You are sitting in front of the computer, staring at one of the thirty browser windows that you have opened as a result of your online search for a research topic. For the past few days, you have been going round in circles, trying to nail down a research problem to work on, but to no avail. In fact, as a last resort to this exasperating quest, you have now decided to Google for “how to find a research topic”. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is not new. If you have the experience of conducting your own study, chances are, at the early stages of your research, you have faced with the difficulty of deciding on a research question and have constantly wondered if you were asking the right question. In truth, the search for a good research question is a daunting task, especially when researchers are often expected to know how to identify or figure out a good research question on their own.
Fortunately, with every problem, there is always a place at which we can use as a starting point that will hopefully lead us to a desirable solution.
Ask yourself one key question: where do YOUR interests lie?
This may sound pretentious to some of us, especially graduates who are looking for a PhD studentship. I mean, seriously, at a time when the economy is stagnant, the number of research grants are shrinking, and competitions among studentship applicants are higher than ever, who are we trying to “kid” when we say that a good research question usually comes from the area in which your interest truly lies in?
Scientific research is a long and arduous endeavour; it is rarely a straightforward process, where doing A will ultimately result in B. More often that not, researchers find themselves at a loss with a set of data that just does not seem to make any sense, which may potentially cause frustration, stress, and even thoughts of giving up. It is during times like these that having a genuine interest in your research will help you to persevere and bring you more satisfaction in the long run. But, how exactly do we identify our main interests?
Based on his own experience, Uri Alon, a theoretical physics major turned systems biology expert who is now one of the most renowned scientists in his field, gave his piece of advice: listen to your inner voice (Alon, 2009). As he pointed out, interest in a research problem is a subjective experience. All too often, our actual interest is so tightly intertwined with interests of the public that we are not able to identify where our real interest lies in. This does not mean that pursuing a research of public interest is a bad option. After all, a good research takes into consideration the potential benefits it has to the general population (Cox, 2012). However, it is usually through distinguishing what you are actually interested in, from other people’s opinions, that will help you stay focused and keeps you motivated in your research pursuits. One way to do so is to ask yourself, “If I was the only person on earth, which of these problems will I work on?” (p. 727, Alon, 2009). Doing so may help you sieve out opinions from external sources such as the media, and focus on what you are really interested in. Alon (2009) further suggested that, ideas or questions that keep coming back to us after a long period of time are more likely to make good research questions, than the ones that occurred to us a few days ago. Thus, if you have a research problem that has been bugging you for months or years, it is a good sign that you have found your true research interest, if not a broad area of interest.
How much knowledge do you have in your area of interest?
Do your homework. It is the same old advice, but a step that you can never skip in the process of identifying a good research question. Doing literature research allows you to know what research has been done in your area of interest, narrows down your research focus and directs you to ask more specific questions. Furthermore, knowing how much theoretical knowledge that is available in the area will help you determine the type of research design that can be employed to study the phenomenon (see Cox, 2012). I like to use Google Scholar, of which settings I have changed to include my university digital library, which enables me to retrieve literatures across many disciplines and sources. In conducting literature research, identifying the right key words and recognizing concepts that are related to your area of interest will gain a wider coverage of past researches. For example, if you are interested in researching about the concept of mindfulness, looking into past researches on attention and/or self-regulation may help you build a broader knowledge regarding the phenomenon.
Another good way to start your literature research is by searching for relevant conceptual terms on Wikipedia. Articles on Wikipedia can give you a general idea of what has been researched, and what are the issues that have been raised in the area. These articles also often come with a list of references that you can use to learn more about the concepts, by looking up for the references on Google Scholar.
But what if you do not know what a phenomenon is called or conceptualized in psychology? Often times, depending on the amount of knowledge you have in your area of interest, that bugging research problem you have may consist of broad, general questions in everyday terms, such as, “Why do cigarette smokers continue to smoke even though they know that smoking is bad?” In this example, we are interested to know more about the phenomenon of having both positive and negative attitudes towards an issue at the same time. In this case, we can start our literature research by using the keywords “attitude” and “smoking habit”. Usually, reading up journal articles as a result of this search will lead you to the actual term in psychology. For those of you who are wondering what it is exactly called in psychology, it is “attitude ambivalence”.
