Developing the research question

This page explores the process of narrowing down and focusing on a research project. It is mainly directed at doctoral students.

The first year of a doctoral degree requires formulating a clear purpose and a focus for the research project. Without that your research project is likely to get steered in all sorts of directions (Churchill & Sanders 2007).

In the first year you will need to

  • Define the thesis topic
  • Establish the importance of the topic, in terms of existing literature and in terms of practice
  • Develop research questions (and/or hypotheses, research aims)
  • Identify an appropriate methodology to answer the questions

This requires:

  • An in-depth understanding of your research area. This understanding is built through the development of the literature review, but also a more general engagement with others working in your chosen field.
  • An in-depth understanding of research and assumptions that guide research. If you feel you are not too sure about this, this is the time to acquire knowledge. Check out courses and workshops that can help, talk to others and read.

A successful PhD also requires (source: Clua-Losada, Mònica PhD study choosing & developing your PhD research project):

  • Modesty: your research thesis will most likely be a modest contribution to human knowledge, but a giant step in your academic training.
  • Humility: accepting there is a lot to learn
  • Patience: it is a long haul and requires hard and rigorous work
  • Flexibility: you will need to adapt to available resources, to circumstances
  • Confidence: to make decisions on topics, methodology and conclusions. It is very common to start with a broad subject area and a vague topic, but progress needs to be made in the first year.

Narrowing down the topic

Focusing requires narrowing down to a specific topic. This is not always straightforward. You will be slowed down in this process if:

  • you do not know enough about your topic; or
  • you are making assumptions and possibly already have in your mind all answers to the problem you plan to research.

The only way to get around this is by reading, reading, reading, going to seminars and conferences and meeting people to exchange ideas about your topic are the way forward.

failPiled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

What makes a good research topic?

A good research topic:

  • is worth researching – because it is a pressing problem, or because it is worth exploring
  • can refer to a practical and/or theoretical issue
  • can contribute to existing knowledge. This can be hard to establish initially as contribution to knowledge only clearly emerges at the end of the research, when parts of thesis (theories, findings, concepts) come together and you have developed the knowledge and skills to contribute
  • will sustain your passion. In general topics initially derive from personal interest in an issue, an objective or in theory (Bryman & Bell, 2007). Interest is important as you will need to work on the same topic for at least 3 years – if you are not passionate or at least interested in the topic now, it is unlikely you will be for the length of the project
  • is linked with theories you are interested in. A PhD requires a good understanding of theory – a strong interest in theories related to your topic will support your passion;
  • is one you have or can acquire knowledge and skills to do. You need to be well aware of your strengths and weaknesses and make the best of both is feasible;
  • can be done in 3-4 years
  • does not require data, tools or funding that cannot be accessed and requires supervisors who know about the field and methodologies proposed
  • has outcomes you set to achieve. How will the topic advance your career, personal life and knowledge?

watch video iconChoosing a manageable research topic


listen Not everyone does the same sort of PhD (David Marsh)


“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

From topic to research question

Your research will need to be organised around a set of questions that need to be linked with what is already known about the topic (and set out in the academic literature). These questions thus emerge from the literature review (as existing knowledge and research theory you draw on), or preliminary research and literature, and at the same time guide the literature review. A good research question therefore requires

  • Understanding your field of reach
  • Understanding the theories that inform knowledge in your field of research. This will allow you to position what is known in the field within that theory. The theory will also help narrow your topic to help you decide whether you want to examine a certain knowledge to form a specific theoretical perspective, test theory or develop theory
  • Understanding paradigmatic theory. This is useful to understand how you view the world, and how this relates to how the world could be viewed. This allows you to position yourself knowingly by allowing you to explain basic choices you make in regards to topic and theory chosen. Understanding of paradigmatic theory will also be important later on when you decide on methodologies.

Research questions are crucial as they are linked to every part of your research

  • Research questions are thus informed by the field of research – what are gaps in knowledge?
  • Research questions are informed by disciplinary theory – how do you decide to examine the chosen topic?
  • Research questions are informed by your research paradigms – what are your fundamental beliefs about truth and how/weather it can be known?
  • Research questions inform the research design.
  • Research questions inform the structure and boundaries of your thesis.
  • Your research question will more than likely evolve as your knowledge on the topic increase. That is normal. Be prepared to be flexible. You’ll need to come back to the question and define it more strongly just before starting the research itself (the research will need to answer the question, so by then you will need to have it nailed down).

Make sure your question is a real question – a question for which you already have an answer is not a real question.

Research questions need to be open – they need to be real inquiries. Even if your research question is driven by a hunch or hypothesis, you need to approach it with an open mind. You need to be open to finding out that the hunch or hypothesis is not correct.

Your research question will more than likely evolve as your knowledge on the topic increase. That is normal. Be prepared to be flexible. You’ll need to come back to the question and define it more strongly just before starting the research itself (the research will need to answer the question, so by then you will need to have it nailed down).

Developing the research question

Research questions are generated through engagement with your research topic or interests:

Reading, talking and listening is crucial to develop a good understanding of the field and required to be able to narrow down a topic. Developing a thorough literature review is important to develop a coherent understanding of the area you want to investigate.

Developing the questions from existing knowledge shared in literature

The literature review is generally the starting point for narrowing down broad research aims into well defined research questions. This is where you find out:

  • Who has answered questions you want to see answered
  • What propositions were made
  • How do these propositions related to theory in your field

This will allow you to explore what and how can you add to propositions made. Your review of literature on the topic should then enable you to make a case for the relevance and importance of your proposed research.

watch video icon    Finding ideas for your research proposal

The following flowchart (First, nd) shows the process of the development of a literature review. The process involves categorising literature as relevant to the proposed topic. Understanding of the topic develops as literature is organised in categories and links within and between these categories are explored.

