aims and objectives – what’s the difference?

You’re ready, you’re aimed, and now you have to fire off the objectives. But you’re a bit confused. What”s the difference between the two?

An aims-objectives confusion might arise when you are writing thesis proposal and the introductory thesis chapter. It’s always an issue in research bids. The what’s-the-difference question can have you going around in ever smaller unproductive circles if you can’t figure out a way to differentiate between the two things. And the difference is something I’ve recently been asked about, so I’ve decided to post something of an answer.

Dictionaries are only vaguely helpful when thinking about aims and objectives. My desk dictionary says that an aim is to do with giving direction. An aim is “something intended or desired to be obtained by one’s efforts”. On the other hand an objective is to do with achieving an object, it’s about actions, “pertaining to that whose delineation is known”. Now who actually speaks like this? The fact that these definitions are offered in this very formal language doesn’t help clarify matters. But, once past the antiquated expression, you might discern that the difference between the two is somehow related to a hope or ambition (aim) versus a material action (objective). Or we might say – and it is what is commonly said about aims and objectives – the aim is the what of the research, and the objective is the how.

So taking this what-how as a kind of loose and sloppy differentiation between the two, the rough rule of thumb with aims and objectives is generally that:

(1) The aim is about what you hope to do, your overall intention in the project. It signals what and/or where you aspire to be by the end. It’s what you want to know. It is the point of doing the research. An aim is therefore generally broad. It is ambitious, but not beyond possibility.

The convention is that an aim is usually written using an infinitive verb – that is, it’s a to + action. So aims often start something like.. My aim in this project isto map, to develop, to design, to track, to generate, to theorise, to build … Sometimes in the humanities and social sciences we have aims which attempt to acknowledge the inevitable partiality of what we do, so we aim ‘to investigate, to understand, and to explore… ‘ But lots of project reviewers and supervisors prefer to see something less tentative than this – they want something much less ambivalent, something more like to synthesise, to catalogue, to challenge, to critically interrogate ….

(2) The objectives, and there are usually more than one, are the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim. This is where you make the project tangible by saying how you are going to go about it.

Objectives are often expressed through active sentences. So, objectives often start something like In order to achieve this aim, I willcollect, construct, produce, test, trial, measure, document, pilot, deconstruct, analyse… Objectives are often presented as a (1) (2) (3) formatted list – this makes visible the sequence of big steps in the project. The list of objectives spells out what you actually and really will do to get to the point of it all.

You have to make the objectives relatively precise. Having a bunch of vague statements isn’t very helpful – so ‘I will investigate’ or ‘I will explore’ for example aren’t particularly useful ways to think about the research objectives. How will you know when an investigation has ended? How will you draw boundaries around an exploration? In thinking about the answer to these questions, you are likely to come up with the actual objectives.

Objectives have to be practical, do-able and achievable. Research reviewers generally look to see if the time and money available for the research will genuinely allow the researcher to achieve their objectives. They also look to see if the objectives are possible, actually research-able.

Because the objectives also act as project milestones, it’s helpful to express them as things that are able to be completed – so for example scoping an archive of materials will have an end point which may then lead on to a next stage/objective. Even if objectives are to occur simultaneously, rather than one after the other, it is important to be clear about what the end point of each step/objective will be, and how it will help achieve the aim.

What not to do

It’s really helpful to think about what can go wrong with aims and objectives. There are some predictable problems that you want to avoid when writing them. These are some common aims-objectives issues:

• There are too many aims. One or two is usually enough. (I might stretch to three for other people’s projects if pushed, but I usually have only one for my own projects.)

• Aims and objectives waffle around, they don’t get to the point and the reader doesn’t have a clue what is actually intended and will be done – aims and objectives need to be concise and economically expressed.

• Aims and objectives don’t connect – the steps that are to be taken don’t match up with the overall intention.

• The aims and the objectives are not differentiated, they are basically the same things but said in different words.

• The objectives are a detailed laundry list rather than a set of stages in the research.