How much time do you have?
It is all good and nice if you have found a good research problem that you can work on. But no matter how much potential a research question has, if you do not have the time you need to conduct the research, any research can easily be a wasteful effort, if not resulting in stress and disappointment. Alon (2009) suggested that it is more practical for an undergraduate student to choose a relatively easy research topic that allows supervisor to easily understand the project and subsequently, provide constructive feedback for further improvement. When one proceeds to postgraduate level, he or she can then choose a problem of their interest. As for postdoctoral students, they may choose an easy research problem but with large knowledge gain. I generally agree with Alon’s suggestions, although I believe that undergraduate students can still work on time-feasible research project without having to sacrifice their interest, by breaking down the research problem into several smaller, manageable, and more specific questions. You can then choose one of the specific questions, which is workable within the time given as an undergraduate research project. The rest of the specific questions can then be used as your proposal for further research, which you can easily apply in your postgraduate studies. In this way, you do not just demonstrate a sense of pragmatism as a researcher, but also show that you are able to think far and relate your research to broader implications. As for psychology students studying in the United Kingdom, where a typical psychology Masters Program is less than a year, with intensive and high amount of coursework throughout, this technique can be used when you are formulating a research question for your Masters Dissertation project, and to apply the remaining research problem in your PhD research. The main point is to be realistic about the time you have and identify your research question accordingly.
What if I don’t have a particular research interest?
We have talked about the importance of a genuine, grounded interest in your research and considered the amount of time you have in refining and defining your research question. These are done in conjunction with extensive research and readings on past literatures. These are some of the things you can do to help you identify a good research question. However, some of us might be asking, what if we do not have any particular research area that is of interest? This is not uncommon at all, especially during undergraduate years, when you may still be uncertain whether you are pursuing the right course of study. In that case, how do you go about finding a good research question?
One way to do so is to conduct replication studies. A replication study usually involves repeating a past research using the same methods, but on different populations or with additional variables (Experiment Resources, 2009). Replication studies are commonly conducted to determine the generalisability of findings from the previous study, to determine the role of additional variables in a study, and to inspire new research by combining findings from several related studies. You can also conduct a study on the same research problem using a different methodology, population, or setting. Some might argue that conducting such research may reflect a lack of originality as a researcher. However, I believe it shows how attentive and careful you are as a researcher by being able to postulate potential confounding factors or covariates, as well as the ability to apply the implications of a previous finding in another situation. Personally, I believe that we should not underestimate how much we can learn by just repeating a past research. It is always a good practice to see what measurement tools are out there, and if there are more reliable measurements compared with the ones employed in the previous study. Furthermore, just the experience of data collection and analysis will provide you with the essential experience a budding researcher needs that are highly transferable to various areas of research. Who knows, through the interpretation of your replication study findings, it might lead you to research inquiries that fascinate you and inspire you to learn more about them.
Prologue – what next?
Identifying your research question is the first step in the process of conducting a research. Once you have done that and you are happy with what you have found, the next step is to formulate your hypotheses, outline your research design, data collection strategies, and analysis methods that you may employ on your data.
The ideas in this article are drawn from valuable recommendations by other researchers, such as Uri Alon, and Carol Cox, as well as from my own mistakes and experiences. As I have consistently emphasized and shown throughout the article, finding a good research question is rarely an easy task. Therefore, the best thing you can do for yourself is to start early, and give yourself as much time as you can.
Alon, U. (2009). How to choose a good scientific problem. Molecular Cell, 35, 726-728.
Cox, C. (2012). What makes for good research? [Editorial] International Journal of Ophthalmic Practice, 3(1), 3.
Experiment Resources (2009). Replication Study. Retrieved September 9, 2012 from Experiment Resources: http://www.experiment-resources.com/replication-study.html
Yee Row Liew is an Editor of the JEPS Bulletin, who has a wide research background and experience that range from plant genetics to psychology. Having completed her postgraduate study just recently in Psychological Research Methods from Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom, she is now working as a research assistant at the Global Sustainability Institute. She hopes to gain further knowledge in the study of emotion, cognition, and motivation, in pursuit of her love for scientific research.