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Doing postgraduate research

Covers the steps involved in performing a literature search for a postgraduate dissertation or research paper. Help is available through written guides; videos and links.

Using a framework to structure your question

Using a framework allows you to structure your question by clarifying the main concepts of your topic you want to focus on. Your topic may not fit perfectly into a framework, just using part of a framework can be sufficient.

The framework you should use depends on the type of topic you will be researching. The most common frameworks are:

  • PICO (for clinical / quantitative research topics)
  • PICo, PEO, SPIDER or SPICE  (for qualitative research topics)
  • CLIP or ECLIPSE  (for topics relating to health management, policies, economics)


Select a framework from the list below


Patient, Population or Problem - who and/or what is my question focussed on?
Intervention - what intervention is being considered?
Comparison - what intervention is this being compared with (a comparison is not always necessary)
Outcomes - what do you hope to accomplish, improve or affect?


Example:  Alternatives to drugs for controlling headaches in children

P - children

I - alternatives to drugs (complementary therapies? changes to lifestyle?)

C - drugs

O - controlling headaches


Extensions to PICO

There are extensions to the PICO framework available which you can use if your topic has additional concepts:


PICOS- here the S stands for study designs (you can use this framework if you are only interested in examining specific designs of study)

PICOT- here the T stands for timeframe (you can use this framework if your outcomes need to be measured in a certain amount of time e.g. 24 hours after surgery).

PICOC- here the C stands for context (you can use this framework if you are focussing on a particular organisation or particular circumstances)


Patient, Population or Problem- who and/or what is my question focussed on?

Interest- a defined event, experience, activity or process

Context- a setting or distinct characteristics


Example: What are the experiences of patients with pressure sores who receive treatment at home?

P- patients with pressure sores

I- experiences, views, opinions

Co- care in the home



Population - who is my question focussed on?

Exposure - what is the issue I'm interested in?

Outcomes or themes - what, in relation to the issue, do I want to examine?


Example: The daily living experiences of mothers with postnatal depression

P- mothers

E- postnatal depression

O- experiences of daily living/quality of life


Setting - where is the study set e.g. in a specific country, community, in a hospital, in a care home etc.
Perspective - from whose perspective is the study done e.g. the patients, the health professionals., the carers etc.
Intervention - what intervention is being examined?
Comparison - is the intervention being compared with another?
Evaluation - the outcome measures


Example: Attitudes of carers of people with dementia towards reminiscence therapy

S - (United Kingdom? care homes?)

P - carers

I - reminiscence therapy


E - attitudes


Sample - the group of people being looked at, because qualitative research is not easy to generalize, sample is preferred over patient.
Phenomenon of Interest -  reasons for behaviour and decisions, rather than an intervention.
Design - the form of research used, such as interview or survey.
Evaluation - outcome measures.
Research type - qualitative, quantitative and/or mixed methods.


Example:  Young parents experiences of attending ante-natal education

S - young parents

PI - attendance at ante-natal education classes

D - (interviews? surveys?)

E - Experiences

R - (qualitative studies?)


Client – who is the service aimed at?
Location – where is the service sited?
Improvement – what do you want to find out?
Professional – who is involved in providing/improving the service?
Example: Ways of improving health visiting services to elderly in rural communities
C - elderly
L - rural communities
I - how services can be improved
P - health visiting


Expectation - what is the information needed for?
Client Group -who is the information needed for e.g. health managers, GPs, patients
Location - where is the client group or service located
Impact - what is the change in the service, if any, which is being looked for? What would constitute success? How is this being measured?
Professionals - what health professionals are involved in the service?
Service - for which service are you looking for information? For example, outpatient services, nurse-led clinics, intermediate care.


Example:  retention of A & E nurses in the NHS

E- to find out retention rates

C- (patients? managers?)


I- retention of staff

P- nurses

S- A & E

What if my topic doesn't fit into a framework?

Not all topics will fit perfectly into a framework. If this is the case with your topic use only the parts of a framework which do fit.