• The objectives don’t stack up with the research methods – in other words they are either not do-able, or what is to be done won’t achieve the desired results.

The final thing to say is that aims and objectives can’t be rushed. Because they generate the research questions and underpin the research design, sorting the aims and objectives are a crucial early stage in planning a research project. Aims and objectives are a foundation on which the entire project is constructed, so they need to be sturdy and durable.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in research design and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

100 Responses to aims and objectives – what’s the difference?

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  2. I agree with you about the nature of the difference between aims and objectives and also about the fact that dictionaries are frustratingly vague about it.

    I also agree that it is very helpful if you can match aims and objectives.

    In research-grant writing I suggest that the matching can be done by stating the aims as things that we need to know. Then the objectives can be stated as the phases of the research project that will tell us the things we need to know. I recommend that aims and objectives are matched, that there are about four of each and that the y are presented in the same order.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Atika Lohani says:

    appreciated reading this too.


  4. Hi Pat, Is there much of a difference between aims and hypothesis? Is it just a difference in phrasing and presenting the intention of the thesis??


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes a lot of difference. A hypothesis can signal a particulate stance on knowledge, and/ or a particular research design. With a hypothesis you set out to test, answer yes/no or prove something. Most often used in RCTs or lab based research or other experimental work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jimmy says:

        I’m looking for literature (books or scientific papers) where we can discuss how to properly construct the aim and objective, perhaps his epistemology. Thus, having better foundation, not just different opinions.

        I would greatly appreciate your guidance.


  5. Greg says:

    Thanks very much for your blog. It contains a lot of very helpful information.

    I am just starting out on my PhD and was interested to read your definitions of Aims and Objectives.

    I was actually quite surprised to read that the objectives seem to present a high level plan rather than a set of goals as is the common usage.

    You have said “This is where you make the project tangible by saying how you are going to go about it” whereas a common usage might be more like “something that one’s efforts or actions are intended to attain or accomplish” (

    This info will help me write my thesis…. even if it is non-intuitive!


  6. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Like Andrew, I work with people who are writing grant applications. Two pet peeves that I would add to your “What not to do” list are:

    1. There is no aim at all. This can take two forms. The most common is to have aims, but fail to express them clearly and succinctly up front. They are buried on page two, page five, page 23 and page 41. The less common problem is where there is no aim at all. That is, the whole project description is so vague, or so dense, that there doesn’t seem to be any point at all. This generally occurs in first drafts, or where there have been many, many drafts, with different ideas introduced in each iteration.

    2. There are additional ‘bonus’ aims as little ‘easter eggs’ for the reader to find on their journey through your project description. I see this a lot. Three or four aims are expressed, clearly and succinctly, at the start of the project description. Then, on page five, I find “…with the aim of…”. On page eight, there is “Our overall aim is to…”. These bonus aims often don’t match at all with the PR aims on the front page. Once they have been dug out and dusted off, they often provide a much clearer picture of what the investigators are trying to do.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I share your peeves. I think (pure supposition on the basis of no data!) that both these faults are a result of the “start writing and hope that a useful document will emerge from the forest of words” approach to writing.
      I used to encourage academics to take this approach simply because it’s so hard to get them to start writing a grant application. Now I think that it has the drawback that it produces a kind of ‘learned helplessness’ in which the writer surrenders the responsibility for producing a good document to a reviewer.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. geofoodie says:

    Excellent post. Very helpful and one I will certainly pass on to my students.


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  12. Man says:

    the article was pretty informative, could you please shed some light over the difference between research objectives and research questions. thank you.


  13. Courtney says:

    Thanks for this article! It was very clear and helpful 🙂


  14. Kevin says:

    Your article makes the all too common mistake of confusing objectives with activities.

    Objectives should be expressed as noun clauses, for example, a design, a breadboard prototype, a literature review, a performance improvement. These can be concrete or abstract nouns. Either was they must be SMART, specific and measurable, so it is possible to evaluate if, and to what extent, the objective has been achieved.

    Having analysed a project and identified the objectives one can then consider the activities required to realise these objective, activities expressed as verb clauses. Activities take time and can be scheduled using critical path analysis.


