In the beginning of your dissertation journey, you are asked to submit your dissertation research proposal to your adviser, who will most likely request modifications to your first proposal and then forward your revised proposal to your dissertation committee for approval. In your proposal, you must have a valid and appropriate research question/s which allows you to investigate gaps in research related to your research topic and also helps you address a problem you may be investigating.
However, formulating a research question (or questions) is easier said than done. Choosing the wrong dissertation topic or formulating an erroneous research question may send you on wild goose chases and become a massive obstacle on your way to PhD success, possibly hindering the completion of your dissertation and giving you the infamous “all-but-dissertation” label.
To help you avoid this fate, this article provides guidance regarding how you can choose an appropriate dissertation topic and research question. In particular, there are three general steps to selecting an appropriate dissertation research question:
- STEP ONE: Identify a feasible dissertation topic
- STEP TWO: Formulate a research question or research questions
- STEP THREE: Ensure the effectiveness of your research question/s
Step One: Deciding on a Dissertation Topic
The first step is to decide on a topic for your dissertation. The most important factor for selecting your dissertation topic is simple: make sure it is something you are very interested in because this might be a long journey. The journey will be much longer if you choose a topic that does not interest you. Remember, you will be living with your dissertation topic for quite some time.
To help you toward this goal, you should start reading in your general area of interest. The important thing is to get deep into the world of your general topic (which is usually decided by your discipline and area of expertise) and, from here, you’ll be able to generate a list of possible subtopics that pique your interest and curiosity.
Also, while zoning in on your topic, make sure you are delving into areas you are very familiar with. It will be especially useful if you build upon work you may have previously completed, such as previous graduate work. For example, if you’ve submitted seminar papers or studied certain concepts for your Master’s thesis, you’ll be able to enter your dissertation with some useful knowledge about your topic.
At this point, as you’ve gotten into your readings, you should be able to jot down subtopics and then decide on one of these subtopics. Just make sure you try to restrict the scope of your topic as much as you can. A topic that is too broad will feel unmanageable.
Step Two: Formulating your Research Question/s
Identifying possible research questions
Now that you’ve selected your dissertation research topic, it’s time to think about formulating your research question. The first thing is to move from your chosen dissertation research topic to your research question. To help with this, you must delve into your particular research topic as much as you can. Read journals, articles, theories, and whatever else you can about the subject. As you learn more about your topic, certain research gaps will be evident. In other words, you will begin asking yourself questions about why is this so or how is that so. Make sure you write down these ‘curiosity questions’ as you are doing your preliminary research.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of research questions to just a few, you should review them with your dissertation chairperson or advisor, as he or she is in a position to give you constructive feedback and guide you as to which questions you should select or modify.
Research question checklist
When you are close to finalizing your research question(s), ask yourself the following about whatever research question(s) you may be considering:
- Is my research question something I’m interested in and is it something that the field may care about?
- Is my research question too general or broad? Is it too narrow?
- Is my research question answerable and can it be addressed using the resources at my disposal?
- Can I realistically acquire the actual data to answer my research question?
- What additional sources will I have to find to justify my research question(s), including books, journals, government records, internet resources, etc.)?
Step Three: Ensuring the Effectiveness of your Research Question
There are several factors involved in a strong research question for your dissertation. These factors include innovation, feasibility, and clarity.
A good dissertation research question is innovative – Basically, a dissertation research question is innovative if the question itself investigates something from a new angle and uses a creative approach in the exploration of your dissertation topic. Of course, as a precursor, it must also fill some identifiable knowledge gap in your field.
A good dissertation research question is feasible – This means that your research question should be ‘doable’ (answerable). If this is not the case, your dissertation committee may reject it or you will be stuck with an unachievable dissertation. By ‘achievable’ I mean that your research question is answerable within the time that you have allotted to complete your dissertation. To avoid an impractical research question, simply work closely with your dissertation adviser or a dissertation consultant.
A good dissertation research question is clear – This means that your research question should be easily understood by anyone who reads it. Ensure your question is concise, conceptually straightforward, and jargon-free. Regarding ‘conceptually straightforward,’ this means don’t use too many variables in a research question. If your particular dissertation research question has more than four variables, then consider splitting your question into two (or more if necessary).