How to formulate a research question

Asking the right questions is the first step


Early on in your academic training, you may have been assigned topics to research. As you progress in your studies, however – and especially as you begin thinking about your bachelor thesis – you will increasingly need to identify topics and formulate your research questions on your own. You will want to choose a topic that you are interested in exploring further, of course – beyond what you learned in your coursework – and that will hold your interest long enough to keep you motivated over a longer period of intense focus. In their exploratory focus group interviews, Kacy Lundstrom and Flora Shrode found that students often consider the following when choosing a research paper topic: how easy it is to research, whether your advisor will like the topic, and whether you can easily find sources. If your aspirations go beyond these simple motivations, you may wish to consult Golden Gate University’s guide for some good advice and resources for selecting a topic.

From topic to research question

Once you have settled on a topic, some questions about it will likely spring to mind immediately. The central question that you wish to answer in your paper is your research question. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though: formulating your final research question is a process.

An important part of this process is the search for academic literature. We recommend starting at your institution’s library website, which provides access to the library catalog and any databases your institution subscribes to. Most library websites also include tutorials with search tips and techniques to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. To learn more about how libraries can help you with your research, read this entry in our blog.

As you search for sources and begin reading, you will learn more about your topic and discover which questions have already been answered and where there are still gaps in the research that you can fill. You can import the books, articles, and other sources you find in the course of your research into your bibliography in Citavi and rate each source according to its relevance to your project.

What distinguishes a research topic from a research question?
The topic of your research is usually formulated more broadly or in more general terms.
The research question narrows your topic further and highlights a very specific focus in the form of a question that you would like to answer in your paper. There are usually many different questions that could be asked about a particular topic, only one of which you will choose to focus on in a particular paper.

Answering your chosen research question is the goal of your research paper. As such it determines your next steps and how you will design your research. In larger writing projects such as a thesis or dissertation, you will often want to include secondary questions under the main research question, which will inform the structure of your work. Answering these secondary questions will help you find the answers to your main question.

What to pay attention to when formulating a research question

Even (especially) if you are bursting with excitement about your research topic and have tons of questions about it, it is important to clearly identify the scope of your research. For example, you’ll never be able to address all the nuances of a large topic like global warming in a 10-page paper.. Instead, concentrate on one carefully selected aspect of your topic Identifying that aspect is also part of the process.

If one question leads to a dead-end, for example, because too much has already been written about it, try heading in a different direction. It won’t always be the case that you find your research topic by narrowing a broad topic down to a specific subtopic, either. Sometimes your process will lead you in the opposite direction, with a question that arises from a specific situation or need but which can be explored from a broader perspective.

If no suitable research questions occur to you at first, you can look to your institution’s repository of previous theses and dissertations in your field for inspiration. Reading questions that have already been answered in your field will not only familiarize you with the spectrum of possible questions, but also provide new ideas and inspiration – and in the process, you will gain valuable expertise in your field!

Don’t forget to keep any necessary limitations in mind while formulating your research question. For example, if your research question in the field of biology can only be investigated by using a rare and expensive piece of analytical equipment, you will probably not be able to successfully answer it in the timeframe you have to complete your bachelor’s thesis. It is also risky to attempt a new research method that you have no practical experience with in a bachelor thesis.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew in the allotted time, either. Three months to write a bachelor’s thesis may sound like a lot at first. However, the first time you conduct an independent research project, you will have little sense for how long the different phases of your project will last or how much time you will need for revisions and final formatting checks. Be sure to discuss your planned questions and methods in detail with your advisor. Your research questions fundamentally determine your timetable for your paper, and you want it to be a pleasant journey.

Types of research questions

What does a final research question look like? Your formulated research question will, of course, end in a question mark, and will usually begin with a question word such as “how” or “why.” The Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Vienna lays out the following requirements for a good research question. It should be:

  • specific
  • precise
  • complex
  • doable, and
  • relevant

Keep your question as concise as possible and use language that is easy to understand.
You should also be sure that the thesis of your paper follows directly from your research question. Here are some possible types of research questions (and the corresponding wording you might use in your thesis statement):

  • Descriptive questions
    These questions describe something and analyze it in a larger context. They usually begin with “what”, “which”, or “how.”
    Example: Which strategic positioning methods are most effective for a new series of tools for DIYers?
    Thesis statement: “An examination of…“ or “Overview of…“

  • Causal questions
    These questions examine the results, causes, or reasons for something, looking for a direct cause-effect relationship. They usually begin with “why.“
    Example: Why do German university departments continue to develop their own citation styles rather than using existing guidelines?
    Thesis statement: “An analysis of…“ “An examination of…“

  • Structural questions
    These questions make suggestions for measures that could be implemented to achieve a certain goal.
    Example: What steps should cities take if they want to increase use of public transportation?
    Thesis statement: “Recommendations for...“ “A practical solution for…“

  • Evaluative questions
    These questions make a value analysis.
    Example: How well has Canada communicated mask policies during the pandemic?
    Thesis statement: “A critical perspective on“ “Advantages and disadvantages of“

  • Predictive questions
    These questions attempt to look into the future and predict how something is likely to develop.
    Example: How will the population of European Robins change in the next 5 years?
    Thesis statement: “Opportunities and risks of…“ “The development of…“

Whether you are at the very beginning of your process or have already tried and then rejected one or more research questions, narrowing in on a suitable research question is only possible if you identify the relevant literature, read it, and expand your knowledge. It’s not a simple, linear process. Sometimes it will feel like you are going back and starting from scratch. Don’t look at this as a setback, but simply as part of the research process.

If trying to formulate your research question is stressful for you and you simply can’t find the right words, remember that your research question can change during the course of your research. If you’re still unsure what to do, read our search tips and ask your teaching assistant, professor, advisor, or a writing center coach for advice and support – this process may be new to you, but you can learn from others’ experience!


For further reading

Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2013). Constructing research questions: Doing interesting research. SAGE.

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., FitzGerald, W. T., & Turabian, K. L. (Eds.). (2018). Chicago guides to writing, editing, and publishing. A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations: Chicago Style for students and researchers (9th edition). The University of Chicago Press.

Evans, D., Gruba, P., & Zobel, J. (2014). How to write a better thesis (Third edition). Springer.

Gruba, P. (2017). How to write your first thesis (1st edition). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Lester, J. D. (2015). Writing research papers: A complete guide (Sixteenth Edition). Pearson.

Meurer, P., & Schluchter, M. (2017). Writing a Research Paper with Citavi 6 (J. Schultz, Trans.). Based on the Duden book “Die schriftliche Arbeit – kurz gefasst” [Research Papers In a Nutshell] by Jürg Niederhauser. Swiss Academic Software GmbH.

White, P. (2009). Developing research questions: A guide for social scientists. Palgrave Macmillan.

White, P. (2017). Developing research questions (Second edition). Macmillan International Higher Education; Red Globe Press.

Writing Center, The. (2018, August 8). How to Write a Research Question. George Mason University.

Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 2/9/2021

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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