    • pat thomson says:

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. Research projects don’t always produce breadboards and objectives are usually expressed as “To” do something ie to produce a breadboard. I think you’ve conflated an objective and an outcome or product.


  15. Anon says:

    Hi Pat,

    A few questions:

    1. Could you clarify if this applies equally to writing a thesis? Or is this advice primarily for grant writing?

    2. How do the ‘Aims and Objectives’ differ from the ‘Research Questions’ in a thesis? How to avoid “basically the same things but said in different words.” if including both sections in your thesis?

    3. How to accommodate for significant shifts over the life of PhD? What if the initial Aims and Objectives are not what the thesis is about at all the moment? Should they re-written as though the original Aims and Objectives never existed? Or should this section discuss the shift in aims and objectives?



  16. Dr Jayasundara says:

    Dear All ;

    By my experience with undergraduates whose English is not native, I have worked out an easy way of understanding and formulating the aim (I give same meaning to the “General Objective”) and Objectives( or Specific Objectives) of any project. Rewrite the topic of the research with “to + verb in infinitive” and you have got the Aim (or General Objective).
    If the topic is “An Assessment of Capabilities of Rural Dwellers for Adaptation to Climate Change” then the Aim (or General Objective – singular-) is “The Aim of This study is to assess capabilities of rural dwellers for adaptation to climate change”. It is only one!!! once you have an aim you can make it colorful by adding various specification to it like ” in Asia”
    Accordingly, The aim of this study is to assess the potential capacity of rural dwellers in the dry zone of Sri Lanka to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

    Specific objectives (or Objectives). Yes, they are several. Again It is simple;

    The Specific objectives of this study are to :
    You can list numbering…… of course not ten and not one. I advice undergraduates to have 3 or 4 as optimal.

    The things you do to achieve above aim
    list like

    Specific objectives
    Achieving the above aim it is need to reach following specific objectives:
    1.To study rural individuals, in the selected region for their social, economic, psychological and technological capacities for adaptation to climate change with emphasis on their indigenous technologies, cultural practices and lifestyles supported to survive through centuries with different climatic conditions;
    2.To recommend required policy alternatives and strategies with high level of applicability in adaptation to climate change.

    Am I OK? Was it useful?


    • Rifat Ara Chowdhury says:

      I appreciate your guidance. My main language is not English. I am doing my final year project report and want to be clear about every single section heading so that I can put the right content inside them. Your description is concise and helpful Thank you!


  17. muchiri says:

    would i be right to look at the objectives as the parts and the AIM as the whole?


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  20. Jimmy McGee says:

    Aim: a verb

    Objective: a noun.

    Obviously objectives are the WHAT and aims are the HOW.

    I can show you an objective… I can’t show you how I “objective”.

    I can show you how to aim… I can’t show you an aim (nope, that’s a “sight”).

    Basic grammar. QED.


    • pat thomson says:

      In a research proposal the writer is basically asked to complete the sentences, My aim is to .. My objectives are therefore to… These are both about doing something. This is the GENRE. It is about writing not grammar. It’s important not to confuse grammar with sense making. Once you can get past the verb or noun category mistake (and of course an aim can be either a noun or a verb) the process of writing aims and objectives can indeed be understood as a what and a how, but this doesn’t capture the broader and narrower focusing that also has to go on.


      • You see, I agree with Jimmy there…it irks me that I have to tell students to do the opposite to what the words are actually saying. In fact yesterday, I did in fact swap them around when advising a student on their thesis. I’m going to have to get him to change it around now so it’s more conventional, even though it makes no sense.


  21. Fre says:

    Hi, I have been reading this blog post a few times and in general I find it very useful and this approach is what I have been using myself – there should be one overall aim for a thesis or a research paper. But in line with some of the previour commentors I’d really fove to know how to research questions come in? Is it sth like the aim taken into smaller and manageable pieces?


  22. Ainslee H says:

    Reblogged this on Anthropology Musings of an anthro-tragic and commented:
    A clear and concise explanation – it’s certainly helped me overcome hurdles in my proposal.


