How to Choose a Research Question

Good idea concept

Are you at the pre-research question stage? Ever wondered how to establish a research question that is not only scientific and novel, but also realistic, interesting, and meaningful? This article gives you four key steps to help you choose your research question. 

1. Choose a topic you are interested in  

Writing a dissertation/research project takes time to complete. Depending on your level of study, it can take weeks, months or years. Hence it is crucial you choose an area that you are interested in and wish to expand your knowledge in. Your interest and passion will serve as one of your main motivators in the dissertation journey ahead of you. This is your opportunity to explore an area that you want to know more about and contribute to the scholarly world. 

What will you contribute? How do you find the right topic? I always ask students to tell me which module they enjoyed the most. What inspired you? What did you find interesting? Why did you find it interesting? Or it might be a topic that complements and supports your future career? Whichever topic you choose, remember, having a topic you genuinely find interesting (and fun) will help you manage the highs and lows of dissertationing.

2. Do some research

Once the research area is identified, you now need to know what has already been said about your topic. Do searches in your set reading materials, journals, and of course Google Scholar. This will allow you to find out if there is a sufficient amount of literature in your area and whether you have a valid research question. Ask yourself questions, such as; what issues are scholars and researchers discussing in x, y, z research area? What ideas can I expand on in this area? What are the gaps in the research? Does the literature support or contradict my research topic? The answers to these questions will in turn give you potential research ideas and questions. 

3. Evaluate your question 

At this point, you will have lots of ideas, which you may have already started to carve into research questions. You now want to be objective about your research question(s) and begin an evaluative dissection of them. This involves asking the following questions: 

  • Is it too broad? Your dissertation is a concise piece of academic writing that is free of all fluff. That is, each sentence must serve one clear purpose; furthering the research argument. If your research question is too broad, your analysis and conclusions will lack depth and remain superficial, simply because you do not have the time nor the word space to give an in-depth analysis. Refining your research question will direct your research, manage your time, and economically maximise your word count. 

  • Is it too narrow? On the flip side, you may end up too narrow. Of course, you must be concise in your writing and refine your research question, but this can lead to little argumentation and a writing slump. This typically makes you feel “stuck”. At this point, re-examine your research question and ensure the area is not too narrow. Back to the drawing board! 
  • Am I being objective? As is falling in love with anything (or anyone), one can become infatuated, which clouds one’s objectivity. In the case of your research question, your love and excitement can make you blind to any potential weaknesses. You are too close to the topic and more emotionally invested in it than an outsider. My advice is to zoom out of your research by taking on a role of an outsider. Gain their perspective of the research question; what do they think about the topic? Does it have any weaknesses? If that is difficult, share it with a friend or book a session with me. Do this as early as you can, so you have the opportunity to explore other topics.   

4. Create a structured plan 

With the question now established, your research can take many routes depending on the sources you consult and the methodology you use. A structured plan is a non-negotiable, which can fall out from a well-written and concise research question. A plan begins with structuring each chapter of the dissertation. Below are questions for a typical chapter breakdown that can help you get started.

  • Introduction: are you using a funnel approach?
  • Literature Review: what literature is required to understand the background of your research question? Will it be organised thematically or chronologically?
  • Methodology: what methodology will you use to address the research question? Primary or secondary research? Quantitative or qualitative data? Interviews or surveys?
  • Results: how will you present the results? What are the (predicted) findings?
  • Analysis and Discussion: will you be using a conceptual or theoretical framework to analyse the data?
  • Conclusion: how do your conclusions further the current literature and what are the implications of your research? 

All of these questions should be addressed and planned for in your structure, but do keep in mind the plan is tentative. Meaning, your plan will change according to your data; you go where your data takes you…

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