On these pages:
“The central question that you ask or hypothesis you frame drives your research: it defines your purpose.”
This page gives some help and guidance in developing a realistic research question. It also considers the role of sub-questions and how these can influence your methodological choices.
You may have been provided with a list of potential topics or even specific questions to choose from. It is more common for you to have to come up with your own ideas and then refine them with the help of your tutor. This is a crucial decision as you will be immersing yourself in it for a long time.
Some students struggle to find a topic that is sufficiently significant and yet researchable within the limitations of an undergraduate project. You may feel overwhelmed by the freedom to choose your own topic but you could get ideas by considering the following:
Choose a topic that you find interesting. This may seem obvious but a lot of students go for what they think will be easy over what they think will be interesting - and regret it when they realise nothing is particularly easy and they are bored by the work. Think back over your lectures or talks from visiting speakers - was there anything you really enjoyed? Was there anything that left you with questions?
Choose something distinct. Whilst at undergraduate level you do not have to find something completely unique, if you find something a bit different you have more opportunity to come to some interesting conclusions. Have you some unique experiences that you can bring: personal biography, placements, study abroad etc?
Don't make your topic too wide. If your topic is too wide, it will be harder to develop research questions that you can actually answer in the context of a small research project.
Don't make your work too narrow. If your topic is too narrow, you will not be able to expand on the ideas sufficiently and make useful conclusions. You may also struggle to find enough literature to support it.
Scope out the field before deciding your topic. This is especially important if you have a few different options and are not sure which to pick. Spend a little time researching each one to get a feel for the amount of literature that exists and any particular avenues that could be worth exploring.
Think about your future. Some topics may fit better than others with your future plans, be they for further study or employment. Becoming more expert in something that you may have to be interviewed about is never a bad thing!
Once you have an idea (or even a few), speak to your tutor. They will advise on whether it is the right sort of topic for a dissertation or independent study. They have a lot of experience and will know if it is too much to take on, has enough material to build on etc.
First, it may be useful to explain the difference between a research question and a hypothesis. A research question is simply a question that your research will address and hopefully answer (or give an explanation of why you couldn't answer it). A hypothesis is a statement that suggests how you expect something to function or behave (and which you would test to see if it actually happens or not).
Research question examples
- How significant is league table position when students choose their university?
- What impact can a diagnosis of depression have on physical health?
Note that these are open questions - i.e. they cannot be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no'. This is the best form of question.
- Students primarily choose their university based on league table position.
- A diagnosis of depression can impact physical health.
Note that these are things that you can test to see if they are true or false. This makes them more definite then research questions - but you can still answer them more fully than 'no they don't' or 'yes it does'. For example, in the above examples you would look to see how relevant other factors were when choosing universities and in what ways physical health may be impacted.
For more examples of the same topic formulated as hypotheses, research questions and paper titles see those given at the bottom of this document from Oakland University: Formulation of Research Hypothesis
Generally, research questions are more common in the humanities, social sciences and business, whereas hypotheses are more common in the sciences. This is not a hard rule though, talk things through with your supervisor to see which they are expecting or which they think fits best with your topic.
Unless you are undertaking a systematic review as your research method, you will develop your research question as a result of reviewing the literature on your broader topic. After all, it is only by seeing what research has already been done (or not) that you can justify the need for your question or your approach to answering it. At the end of that process, you should be able to come up with a question or hypothesis that is:
- Clear (easily understandable)
- Focused (specific not vague or huge)
- Answerable (the data is available and analysable in the time frame)
- Relevant (to your area of study)
- Significant (it is worth answering)
You can try a few out, using a table like this (yours would all be in the same discipline):
|What big tech can do with your data||Rights to use personal self-images||How much do online users know and care about how their self-images can be used by Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook?||Knowledge of terms and conditions (survey data)||Aligns to module on internet privacy||We may be unknowingly giving big tech too much power|
|Effect of climate change on UK wildlife||Plant-insect mutualism||What is the impact of climate change on plant-insect mutualism in UK species?||Existing literature (meta-analysis)||Aligns to two studied topics (climate change and pollination mechanisms)||Both plants and insects could become further endangered and conservationist may need to take action|
|Settler expansion on the North American continent during 18th Century||Violence on colonial boarderlands||How did violence on colonial boarderland involving settlers impact Britian's diplomatic relationship with the Haudenosaunee?||Primary sources (e.g. treaties, artifacts, personal correspondence)||Aligns to module on New Frontiers||Shifts the focus of colonial America from a European viewpoint towards the American interior that recognises the agency of indigenous people|
A similar, though different table is available from the University of California: What makes a good research topic? The completed table has some supervisor comments which may also be helpful.
Ultimately, your final research question will be mutually agreed between yourself and your supervisor - but you should always bring your own ideas to the conversation.
Your main research question will probably still be too big to answer easily. This is where sub-questions come in. They are specific, narrower questions that you can answer directly from your data.
So, looking at the question "How much do online users know and care about how their self-images can be used by Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook?" from the table above, the sub-questions could be:
- What rights do the terms and conditions of signing up for Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook accounts give those companies regarding the use of self-images?
- What proportion of users read the terms and conditions when creating accounts with these companies?
- How aware are users of the rights they are giving away regarding their self-images when creating accounts with these companies?
- How comfortable are users with giving away these rights?
Together, the answers to your sub-questions should enable you to answer the overarching research question.
Depending on the type of dissertation/project your are undertaking, some (or all) the questions may be answered with information collected from the literature and some (or none) may be answered by analysing data directly collected as part of your primary empirical research.
In the above example, the first question would be answered by documentary analysis of the relevant terms and conditions, the second by a mixture of reviewing the literature and analysing survey responses from participants and the last two also by analysing survey responses. Different projects will require different approaches.
Some sub-questions could be answered by reviewing the literature and others from empirical study.