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Developing Research Questions: Writing

Strategies and information to help you create and refine research questions for your academic writing

Overview of developing research questions

Effective writing should have a clear purpose, and purpose shines through the best when an essay or dissertation responds to an explicit research question(s). Sometimes, you will need to define or refine a research question based on an essay title provided by an instructor. In the case of dissertations and theses, you will start from scratch, developing one or more research question(s) to anchor and guide a major piece of work.

A research question is powerful: it shapes the focus and breadth of your reading, suggests the data you will need to access or produce, underpins choices related to method/methodology, and more. Therefore, it's crucial to build experience both in inventing and amending research questions.


Guide contents

The tabs of this guide will support you in developing research questions and/or hypotheses to get your writing project started. The sections are organised as follows:

  • Picking a Topic - Tips on finding the broad starting place for your essay or writing project.
  • Questions and Hypotheses - Learn how to develop your idea into a workable hypothesis or research question.
  • Room for Refinement - Explore ways to fine-tune your question to allow maximum depth and criticality.
  • Action Words - Help deciding on the right verbs to frame what you will do in your writing.
  • Preparing to Research - With your question decided, here's a concise outline to begin the research process.

Getting started: the topic

The first things you will need to do when starting your research are to think of a subject or topic for your writing project and design either a hypothesis (a statement for investigation) or question that you will address. Let's start with picking the subject.


Inspiration

When embarking on a thesis or dissertation, you can find the inspiration for your research topic from anywhere: for example, the media, current affairs, art, literature, technology, or your course notes and general reading interests. Above all, it is important that you are interested in and enthusiastic about your topic. You will be a more successful researcher if you care about your project.

If you are starting an essay rather than a final project, odds are you will be assigned a general subject. However, within the broad essay title/instructions, there may be scope to tailor the focus.

 – Our Understanding the Assignment guide goes into more depth about unpicking and responding to assigned essay titles.


Your supervisor's role

You needn't discuss your approach to every essay with the lecturer ahead of time. However, if working on a major project, make sure you discuss your topic with your supervisor. This includes chatting with them about changes to, expansions of, etc. your topic. Academic supervisors might do some of the following:

  • Talk through whether the subject matter is suitable for your own skill set;
  • Indicate if they are happy to work with you on your chosen topic;
  • Advise you on the availability of information and resources on your topic, or if any problems are likely to arise;
  • Help you to shape/refine your hypothesis or question.

Supervisors vary in how directive they get with student projects: there are many valid approaches to supervision. However, if you are ever concerned about the supervision you're receiving, consider discussing this with your Personal Academic Tutor.

In any case, you should not expect your academic supervisor to simply give you a 'good topic' – learning to develop research questions is a vital part of independent study, so while it can take trial and error, the process is worth it to improve as a scholar in your field.


From topic to hypothesis/question

Once you have decided upon the general topic and the main issues you wish to address, then you can think about developing your hypothesis or question in a more detailed way. Hypotheses need to be carefully phrased as the wording is an indication of what will be discussed in your essay. The hypothesis not only gives the reader information about the content you will write about, but also how you will approach the topic.

We'll explore an organised way to begin developing your hypothesis/question on the next tab.

Developing your hypothes(es) or question(s)

In developing your hypothesis or question, experiment with starting broad and gradually narrowing the focus. Work through the sequence of questions below to begin:

What subject?

What general field of study do you want to cover in the course of your research and writing? In some cases, this is self-evident: 'I'm a Biology student, so I'll cover Biology, of course.' However, some projects lend themselves to an interdisciplinary approach, meaning you will link or combine multiple subjects. For example...

  • The fields of Medicine and Philosophy intersect when considering medical ethics, which could raise an initial question such as, ‘What are the ethical dimensions of denying NHS treatment on account of lifestyle choices?’
  • The fields of History, Linguistics, and Queer Studies might intersect in undertaking an analysis of letters written between same-sex couples in the late 1800s.

Inventory your research interests and assess whether they nest neatly inside one discipline or are interdisciplinary in nature.

What theme?

Think about your specific themes, which will set the scope of your essay or project. For example...Inverted triangle with 'broad to narrow' at top, and arrows pointing down along subject, theme, context, angle, and methodology.

  • For the fields of History, Government and Politics, you could look at a theme such as U.S. foreign policy.
  • For the field of Biomedical Engineering, you could look at the theme of smart prosthetics.
  • For the field of Marketing, you could look at the theme of multi-channel retailing.

What context?

The themes above are too wide to tackle in a single piece of research. For example, 'U.S. foreign policy' could cover a ~250-year period that spans American relationships with nearly 200 different countries: that's too much! Therefore, the next step is to pick a context for your theme. For example...

