The Art of Formulating Dissertation Research Questions

The process of how to formulate a research question is daunting for many graduate students — and for good reason.

One of the cornerstones of any research endeavor is the formulation of a strong, clear, and concise thesis research question. It serves as a guiding star for your research project. It also provides direction, defining scope, and setting the tone for your research methodology.

Yet, it’s far from an easy process, and some institutions count it among the top challenges of doctoral research. In this article, we’ll unpack the concept of a thesis research question. We will cover the different formats based on research methodologies, specifically for qualitative, mixed method, and quantitative studies.

What Is a Research Question?

To understand how to formulate a research question, you need to first be clear on what a research question is — and isn’t. A research question is a clearly defined interrogative statement that aims to address a gap in the existing body of knowledge.

It establishes the problem or issues you intend to address and provides a roadmap for your study. An effective research question should be clear, focused, concise. It should also be complex (meaning it cannot be answered with a simple yes or no), and arguable.

A well-formulated thesis research question should pinpoint the issues you want to address in your academic work. It is essentially a guide to your research study and as such, should possess these qualities:

  • Focused. Your thesis research question should focus on a single issue or problem and align with your research problem. Where you find it necessary to have multiple research questions, ensure they all tie back to the central aim of your research.
  • Specific. Your dissertation research question should be clear enough to generate a provable hypothesis through data collection and analysis. Avoid vague questions or those that are too broad. For example, What is the effect of social media on young people in high schools? This question is vague as social media and young people are not clearly defined. A better way to frame this question might be, How does daily use of TikTok affect the attention span of 17-year-olds in one high school in ABC District in Birmingham, Alabama?
  • Relevant. The issue of relevance forms the basis of how to formulate a research question. Your research question should be based on the findings of your initial literature search and should address a gap or problem in the current knowledge in your field.
  • Researchable. You should be able to gather relevant and credible data to formulate a response to your research question. If you are unable to gather the necessary data to answer your research question, it’s likely that you need to reformulate it.
  • Feasible. A good research question is one that your research can answer within practical constraints. Ensuring your research question is specific and researchable will help you make sure that it’s feasible from all angles.
  • Complex. The goal here isn’t to make the question overly complicated, but you do need to find the right balance. Your research question should not be answerable with a yes or no. Instead, it should be probing enough to warrant a detailed analysis, investigation, and literature review.
  • Ethical. It’s critical to frame your research questions in a way that doesn’t expose the research participants to harm. Closely follow the guidelines of your university’s institutional review board (IRB) and adhere to your institution’s ethical standards.

Thesis Research Question Formats based on Research Methodology

Knowing how to formulate a research question starts with understanding existing formats based on research methodology. The format of your research question will largely depend on your research methodology, whether you’ve chosen a qualitative, mixed method, or quantitative research study.

Qualitative Research Questions

Qualitative research focuses on exploring phenomena in their natural setting. It aims to make sense of, or interpret these phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them and people’s lived experiences of such phenomena. Its queries can be comparative or probing in nature.

Comparative questions compare two items based on the respondents’ experience while probing questions explore the respondents’ thoughts.

There are many different types of qualitative research methods, including case studies, phenomenological research, grounded theory, ethnography, and content analysis — to mention a few. How you formulate your research question will vary depending on the specific method you choose. However, in general, qualitative thesis research questions focus on people’s perceptions, feelings, and motivations. They generate data around the perspectives of the lived experience of the target population.

Consequently, qualitative research questions are usually open-ended, exploratory, and focus on ‘how’ or ‘why’. For instance, How do young working adults interpret the impact of Facebook on their mental health? The experiences of each respondent will contribute to a pool of data that you will analyze to determine the research findings that aim to answer this question.

Quantitative Research Questions

Quantitative research focuses on quantifying the problem by generating numerical data that can be transformed into usable statistics. Therefore, quantitative research questions tend to be more structured and focused on relationships, comparisons, and predictions involving variables.

Quantitative research questions often start with words like “what,” “how,” “does,” or “is.” They should be structured to demand measurable and quantifiable data. It should also imply a relationship between variables that can be tested. For example, What is the relationship between TikTok usage and anxiety levels among high school students?

