Research Tips

Creating a Research Question

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Beginning your mentorship with a ‘good’ research question will help you focus your work so you don’t veer off-track, wasting valuable time and resources. A good research question also helps you keep your thoughts organized during writing/presenting so you don’t over-share extraneous information, thereby losing your audience. Keep reading to learn how to craft a research question that is clear, concise, focused, and appropriate in scope for the time/attention you have available to work on the project.

By choosing to conduct your research with Hugo, you’ve already got a head start on the process of determining your research question. You’ve chosen an area of research that is genuinely interesting to you, and you’ve probably already accumulated a collection of resources that constitute your preliminary research. Start with a quick gut-check; if you are not the hype-man for your topic, contact your Program Coach as soon as possible so they can help you re-focus on a topic that truly inspires you.

Your mentor or Program Coach has given you some preliminary research to read related to your topic of interest, and you may have already collected some yourself. Review all of these materials and take note of what catches your attention. Run an internet search using key phrases to find out more about subtopics you can focus on. If you’re still feeling lost, reach out to your Program Coach so they can brainstorm with you.

Lastly, consider who you want to share your research with. What subjects or angles will they engage with? It is important to choose a topic and approach that are salient to your audience before you write your research question. If you need help, please refer to our  “Choosing Your Audience” guide.

Once you have gone through these steps, you are ready to write your research question using the sequence and checklist below

Anatomy of a good research question

There is a formula you can use to make sure your research question has all the right parts. Don’t worry if your first pass looks clunky or doesn’t quite read right, we can work with you to edit and rearrange for clarity later.

[question phrase] + [dependent variable] + [group of interest] + [context or clarifying words]

If you need some help getting started, or you can’t quite figure out which question phrase to start with, here are some question phrases you can try:

Quantitative Question Phrases

What is the difference in…?          How many…?         How often…?          How frequently…?

How much…?          What percentage …?          What proportion…?         To what extent…?

What is…?            What are …?            What is the difference between…?

Qualitative Question Phrases

What is it like being…?         What are the lived experiences of…?    What stories…?

What does it mean to be…?        What is the nature of           How does…?

How do [group of interest] make meaning of…?         Why is there an increase in…?

What are the different forms of…?       How does [action] affect [group of interest]...?

If you can’t choose one of the phrases above, it probably means that your question isn’t specific enough. You may have to narrow down your focus, or break up your big research question into several (2 - 4) smaller ones that can use one of the phrases from above.

Once you have your question phrase, you add the dependent variable you want to examine. If you’re not familiar with dependent variables, they're the phenomenon, person, place, or thing that you’re trying to measure or test. Some examples of dependent variables include: how well you do in a race or on a test, how much someone earns, how often they vote a certain way, how many leaves are on a plant, how efficient the yield is on a synthetic chemical reaction, etc. Still not sure if you’ve correctly identified your dependent variable? Ask yourself the following question:

Does this thing I’m measuring change due to or as a result of something else?

If your answer is no, then you haven’t yet found your dependent variable. If you’re doing qualitative research, you may not have a dependent variable at all! There are a lot of resources on YouTube that if you can’t choose one of the phrases above, it probably means that your question isn’t specific enough. You may have to narrow down your focus, or break up your big research question into several (2 - 4) smaller ones that can use one of the phrases from above.

Finally, you should include a phrase that describes who or what your sample group/group of interest is, and add in any words that clarify your question. At this point, you might have a messy or confusing sentence, so you should take some time to write out a few different versions of your question until you find some or one that you think accurately captures your research question. Be sure to save your earlier versions and rejections so you can share those with your mentor during your one on one time–they may want to know your thought process, and your “practice ideas” may lead to exciting new possibilities for research!

Checklist for editing your research question

The checklist below isn’t meant to replace feedback and edits from your mentor, but it should help you refine your question so you get pretty close to a final version on your own.

My research question…

  • Is focused on one topic
  • Calls for quantitative or qualitative data collection, or assembly of information from reliable sources
  • Doesn’t use vague or subjective words like “good” or “bad”   Uses specific and objective language
  •  Avoids jargon
  • Is one sentence long
  • Doesn’t imply or demand specific action (goal of question is to inform)  
  •  Is not answerable with a yes/no question
  • Is not answerable with a quick web search
  • Proposes research that can be completed within the time of your mentorship
  • Will be salient (meaningful and valuable) to your intended audience
Keep in Mind

Your Program Coach and mentor are available to help you refine your research question, please reach out if you are having trouble with this important step.

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