Patrick White explores the importance of research questions and provides advice to students on producing good quality research
Why is coming up with research questions so difficult? And why is it so important?Turning an idea for a research project into a set of research questions is something that many of my students struggle with. Whether they are undergraduates, master’s students, or studying for a PhD, developing their research questions is often a challenging process and takes much longer than they anticipate. I imagine they are often frustrated by me telling them to continue to refine their research questions when they’re keen to move on to the next stage of their project.
What they might be surprised to learn, however, is that professional researchers are not very different. When I’ve looked into how research questions are used in practice, I’ve found that they’re completely missing from more than half the articles in the peer-reviewed journals that I’ve surveyed. And until recently, they were also overlooked in most methods textbooks. Although there are now a handful of textbooks on research questions – I’m aware of at least four – and the topic has found its way into many general methods texts either as small sections or whole chapters, academics still aren’t writing about them nearly as much as other aspects of the research process.
So, if academics and professional researchers don’t seem to pay much attention to research questions, why do I spend so much of my time and thinking and writing about them, and why do I ask my students to spend so much time working on them?
My first point is an obvious one. Research is about answering questions, so we need to be clear about exactly what questions we are trying to answer before we start doing our research. That doesn’t mean that research questions can’t change (and they often do) but, at every point in the research process, we should be clear about exactly what our questions are.
But why is this so important? What’s the worst that could happen if we started our research with only a vague idea of our research questions?
The most important role of research questions is to tell you exactly what data you need for your research. If your questions don’t tell you this, they probably need some more work. You’ll eventually work out exactly what your research questions are, but if you do this after you’ve started collecting your data – or even after you’ve finished – you may not end up with the best data to answer these questions. Thinking carefully about your research questions at the beginning of your research means that you’re more likely to be able to answer them well and to avoid either having to collect extra data or not using some of the data you’ve already collected.
Knowing what data you need to collect also helps you pick an appropriate research design. This will then allow you to think about the methods of data collection you might use and how you will analyse your data. Try to avoid starting with firm ideas about what methods or designs you would prefer to use – these decisions should be led by your questions, not the other way around.
What makes a good research question? And how do I know when my research questions are ‘good enough’?
A key test of research questions is how well they point to the data you need to answer them. The language you use is very important and you should look at every word in your questions and make sure that it either has an unambiguous meaning or that you’ve made a clear decision about what it means. Social researchers often use terms that have disputed meanings and definitions, such as ‘social class’. When using these types of terms, you need to think about how you want to define and operationalise a particular concept; if you’re still a student it’s usually best to use an existing definition rather than come up with one of your own. Even everyday language can cause problems, though. For example, if you’re researching ‘young people’ you’ll need to decide exactly what you mean by this, as there’s no universally shared interpretation of this phrase. What age range it actually covers will have implications for the data you collect, your sample selection and so on.
Developing research questions is a difficult but necessary part of the research process. Even if it can be frustrating, time spent working on your questions will be repaid many times over during the course of your project. Thankfully, there are more resources to help you with this than ever before. Good luck with your research!