A few days ago, I talked about how to find a topic to study management. But the question that I should have been answering is: how do you find a research question?
Coming up with questions is easy. Coming up with a GOOD research question – well, that is HARD.
A good research question:
- Is falsifiable.
- Addresses a gap in theory.
- Is interesting.
And by interesting, I mean it in the sense of Davis, Murray S., That’s Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology , 1:4 (1971:Dec.) p.309.
So how do you even start?
Step 1: Realize this is not a linear process.
I know I am writing this in steps, but in reality this is a wibbly-wobbly (timey-whimey) process:
You will have an idea – and you will think that is good. Then you might realize that some one else answered that three decades ago. So you will go to another idea. And then you might go back to the first, but with a bit of change. But that is not a theory gap. So you find another… and so on.
This is normal. All you can do is keep trying.
Step 2: Read. A lot.
And you will – for your classes. But you should read for fun too. I know it sounds insane. How could you possibly read more than you already are?
Well, I am glad you asked. You need to make choices about how much time you invest in reading. Lucky for you, I have a guide on how to read academic papers that can help you out with this.
I also have a discussion on how to keep your notes organized. That should help since digesting this much information is hard for anyone.
The more you read, the more you should be able to figure out some things, like:
- What theories or ideas do you like best?
- What kinds of questions are other academics are asking?
- What kinds of questions are missing from the conversation?
- Are there things in the theory that make more sense with different boundary conditions?
- Are there things that have been ignored that may explain the emergence of your idea?
Step 3: Have Lots of Questions.
This is important. You are not looking for the ONE QUESTION TO RULE THEM ALL. And you are not trying to come up with the most brilliant question that ever graced the human race.
You are just looking to find a question that you can use for your dissertation. Which is only the first (of many) research projects. So you will need more questions so that you can develop a pipeline.
Knowing that you are looking for many questions may seem stressful. It if is hard to come up with one question, it may be even more daunting.
For me, however, knowing that I need many questions makes each question I come up with less monumental. So if the question is bad, it is not that important. There are others.
Step 4: Narrow them Down.
A good way to narrow your question is:
- Given: A big picture problem or issue.
- Given: The specifics of the big picture.
- Given: A gap in the literature.
- Therefore: question to address the gap in the context.
Another way is to make boxes of each construct and arrows pointing to the relationships. If you can’t put it in a box and arrow combination that makes sense, you might have to narrow down your ideas more.