Literature flowchart

Source: fIRST

It is important to allow categories to change as you become more knowledgeable in the field. Categories are ideas, ways to conceptualise things and they relate to each other. As you progress with your research, categories may change again depending on how they fit in with your research.

The categories you use frame your way of thinking about a topic and as such are setting the scene for the research questions to be developed.

Developing the research question after initial fieldwork

Research questions can also be generated from initial data collection, rather than from the literature review. This is a less common and more inductive process for generating research question.

This process is not common and more likely to be used in qualitative research, which aims to generate questions from an issue, setting or experience, rather than from the literature, popular social representation or your own preconceptions (Churchill & Sanders 2007). Such a process could also involve testing theories or hypotheses generated by initial data collection (e.g. in grounded theory).

If you decide to develop your question from the fieldwork, you need to explain why and establish a time frame for the initial fieldwork (for how long will you explore data before defining the research question?)

Research questions, hypotheses or objectives?

Qualitative research generally develops around research questions, while quantitative research develops around research questions, hypotheses and sometimes objectives (Creswell, 2009).

Research questions should (Bryman & Bell, 2007):

  • be clear
  • be concrete, large and small enough to enable you to come up with a research design that is feasible
  • connect with established theory and research
  • link with each other if you have more than one
  • have the potential for making a contribution to knowledge

There are two sorts of questions: closed and open questions.

Closed questions lead to discrete answers, yes or no. Such answers are often of limited use to the reader. Open questions on the other hand take you back to the mechanisms – why is something like thta?

Research hypotheses

Hypotheses are typically used in quantitative research. They are tentative statements and predictions about expected relationships between variables (Creswell, 2009). Experimental research is generally about hypothesis testing.

A hypothesis can be derived from a research question or vice versa. If your research proposes to test hypotheses you need to make sure that the hypotheses:

  • have been derived from existing research on the topic, not from instinct
  • can be tested
  • include independent and dependent variables

watch video iconTheories and hypotheses

Aims and objectives

‘Aims and objectives’ are commonly used grant proposals. They may also be useful for some research projects.

Aim: the overall purpose of the study, the intention or purpose of your chosen area of research.

  •  What is to be accomplished (not how)
  •  Address the long-term outcomes
  •  Normally one, maximum two or three aims

Objectives: specific goals for the research, smaller steps to complete to achieve the overall aim.

Once you have progressed with your research, you will need to go back to the initial research question and refine it. Chapter 7 in Creswell (2009) provides very useful advice on how to go about scripting the questions/hypotheses, objectives.


Research requires managing large amounts of information, it is therefore important to identify tools that can help you stay on top of that information and use the information as required to link ideas.

Check the Managing the literature pages for notes on how to develop a literature review, including on referencing and using common reference management tools.


Check out 101 innovations in scholarly communication


Other strategies for sorting out concepts, ideas and theories are:

  • Research diaries: an under-used practice for many researchers, but are an important way to record essential thoughts (Cooksey and McDonald, 2010).
  • Concept maps: Concept mapping enables visualising relationships between different concepts. Concept maps can be organised in a variety of ways (hierarchically, as a spider, hyperlinked, grouped or linear) often reflecting mental models we carry in our brain. Check the page Creating research questions using Spider Diagrams for an example of a concept map used to develop research questions.
    Consider concept mapping software. Programs such as VUE and Freemind are free. Other softwares such as The Brain, Docear, mindmeister are also good, but not free.

Check out the following online tutorials:
watch video iconHow to apply NVivo in a PhD using the NVivo Toolkit 
Harvesting Freewrite Concepts as Conceptual Framework Map Concepts
Transforming a concept map into a content map

  • Categorise in subtopics and sub-subtopics

If you prefer to think in a more liner way, you can simply use Word and its outlining function (in View – then Outline).

  • Use lists, tables, matrices to compare authors and their arguments, as well as concepts explored.

aquestion  Activity

Complete the sentence (adapted from Booth, Colomb & Williams 2008)

I am researching ……………(your topic)

because I want to find out …………..(your question)

in order to ………………………….(the rationale )

so that we will know more about………………………….. (the significance)

Keep note of how you complete this sentence and note how it changes as you progress

To think about Questioning guy

Schwarzkopf, Sam (2016), ‘It’s not the end of the world if your research gets ‘scooped’, Times Higher Education April 9, 2016. Take it as a compliment if other people are doing similar studies to you, says Sam…


Booth, W. , Colomb G. & J. Williams (2008). The craft of research (3rd ed), The University of Chicago Press Chicago & London.

Bryman, A. & Bell, E. (2007).Business Research Methods (3rd ed), Oxford University Press.

Churchill, H. and Sanders, T.(2007). Getting Your PhD: A Practical Insider’s Guide (Survival Skills for Scholars), Sage London.

Cooksey, R. and McDonald, G. (2010). Surviving and thriving in postgraduate research, Tilde University Press.

Creswell, J. (2009). Research design. Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches, Sage, Thousand Oaks.

Mewburn, I. (nd). Using a spider diagram to make research questions

Wolf, A (2016). The 4 sentence research proposal, Doctoral Writing SIG 26 May 2016. A great strategy to develop research questions.

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