How to write a dissertation logoHow to write a dissertation

Research question

Once you have found a topic for your dissertation, you will need to formulate a research question. The research question defines what it is that you hope to learn.

To formulate a good research question, start with what interests you about your topic. Brainstorm some possible areas to explore and turn them into questions. Keep refining them until you have a question that is workable.

Good research questions share a number of features:

Relevance: Your question needs to be interesting to people who work or study within the field you have chosen. It should address issues that have arisen from literature or practice. For example, your question might:

  • Fill a gap in knowledge
  • Analyse academic assumptions
  • Analyse professional practice
  • Monitor a development in practice
  • Compare different approaches
  • Test a theory

Scope: Your question should be neither too wide nor too narrow. Your time and resources are limited, so the question you decide on needs to be realistic. Make sure you will be able to access what you need to find the answer to your question, be it stats, documents or statistics. As you start to research, you may encounter problems. Don't try and squeeze data or findings into the question if it just isn't working - you may need to rework it. Discuss any problems with your supervisor as soon as they arise.

Originality: You should avoid copying questions that others have already covered. However, looking at other peoples' dissertations can be an excellent source of inspiration. They often include the student's thoughts on opportunities for further research.

Sufficient to complete the assessment: Whether you are completing a dissertation for an undergraduate or post graduate/Masters course, there will be learning outcomes that you have to meet. Your question must be be suitable to allow you to satisfy those outcomes. Your supervisor will be able to advise you if your question is suitable, and how you could adapt it if not.

Focused: It may be tempting to create a broad and rather vague question to ensure you have plenty of material to work with. However, a fluffy or complex question will make it difficult to keep your research on target and the end result may come across as confused. Keep your question simple and focused, or your project will end up discussing concepts that are irrelevant or too broad. If there is complexity in your topic, aim to formulate a key question with a number of sub-components.

Not too simple: Some students pick questions that are too basic because they know there is an overwhelming amount of material for them to work with. The questions may also fit with the units they have already studied, making them an easy option. These questions almost certainly will have been done before and won't give you the opportunity to show creativity and to demonstrate your ability to construct and develop research issues.

Interesting: Not only should your research question interest others who work within the field, but it should interest you too. After all, you'll be working on it for a number of months so you don't want to get bored half way into the project! Choose a topic that you're really interested in and t you will find the motivatation to put the hours in and to produce a good dissertation.

Overall, make sure that you have a real interest in your research question, and that you will be able to explore the issue and back up your conclusions with academic and intellectual debate.

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