  • U.S. foreign policy as related to Iran in the twenty-first century.
  • Smart prosthetics used by individuals with acquired lower-limb shortening.
  • Multi-channel retailing among organic food brands in the UK.

As you can see, this context step continues to narrow down the focus of the initial subject and theme.

Top tip: Try playing with a few different options at this stage. The more choices you develop, the better the odds that you will formulate a hypothesis/question that you are excited to pursue.

What specific angle?

Here, you will carefully consider the theme and its context, and ask yourself, 'What, specifically, is relevant to find out about this theme?' Or, put another way, what do you want to discover? The answers to questions like these will suggest a meaningful angle for your project. For example...

  • Question: What role did the U.S. play in the 2009 Iranian elections?
  • Hypothesis: Lower-limb prosthetic sockets could be redesigned with innovative materials to improve shock absorption and, thus, user comfort.
  • Question: Which marketing channels are proving most effective for customer acquisition amongst organic food brands currently operating in the UK?

Bear in mind that longer projects such as dissertations and theses often address a handful of related questions – so don't panic if you can't boil it down to just one question!

What methodology?

Finally, it's time for a reality check: your idea might be fantastic, but is there a realistic way to produce meaningful answers? For example, this is an intriguing question:

Leading up to the 2016 Brexit vote, to what extent did the privately expressed opinions of top officials in the UK government align with, or contradict, their publicly made statements?

However intriguing that question, it would be difficult or impossible to research: how would you gather evidence of 'privately expressed opinions' in an ethical, reliable way? (Hacking governmental memos or email accounts definitely runs afoul of academic integrity!)

Therefore, you need to vet whether a sound methodology can underpin your choice of theme(s), context and angle(s). You don't need to define every detail of your method at this stage, but ask yourself questions like these:

  • What types of sources will you need to answer your question: internal data sets, business reports, archived materials, journal articles, etc.?
    • For example, is it possible to compare and contrast the official responses of the U.S. and Iranian governments by using public speeches? Is there any further evidence of American involvement in the election highlighted in press reports, or online sources such as YouTube and Twitter? Which sources can you use to confirm facts, and which to confirm public perceptions/opinions?
  • Where/how will you access those sources: general databases, specialist databases, direct interviews, books, museum/library archives, etc.?
    • For example, have any organic food brands published their data on customer acquisition strategies? If not, how could you measure this using publicly available information and/or direct correspondence with brands?
    • Top tip: The Engagement Librarian for your subject area can advise on access to materials. See your subject page for more information.
  • What ethical considerations might you encounter, if any?
    • Identifying an ethical consideration doesn't necessarily mean you need to abandon your idea, but you will need to review the University Ethics Policy, discuss your idea with your supervisor, and, if deemed necessary, apply for ethics approval before proceeding.

The benefits

If you write a well considered hypothesis or question you can:

  • Narrow your research and focus more carefully;
  • Make better choices for the selection of your reading;
  • From your reading you can select information more carefully and get the right evidence to include in your essay/project;
  • Structure your writing to address the question(s) more directly;
  • Transform your original hypothesis into a final thesis statement that frames your writing: see our Crafting the Introduction guide for more on thesis statements.

Refine and shine

All activities within the writing process are iterative: that is, you have to go through multiple versions (i.e., iterations) of what you're producing in order to improve it. In fact, your research questions may continue to evolve even once the research is underway. Such evolution is normal, so don't panic if you start to doubt your hypothesis halfway through writing up your work. Instead, use your growing knowledge base and new insights to make informed changes to your question(s) or hypothes(es).

Below, we'll work through some examples of ways that research questions might shift or be improved.


Think argument

It is essential that you can clearly develop an argument from the hypothesis or question that you pose. Avoid generalisations that are not possible to substantiate, for example...

Bad: The relationship between humanity and nature.

What is this trying to talk about? It could cover so many different topics and subjects that it needs to be much more focused. A better question would target specific relations between humanity and nature, for example...

Better example: Has humanity overcome the threat of earthquakes through its specially engineered buildings?

  • This question would examine mankind’s relationship with nature in light of geological factors.
  • However, while this question is better than the 'bad' original, it could be further improved – more on that shortly!

Avoid the yes/no trap

Let's return to the question above and consider the type of answer that its phrasing invites:

Has humanity overcome the threat of earthquakes through its specially engineered buildings?

In this case, the wording used encourages a response of either 'yes' or 'no' – either 'yes,' humanity has overcome the threat entirely (hurrah!), or 'no,' engineering has done nothing to stop the threat (boo!). However, the situation is surely more complex than that. A yes/no framing is therefore a poor foundation for the research, as it might compel the writer to sacrifice critical nuance in favour of a straightforward answer.

