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  • Destenie Nock

Types of Research: Theoretical, Computational, and Experimental

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

When you are thinking of graduate school a big question is what type of research do you want to do. There are three types that stick out: Theoretical, Computational, and Experimental

February 12, 2021

By Destenie Nock


What type of research project do you want to work on? Do you want to get your hands dirty doing something hands on? Would you prefer to be interacting with people on a regular basis? Are you more comfortable having the flexibility of everything being conveniently done at a computer? I think most research projects fall into one of three categories: (1) theoretical, (2) computational, (3a) experimental - laboratory, and (3b) experimental - field work.

Theoretical - You use equations to prove stuff and you think a lot. Here you focus on equations and develop laws or guiding principles for a physical system. The ultimate goal is to prove something. Theories are formulated to explain, predict, and understand phenomena. These can also challenge and extend existing knowledge. an example project might me proving that a sequence of numbers converges, or that thee is a pattern to prime numbers.

Computational - You work primarily on the computer. Normally you are applying the theory but you aren't proving it. You may be building a computer code that analyzes trends in data, or you might be building a simulation model, which analyzes the sustainability of an electricity system. In your research project you will gain the tools to integrate the vast amount of data being generated by experimental researchers. In a sense the experimentalists are building puzzle pieces and the computationalists are putting the puzzle together. In a nutshell here you are analyzing data behind a computer screen.

Experimental research typically validates the theoretical research. One of the roles of an experimentalist is to design ways for theories to be tested and subsequently verified or denied.

Experimental (Laboratory) - You work with your hands, and are creating, testing, or building things in the lab. Experimental science usually involves designing experiments, carrying them out, and some sort of interpretation of the experimental results. An example project might be that you are growing plants in an incubator and observing how different levels of nitrogen impacts root growth. You might be making atoms collide to observe subatomic structures. Or you could be testing how to filter out different types of chemicals from drinking water. In a nutshell you are doing experiments in a lab.

Experimental (Field Work) - You need to travel and observe things in society or nature. You might be traveling to the Caribbean to investigate the extent of coral bleaching, or observing how forest fire impact the level of nitrogen in the soil. You could sit in a classroom and observe how different teaching styles impact student levels of engagement and understanding.

If someone says they build models in there research, there are many things they could mean. Hopefully this diagram can help us figure out which one they are talking about.
Many types of research models

The type of research you do can really impact how long it takes you to graduate. When considering graduate schools it is important that while you are thinking about the type of research you want to work on, you also ask your potential graduate school adviser about graduation rates and their expectations.

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Note about the Author: Note about the Author: Dr. Destenie Nock is a leader in energy justice and decision analysis. She is an Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her current work is focused on 1) identifying who is experience energy poverty, and 2) creating optimization and decision analysis models which highlight the sustainability and equality trade-offs nations will make in energy transitions. She obtained a PhD in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from UMass Amherst. Her PhD work was computational in nature and involved creating mathematical models which simulated electricity systems and evaluated them in terms of their sustainability. Her papers detailing her current published research in social justice, sustainability, and electricity modeling can be found here.

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Leona Bush
Leona Bush
20. Feb.

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