Developing a research question

Developing a research question

Once your topic has been accepted by your department, you need to begin the process of refining the topic and turning it into something that is focused enough to guide your project. Try describing it as a research problem that sets out:

  • the issue that you are going to be investigating
  • your argument or thesis (what you want to prove, disprove, or explore)
  • the limits of your research (in other words, what you are not going to be investigating).

It is important that you establish a research question at, or close to the start of, your project. It is one of the key tools you have, to ensure that your project keeps going in the right direction. Every task you undertake should begin with you checking your research question and asking “will this help me address this question?”.

You should be willing to revise your research question as you find out more about your topic. You may discover that the data you were hoping to analyse is not available, or you may find a new piece of information or concept while undertaking a literature search, that makes you rethink the basis of your research question. You should always talk to your supervisor before you make any substantial revision to your plans, and explain why you think you need to make the change.

Research question 1:

Public transport in Scotland 

Commentary:

This sets out your research field but does not frame a research question because it is too general. You do not have time to study everything about a topic, so you should focus on an aspect that interests you.

Research question 2:

Examination of the influence of public transport links on new housing development in western Scotland

Commentary:

This is a much better question as it establishes an argument (existence of public transport may have some influence on new housing development). However, it is still quite general and could be improved by further focus.

Research question 3:

Investigation of the relationship between public transport links and the development of new areas of housing in western Scotland: a comparison of local plans and building development since 1990

Commentary:

This is better still. It shows the limits of the project. You will be investigating a complex subject (public transport in Scotland), but will be focusing on only one aspect of it (possible influence on new housing development). You will make this large subject manageable by focusing on a limited period of time (1990 onwards), and limited sources. 

More information on developing practice-based questions and using PICO and SPICE are available in the unit on searching.