Getting the right research questions right

If you’re a full-time, one-year MA student in the UK, no doubt your thoughts will be occupied with the dissertation you need to complete over the coming summer months. You may have already narrowed down your topic and some of you may have even nailed your research questions. If so, great! If, however, your topic is a bit fuzzy at this stage and your research questions are proving harder to formulate than you anticipated, don’t panic. We’ve all been there! Formulating the right research questions requires time and skill

 

Forming good research questions takes time

Most of your time will be spent reading and thinking about your topic. You’ll be accessing the literature, trying to understand key theories, but you’ll also be finding and reading journal articles, looking for previous studies that interest you in terms of their methodology and their methods.  

After having done this background work, you’ll probably end up with a good feel as to what you want to do/don’t want to do, or, indeed, what you can/can’t do given your context, time, resources and other practicalities. You’ll then formulate, evaluate and refine your question or questions (usually between 1 to 3 questions depending on the level and scope of your study), possibly multiple times. Be warned, research questions do change over time; this too is normal.

 

Getting them just right takes skill

The skill part involves making sure your research questions are:

  • Doable, i.e. you have time, sufficient expertise, access and ethical clearance 
  • Sufficient in depth, e.g. not too broad and not too narrow (bear in mind your word count), but also researchable over time, i.e. not something you know already or can find out easily via one web search or one question to one person
  • Contributing, even if only in a small way, to the existing body of knowledge (e.g. maybe your study is similar to a previous one but you are situating yours in a different context or using a different data collection tool or method of analysis)
  • Free from preconceived ideas and bias
  • Answerable using your methodological approach and methods
  • Unambiguous, e.g. the language should be clear, vocabulary should be precise, and terms should be defined
  • Accurate in terms of English grammar and punctuation, i.e. formulated as questions

This last bullet point seems fairly obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times students have presented research questions to me that aren’t questions at all in terms of English grammar. If you’re struggling with question-forming, here are some sites to help you:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/radio/specials/1837_aae/page45.shtml

https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/questions.htm

In case you’re wondering why so much effort needs to go into research questions, the answer to that is they really do help to focus your research. They point you in the right direction in terms of your reading and your methods, and more generally, they provide an overall purpose for your study. Remember, your job as a researcher is to answer these questions via the data you collect.

For more help with and examples of research questions, here are some useful sites:

http://www.socscidiss.bham.ac.uk/research-question.html

https://www.monash.edu/rlo/research-writing-assignments/understanding-the-assignment/developing-research-questions

https://libguides.gwu.edu/research/question

 

Prepare to be flexible

My final piece of advice is talk them through with your peers and/or a research group and your tutor, get advice and don’t settle on the question/s until they meet the criteria above.  Even then, as previously mentioned, be prepared to refine them as you plough deeper into your research.  

The dissertation is a journey with many twists and turns and you’ll no doubt experience highs and lows. Try to embrace these, if you can, and view them as part and parcel of being a researcher, which is what you are now!