The main research question in a dissertation

The main research question is the question that your dissertation is intended to answer. It is derived from the problem statement that you have formulated.

Main questions are generally broken down into sub-questions and/or hypotheses that enable you to tackle your research in a more step-by-step manner.

Your findings for these components will together provide an answer to the main question.

What does a main research question look like?

The main question can often be categorized in different ways. For example, it may include both descriptive and explanatory components, so that you can determine what is currently going on before identifying how this situation has developed.

Examples of main research questions

According to current government arguments, how should a European bank tax be implemented?

What factors lead individuals who visit online shops to ultimately make their purchases in a traditional store?

What practical teaching techniques can teachers use to better identify and guide gifted children?

What characterizes a good main question?

As it’s easy to get off track when formulating a main research question, it’s important that you adhere to the following criteria.

1. The main question is a single question.

Always limit yourself to one question. If you find this difficult to do, you need to better define what you are going to research.

2. The main question logically follows from the problem statement.

The main research question is based on the problem statement. As such, it’s important that you have formulated this statement with care.

3. The main question is neutral (as opposed to ethical).

Ethical questions determine what is right or wrong, which is not a goal of research. They may also be referred to as normative or benchmarking questions.

Example of an ethical question

Is Denmark’s decision to close its borders correct?

It is difficult to answer such questions while maintaining your objectivity as a researcher. Using a more neutral question is therefore preferable.

Example of a neutral question

What reasons may lead Denmark to close its borders?

4. The main question isn’t designed to lead to an ultimate solution.

The goal is not that your research is going to fully answer any question or solve any problem – although it should provide information that will contribute to doing so. The actors involved in the problem will ultimately decide how to resolve it.

Example of a solution question

How can the HR department at the Rabobank Netherlands reduce absenteeism due to illness?

This could be converted to a more appropriate question as follows.

Example of a less solution-oriented question

What are the causes for the increased absenteeism due to illness at Rabobank Netherlands?

5. The main question doesn’t aim at identifying policies or advice.

Your researching findings may lead to policies and advice being implemented, but formulating such things is generally not the goal of research. As above, those involved in the particular situation will decide how to act on your findings.

If you have a client who specifically wants advice, it’s best to include a separate set of recommendations (either after your conclusions or in a separate document). You could also include a sub-question that focuses on advice.

Example of a policy question

How can the 2014 Housing Act be used to make inexpensive homes accessible to the target group?

Example of a request for advice question

What steps should the HR department of Rabobank Netherlands take to become more efficient?

6. The main question isn’t a “why” question.

These questions are often too open to serve as a good starting point for an investigation; they simply present too many possibilities.

Example of a “why” question

Why does the Rabobank Netherlands have a high rate of absenteeism due to illness?

This question is not specific enough. More research should be undertaken to identify a more focused question.

Example more specific

What practical tools can be used to reduce repeated illness-related absenteeism in service-oriented companies?

7. The main question isn’t a “yes/no” question.

These types of questions are limited and often do not require much research to answer.

If you are conducting testing research, it is possible to use evaluative “yes/no” questions. These questions can also be converted into hypotheses.

Example of a “yes/no” question

Is there an increase in illness-related absenteeism at Rabobank Netherlands?

View the research question checklist or see examples

Types of research questions

The type of research question you use will help to determine the kind of research you undertake. This in turns affects your choice of research methods, as some questions require quantitative research whereas some call for qualitative research.

For instance, a descriptive may be answered through the literature whereas an inferential question may require an experiment.

Keep in mind that using one research method does not preclude the use of another. For example, you could undertake both quantitative and qualitative research. As a result, you should let yourself get too preoccupied with selecting a particular type of research question; instead focus on choosing the one that seems most logical.

Formulating sub-questions

Once you have formulated your main research question, you should focus on identifying the sub-questions that will enable you to answer it.

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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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