Choosing a topic and an appropriate research question

The first month is basically about everyone telling you how important it is to have a sound research design and how this comes about with choosing very carefully your research topic and consequently the questions that you attempt to answer.
One important aspect to consider, if not the most important, is that your topic has to entangle your interests, because you will be writing/researching/discussing/presenting this topic over the next 3-5 years of your PhD. It has to be compelling for you to keep your motivation and also for you to keep your target audience hooked. Think about who you want to address the results of this topic to, who will be interested to learn about your insights and the context in which you want to place it, what’s happening in the media, what are the discourse analysis, what are the most exciting new topics, new areas that still require “exploration”.
Once you choose a topic that encapsulates your interest, you should proceed to modifying and refining it into appropriate research question(s).
Characteristics of a good research questions:
-focused(addresses a certain aspect, relationship between variables)
-containing or implying the viewpoint from which you look at the phenomenon, construct, concept (biological, anthropological, economic, psychological, etc.)

Here’s an example:
Research question: How do teams work in an effective way?
Historical viewpoint: What was the perception of team effectiveness in the 19th Century?
Economical viewpoint: Will teams that work effectively spend less financial resources than teams that work ineffectively?
Psychological viewpoint: Do teams that work effectively have a higher level of trust than teams that work effectively?

There are, therefore many different perspectives from which you can attempt to explain or describe a concept/relationship. One thing is certain, you have to identify your viewpoint and stick to it. Although you can attempt to look at a concept from a trans-disciplinary point of view the only concern you might have is with loosing the depth and breadth of the concept, but still gain a more broad approach. Whatever it is you decide to do, be sure you are aware of the pros and cons of one or the other strategy.

Here’s a nice exercise to help you brainstorm topics you are interested in writing your paper on.
1. Write down 3 ideas you have for your paper. Select topics that are of interest to you and meet the guidelines of your PhD program.
Topic 1:
Topic 2:
Topic 3:

2. Select the one topic you are most interested in writing about. Why are you interested in exploring this topic?

3. What do you already know about this topic?

4. Decide which discipline you will use in approaching this topic (eg. sociological point of view, criminal justice point of view)

5. Develop 3 possible questions you might explore.
Research question 1:
Research question 2:
Research question 3:

6. Try answering the following questions:
a) What is the topic you wish to research?
b) What will be the time period of your research?
c) What is the geographic area you are interested in exploring within this topic? A specific region, comparing 2 or more countries?
d) What population or group will you be focusing on? As specific as possible (eg. teenagers, Irish, virtual teams, users of mobile phones)
e) What aspects or viewpoints will you be focusing on? Your research can also be cross-disciplinary.

7. Now re-write your research questions incorporating all the aspects from question 6.
(Staines et al., 2000)

Staines, G.M., Bonacci, M., Johnson, K. (2000) – Social Sciences Research – Writing Strategies for Students, Scarecrow Press, Inc.


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