Academic research: how did you choose your research question?
Updated: Apr 22
Dissertation, thesis, research paper...name it as you wish...it will keep you up at night but it will also be an enriching and exciting process. Choosing a research question is a tricky process. It would be nice if the perfect idea could just come to us and then, a clear linear process leads to a comprehensive and rich answer. Reality is different. It is a bit messier. Reading, getting excited about an idea, finding out someone has already presented it, realizing the issue is very multi-layered and complex… but when do you stop digging? What is a topic worth investigating?
A good research question should be broad enough to be useful beyond one single case and not too broad so that it is not practical. It should be understandable, appropriate for your level of study and exciting for you to research! Some useful prompts for choosing a research question can be:
Is your research question: clear, focused, timely?
Why is your research question important to answer?
Would the answer to your research question be valuable for anyone, are you saying something new or repeating old arguments?
Are you passionate about your research topic?
Are you able to tackle your research question with the resources, time limits and skills you have?
We asked our members to share their experience with this challenge:
"Coming up with the research question was the most difficult part of the Thesis writing process. My first step was trying to find a topic that would cover 3 important aspects: (1) Something I cared about, to make the research process more pleasant; (2) Something I had studied before or had some knowledge about, to reduce the research load and improve the overall result; and (3) Something that would have relevance (for academy or society). Having those in mind I could narrow down my options significantly. The next step was to read on the topic and see where there would be space for more research. I found it particularly difficult to match my ideas with the feasibility of it (time and resource constraints). Feasibility was a decisive factor in deciding on the research topic.
During the process, I reached out to many people, in my personal and academic life. Discussing with my advisor and other professors help me see new perspectives and find new materials to deepen my initial research. The more knowledge I acquired, the more I could reshape the question so it would better fit the content, the theoretical approach, and also have novelty. If I needed to do this process once more, I would start by reading the latest articles on some of my interests, coming up with some ideas, and then discuss them with the people around me." ________________________________________________________________________
“The process which brought forth my research question has not been linear. To the contrary, a lot of self-doubt and stress where, and still are part of this journey. A factor with which I struggled at first but that went on to help me shape my research focus has been my realization that research happens very differently from institution to institution, by different professors, and even more so when my western experience was contrasted with the academic environment of Japan. This context influenced me to get rid of previous expectations that had been shaped by my Greek education and pushed me to go with a complete open-mindedness to research on the grounds of my professor’s interests. In that spirit, I sensed I could benefit from my professor’s in a spirit of collaboration. The seeking of my research question soon transformed into the seeking of a research relationship. That led me to also evaluate which aspects of my professor’s research focus felt meaningful to me and would potentially give me the inspiration to develop them in a doctoral program.
I decided to approach my research efforts as a big experiment. After browsing through many calls for papers in the field of Architectural Theory and History, I was able to find calls that I felt I could propose to my professor as a starting point for us to actively engage in dialogue. Back then I was not sure what would be my focus. Now, two papers later, one to be published next month and the second having been approved for double-blind peer review have shown me that the common ground between me and my professor is our interest in Architectural profession’s mediums as practices of care in a world under threat. When I first entered my laboratory at Tokyo Institute of Technology I would never have thought I would transition from my interest in traditional Japanese architecture to the theme of Architecture as Caring. What made this shift possible was, I believe in retrospect, my spirit of experimentation that allowed me and my professor to discover this common ground together.”
“I chose my research question mainly from issues that I care about the most and luckily I also had internship experience relating with the field of my research question. And then I developed and tailored it with subjects I studied in GraSPP.
I did change the topic once, because of the pandemic, I had difficulties obtaining enough resources even after changing the topic, it is still limited and I have to rely mostly on online journals. If I have to come up with a new research question for a new project, surely I will start with issues I care the most and then try to do thorough research whether the issue has been discussed enough by others or not.”
"I have written three academic theses in the past, and in all three cases, crafting the right research question was the most difficult task throughout the research process. I certainly became better at it each time, though, and I would like to share a simple tip that makes your thesis writing easier. (Please note that my research experience is in social sciences and humanities, so my advice may not apply to natural-science theses.)
