Developing a Research Question

When you are beginning your dissertation journey, you are asked to submit your dissertation research proposal to your university, who will most likely request modifications to your first proposal and then forward your revised proposal for it to be approved. In your proposal, you must have a valid and appropriate research question which allows you to investigate gaps in research related to your research topic and also help you get close to solving some sort of problem you’re investigating.

But formulating this research question (or questions) is easier said than done. Choosing the wrong dissertation topic or formulating an erroneous research question may send you on wild goose chases and become a massive obstacle on your way to PhD success, possibly hindering the completion of your dissertation and giving you the infamous ‘all-but-dissertation’ label.

To help you avoid this fate, this article gives you some guidance on how you can go about choosing an appropriate dissertation topic and research question. In particular, there are three general steps to selecting an appropriate dissertation research question:

  • STEP ONE: Deciding on a Dissertation Topic
  • STEP TWO: Formulating a Research Question
  • STEP THREE: Ensuring the Effectiveness of your Research Question

Step One: Deciding on a Dissertation Topic

The first step is to decide on a topic for your dissertation. The most important factor for selecting your dissertation topic is simple: make sure it is something you are very interested in. It should also be something you have strengths in. Remember, you will be ‘living’ with your dissertation topic for a long time to come.

To help you towards this goal, you should start reading in your general area of interest (or maybe watching YouTube videos, whatever). The important thing is to get deep into the world of your general topic (which is usually decided by your major and area of expertise) and, from here, you’ll be able to generate a list of possible subtopics that pique your interest and curiosity.

Also, while zoning in on your topic, make sure you are delving into areas you are very familiar with. It will be especially useful if you’ve already did some work into related topics such as in your previous graduate work. For example, if you’ve submitted a couple seminar papers or studied certain concepts for your Master’s thesis, you’ll be able to enter your dissertation with some useful knowledge about your topic.

At this point, as you’ve gotten into your topic’s readings, you should be able to jot down subtopics and then decide on one of these subtopics. Just make sure you try to restrict the scope of your topic as much as you can.

Step Two: Formulating your Research Question

Narrowing down to possible research questions

Now that you’ve selected your dissertation research topic, it’s time for you to think about formulating your research question. The first thing is to move down from your chosen dissertation research topic to your research question. To help with this, you must delve into your particular research topic as much as you could. Read journals, articles, theories, and whatever else you can about the subject. As you are finding out more and more information about your topic, you will begin to realize where certain research gaps exist. In other words, you will begin asking yourself questions about why is this so or how is that so. Make sure you write down these ‘curiosity questions’ as you are doing your preliminary research.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of research questions to just a few, you should review them with your dissertation adviser since he or she is most likely in a position to give you constructive feedback and guide you as to which one(s) you should select or modify.

Making a research question checklist

When you are close to finalizing your research question(s), make sure you ask yourself the following about whatever research question(s) you’re dwelling upon:

  • Is my research question something I’m interested in, and is it something others may care enough about?
  • Is my research question too general or broad? Is it too narrow? Or is it ok?
  • Is my research question answerable and researchable within the time and resources at my disposal?
  • Can I realistically acquire the actual data in order to help answer my research question?
  • What sources will I have to find so I can answer my research question(s) (books, journals, government records, internet resources, interviews, etc.)?

Step Three: Ensuring the Effectiveness of your Research Question

There are several factors involved in a strong research question for your dissertation. These factors include innovation, feasibility, and clarity.

A good dissertation research question is innovative – Basically, a dissertation research question is innovative if the question itself investigates something from a new angle and uses a creative approach in the exploration of your dissertation topic. Of course, as a precursor, it must also fill some identifiable gap of knowledge in your field.

A good dissertation research question is feasible – This means that your research question should be ‘doable’ (answerable). If this is not the case, your dissertation committee will definitely reject it and, if they don’t, you’ll be stuck with an unfinished dissertation. By ‘doable,’ I mean that your research question is answerable within the time frame that you’d like to finish your dissertation and doable within the resources at your disposal. To avoid an impractical research question, simply work closely with your dissertation adviser or dissertation consultant.

A good dissertation research question is clear – This means that your research question should be easily understood by anyone who reads it. To make sure this is the case, ensure your question is concise, conceptually straightforward, and jargon-free. Regarding ‘conceptually straightforward,’ this means don’t use too many variables in a research question. If your particular dissertation research question has more than four variables, then consider splitting your question into two (or more if necessary).

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