A Three-Step Process for Finding a Research Question

finding a research question

One of the most daunting challenges facing someone doing a thesis or dissertation is finding an appropriate research question. (Tweet this quote.) This is why guiding a student toward a viable question is one of the most important faculty responsibilities. A poorly conceived research question/purpose can result in multiple headaches and roadblocks.

I have found that most students do not really understand what an Applied Research Project or Master’s thesis is. It took me a long time to realize that my vision of what needed to be done was much different from the student’s vision.

Students often approach the paper by tackling a large issue such as solving the low income and housing crisis. They often come to a question completely unaware of the necessary skill set needed to undertake the initial research question. For example, they may want to answer an empirical question but are weak in statistics. Some think the project is just a simple expansion of the 10-page papers they wrote as undergraduates.

When students learn the research process in a research methods class it is presented in a linear fashion. The actual process is anything but linear. (Tweet this quote.) I have found three metaphors to be helpful as I discuss possible research questions with students – juggling, jumping-in, and funnels.

1. Juggling

Finding a research question is like juggling because there are a lot of things to consider in the beginning – not all of which are topic related.

Students usually come up with a topic area in mind. But they should also consider 1) which skill sets they bring to the project and 2) which skill sets they wish to develop through the project.

One might ask: do I have access to useful data or a research site? I have worked with several firefighters who had access to their firefighting organization. Are there lots of sources at the library? Is this paper the beginning of a larger research agenda?  Alternatively, is this a project I want to do this quickly move on with my life?

Students juggle these questions to form some kind of context that will help them narrow and refine a topic. The juggling helps them to eliminate some options. Certain balls will be set aside, allowing them to concentrate on the ones remaining.

2. Jumping-in

Jumping-in means to dig into the topic by finding and reading key articles and books. Students need to develop an initial mastery of the subject matter. (Tweet this quote.) They are often concerned that they will put a lot of time and effort into a subject area only to find they do not like it. False starts are a very real fear. We all have to live with the possibility of a false start. At least that possible topic has been eliminated. (Tweet this quote.)

If someone has completed the initial juggling to have a sense of paper expectations, they will be able to jump-in more effectively. It helps to sift through the mass of material they are beginning to collect. A lengthy research paper teaches students to engage a topic deeply.

3. Funneling

Funneling is the process of narrowing possible ideas into a specific research question or purpose. It forces the student to think about how she can transform the big picture or real world problem into a manageable research project.

I use the figure below to help students think about ways to narrow the topic. This figure is suggestive. It asks the students to think about the big picture concerns (top of the funnel). The funnel narrows as they search with more specificity to related topics and conditions. During the search they may find a gap in the literature. Could they do something to fill the gap? If the funnel is narrowed even further, a research question or purpose will begin to materialize.

find a research question

The search for a research question is often a daunting problem. Hopefully these three metaphors will give students an appreciation for how to go about finding that elusive question.

playbook for research methods


Author Patricia ShieldsPatricia M. Shields is a Professor of Political Science at Texas State University. She has a Master of Economics(1975) and PhD (1977) in Public Administration from The Ohio State University. Her research interests include pragmatism and public administration, peace and conflict resolution, research methods, women in public administration, and civil military relations. She has published over 60 articles and book chapters in journals. Meet Patricia. 

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