A common mistake among many thesis writers is that they rush into building a research question prematurely. This misstep often leads to shallow research questions that one can discover their answers a few days into research. Additionally, premature research questions often lack theoretical grounding, and the research output ends up in a simple factual statement with very little generalizable, theoretical contribution.
I do not believe that it is thesis-writers’ fault that they rush into developing a research question -- students are often taught that the very first step in writing a thesis or a research paper is to discover an “intriguing research question.” Teachers do not fully explain what takes to formulate a good question, either.
My simple tip is to “do enough research BEFORE you come up with a question.”
I must explain that there are three kinds of research. The first kind is preliminary research, which is a research to familiarize yourself with your area of research. Here, you must read a couple of introductory, textbook-like books; watch documentaries (if there are any), and go to lectures on the topic. Through this preliminary research, you should learn
1) key individuals, organizations, political parties, etc. related to the topic (better to draw a relationship diagram)
2) key events and rough timeline (make sure you do not miss important laws and treaties)
3) major academic arguments about the topic and key academics
The reason why I was able to formulate a meaningful research question for my master’s thesis was because I simply had much more background knowledge about the topic than I did for the topics of my undergrad theses.
Let me summarize the ideal research process below:
Research for comprehending the situation -> Formulate a research question
Research for hypothesis-building -> Formulate a hypothetical answer to your research question
Research for hypothesis-testing -> Either prove or disprove your hypothesis"
"I had so many questions I wanted to be answered. At the same time, I wanted to research something that is not thoroughly understood, under-researched, yet has so much to offer. So, I came up with a question on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) and energy investments in Asia and Africa. It was great because not many have written much about this signature diplomatic policy; one, because there's not much to say given how new it was, and two, the criticisms towards FOIP was similar across all analysts, that the policy is underdeveloped and vague, yet has so much promise.
Encouraged by this flexibility, I decided to write about it. However, while the topic was interesting, the fact that not much was written about the policy became a burden. There was not much reference to go on, so most were just my speculation. I struggled so much that I opted to defer my thesis defense for one semester. I then used the allotted time to think of a topic that I thought is feasible, something I would like to know more about, and one that I have a significant amount of understanding. The last point, I believe, is crucial as it allows you to brainstorm for questions that you feel are still left unanswered in your field of interest.
So, I spent the rest of the semester, which I was supposed to defend my thesis as another entire semester to learn more about my field. What I prioritized when thinking of a new theme to write about is that it should be a topic that I can include some aspects of my learning experiences in the three countries where I spent the last six semesters. It should be a topic where there would be something about China, some parts about Korea, and relevant to Japan. One mistake I made when I was making my initial thesis proposal is that I did not allow myself other options but decided simply because I know about the policy and its new. But for my current topic, I learned in class; I was interested in learning about in class; I wanted to know more about it, and it involves the three countries I studied in.
And so, I am writing about my thesis on that topic I am supposed to defend at the end of this month.
Now, if I am to write another research project, I would do better on the following:
1. Consult with those around me. They may be my classmates or professors to get some feedback. They may even redirect me to an article they have read, a contact they know, or something. I will talk about it.
2. Write something along with my interests. Seriously, it's already a struggle to write something you are passionate about. Imagine the pain of writing about a random topic you chose because you thought it's nice.
3. Make sure the topic is feasible. As I have mentioned prior, I ignored the feasibility of my subject and just wrote about it. In the end, I failed. I would not call it a waste of my time because I learned something new. But maybe I could have known about it another time.
4. Research and read. There is no shortcut to learning about the topic other than researching and reading about it. It is honestly tedious, but something everyone must go through. I would also read more papers written by other students. It can be motivating because just imagining someone else in my situation and knowing they have done it. If they can do it, there is no way I cannot; if they overcame it, I'm sure I can overcome it too, thinking.
Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the best in writing! "
*The advice offered by WE Int. members is based on personal experiences for the purpose of fostering academic dialogue and community. We encourage all members to consult their academic handbook, advisor and other staff in their departments to make final decisions about crafting their thesis.