What is My Research Question?
This page discusses several aspects of developing a research question:
- Asking and Exploring Questions
- Choosing a Topic
- Narrowing or Broadening a Question
- Sample Research Questions
The page also includes:
- Reference Sources (for Background Research)
Reference sources like dictionaries and encylopedias can help you get an overview of a topic before you do more in-depth research. Here are several helpful resources.
Adapted from the Research Toolkit created by Wendy Hayden and Stephanie Margolin (Hunter College).
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Asking and Exploring Questions
Developing an interesting research topic isn’t about the answers you find: it’s about the questions you ask. In order to identify meaningful questions you may first need to learn more about your research topic. Developing your topic will likely involve a number of processes, including:
- gathering background information on the topic and how others have discussed it
- narrowing your topic to a manageable scope for your project,
- finding keywords to look for sources, and
- eventually developing a more nuanced angle on your topic.
Choosing a Topic
If given the option to choose your own research paper topic, you will want to choose a topic with a couple of things in mind:
- Choose a topic that leads to complex questions. You generally want to avoid topics that provoke questions that have simple yes/no answers.
- Choose a topic that is relevant and current. There needs to be a reason why you need to research this topic at this particular point in time. If choosing a topic within a discipline, look at recent issues of the journals in that discipline to think about what topics scholars in the field are concerned about. In a beginning composition course, where you are writing about a social issue, look at headlines in The New York Times or other internet media sources. Consider questions like:
- What events have transpired that makes a particular issue important right now?
- What issues are there important conversations about?
- Choose a topic that interests you. The best research projects come out of curiosity on the part of the researcher. You might think about topics that effect your community, however you define it, such as topics important to college students. You might think about a topic that affects your future profession. Or, you could come across something in your daily reading or daily life that you are curious about, and go from there.
While you want to choose something you are interested in, don’t choose something you have already made up your mind about. Doing so will lead to more simplistic arguments: you may overlook ways to make a more nuanced argument or overlook important evidence that doesn’t support the argument you want to make. After all, if you already know the answer to your research question, then why are you researching it?
- Ideally choose a topic about which you can say something new and nuanced. Some topics are too broad to be conducive to saying something unique. Relatedly, it's generally good to avoid social issue topics that tend to evoke highly polarized responses (for example, abortion, the death penalty, gun control, euthanasia, violence in video games, steroid abuse, the SATs, the “obesity epidemic,” and marriage equality). These topics often lead to more simplistic research questions or pro/con arguments.
The best topics will come out of your own curiosity and reading. If you find a source that says exactly what you want to say, however, you want to change your approach to your topic. (Why would you want to say everything someone else has already said?) You might think of your task as synthesizing other views into your own view.
Narrowing or Broadening a Question
We are often told to narrow our topic early in the research process. Although having a narrow research question can help ensure that the scope of our research is manageable, we may often make these questions so narrow that we ignore other—sometimes more interesting—approaches to the topic.
For example, say your initial research question is: What are the ways women are discriminated against in the workplace? During your initial reading you may realize that this question is too broad, but you may want to keep it a little broad in your initial stages of research. In learning more about how others have approached the question, you will probably be better able to determine an interesting focus.
On the other hand, your initial question could be too narrow, such as How long is maternity leave in Georgia? In this case, you would need to explore larger issues related to your topic. (For example, you might search for maternity leave standards in the U.S. and/or in other countries, or you might focus on maternity leave in a certain field or profession (for example, STEM fields). During this process you could also explore debates about what laws or standards for maternity leave should be.
In either case, your background reading would lead you to a more partiular aspect of a broader topic. If you are interested in gender and the workplace, you might ultimately ask a question like:
- What can colleges do to recruit more women into STEM fields?
- How does the perception that women will need maternity leave at some point influence inequality in hiring practices?
These questions may lead to narrowing the topic further to a specific issue, such as specific types of discrimination in STEM fields.
Changing Your Research Question throughout the Process
Whether your professor gives you a question to research, or you produce your own research question, you should keep it flexible enough that you can change the question throughout your reading process. Your reading should help you think about different approaches to your topic.
Sample Research Questions
A well-developed research question is clear, focused, and has appropriately complex.
Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?
Clearer: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook?
Too broad: What are the global warming's environmental effects?
More focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?
Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately complex: What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?
Adapted from George Mason University Writing Center's How to Write a Research Question (2008)