Quantitative research questions can be descriptive or causal. Descriptive quantitative research questions seek to quantify a variable of interest. And causal thesis research questions investigate cause and effect to help determine the relationship between two or more variables.

variable is a characteristic or attribute that can have different values as it changes or as it is manipulated in an experimental setting. Variables in quantitative research are typically classified into four categories:

  • Independent Variables. These are the variables that the researcher manipulates or changes in an experiment to observe the effect on the dependent variable. In other words, it’s the presumed cause.
  • Dependent Variables: These are the variables that the researcher is interested in explaining or predicting. They are the outcomes that are measured after the manipulation of the independent variables. Put differently, it’s the presumed effect.
  • Control Variables: These are variables that the researcher wants to control or hold constant so that they don’t influence the relationship between the independent and dependent variables.
  • Extraneous Variables: These are variables that aren’t of interest to the researcher but could potentially influence the dependent variable.

When formulating your dissertation research question for quantitative studies, it’s important to know what your independent and dependent variables are and to include them in your research question.

Mixed Methods Research Questions

Graduate students often face the dilemma of whether to choose mixed-method research over straightforward quantitative or qualitative research.

Mixed methods research combines elements of qualitative and quantitative research approaches. Consequently, mixed methods research questions typically include a qualitative and quantitative component.

For instance, What is the relationship between Twitter usage and anxiety levels among high school students, and how do these students describe the impact of social media on their everyday life?

The above question seeks to quantify the relationship between Twitter usage and anxiety levels by asking the question, what. It also probes the respondents’ perspectives on how social media impacts their daily life as the qualitative aspect of the study.


How to Formulate a Research Question: Concrete Tips

The approach to developing research questions differs based on your research methodology, as mentioned above. Let’s take a look at concrete steps for each type of method.

For Qualitative Studies

When formulating a research question for a qualitative study, focus on exploring and understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a phenomenon. Start with a broad topic of interest and narrow it down by focusing on a specific group, setting, or phenomenon. Use open-ended questions and action verbs that reflect qualitative methods like ‘explore’, ‘understand’, or ‘interpret’.

Focus on understanding context and understanding the feelings and motivation of your respondents. Keep the question open-ended and use terms like ‘exploring,’ ‘describing,’ and ‘understanding.’ These terms are associated with a qualitative research approach.

One example of a qualitative research question is, How do freshman college students at ABC University interpret student diversity on campus?

For Mixed Methods Studies

Remember, the aim of mixed methods research is to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the research problem by combining quantitative and qualitative perspectives.

According to Harvard Catalyst, mixed method studies allow researchers to diversify their methods, combine inductive and deductive thinking, and neutralize the limitations of exclusively quantitative or qualitative research.

So, when formulating your questions for mixed method research, ensure that it integrates the components of quantitative and qualitative studies.

Begin by identifying your central phenomenon. Then, create two sub-questions. One focusing on the qualitative aspect (often addressing ‘how’ or ‘why’) and the other focusing on the quantitative aspect (usually about relationships or differences between variables).

One example of mixed method research question is, (a – Qualitative) Why do freshman college students experiences of diversity differ among each other at ABC University, and (b – Quantitative) does diversity training during freshman orientation change their understanding of diversity?

For Quantitative Studies

As a graduate student, it’s important to understand that formatting your quantitative research questions incorrectly could lead to unreliable results.

To formulate your thesis research questions for a quantitative study, first decide if your research requires a description or causal question. Then identify the variables you’re trying to measure, manipulate, or control. If you’re not familiar with variables, learn more here.

When developing a description question, focus on one variable. If your thesis research question is causal or relationship-based, then you’ll be dealing with two or more variables — dependent and independent variables.

Formulating a research question for a quantitative study involves identifying your key variables and positing a relationship between them. You’ll want to clearly define your population, independent variable(s), and dependent variable(s). Quantitative research questions often start with words like ‘what’, ‘where’, or ‘how many’.

An example of a quantitative research question is, Does freshman college students’ understanding of campus diversity change after their first year in college?

Keep Iterating

By now, you should understand the basics around how to formulate a research question. As you embark on your academic research journey, remember that the process of formulating a research question is iterative and dynamic.

Your initial question may evolve as you delve deeper into the literature review and better understand the nuances of your topic. So, stay curious. And let your research question guide you on the path to delving deeper into your chosen research area. If you’re in need of further support, our dissertation experts can help. Get in touch today for a consultation.

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