Skip to content

Developing research questions

As I mentioned in one of my recent blog posts, I have PhD students at all stages (about to defend their PhD proposal, about to go on to the field, about to finish) and therefore I have been reading a lot of books on the PhD journey. I’ve also been participating in several events associated with PhD students’ performance: dissertation proposal defense, comprehensive exams, etc., both my own students and those on whose doctoral committees I sit on.

Rafa Hime Carlos me

Rafa, one of my former PhD students, and Hime and Carlos, two of my current PhD students

What I have been finding is that there’s a lot of variation in how doctoral students are mentored and what they learn and how they approach their research. So I tweeted about this, and complained that we do a poor job of training students at all three levels (undergraduate, masters and doctoral) on how to craft and develop good research questions.

Regardless of whether you’re writing a book-length, cohesive manuscript or 3 papers, you should have a driving/leading research question. I also think we do a poor job of reminding students and even early career scholars: our job is to EXPLAIN phenomena. We are looking for answers to puzzles. And to explain phenomena and look for answers we need to ask good questions: WHAT matters is different to WHETHER it matters to HOW it does.

One of the main problems we face is teaching our students how to find puzzles. What drives your work, what motivates your research, what makes what you’re studying important? What’s the puzzle you are seeking to solve? This is a big problem – a lot of students and researchers don’t seem to know strategies to find a puzzle worth examining.

The truth is that we need to help our students follow a systematic process for undertaking research. This is my own strategy:

To me, finding a puzzle to solve is about pondering. Why, instead of getting X response to Y variable, we are getting Z?. It’s about finding something head scratching. It’s about going “huh?”. I have been using the framework I posit below to help my students frame their own research based on a puzzle that drives the research, and also based on positing specific research questions for each paper.


If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in my Resources for Graduate Students page, and on my reading notes of books I’ve read on how to do a doctoral degree.

You can share this blog post on the following social networks by clicking on their icon.

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , , , .

One Response

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. A sequential framework for teaching how to write good research questions – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on March 4, 2020

    […] one contributes by adding bits and pieces to a broader, larger global puzzle. See, for example, my earlier post on developing solid research questions. In my case, I have studied and researched some of the key obstacles to robust wastewater […]

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.