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How To Choose Your Research Question

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Helen Kara who wrote a guest post in which she highlights some elements of her recently published book on creative research methods. Helen has been an independent researcher and writer for the last 14 years. She is a Visiting Fellow at the UK National Centre for Research Methods, and an Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham. She is also on the Board of the UK’s Social Research Association with lead responsibility for research ethics. She studied for her own PhD part-time while running a busy research business, and was so successful at managing the process that she needed special permission to submit her thesis just 2 years and 10 months after registration. Her PhD was awarded in 2006. She writes about and teaches research methods, and is always happy to answer any questions on Twitter: @DrHelenKara

If you’re a doctoral student struggling to choose your research question, you can take some comfort from the fact that this is a difficult process at any level. You will be able to read widely before you choose a question, which will help up to a point. But there comes a time when you have to decide on a question.

First of all, the question should be something you are fascinated by or passionate about. Doing a PhD is really, really hard, and you need that fascination or passion to carry you through the tough times. Trying to research a question you don’t feel strongly about is pure slog.

Then your question needs to be clearly defined, specific, and phrased in neutral terms. However strongly you feel about the subject, you must not formulate it as a leading question. You may have a hypothesis, e.g. that X causes Y, but your research question should not be about why X causes Y. It should be, for example, about the relationship between X and Y, or about the role of X in the development of Y (i.e. alongside other possible influencing factors). This is because you need to look at your research question from various angles, rather than approaching it from just one angle which would be likely to bias or skew your research.

And of course your question needs to be original. This requirement often causes considerable angst, but honestly it’s not as bad as you might think. Your question doesn’t need to lead to ground-breaking, breathtaking, world-changing research, it just needs to be different from anything that has been done before. In practice, this means it could be exactly the same as something that has been done before, but in a different context. Another thing doctoral students often worry about is: what if someone else is studying the same subject, and publishes before I finish? Again, that doesn’t matter; just be prepared to read and cite anything that comes out while you’re working on your research.

Some doctoral researchers choose a question, collect and analyse data, write up their findings – and then discover they have answered an entirely different question from the one they set out to address. But that doesn’t matter either; if it happens to you, simply explain it in your thesis. Part of the point of doing doctoral research is to become a better researcher, so demonstrate what you have learned and say what you would do differently another time.

Once you have made an initial choice, it is time to test your question. Start with an ethical test. Is it a good idea to study this question? Could there be any undesirable consequences? Who might the research benefit? What risks are there to potential participants, the researcher, others? Could the research findings be misused in any way? These are the kinds of questions you need to use to interrogate the quality of your initial research question. If it fails the ethical test, you need to start again.

If your question passes the ethical test, it’s time for a practical test. How can you investigate this question? What data will you need, and how much? (Clue: probably less than you think.) How can you collect that data? Are there any insurmountable barriers to collecting that data? What are the implications of your intended collection process for analysing your data? These kinds of questions will help you to assess the practicality of your proposed question.

To complete the practical test, you will need to turn to the literature on research methods. Start with a general text or two – my recent book on creative research methods covers a wider range of options than most – then use their bibliographies to find more specific books or journal articles on methods that might help you. Think about methods for analysis as well as collection, as this will save you trouble later on. And always, always, select your question and then decide on your methods, not the other way around.

If your question passes the ethical and the practical tests, congratulations, you’re on your way!

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This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. Thanks.Some academics are researching sndcwriting about research questions now. Alvesson snd Sandburg in Scandinavia if memory serves me, went to the study of research questions out of fisatisfaction with them in the journals in their field. .which happens to be business…I think.Doctorsl students learn gap-spotting in some programs..or pushing frontiers of knowledge..or writing questions a certain way. Questions should mot bexgormulisc but come from a genuine fascinstionxeith the subject matter.

  2. Thank you for your comments, everyone! I would have replied sooner if I had known they were here. I'll get notifications from now on… so glad people are finding this post helpful. I'm on Twitter @DrHelenKara if you want to discuss anything further. Good luck with your research!

  3. Hi Dr. HellenMy name is Angelo, a South Sudanese citizen. I am working on refining of my PhD topic 'Mobilizing for violence using Identity, can identity be used to mobilize for peace?'to put together a proposal but facing challenges of fine tuning a research question. Can you please help?

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