Five Tips for Developing a Research Question
A research question is a query about something that is unknown or understudied. Developing a research question is an important step of the scientific method. Scientists typically develop research questions through observation and investigation of prior research studies. There are several tips on developing good research questions that involve focusing on five critical components. These include importance, novelty, feasibility, thoughtfully considering implications, and passion.
The first component of developing a research question is importance. A good research question addresses a meaningful gap in a scientist’s field. One might want to address age-related changes in health and longevity in humans. For example, the research question may involve the role of certain sociocultural beliefs in health behaviors for a specific age group. A scientist might ask, “Are there age-related differences in beliefs about self-care and work ethic that are associated with survival to old age?” This research question is important because the answer could elucidate whether longevity is tied to certain beliefs, providing newfound knowledge about human life.
Important research questions explore an issue that will provide information with either intellectual or practical merit. The example given above refers to a practical use case. An improved understanding of associations among age, self-care, work ethic, and longevity may contribute to the development of interventions tailored to specific groups to help them have better lives. However, a good research question may provide no practical application but offers intellectual discovery. For example, a mathematician might ask about the topological complexities of a certain shape and how to map them numerically. A linguist might examine the phonetic representation of words in several languages and dialects. While these areas of study may have no practical application for improving life, they can still yield important research questions.
The second component of developing a research question is novelty. It is not sufficient for a research question to be important. If everyone has the same research question, even if it is important, nothing new will be contributed to the scientific field. The research question should involve an idea that has not been repeatedly tested. While testing the reproducibility of prior study results is important, developing a research question often involves innovation. To develop a novel research question, scientists conduct comprehensive literature reviews. They search and read academic publications related to their research ideas to refine their question and understand previous studies. Scientists develop novel questions using information from previous studies. For example, there may be existing research on self-care and longevity in adults residing in European countries but no studies on age-related differences in these associations in the United States. The scientists may use ideas from previously published literature on European adults to develop similar, but distinct, research questions on North American adults. A good research question will add new information to the body of scientific literature.
The third component of developing a research question is feasibility. Developing a good research question involves thinking about a problem that can be solved with the resources available in a reasonable amount of time. For example, if a scientist is interested in age-related changes in beliefs about self-care and longevity, her primary focus may be on middle-aged and older adults, not adolescents. Studying longitudinal change from childhood to old age would take a long time and a considerable amount of resources (e.g., research staff to manage the study). A research question about beliefs across the human lifespan would not be feasible for an initial research study. When scientists develop a research question, they should consider the necessary resources and expected timeline to answer the question. Research often happens in small, incremental steps. A research question does not have to be grand to be good.
The fourth component of developing a research question is thoughtful consideration of the implications of the research question. The outcomes of a proposed research question are important to consider. When scientists develop research questions, they should think about the potential implications of the answer. In other words, what will the answer to the research question mean for the scientific field and for others whom the results may affect? For example, if the question involves how beliefs about self-care and work ethic are associated with longevity in North American adults, the answer (i.e., results) might have important implications about work habits and how they relate to mortality. In this case, the scientists might want to think about the next steps of their research. For example, the answers to their research question may influence policy decisions and intervention methods to help people age better. Developing a research question should involve thoughtful consideration of the possible results.
The fifth component of developing a research question is passion, an undervalued and important aspect of research. Conducting research is no simple feat. Even answering research questions that are feasible can last for extended periods. Completing a research study may take anywhere from several months to several years. Research is highly involved. It often requires reading academic texts, collaborating with peers, collecting data, performing analyses, and writing (and rewriting) the results of the study to communicate them with others. Without passion for the research topic, the work will feel draining. Scientists should choose to study a topic that they are interested in, excited about, nearly obsessed with, and find joy in pursuing. Scientists who are passionately invested in answering their research questions maintain the endurance to complete their research studies and continue asking questions that are important, novel, and feasible while having thoughtfully considered the implications of their research.
Research is about answering questions and thereby creating knowledge. Some tips for developing research questions involve focusing on five critical components, including importance, novelty, feasibility, thoughtfully considering implications, and passion. Good research questions often result in grant funding, research studies, and academic publications and presentations. Interestingly, research questions then lead to additional questions and follow-up studies. The cycle continues as questions are asked, answered, and iteratively refined. The body of scientific literature starts by developing a good research question.
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