Developing research questions for your PhD

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I entered my PhD studies with an assumption that my academic success in my undergraduate and postgraduate coursework would naturally translate to success in doctoral research. I was wrong! During the first two months of the program, my self-esteem took a major blow as I struggled to figure out how to put together a research proposal. Although I had done this before on a much smaller scale and with more guidance for my Master’s thesis, the PhD proposal was a much gnarlier beast which I was ill-prepared to fight. And the hardest part was the one that seemed the most basic — developing the research questions.

I read, and read, and read some more. I identified research gaps and noted interesting topics I thought I might like to explore further. But how to translate these into researchable questions that satisfied my supervisors completely escaped me. I wondered why I was finding this seemingly simple task so challenging, and started to question whether a research career was a good fit for me at all. Did I lack the basic ability to ask a good research question? My impostor syndrome, at least, was having a wonderful time.

Cher from the movie Clueless saying "I was like, totally buggin'"

GIF from tenor.com

So I decided to switch the focus of my reading from my subject matter to research skills and methods (international readers: note that Australian PhD programs do not necessarily include a coursework component in which one might be explicitly taught these skills). It turns out there are a great deal of resources to help graduate students develop their research skills — books, e-books, websites, blogs, podcasts — you name it. I have included a few of my favourites at the end of this post. Twitter is also home to a great community of researchers who provide advice to one another and can help answer any specific questions you put out to the Twitterverse (try using the hashtags #PhDchat and #AcademicTwitter).

One particular book that helped me immensely with developing questions for my research proposal was the aptly named Developing Research Questions (2nd edition) by Patrick White. If you, too, are at or approaching this stage of your studies, I can highly recommend this short and digestible book, which may be available in your university library. Here I paraphrase my three key takeaways from this book.

1. Read as a writer

When you delve into a research article, consider exactly why and how you are reading it. The way you approach reading an article as a researcher is likely to be quite different from the way you might have read it as an undergraduate. When answering essay questions, which is what most of our coursework required of us, we typically look at the discussion and conclusion sections to identify the paper’s key findings and takeaway messages. But now, as a researcher yourself, it pays to take a closer look at those elements you might have previously skimmed over. How does the author use the introduction to distil and justify the importance of their investigation? How do they frame their research question? What methods have they employed to answer that question? In other papers, have different methods been used to answer the same or a similar question? What are the benefits, limitations, and assumptions of those methods? Who or what is being sampled, and why? And so on. All of these types of analytical questions about the investigation itself, rather than only its findings, can help you think more critically about your own research processes and inspire new questions, or new ways to frame undercooked questions.

2. Aim lower

I was humbled and relieved to read the following words from Professor White:

My experience is that [students] are much more likely to be over-ambitious in the initial stages of planning a study and often have to be persuaded to be more modest in their aspirations. … It is important to remember that the incremental and cumulative nature of research means that many researchers spend most of their professional lives investigating very specific issues.

This message resonated strongly with me, and from my conversations with other PhD students it seems that overestimating the expected significance of our research is a fairly common experience. Although your research will certainly contribute to broader dialogue about big and important issues, nobody expects you to tackle that big and important issue all at once. It’s also helpful to remember that originality in your research needn’t only mean original questions — other options include addressing questions asked by others from a new perspective, such as by sampling a different population, or applying different analytical methods.

3. Make sure your questions are researchable

It sounds obvious, but it can be easily forgotten as we become infatuated by compelling questions. If you’ve identified a gap in the literature that excites you, consider whether the reason the question hasn’t been answered is because it is actually unanswerable – via empirical research, that is. It is important to remember what your role is as a researcher, in terms of the meaningful yet bounded ways in which you contribute to knowledge. Research — at least in the sciences — is generally about finding things out, and objectively reporting on and drawing reasoned conclusions about those things. It is not about stating what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, or how things should or ought to be. These types of questions, though fascinating and important, cannot be tested empirically (but could make for fascinating editorials, commentaries, or books!). Of course, other people’s beliefs about things can form the basis of a research question, such as “What proportion of [people] in [a place and time] believe that [xyz]?”. Similarly, big ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions (e.g., “Why does [a specific thing] [do something]?”) can be made more researchable if reframed as ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ or ‘where’ questions, such as “What factors influence [one variable of] [a specific thing] in [a place and time]?”. These types of questions are called descriptive questions, and they make for sound research questions because they can be answered empirically.

Cher from the movie Clueless saying "project!"

GIF from tenor.com

Don’t forget that doing a PhD is not just about developing your expertise in your subject — you are also building your skill as a researcher. It is nonsensical to believe that anyone should possess these research skills innately, like I had convinced myself during my initial writing struggles. As with any skill, it’s all about practice! Feedback from your supervisors or other researchers in your network will also help a lot (even if difficult to take at first — receiving feedback, too, is a skill to be learnt).

I wish you all the very best as you chip away at your research proposal!

Further reading:

  • The Whisper Collective is a curated selection of academic blogs from around the world, including the treasured Thesis Whisper and Research Whisperer.
  • The SAGE Research Methods Map helps you understand how different research methods are related and provides clear definitions of useful research terms. Perusing and understanding research methods in your field can inspire questions that may be investigable using those methods.
  • And finally, Matt Might’s Illustrated Guide to a PhD. While not directly related to research questions, it helps with maintaining perspective about scale and impact of PhD research.

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