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How to formulate a research question

I had difficulty nailing down the thing I was interested in as a researchable question for my Masters dissertation. I found ‘The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb and Williams’ (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing) really helpful then, and also for trying to formulate a research question for my PhD. This book has a couple of short chapters that take you through working out what you’re interested in and why, and then ways to turn that into a research question that are really worth reading…

Where to start

Coming up with a good question seems harder than it looks. It has to be interesting and worthwhile answering, but it also has to be do-able in the time you have available – be that three weeks for a class paper, three months for a Masters level dissertation, or three years (and the rest) for a PhD. I’d love to be able to write a great post to tell you how, but instead I’m going to refer you to ‘The Craft of Research’, an excellent book by Booth, Colomb and Williams because I can’t do it better than they have. The authors have a couple of short chapters (chapter 3 and 4) that take you step by step through working out what you’re interested in and why, and then how to turn that into a researchable question.

These authors have you pick our a couple of topics you’re interested in. This can be harder than it looks for two reasons. Firstly, if you’re taking the class only because you have to, it’s possible you won’t find anything particularly engaging. Secondly, if you’re taking the class because you’re really keen, chances are you’ll be interested everything. In the first case, you might want to pick the least dull topic, the one you understand the best, or the topic you think you’ll find the most (but not too much) useful research material for. In the second, you’re going to have to be brutal and narrow things down. Chose one or at most two overlapping areas that are either the ones that really interest you, or the ones you already think you can deliver the best work on. The only way to work out which topics are best for you is to read around. Do the reading set, go to class, take part in discussions, visit the library shelf where the course texts are kept and browse the books next to them. Next, Booth, Colomb and Williams have you work out what questions you could ask, by working systematically through all the questions you can think of: why, where, how, when and what – what’s the same, what’s different, what’s significant. After that, pick a few and narrow them further: what’s different between ‘X’ and ‘Y’ under particular circumstances ‘Z’.

Where to look for help

If you are a taught student and you have problems, talk these over with your class teacher or supervisor. They should be able to suggest reading or help you narrow your question, work out which questions are interesting and answerable, and likely to lead to better grades. Ask for help, they won’t laugh. It’s their job to try and help, and they’ll probably be impressed by the efforts you have made. Even if you don’t think you need help, it’s often best to run a question by the person who will be marking your paper to make sure that it’s suitable. They should be able to warn you if your question is too broad, or just not focused enough on a topic relevant to the course, both of which could seriously damage your grades.

If you are putting together your own research proposal to apply for a PhD, the bad news is you are all by yourself. Finding the right question is a really important part of getting accepted onto a programme and eventually producing PhD level work. The good news is there are still people who can help. Ask you current supervisors for guidance on formulating your question. Even if you are not currently a registered student at a university, look up your previous professor up. Once you have some kind of research proposal, contact potential supervisors for your research for their advice. The even better news is, you won’t be expected to finalise your question until you are at least a year into your research, so nobody expects you to produce the perfect question at the application stage.

There is also a more recent edition of ‘The Craft of Research’ by Booth, Colomb and Williams . Find the second edition or the third edition in a UK University library near you.

One Comment

  1. [...] you still need to identify a research questions, you might be interested in reading this post before reading further here. But once you have an idea of what you want to study, you can begin to [...]

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