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By Cally Guerin

It’s the start of the new academic year in Australia, and my thoughts have turned to those new PhD candidates who are just starting out on their projects. It’s an exciting and challenging time – for students and supervisors. I’ve put together a few ideas about those early steps related to refining research questions when commencing a new project.

It is well known that most doctoral research projects will change considerably from the original proposal. This can be disconcerting for candidates, especially in situations where they are acutely aware of working to tight deadlines in a push towards timely completion. Reasssuring PhD candidates that this is a normal part of the process – and that they are actually expected to learn a lot about their topic and thus develop and change their thinking! – can help to alleviate anxiety. But some practical advice on how to ‘refine the research question’ can add a sense that progress is being made.

Many students will spend the first few months of their candidature reading; as they learn about their chosen area in more detail, they are expected to develop the research question in relation to the existing literature in an iterative process that circles back again and again to the central issues. But this new learning can be intimidating and confusing – what might have seemed like a manageable project at the outset is revealed to be far more complex, linked into many side issues, and burdened by an enormous amount of existing knowledge. Yet the research question must be situated in the scholarship on the topic in order to show what is already known and what new knowledge the doctoral research can contribute.

I’ve found it useful to put these 3 questions to new candidates:

  1. What are you trying to learn?

Articulating what the candidate wants to find out about the topic is very useful, particularly as it must engage their interest for at least 3 years. This question can also help those who are already well-informed and knowledgeable about their field, for example, those coming into professional doctorates to investigate an issue in their own workplace, or students building on a project undertaken during an Honours or Masters degree. By focusing on the learning intention, attention is shifted from pre-empting conclusions towards generating new knowledge. This is useful even in disciplines where a hypothesis is being tested (that is, a possible conclusion has already been posited).

  1. Why is it worth knowing the answer to this question?

The value of the answer is key to demonstrating the significance of the research. Having an understanding of that significance can be a beneficial motivator later in candidature when energy starts to flag. (It can be useful to return to this question to remind researchers of why their work is valuable to others.)

  1. Who is interested in this question?

Closely related to the previous question, attending to the audience for the research helps to refine the focus and remove distracting threads from the investigation. A common challenge in the early stages of a doctorate can be the proliferation of questions and possible directions related to the topic. By thinking about who wants to know the answer to the questions, it is possible to narrow the focus towards a core set of issues.

Alvesson and Sandberg (2013) remind us that it’s not enough just to have a question – it must be a researchable question. For this reason, it is important to remind new PhD candidates to look for potential models of research methods during the reading phase. As well as gathering information on what has already been done in the field, it is valuable to notice how others go about answering their research questions. The answers to the new question will be more convincing to the discipline if the methods by which those answers were arrived at are acceptable to that discipline.

Students can have the three questions above posed to them with the suggestion that they start writing their response to them, writing that is likely to find a place in their introduction. The thinking entailed in that exercise may lead them to a better place for refining research questions.

Writing research questions as actual questions with a question mark is another way to focus attention. There is an inclination to state the area of research, rather than conceptualise the topic as a question. It is useful to identify the overarching question, and then the sub-questions. This will also help later when it comes to writing conclusions for the project because the final document can explicitly show how those questions were answered.

There is lots of helpful advice in the ‘how to’ books about developing research questions in the context of the literature and research methods. Some of my favourites are:

Alvesson, M. & Sandberg, J. (2013). Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Research questions and hypotheses. Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.

Ingleby, R. (2007). Helping candidates form their research question. In C. Denholm & T. Evans (eds), Supervising Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Effective Supervision in Australia and New Zealand, pp. 45-51. ACER Press.

Pryor, J. (2010). Constructing research questions: Focus, methodology and theorisation. In P. Thomson & M. Walker (eds), The Routledge Doctoral Student’s Companion, pp. 161-171. Routledge.

Walshaw, M. (2012). Getting to grips with doctoral research. Palgrave Research Skills series. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Wisker, G. (2012). Defining titles, research questions, conceptual frameworks and developing proposals. The good supervisor: Supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. Macmillan International Higher Education.

This early stage of doctoral writing is crucial and can delay progress if the research questions remain elusive for too long. I’m keen to hear how other supervisors and writing teachers help students refine their research questions.