Research 101: Developing strong questions

Research 101: Developing strong questions

  • Posted by Jessica

One of the first steps in the dissertation writing process should be drafting research questions.  Your research questions are the core of your dissertation, out of which everything else will develop.  Too often, students draft up questions without considering some of the biggest factors.  This can end up costing them a significant amount of time and money.

Is there a gap in the literature?

This is a good place to start.  The goal of your dissertation (besides getting you through your program) is to contribute original research in your field of study.  You should be investigating something that nobody else has explored yet.  Sound daunting? Out of the tens of thousands of academic journals published each year, and the millions of studies that have already been done, you’re supposed to come up with something completely original?! 

Correct.

However, there are two ways to make this step a little easier.  If the questions you want to ask have already been answered by other researchers, that doesn’t mean you need to abandon them.  It just means you’ll need to take a different approach. For example, use a different population, methodology, assessment, sample size, etc. than other researchers have.  Just make sure that your study is not a simple replication of someone else’s research.

The second way to find a worthy, unstudied topic is to focus on emerging issues in your field.  Not only will this help you develop timely research questions, but it can give you the chance to investigate an issue before someone else does!

Do the questions have merit?

Even if your research questions do address a clear gap in the literature, you must remember that a gap, alone, is not sufficient grounds for study.  What’s the answer to the “so what” question?  What significant contribution will your study make?

research questionsCan the questions be answered with your chosen methodology?

This is a big consideration, especially if you or your chair are determined to stick to a specific methodology.  As you know, you’ve got two basic types of research — qualitative and quantitative.  Most folks tend to favor one or the other.  Some questions naturally lend themselves to certain methodologies, so make sure your questions align with a methodology you’re comfortable using. For example, don’t craft research questions that lend themselves to a large empirical investigation and plan to answer them using phenomenology.

Are the questions relevant to your program of study?

This may sound like a no-brainer, but if there’s one lesson you should learn through the dissertation process, it’s to assume nothing.  Ideally, you should have a helpful chair or mentor providing you with feedback on your research questions.  It would seem that if the questions weren’t really relevant to your program, your chair or mentor would catch it and direct you back to the drawing board. But it doesn’t always work that way.  In fact, I’ve recently had two clients write their entire proposals, only to be told by the SMR that their projects weren’t relevant to their field of study. But they had chairs who thought the questions were fine.  So it’s critical to make sure the topic of your research isn’t a stretch from your program of study.  Your research questions should be clearly related to your program, and ideally, address a new topic or development in your field.  If you think that you’ll have to really dig through the literature to creatively craft a link between your research questions and your program, develop some new questions.

If you’re still feeling stuck, contact me to schedule a consultation phone call. I’ll help you get the gears moving.

 
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