Would you like to listen to this post instead?
The Research Question
Today, we’re going to discuss one of the hardest parts of your thesis writing: defining your Research Question.
Sometimes this can seem like the hardest part of all. There are so many different ways of defining this starting point, and so many different topics to choose from. It can be very confusing as to where you take the first step.
So today we’re going to start by defining a few key terms and taking you through a simple process.
What is a Research Question?
In simple terms, a Research Question is the question which your project sets out to answer through the analysis and interpretation of relevant data.
The tricky part of a Research Question is formulating it. It’s not a static thing. Instead, it develops alongside your studies: the more information you analyse, the more you refine it.
How to formulate a Research Question
There are 5 key steps to formulating your Research Question:
- Select a topic
- Do some initial research
- Draft some possible research questions to explore
- Assess your potential research questions
- Repeat the process
Step 1: Select a Topic
We suggest picking a topic that you are interested in, or a problem that you would like to solve. Make sure it is a broad area of study, with many potential resources.
Starting with too narrow a topic can cause you problems later on: there may not be enough relevant material of high-quality to meet the parameters of your project. Or you may not be able to develop a research question that you can answer in the time allotted to you.
And, of course, you always run the risk of not finding it as interesting as you first thought.
Step 2: Initial research
Read and assess introductory material on your topic or problem. Start with reading lists from your class, or maybe something you came across outside of your course, like a piece of art or article or book.
Look for resources that have bibliographies, reading lists and hyperlinks. These may lead you to other information and potential avenues to explore.
If you’re finding a lot of resources online make sure to check thoroughly that they meet the standards of evidence required for the project and note down the websites.
Step 3: Possible Research Questions
Create some possible questions by looking for gaps in known research.
- Is there an iteration of an experiment that you believe would be useful, but that hasn’t been written up before?
- What about a study of the impact of historical events on the creation of a specific piece of art?
- Or maybe you’re anticipating the development of something that’s only just starting?
Step 4: Assess Your Potential Research Questions
Evaluate your questions to see which ones are worth pursuing further. Here are a few criteria to consider:
- Which ones are the most interesting to you?
- Which ones meet the parameters of the project that you’re writing?
- Which ones appear to have sufficient resources to do more in-depth research?
Step 5: Repeat the Process
Now that you’ve refined your field of interest from a broad one to a smaller area, it’s time to apply the first draft of your Research Question.
Looking at the information you’ve already gathered, does this Research Question illuminate new areas to investigate in more depth? If so, start a new round of research. Always remember to track your searches. For more information on this topic please see our articles on using EOLAS and EndNote.
Then, using this new in-depth research, create some new possible questions that focus in on smaller areas again.
Finally assess these potential second draft questions. Once you have selected one: it’s time to repeat the process again.
Each time you finish Step 4, your new Research Question is further refined and becomes your new starting point.
A Research Question isn’t just a question: it’s a process whereby you select, research and then refine your initial query through several iterations.
It takes time. Promising avenues of research can turn into dead ends, if there isn’t enough information that meets the standards that you need. Sometimes you start off interested in one area, only to find yourself, eventually, focused on an unanticipated subject that you found during your second or third round of research. Maybe even your fourth.
The more you know about your area of research, the more specific you can make your Research Question. This is what the whole process is about: moving from a broad area of study to a tightly focused question which you can answer with analysis of the relevant data which you’ve found.