Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
Did you notice that some Ph. D. students formulate their research question, statement to impress rather than to explain?
A good research problem, question or hypothesis defines the focus of your research project.
The focus should, furthermore, be aimed at achieving the purpose of the research.
In the case of doctoral studies, the Postgraduate Committee will use the research problem, question or hypothesis to judge if your proposed research topic meets the requirements for research towards Ph. D.
You will need to narrow your research question, problem or hypothesis down to a project that you will be able to cope with, bearing in mind how much time and funds you have available for the research.
Keep in mind that research should always be the foundation for further research.
Let us refine and simplify an example of a research problem until we reach the point where it meets the requirements for viable research on the doctoral level.
- What is the effect of global warming on social interaction?
A research question like this creates more questions than it solves.
- It is vague and the effect of global warming on social interaction can be a multitude of possible things, for example, relationships in the classroom, at home, between married couples, between friends, clients versus salespeople, etc.
- The effect of global warming on different continents, in different countries, different cultures, different seasons, etc. will probably not be the same.
Readers of your thesis or dissertation will probably ask: What is meant by social interaction?
You will need to explain and define the research question. However, even then it would be almost impossible to conclude generally applicable findings that will apply to the entire world and all people and times of the year.
Here is a second refinement of the research question:
- What is the effect of global warming on the social interaction of people to work in metropolitan areas?
This research question already hints on possible economic value. It is limited to a specific type of living area and it would probably be possible to choose a representative sample for the research.
You should be careful of not formulating your research question in such a way that it renders your research subjective and biased.
For example, if you were to ask “Will global warming cause people working in metropolitan areas to lose interest in social interaction?” you might create the impression that you are of the opinion that global warming will cause people who work in metropolitan areas to lose interest in social interaction.
It might still be a workable problem to investigate, though. You can also reformulate your problem statement or question as a hypothesis, especially as the answer to your question might simply be “yes” or “no”. You might even be able to statistically prove your hypothesis as valid or not. Here you would probably use quantitative research and a technicist paradigmatic approach.
A hypothesis will be formulated somewhat differently from a research question or problem statement.
I will discuss more intricate examples of hypotheses in the videos on quantitative research methods.
You can avoid the dichotomous nature of this last example (the answer can only be “yes” or “no”) by formulating it something like this:
“What is the impact of global warming on the social interaction between people working in metropolitan areas?”
Regardless of how you formulate your research problem, question or hypothesis, you will still need to describe the context for your research.
The purpose of your research can also help to clarify your research question, problem or hypothesis.
The scope of your research can help you to know where to go, what to investigate and when to stop with your research.
Your research question, problem or hypothesis is not final if you did not submit your final dissertation or thesis yet.
However, keep in mind that it will become increasingly more difficult and riskier to change your research question, problem or hypothesis the longer you wait to do so.
A research question, statement or hypothesis gives you a good indication of which data you need to collect and which methods you will use to access and analyze your sources.
A well-articulated research question, statement or hypothesis provides you, your study leader and any other readers of your thesis or dissertation with valuable information about your research.
You need to explain the focus, purpose, scope and motivation for your research.
You also need to motivate your research question, problem or hypothesis clearly and objectively.
The rationale for your research question, statement or hypothesis can serve of evidence that your research project is viable.
You can change your research question, statement or hypothesis any time while you are still doing research. However, the longer you wait, the more incorrect data will you collect, and the more time will you waste on doing unnecessary work.