What if the writer were instead to consider phrasing options like these? 

To what extent do specially engineered buildings mitigate the threat of earthquakes in major cities?

Which innovations in building design have proved most effective in reducing human casualties during earthquakes?

How can buildings be reengineered to minimise the threat to life posed by earthquakes?

These iterations of the question might not be perfect, but notice how they encourage greater complexity of response. The writer has moved away from a yes/no framing to instead pose questions that will allow richer, more layered answers to be explored in the body of the essay or project.

Is yes/no ever okay?

In short, yes – this is sometimes okay. However, you should treat any yes/no question with caution. In many cases, a yes/no question functions better when paired with or embedded within a question of more nuanced phrasing. For example...

Could polymer XYZ be replaced with polymer ABC in the manufacture of technology Q? If so, what implications exist for the cost and longevity of the final product?

Here, the first question is yes/no in nature – and for some assessment types, it might be sufficient! However, the second question builds upon the first to add more depth and relevance.


Expect detours

In many cases, research questions must be refined not because they are 'bad' or problematic, but instead due to either 1) evolution of interests/knowledge or 2) change(s) in research circumstances. The prior can loosely be understood as internally driven whilst the latter is externally driven. The examples below illustrate how these shifts might look in practice.

Evolution of interests/knowledge

Sam plans to critically evaluate the TV show The Walking Dead through the lens of disability theory in their dissertation. They begin the project with a set of related research questions that includes this one:

How do depictions of facial differences (e.g. scars, burns) in The Walking Dead reinforce – or alternately, subvert – the damaging trope of the 'Disabled Villain'?

This question operates well alongside Sam's other enquiries/hypotheses, and they make a strong start on their research. However, the deeper Sam gets into their analysis, the more they find themself writing about the show's depictions of amputations and prostheses rather than facial differences. Therefore, Sam decides to revise the focal question as so:

To what extent does loss of limbs operate as a metaphor for change to internal character throughout The Walking Dead, and do these depictions cumulatively serve to reify or subvert persistent tropes of disability in filmed media?

In this manner, Sam refined their research question to respond to an evolution of interest as well as their expanding knowledge of the source material. The 'detour' was internal as Sam didn't technically need to change directions, but by realigning the question with what they are actually curious about, the resulting dissertation will surely be richer.

Change(s) in research circumstances

The more panic-inducing 'detours' are those compelled by external change over which the writer has little or no control. Circumstantial changes that might impact the feasibility of your research question(s) include things like the following (click each dropdown heading to see examples):

  • Problem: You intended to analyse items held overseas in a historical archive. However, your funding request to visit the archive was rejected, and the archive curators say they can't digitise the items for you.
  • Potential solution: Can you conduct an equivalent analyis of items held in an archive you can access? For example, an archive maintained by a UK library or university, or an international archive that has already been digitised?
  • Problem: You intended to test the efficiency of a water filtration design by partnering with someone whose engineering specialty fills a vital gap in your abilities. However, they bail. You can't produce the whole filtration system on your own.
  • Potential solutions: Could your supervisor help you find an appropriate collaborator to backfill the one who bailed? If not, could you test the design using computer modelling rather than building it 'IRL'? Alternately, could you test the durability, environmental friendliness, etc. of the design element you can produce rather than testing the efficiency of the entire system?
  • Problem: Your MA is intended to culminate in a fieldwork experience during the spring of your degree. The fieldwork will underpin your entire dissertation. Unfortunately, conflict emerges in the geographical area of your planned fieldwork, and you can't safely proceed with traveling/working there.
  • Potential solutions: In this case, your supervisor should definitely help you figure out an alternate plan! You might need to engage in fieldwork in a different area entirely, which will of course changes the precise question(s) you're asking. Alternately, your supervisor might encourage you to work with existing literature/data rather than gathering new data in the field.

A change to the feasibility of your method(ology) doesn't always mean you need to abandon your research question(s). If your question relates to the concept of customer satisfaction, for example, there could be many valid ways to measure and interpret that central concept.

If a circumstantial change pushes your plan off course, think creatively and think widely about potential solutions. And if this happens whilst tackling your dissertation or thesis, contact your supervisor ASAP to arrange a meeting.


The role of sub-questions

Finally, understand that you may need to ask (and answer) additional questions in order to address your central question: this is especially true of dissertations and theses. Think of these additional enquiries as sub-questions. Let's return to Sam's original research question from earlier:

How do depictions of facial differences (e.g. scars, burns) in The Walking Dead reinforce – or alternately, subvert – the damaging trope of the 'Disabled Villain'?

