Sub-questions in a dissertation

A main research question usually cannot be answered all at once. That’s why sub-questions are important: they allow you to answer your main question in a step-by-step manner.

How you formulate them will help you to determine how to eventually undertake your research.

What characterizes a good sub-question?

Good sub-questions and good main research questions have almost identical characteristics. However, it’s important to bear some additional features when formulating your sub-questions:

  • Sub-questions should be less complex than the main question;
  • A single sub-question should not combine different types of research;
  • Sub-questions should only be asked if you need the findings to answer your main question; and
  • They should generally include one or two descriptive or comparative sub-questions.

How to order sub-questions

Sub-questions are often presented in a logical order. For instance, it might be that the first sub-question needs to be answered before the second one can be tackled. Always begin with any descriptive and comparative questions.

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Examples of a main research question with sub-questions

Main question

Based on What are the arguments for introducing a European bank tax and what would such a tax look like?


According to current government arguments, how should a European bank tax be implemented? (Descriptive question)

Which countries have a bank tax/levy on financial transactions? (Descriptive question)

How should a bank tax/levy on financial transactions look at a European level? (Framing question)

How many sub-questions you should use?

There is no fixed number of sub-questions that you must use. However, it’s generally true that the more complex your subject, the more sub-questions you’ll need.

Try to limit yourself to four or five sub-questions. If you feel you need more than this, it may be indication that your main research question is not specific enough. In this case, it’s is better to revisit your problem statement and try to tighten your main question up.

Types of research sub-questions

Sub-questions can be divided into different types of research questions.

Hypotheses instead of sub-questions

You could also opt to work with hypotheses instead of sub-questions. Hypotheses are statements that you test in your dissertation.

Once you’ve formulated your sub-questions, you can move on to creating a research design for your dissertation.

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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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