Research Plan: Set Research Goals

Written By: Jayne McGarvey.

Covered In This Lesson:

  • How to Set a Research Goal.
  • Divide Each Research Goal into Research Objectives.
  • Capture Research Tasks in a Research Plan.
  • Let’s Take an Example.
  • Establish if your Research Goal and Objectives are Feasible.
  • Conclusion and What To Do Next.



In the last lesson we introduced you to the Research Planning Worksheet and the first entry in that plan which was a “Working Hypothesis”. This Working Hypothesis set out a statement that your subsequent research would either prove or disprove e.g. “Michael McLoughlin was born circa 1894 in Ireland”.

In this lesson you will set “research goals” to prove/disprove that working hypothesis. We look at using a “Research Planning Worksheet” as a tool to combine your working hypothesis, research goals and related research tasks moving forward.

I realise that you may have started this research journey with something like the following aspirational goal:

“I want to find the names, dates and places of birth of my immigrant ancestor’s parents.”

However, if you want to succeed with this aspiration, you need to break it down into “research goals” – each of which can be assigned a number of research tasks.

Don’t worry if this sounds like a lot of work at the moment, the purpose of this lesson is to familiarise you with the terms “research goals” in a genealogical setting and then use the principles behind them to increase your chance of making key discoveries as you proceed with your Irish ancestral research journey.

“Genealogists do it one step at a time”.


How to Set a Research Goal.

Let’s take the example of searching for the names, dates and places of birth for your immigrant ancestor’s parents.  First, you might state this as the following aspirational target:

“I want to find the date and place of birth in Ireland for my earliest immigrant ancestor – Michael McLoughlin.”

You may have come up with a Working Hypothesis based on the information you have available to you e.g.:

“Michael McLoughlin was born in County Mayo, Ireland circa 1894”.

The Working Hypothesis above prompts a number of distinct Research Goals such as:

  • Prove/Disprove that Michael was born around 1892-1894
  • Prove/Disprove that Michael was born in County Mayo
  • Find a civil birth certificate for Michael McLoughlin – this would prove/disprove the items above.

These are clearly defined goals that you can begin to work towards by dividing each into a series of  record search objectives that will work towards finding out more about your Irish ancestor.


Divide Each Research Goal into Research Objectives.

Once you have defined a research goal then you often need to sub-divide it into specific research objectives and sequence each objective in a logical order.

Let’s go back to our example.  Your may wish to find the dates and places of birth of your immigrant ancestor.

You have already identified your first Research Goal – to Prove/Disprove that Michael was born around 1892-1894.

  1. A first research objective might be to uncover the earliest documentary evidence for him in his adopted Country.
  2. A second research objective may be to find a time frame for his arrival in his adopted Country.

In this example these first two objectives are concentrated on discovering more documentary evidence about your immigrant ancestor’s life.  This information may be important if you want to ensure that you are connecting to the correct Michael McLoughlin when you eventually make your way back to the Irish records.

I realise that this may sound like a lot of extra work, but clearly defined research objectives will:

  • Focus your efforts one a single task (such as uncovering a name, event date, event place, relationship, etc) at a time.
  • Improve your chances of locating a record that contains the information you seek.
  • Reduce the confusion or information overload of trying to work on several objectives simultaneously.
  • Help you succeed and enjoy your research experience.
  • Help you control your budget if you are paying for records, travel etc.


Capture Research Tasks in a Research Plan.

Once you have decided on your Research Goals and Objectives, next you can capture Research tasks in a Research Plan using our Research Planning Worksheet (see end of this lesson).

A Research Plan will include a list of research tasks you intend to carry out and the order in which you intend to undertake the tasks.  Depending on how you work best, a research plan can be as simple as a short bullet point list on the back of an envelope, a mind map, a complex spreadsheet – or something following the template we supply in the Research Planning Worksheet – available for you to download at the end of this lesson.

Let’s Take an Example:

Let’s look at a simple scenario:

  • You know your ancestor was alive in the 1900 US Census. 
  • You have an address where she lived and know the names of family members.
  • However, your ancestor’s age varies quite a bit between the various census records.
  • You have tried to find a birth record for your ancestor but have difficulty recognising the correct birth record because you don’t know your ancestor’s actual year of birth or the names of his/her parents.
  • It is likely your ancestor will have a civil death certificate as death certificates have been available in the State in which your ancestor lived for some time before their death.

Your immediate thought is that finding the death certificate in this State will give you the names of your ancestor’s parents and a definitive age and possibly more useful information as well.

Here is a list of search tasks that you may have brainstormed on a sheet of paper:

  • Search online newspapers for a matching obituary.
  • Search online probate records for a potential will (to identify date of death).
  • Search the graveyard where other family members are known to be buried.
  • Search civil registration death indexes.

You have already stated your Working Hypothesis and Research Objectives – but this is the beginning of the practical side of your research plan.  You may want to add some additional tasks such as cross-comparing information between different record sources – especially if there is no obituary for your ancestor but there are obituaries for other people with the same name as your ancestor. If you identify these individuals in the death indexes you may reduce the number of death certificates you need to inspect closely from 6 to 2.

When you draw up and work through your Research Plan, you will tick off your items as completed and make notes in your research log (included in the appendix of your Research Planning worksheet) about the information you have found. You may revise and alter your research plan in light of additional information.

You can view an example Research Planning Worksheet and Research Log that I completed earlier by clicking here.


Establish if your Research Goals and Objectives are Feasible.

Before you dive into executing your research plan, one essential additional step is to establish if it is actually possible to achieve your research goal! It will also ultimately save time and potential disappointment.

For example:

  • Before you go looking for an Irish birth record for your ancestor, look up the dates for available civil records in Ireland and you will learn that it is unlikely that you will find a civil birth certificate for your ancestor born in Ireland in 1856 – because birth certificates were not introduced until 1864.
  • However, you also learn that you may be able to locate a church baptism record.

This, in turn, will help you decide what your individual research questions might look like and save you time looking somewhere you are not likely to find the information you want.

As mentioned before, Genealogists do it one step at a time.


In Conclusion – and Over to You.

You are the person in charge.  State your Working Hypothesis and devise related research goals. Work smart. Start with smaller, single goals that are much easier to achieve. Over time you may revise and extend your goals if you wish.  This way you are more likely to avoid a dreaded brick wall!

Remember, we are with you each step of the way. You will find a Research Planning Worksheet to download for your use below – and be sure to share your approach, discoveries and questions in the Ask The Genealogist section of the forum as you progress.

Action Plan For This Lesson:

In the next lesson we move on to the next stage of your Research Planning – Devising a strategy to search available record collections.


Click Here To Ask Our Genealogist a Question Related to This Module.



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