By Amanda Wolf
Amanda Wolf is Deputy Head of the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Like many of us, I was taught that research starts with a research question. The more generous texts and supervisors may quietly soften that imperative with a whispered confidence that it is permissible to amend the research question—many times if need be—before speaking the final gem aloud. But, not ‘having a research question’ too often can debilitate students, who conclude that they are not yet started on their research.

Over the years, I have instructed students in a simple technique to bypass the no-question-yet paralysis, and thereby allow the question to pop out. The heart of the technique is to name both curiosity and purpose succinctly, in four steps.

A. Situate your study in an area ripe for investigation, and craft a ‘narrative hook’, expressed as a declarative sentence.
B. Name a puzzle or curiosity for focused attention; this will be signalled by words like ‘yet’, ‘but’, or ‘however’.
C. Name something specifically researchable about the puzzle that, if known, would respond to the interests or needs triggered by the real-world observation: this will become your research question.
D. Describe the study’s purpose or significance.

Here, for example, is a slightly edited version from Martha Savage’s Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2009 Marsden Fund research project, Ruamoko’s Rumbles: What Happens Before a Volcano Erupts?, in which we see her proposal naturally falling into sentences 1 to 4, which model the generic recipe shown by A to D:

A) Situate + ‘narrative hook’:
1. Mount Ruapehu caught scientists and the public by surprise when it erupted in 1995.

B) Puzzle or curiosity:
2. But analysis of data collected before and during this eruption indicates there may be subtle changes beneath volcanoes before they blow their tops.

C) Researchable opportunity:
3. We will examine how the rocks surrounding volcanoes respond to changes in movement of potentially hazardous magma deep underground.

D) Purpose/significance:
4. The team hope to understand what happens just before a volcano erupts, which will make it easier to read telltale signs of stress build-up and magma movement and offer hope of a reliable early warning system for volcanic activity.

The Marsden Fund is New Zealand’s most prestigious, and hence highly competitive, fund for ‘blue-skies’ research in all disciplines: Martha Savage’s four-sentence model succeeds for a research proposal at a high level. With a few tips, the model also readily works for doctoral students putting their proposals together:

• First, to situate the study, and let the reader know where in the (research) world you are, the art is to choose a scale that is not too big (not all volcanology) and not too narrow (already zeroed in on magma underground). The claim that scientists were caught by surprise does this neatly, and makes us want to know more about what is proposed.

• Second, naming puzzles is the easy part – there is so much we don’t yet know about eruptions; the challenge is choosing only one. One hint is to pay attention to an aspect that seems to keep cropping up or most interests others when it is described.

• Third, the trickiest part is digging into the puzzle to open up a specific area for study. Once the puzzle is named, it naturally unleashes I wonder if / what / why . . . trains of thought, which lead the attentive, informed wonderer to new ideas, gaps in the literature, supervisors’ areas of expertise and so on. Thus, we envisage Martha wondering about those ‘subtle changes’ and getting a hunch about changes due to magma flows. And, while not yet stated, she had her question: to find out with certainty what was happening. In addition, considering the fourth sentence (the purpose) at the same time can help the incipient question to form. Martha’s purposes were exploratory and descriptive in support of prediction (to find out what happens underground, describe it, and let others know how to read ‘telltale’ signs). Others may aim to explain, understand, evaluate something, change something, or design something, which will, in turn, suggest the type of question (what?, how?, why?).

• Fourth, in setting out the purpose/s of the proposed research, students can quickly check for alignment: is the curiosity likely to be satisfied if the research proceeds?

I recommend students write several sets of sentences, and then compare them for their interest, feasibility, significance and so on. This work easily translates to a group exercise in a writing workshop.

In addition, many studies, like Martha’s, involve more than one of the purposes above. Each potential purpose can be fleshed out with sub-questions and methods, thus helping students assess the suitability of pursuing their curiosity as a doctoral project, and if necessary returning to fine-tune the puzzle and specific focus as a blueprint for the Research Proposal as a whole.