Questions and Title

Picture of a question mark

Time to spend on this section: 2 hours

This section of the theme discusses the importance of selecting the most appropriate research titles and questions.

Project, dissertation or thesis?

You may hear these terms being used, more or less interchangeably. However, it might be useful to define what we mean by these terms.

  • Researchers undertake a research project. This is the activity (or series of activities) that you actually do – subject/topic selection, data gathering, literature search, laboratory- or field-work, writing up, and so on.
  • The major product (‘deliverable’) of a project will be the written report, or dissertation. The dissertation may be regarded as an extended piece of written work, being an in-depth treatment of a subject and submitted for an academic degree.
  • A thesis (or hypothesis) is more specifically a particular view or a standpoint which may be defended. Ideally, a dissertation should contain an explicit or implicit thesis (or hypothesis) – and the written dissertation is often called a thesis in itself. In many cases it is not easy to formulate a statement of this nature, but you should always try to keep this idea in mind. In addition, you should recognise that a proof of hypotheses is never definite; demonstrating your own hypothesis does not rule out alternative hypotheses and vice versa.

Writing research questions

It's important that your study is organized around a set of questions that will guide your research. When selecting these questions, it is useful to write them so that they frame the study and put it into perspective with other research. It is important that these questions establish the link between your study and other research that has preceded it; they should also clearly show the relationship of your research to your field of study.

Research questions should guide:

  • The formulation of your research plan
  • The aims and objectives of your study
  • The literature review
  • Decisions about the kind of research design to employ
  • Decisions about what data to collect and from whom
  • The analysis of data
  • The writing up of the work
  • The research direction - i.e. addressing the questions should stop you from going off in unnecessary directions and tangents.

Research questions should:

  • Be clear and understandable to you and to others.
  • Be capable of development into a research design, so that data may be collected in relation to them. This means that extremely abstract terms are unlikely to be suitable.
  • Connect with established theory and research i.e. there should be a literature on which you can draw to help illuminate how your research questions should be approached. Making connections with theory and research will also allow you to show how your research has made a contribution to knowledge and understanding.
  • Be linked to each other; unrelated research questions are unlikely to be acceptable, since you should be developing an argument as part of your study.
  • Have potential for making a contribution to knowledge, however small.
  • Be neither too large (so that you would need a massive grant to study them) nor too small (so that you cannot make a reasonably significant contribution to your area of study).
  • Be reasonable considering the amount of time you have to complete your research. For example, if you are doing a one-year project it is unlikely you'd have time to get ethical approval and have time to do the research if wanting to work with vulnerable adults.

It is important to remember that you cannot answer all the research questions that occur to you and you should be guided by the principle that the research questions you choose should be related to one another. If you are stuck about how to formulate research questions, it is a good idea to look at journal articles, research monographs or past dissertations to see how other researchers have formulated them.

In addition, a good research question must:

  • State the topic of the study, i.e. the main idea
  • Clearly show the purpose of the study
  • Be interesting, with good style
  • Clearly show the direction of your argument
  • Be written in focused, specific language
  • Be agreed with your supervisor(s) and funders (if any).