Formulating research questions for your dissertation

Research questions indicate what you will help answer through your research and provide structure for your dissertation.

They usually include both a main research question (which is the fundamental question you are exploring) and sub-questions (which assist you in answering the main question).

Types of research questions

Many different kinds of research questions exist. The kind you choose to use in your dissertation determines the type of research you will need to conduct and the research methods you will ultimately employ (e.g., interviews).

While it’s important to give some thought to the kinds of research question you will use, don’t get too hung up on the matter. The categories are often intertwined and it is possible to a question may actually be a combination of two or more.

Research question typeFormulation
Descriptive researchWhat are the characteristics of x? Who should perform x? What does x look like?
Comparative researchWhat are the differences between x and y? What are the similarities?
Defining researchWhat stage of the development is x in? How can x be characterized? What is an example of x?
Evaluative/normative researchWhat are the positives or values of x? How well does x work? How appropriate or desirable is x? What are the advantages and disadvantages of x?
Explanatory/exploratory researchWhat is x a consequence of? How did that happen? What are the causes?
Predictive testingTo what extent will x happen? What will cause it to happen? What must actors be prepared for?
Framing, problem-solving and advisoryHow can it be ensured that x happens? How can x be undertaken? What can be done to solve problem x?
Testing researchWhat effect does x have on y? Is x more ___ than y?

What types of questions should you use?

You can use all of the above categories of questions in your dissertation. Your decision may be guided by the kind of research you want or are required to do. Nonetheless, bear in mind that not all research question types are suitable for a main research question . For example, a main question should not be evaluative.

It’s also important to remember that while some questions may fall clearly into one particular category, others may represent a combination of question types.

The research questions in a dissertation are divided into a main research question and a series of sub-questions:

  • Main question
  • Sub-question 1
  • Sub-question 2
  • Sub-question 3 etc.

Main research question

The main research question plays a leading role in your dissertation. It usually reflects a variety of research question categories.


Sub-questions are shorter, less complex questions. They generally fall squarely into one research question category.

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Descriptive questions

These questions are useful for really getting to know the subject you are investigating. They are usually the starting point of research and will help you to get clear on the topic of your dissertation.

Descriptive questions are about the here and now. Their answers may describe a situation, concept or person based on your own observations or information you have collected.

Examples of descriptive questions

What is the world’s population?

What steps will the government take in the coming year to reduce the tax burden?

What measures are primary schools in the US taking for children with autism?

Comparative questions

Comparative questions are useful if you want to explore the differences and similarities between two or more items.

Examples of comparative questions

What is the difference between sign language and body language?

What are the similarities of the political systems in the Netherlands and Russia?

Defining questions

Defining questions allow you to determine how your topic relates to the larger picture. They are useful for characterizing and classifying a phenomenon.

Examples of defining questions

How can the new subclass that is emerging in Germany be characterized?

How can socialists be classified within this emerging subclass?

Evaluative/normative questions

Evaluative or normative questions are used when you want to determine the value of something (for example, how desirable, good, normal or usable it is), as they enable you to provide an opinion or judgment. They are also sometimes called ethical questions.

Examples of evaluative questions

It is desirable that workers be closely supervised?

What is the value of having a healthy work environment for employees?

Explanatory questions

Explanatory questions are designed to determine the cause of a problem. As a result, they are also called “why” questions (although they may instead use words such as “what” and “how”).

Examples of clarifying questions

What is cause of the high sickness rate at Apple headquarters?

Why is it that every substance melts at a certain temperature?

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

Predictive questions

As the name implies, predictive questions are used to predict something that will occur in the future. You can use them to identify an expected consequence.

Examples of predictive questions

How many mortgages will fail if the economic crisis continues until 2020?

What is the new tax plan’s possible impact on elderly people living alone?

Will public transportation remain affordable in the future?

Framing/problem-solving/advisory questions

Framing questions are used when you want to identify new solutions to existing problems, with a focus on the near future. They are often phrased as “How can we…?”

In many cases, framing questions cannot be tackled until explanatory questions are answered. If your main question is framing, it’s therefore common to use some explanatory sub-questions.

Examples of framing/problem-solving/advisory questions

How can we ensure that the UK will have 50% fewer illiterates within the next three years?

How can we reduce youth unemployment?

One risk of using a framing question is that it may lead you to provide advice about how to solve a particular problem – which is not your job as a researcher. Your goal is instead to provide research that those involved in a problem can use to help solve it.

Advisory plan

Advisory questions are helpful when your research is designed to make recommendations. This kind of research often involves preparing a separate advisory report for a particular client at the end of the dissertation process. In such cases, it can be useful to include at least one advisory sub-question.

Inferential questions

Inferential questions can be used if you want to measure a certain effect and most often give rise to at least one hypothesis. They should be closed questions (e.g., with “yes” and “no” as possible answers).

Because inferential questions are designed to measure an effect, they are answered with the help of experiments. As such they are common in scientific research.

Examples of inferential questions

Do students obtain better exam scores if they take classes online instead of attending lectures in person?

What effect does conducting preventive alcohol checks have on the number of people who drive after drinking?

Types of questions to avoid using as your main question

Some research question categories do not lend themselves well for formulating a main research question.

  • Evaluative questions, because they make it difficult to maintain your objectivity as a research.
  • “Why” questions, as they are usually not specific enough.
  • Inferential questions, given that they are too limited in scope.

If your main research question falls into one of these categories, revisit your problem statement and try to rephrase the question.

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Bas Swaen

Bas is co-founder of Scribbr. Bas loves to teach and is an experienced thesis writer. He tries to help students with writing clear and easy to comprehend articles about difficult topics.

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