  23. hebert says:

    This is more than enough i found it useful in my mini-proposal


  24. Basil says:

    hello, can two or three hypothesis investigate one research question?


    • pat thomson says:

      I heistate to answer this and I hope someone else can. I don’t use hypotheses at all. My hunch is that the answer is usually no, you have a single hypothesis.


      • nobodydoit says:

        From my point of view hypothesis should apear in any research work; sometimes people don’t uses because they don’t know much about what he/she wants to study. That is, the researcher write a hypothesis that don’t need to be tested, because everybody knows the answer. A well designed hypothesis can truly guide not only the researcher but also the reader.


  25. 車厘子 says:

    Hi PAT,

    Is there any word count or proportion of the aim and the objective parts ? Coz I’m now writing a dissertation that about 12000 words long. So are there any suggestion?

    Thanks a lot!


    • pat thomson says:

      Most theses are between 80-100 k and each chapter between 8-10 k. So your aims and objectives will form part of one of the beginning chapters, possibly the first. You’ll also have other stuff to put in the same chapter like the rationale.


  26. Ahmad says:

    Hi Pat, you said “The final thing to say is that aims and objectives can’t be rushed. Because they generate the research questions…”
    Now I used to think that it’s the reverse, that RQs generate A&Os.


  27. venky says:

    Its really cool
    I am starting PhD now . I have my presentation also. What have I understood regarding aim and objective that what and why actually I want to do this project explaining by small abstract followed through in objective how I am going to achieve this with bullet points esp.. materials and methods. Is it right . Can you please suggest..


  28. cathb73 says:

    Hi Pat,
    Thanks for your informative post. Much appreciated. Just starting my MBA dissertation proposal, so thanks for the clarity.


  29. manoj chauhan says:

    Nice concept


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  31. sandra says:

    Thank you very much Pat. This was really helpful, until I read this I always thought they were the same. I guess now I can do my assignment with more facts. Thank you very much.


  32. almeida says:

    I’m also writing my research proposal and I need to have the finitions clear.


  33. sweety says:

    research praposal is my assiment topic.. and there is no knowledge and words which i wrote it in my assiment……..


  34. Awoudu Esther Telema says:

    Thanks for the credible explanation you’v given above.


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  36. Dennis Mwelwa Bwalya says:

    This is a very helpful peace of information


  37. Mokhtar says:

    Dear Pat,
    Thank you for your outstanding explanation of the aim and the objectives of a research project and the difference between them. I kindly would like you to elaborate on how to write “Research Problem Statement” and its relationship with the aim and the objectives. Thank you, in advance, for sharing your knowledge!


  38. Thank you for this article, which has been very helpful. I have written my aims and objectives accordingly and have cited this page in my master thesis as reference. However I wanted to add that someone told me to be careful not to mix up objectives with research objectives as both are different. Research objectives being used interchangeably with the term research questions. I find this all very confusing to be honest but have decided to stick to your explanation for now on. Thank you


  39. Patricia Lar says:

    Explanation is clear and helpful


  40. Mariana Yip says:

    Thank you. It is very helpful so I can start doing the reports for projects. 🙂


  41. Dr. Diaa says:

    Thanks a lot for the differentiation.


  42. Alice says:

    Thank you for a good understanding of the two.


  43. Aimee says:

    Great tips! I work with university research faculty on grant writing and development – I love using this as a reference when I’m editing! Thanks!


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  45. Really useful definition!
    Thanks very much for your time-generosity in sharing it.
    Helped no end with an art-commission proposal I was writing.

    Best wishes
    Annabel Tilley
    Co-Author – What they didn’t teach you in art school (Octopus Books, 2016)


  46. usman says:

    thank you. very helpful


  47. Thank you. Immensely helpful and clear.


  48. Mauricio Alva says:

    It has been extremely helpful for my work. Thank you!


