Do I have a good main research question?

Formulating a main research question is a difficult task (and must be done before you can define any sub-questions). How can you tell if your main question is good enough?

Overall, your main question should contribute to solving the problem that you have defined in your problem statement. However, it should also fulfill criteria in three main areas:

  1. Researchability
  2. Feasibility and specificity
  3. Relevance and originality

The following checklists can help you to determine if your main question is appropriate.

Criterion I: Researchable

What to checkWhyWhat to do
1.That the main question contains neither “and” nor “or.”“And” as well as “or” both imply that you are actually asking two questions, which is not allowed.Rephrase the main question; ask only one question.
2.That the main question cannot be answered with “yes” or “no.”Yes/no questions generally do not create enough scope for investigation to be used as the main research question for a dissertation.Rephrase the main question; start with another question word (e.g., how, what, why) and add hypotheses.
3.That the main question does not ask for an opinion, judgment or value.It is challenging to offer an opinion, judgment or value while remaining objective (which is a prerequisite for good research). A call for a view is referred to as an evaluative question.Rephrase the main question; avoid asking for a view.
4.That the main question is measurable using observable data.If your study doesn’t involve measuring anything using a research method, you need to consider the purpose of your research. In certain circumstances you may find yourself only reviewing literature without measuring anything, but this isn’t the norm.Rephrase the main question; possibly consult your supervisor to make sure you are clear about the requirements for your dissertation.
5.That several sub-questions (representing different types of research questions) are needed to answer to the main question.If the main research question doesn’t allow you to identify at least a few sub-questions, it is likely too simple or too limited.Rephrase the main question.
6.That theoretical knowledge on the subject is available.If relevant theory is not available, the question is likely too simple or too limited. It could also mean that your problem statement has not been formulated well.Rephrase the main question and possibly the problem statement.
7.That the question can be answered succinctly.If not, the question is not specific enough.Rephrase the main question.
8.That the main question does not include an “If….then…” statement.The results of research that focuses on “if…then” statements depend on a particular situation. Moreover, the research is evaluative or predictive (i.e., looks into the future), which means you run the risk that the situation is too speculative (see example).Rephrase the main question and possibly the problem statement.

Criterion II: Feasible and specific

What to checkWhyWhat to do
1.That clear choices exist in relation to what you are going to investigate.If you want to examine everything because it’s so interesting or because it’s all interconnected, you run the risk of collecting information on a superficial level. Your research won’t be thorough enough or offer useful insights.Rephrase the main question; going deeper into a particular topic is often more interesting.
2.That the research can be done within the given timeframe.Take care that the study won’t take longer than planned, for example because interviewees are not available.Rephrase the main question so that so you can complete the research within your timeframe.
3.That the main question does not begin with “why.”“Why” questions (which are explanatory in nature) can be answered by going in a number of directions. As a result, they may not be specific enough.Go back to the problem statement and dig further into the issue further. Try to find a connection or causal relationship.
4.That concepts in the main question are clear.Unclear terms create confusion, which will be reflected in all your research.Rework the concepts in your problem statement and restate your main question.
5.That concepts referred to in the main question are specific enough.If the concepts are too broad, your research will be unnecessarily complex.Rework the concepts in your problem statement and restate your main question.
6.That the main question does not call for an opinion or suggested policy.Making a recommendation or suggesting a policy often oversteps the boundaries of what an academic program or institution expects to see in a dissertation.Formulate an appropriate advisory or policy sub-question; if necessary, provide a separate advisory report.
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Criterion III: Relevant and original

What to checkWhyWhat to do
1.That the answer to the main question delivers what the client expects (if relevant).If the research is expected to yield too little to address the problem, it could be that the main question is not relevant enough to that problem.Rephrase the main question; ensure that its answer will contribute to the solving the identified problem.
2.That the main question doesn’t only reflect part of the problem/ central theme.You otherwise run the risk that the investigation is not related to the problem statement and thus that nothing is “put in motion.”Rephrase the main question; ensure that its answer will contribute to the solving the identified problem.
3.That society has something to gain from the answer to the main question.If society doesn’t stand to gain anything, you run the risk that the study’s results will only be useful to a particular entity (such as your client, if relevant). You might also fail to fulfill your program’s requirements in relation to social relevance.Carefully check your program’s research guidelines; if social relevance is required, revisit your problem statement and either dig into the issue more deeply or choose a new, more socially relevant direction to go in.
4.That the subject is topical.If a subject isn’t current, it may have already been thoroughly examined – which means your results may not be innovative enough.Rework your problem statement (in consultation with your client, if relevant). It might be that you just failed to note the “best” problem.
5.That the main question is unique (i.e., your specific subject hasn’t been studied before).If you are looking at something that has been looked at before, the investigation will not lead to new knowledge.Rework your problem statement (in consultation with your client, if relevant) and revisit the literature. It might be that you just failed to note the “best” problem.

We’ve prepared some examples of main research questions that are accompanied by explanations of why they are or are not good.

Examples of main questions

Once you have defined your main research question, you can turn to identifying your sub-questions.

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