This is phrased as one question, but let's slow down and consider how Sam can satisfactorily answer that central question. To provide rich, nuanced answers, Sam might actually need to ask a series of questions that build upon one another:

  • How is the trope of the 'Disabled Villain' defined and understood?
    • How is the trope defined, discussed, etc. across research in Disability Studies?
    • How is the trope defined, discussed, etc. across research in Film Studies?
  • How often are facial differences ascribed to 'villainous' characters versus 'heroic' or 'neutral' characters in The Walking Dead?
    • Are certain facial differences (e.g. a missing eye, a prominent scar) ascribed more often to certain character archetypes?
  • Finally, having explored the above, how do depictions of facial differences in The Walking Dead serve to reinforce or subvert the trope of the 'Disabled Villain'?

Sam won't necessarily use the same method or approach to answer each question. For instance...

  • Sam will likely review and synthesize existing literature from the fields of Disability Studies and Film Studies to answer the first sub-question.
  • To answer the second sub-question, Sam will engage in close viewing and interpretation of the TV show.
  • Finally, to answer the overarching question, Sam will use relevant theory as a lens to frame their firsthand textual analysis of the TV show, thereby drawing original conclusions.

Therefore, as you refine your research question, consider building out a mind map or bulleted list of the implied questions that underpin your main enquiry. Making these sub-questions explicit in the writing can help ensure the research proceeds in a logical way from A to B, B to C, etc.

Verbs are vital

Essay questions/titles provided by module leads usually hinge around one or more specific verb(s): that is, action word(s) or instruction(s) of what to do, e.g. 'Discuss,' 'Explain,' 'Evaluate,' etc. For example, imagine Daria's module lead has issued this essay prompt:

Instructor's prompt: 'Trace the evolution of rotor designs in functional helicopters from 1940 onward.'

Daria considers the prompt and her research interests, and she comes up with this hypothesis to kickstart her writing:

Hypothesis: 'In contemporary helicopters, height-based and weight-based adjustments to rotor blades minimize vibration in order to prevent stalling and ensure safe flights.'

Okay, perhaps that's true, but can you see the problems? First, Daria's hypothesis reads more as a statement of fact than a focusing concept for an essay – it's hard to tell what Daria plans to actually do in the writing. Second, Daria has ignored the key verb in the prompt, which was 'trace' – this means she should follow the development of rotor designs over time rather than comparing designs of the present day.

But what if you are designing your own essay/dissertation question or hypothesis rather than following an instructor's prompt?


Picking your own verbs

Essay verbs are every bit as vital when designing our own research questions and hypotheses! You will need to think about these words and their usage, as they will indicate what is to come in your essay or dissertation. For example, imagine you write that you will 'analyse' a situation, but then your essay simply 'summarises' the situation.

  • The verb 'analyse' suggests that you will describe the main ideas in depth, showing why they are important, how they are connected, etc. in a critical manner.
  • The verb 'summarise' means that you will offer a concise account of main points without critical elaboration.

The mismatch between what you stated you would do and what you actually delivered will likely compel the marker to assign a lower mark to your work.

Top tip: Think of the essay verb as a promise you are making to the reader, and follow through on that promise!

 

In the context of a dissertation or thesisyou are likely to use multiple verbs to describe what you will do, given the complexity of the work at hand. These typically appear in your introduction as well as the opening paragraphs of your individual chapters, e.g. 'This chapter will first define condition ABC and then compare divergent perspectives on its treatment.'

 – Need a hand understanding the verbs you can choose from and which is the best fit? Check out the 'The Verb' tab of our Understanding the Assignment guide for a comprehensive list.

Guidelines

When you have posed your hypothesis or question, check your department’s guidelines:

  • How long should the assignment be?
  • What is the deadline?
  • What other requirements are there (presentation, referencing, bibliography, etc.)?

Basic research

Start with basic reading to get an overview of the topic and the current issues surrounding it. Keep the question in mind as you do your initial research:

  • Lecture and seminar notes.
  • Relevant chapters in core textbooks.
  • Frequently cited and recent articles.
  • Websites: The internet is a hugely valuable resource for research, but remember to verify that the information you have located is academically reliable.

You can think of this first research phase as 'dipping your toes in the water.' It's helpful to get a sense of the overall landscape before investing too much time unpicking highly complex, sprawling literature.


Detailed research

When you are familiar with the basics, move on to more advanced texts where you will find detail on the variety of academic opinions on a given topic and suitable supporting evidence:

  • Articles in academic journals (use your Library Search account to get started).
  • Texts referred to by your lecturers or supervisor.
  • References in core texts (you can expand your reading by checking footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies of core texts to find related work and sources).
  • General and specialist databases (check your Library subject page for databases suggested for your discipline).

Be selective

It is essential to always make sure your examples are relevant to the topic in hand. Keep the question in mind, and check the relevance of the material you read and note down.