the %*$!ing research question


How important is it to have a specific, well-defined research question (in the sense of an actual one-sentence question which ends in a question mark), vs simply knowing the area you're working on.

I guess I see my research question as looking at the influences of x on y, during z. But I find that if I write this as actual questions, the focus changes slightly. eg I would have two different theses depending on whether I was asking, "How does x affect y," or "What controls x?"

For the work I'm doing, both are valid topics. Do I choose a particular, specific question... or does "the influence of x and y on z" count as a research question in itself?

This might influence my next set of experiments. I'm about a quarter of the way through my second year.


Erm, from the social sceinces, but I can give you my story. I have an over-arching research question that my research addresses a very small part of. It's kinda the wider contextual question that motivates the research. Then I have a main one and three subsidiary ones, with the subsidiary ones helping direct my focus on answering the main question (which, in turn, is only a small part of the big big question).

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Hi, I'm similar to Slizor. I'm from the social sciences and I have one over-arching research question, which is really a double question!!! For example, I ask a question formatted similar to this....

What are the formal and informal techniques used to rescue birds? Why and how are they used?

I then have 3 sub questions asking things like,

How do the techniques work? Whom do they benefit (e.g, Rescuer or bird)?
What resources are available to help bird rescuers? How are they used?
What is the prevalence of the use of cages?

I then have 1 overall aim and 6 objectives - to keep me on the straight and narrow.....


Hope this helps


I am preparing my major review (upgrade) document and in this have to explicitly state the 'aims' of my thesis. A collegue went through a whole lot of pain when she was less than clear in the document and again when she had to face the upgrade panel. So it may be that depending upon where you are in the PhD process there is a need to develop a clear vision of what you are going to research.

I thought I knew at the start clearly what I was looking at but this then became murky but has resolved into something else which is less clear but the reasons for this lack of sharp focus are well understood.


Health/social sciences here, too. I'd go with having a over-arching research question because everything flows from that - subquestions, objectives and such. Don't worry about feeling so late in the game with getting the research question(s) established. I was actually in the end of my second year when I had mine. I even made my research question fit what I was doing (rather than vice versa), but no-one could tell in the end.