    • Fredrick Ngulube says:

      Thank you for feeding me with clear understanding of this two words. I was critically comfused about the them, but now I am distinctly satisfied with the meanings. I am truly gratified to your perfect articulation God bless you.


    • Anobil says:

      I am SHS student in my final year,my name is call Raymond, my understanding is that,aim is what you are willing to do in a near by future whiles objective is the measures you won’t to lay down to guide you to achieve your aim.


  49. Fredrick Ngulube says:

    Well articulated.


  50. Lawrence says:

    Fantastic and detailed enough. Thank you, Pat.


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  52. Cristina says:

    Fantastic explanation, thanks for that!


    • Cristina says:

      Could you also recommend a reliable article/post on methodologies for data collection? That would be much appreciated. Thank you.


  53. Bisi ayo says:

    The difference between aim and objective explanation, succinct and very helpful. Thanks.


  54. Chris Chukwuemeka says:

    Nice one. I am very grateful. Thanks


  55. Ameen Aljammal says:

    Thank you for your outstanding explanation of the aim and the objectives, very informative and up to the point of query


  56. Hi, Patt.
    Thank you so much for the post. It is really helpful.
    I have a question.
    Many professors use the word “purpose”.
    Is it “purpose” the same thing as “aim”?
    Thanks a lot
    Joao Paulo


  57. Prim Rizvi says:

    Thank you so much for the detail description of Aim and Objective differentiating these two terms had really been so tough. From the defition given now it is quite clear only with the two key words :
    What=Aim. How=Objective
    Thanks and regards


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  59. Nathan Gallon says:

    Incredibly helpful…… thank you.


  60. Arc. Usang J. O. says:

    This is wonderful. Giving more insight into aim and objectives.


  61. Ariyamaxi says:

    Thanks a lot – hope I will finally complete my thesis proposal…


  62. Martha says:

    Thank you. Your explanation was very helpful!


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  64. remoteleigh says:

    This has been very helpful as I sit and complete an adventurer’s expedition grant. Thankyou!


  65. muhd dane says:

    Really helpful and easy to understand.
    Thanks a lot.


  66. Shihab AL Sheikh says:

    Thank you Pat
    Really you release my confusion


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  69. Nazmul says:

    Hi Pat
    Thanks. It’s quite useful in relation to my situation. I was confused and struggled to write the aim and objectives in my PhD research proposal. So is the general objective of a project is similar to the aim?

    Best wishes!



  70. Reblogged this on The Academic Triangle and commented:
    An old post but still very relevant. A lot of students I work with still struggle with the difference!


  71. Said mabrouk says:

    1. If the objectives are the steps one should do to achieve the aim then what are the tasks?
    To my knowledge tasks are the steps to achieve the objectives.
    2. If mapping is to be done between objectives and the aim then all objectives will be mapped to one same aim. While tasks can be mapped to several objectives.
    3. Can we use main objective and specific objectives instead of aim and objectives?
    4. Can we have a concrete example showing aim, objectives and tasks.


  72. SOURA Djili says:

    This post and the other one about chapter introductions and conclusions proved very helpful to me, as a master student about to write my research proposal. I had serious difficulties in moving from aim to objectives in my research proposal. Having read these posts, I hope to write a convincing proposal and a coherent dissertation. Thank you!!!!!


  73. Saliadam says:

    I am thankful for so an amazing post. It has shed light to the dark area of my understanding about accademic writings..


  74. Fil.Pams says:

    Can i ask about the objectives for social media arising privacy


  75. zuproc66 says:

    A research statement or question is also the aim of the research project. The objectives of the research develop from the aim of the research project. It is the order wherein it contains the steps on how to accomplish the aim of the research. The objective is commonly written in short phrases either in numbering or bullet points.


  76. Shahid Mallick says:

    Hi Pat,
    The way you have explained the two different aspects of research is so simple and easily understandable! Just to say like many others I am also benefited from your blog. I am confused, can you please explain little about does there any difference between objectives and research question


  77. Abdulsalam Aishah says:

    Excellent clarification! Infact am excited


  78. Umar says:

    Thank so much with this helpful article


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