read materials actively and accurately, you won’t make the nuanced connections needed to draw accurate conclusions,” he said.

  • Literary ability, which includes writing outlines, taking notes of research papers and writing in the appropriate academic style for your discipline is critically important, according to both Pedigo and Schandler.

  • Intellectual curiosity is a must-have trait. “If one lacks a drive for knowledge, they might not ask the important questions essential to guiding the research process,” Schandler said.

  • Organizational skills are also vital. Working with research can involve working with large volumes of information. Developing a process to keep research structured is necessary.

Pedigo also noted that taking full advantage of academic resources through your university library is helpful. “You’ll want to become familiar with your library and its staff to learn about the types of sources and services available to students, faculty and staff, and how they can help aid you in your research,” he said.

Those resources can be very helpful when it comes to ensuring that you write with integrity and report your research findings accurately.

What is Plagiarism and How To Avoid It

The Key to Conducting Research

Regardless of the method you use, the most important aspect of conducting any kind of research is that it leads to actionable outcomes. By staying focused on the core question you're trying to answer, researchers in any discipline can help increase knowledge in their field and find new ways for information to cross over into other disciplines.

An icon of a laptop.The research process can be personally and professionally satisfying if you feel connected to the work. “Having a genuine interest in pursuing your topic makes the process feel seamless and enjoyable,” Pedigo said. Regardless of degree, academic area or type of research you use, you’ll likely find the greatest satisfaction in your research if you’re investigating something that gives you personal satisfaction.

Schandler said that “in a world rife with disinformation and misinformation, research steers analysts towards deeper understandings.” He feels that the interdisciplinary, collaborative sharing of research findings ensures creative solutions to the world’s great problems, past and present.

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*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Marie Morganelli, PhD, is an educator, writer and editor.

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