How to Write a Research Question
Updated: Apr 21
Every research project begins with a question. Sounds simple enough—that is, until you consider what kind of question could motivate months of intellectual labor and ultimately yield an original scholarly intervention. The best research questions are at once specific and flexible: the product of careful study, yet an invitation for further investigation. For first-time researchers, coming up with this kind of question may seem like a high start-up cost. The good news is that once you’ve written one research question, more are sure to follow, sometimes mushrooming from parts of your original inquiry that your project does not end up addressing.
This blog will help you learn how to write a research question. Although every academic field has its own, unique expectations about the form of its research questions, I will offer some general guidance about how to jump-start your brainstorming process. These techniques have served me equally well in undergraduate level STEM, social sciences, and humanities courses.
No matter what field you are in, your research question will begin with your own curiosity. Within your field of interest—or in your life as a whole, if you have yet to choose an academic field—what would you like to learn more about? Your initial curiosity can be as general or specific as any of the following examples. Have you always wanted to read and say something innovative about an Austen novel? Are you interested in investigating what role, exactly, US policy makers have in shaping public school curriculum (if any)? Are you wondering how, exactly, Covid interacts with heart disease? Once you have identified an area of curiosity, no matter how broad, amateur, or ambitious you’re ready to get started reading.
The first step towards turning your curiosity into a research question is familiarizing yourself with what scholars call your “primary source.” A “primary source” is the thing that you think you would like to learn about: eventually, the source of your project’s data. For a literary scholar, this may be a group of novels that you are interested in. For a historian or social scientist, it could be an archive or demographic data published online. For a scientist or a future doctor, you may have to begin learning about your primary source from afar, by reading textbooks to familiarize yourself with the basic facts about the body, medicine, disease, technology, etc. about which you are curious. It can be difficult for nonspecialists to identify primary sources, so if you’d like some guidance, sign up to brainstorm with a CRI mentor in your field!
How can you tell when you’re finished your preliminary review of your primary source? Eventually, you’ll begin to come up with more specific questions or areas of curiosity within that source. Step two towards your research question is to write a paragraph describing your new, targeted area of interest. To return to my earlier STEM example, you may narrow down your question about Covid and heart disease to a more specific inquiry about how one kind of heart condition may react to one Covid variant. Within the context of my Austen novel example, a more specific question would pertain to a particular character, scene, or narrative technique within one or more novels. Regardless of what field you are working in, part of your paragraph should explain, in scholarly terms, what about your primary reading pointed you towards this more targeted area of interest.
The third step towards your research question is to read what scholars call “secondary literature.” A “secondary” source is an academic publication (a peer-reviewed article or book from an academic press) answering a question related to or within your own specific area of interest. Secondary sources can be even more elusive than primary sources for first-time researchers. They usually live in overflowing databases (e.g., JSTOR, Google Scholar) and libraries that can be difficult to navigate due to their sheer size. I recommend reaching out to a teacher, local librarian, or CRI mentor for help choosing the right search terms or library shelf for your first round of secondary source readings.
Once you’ve assembled and skimmed through your secondary sources, the fourth step towards your research question is to take notes on three or four secondary sources’ main ingredients: its claim (thesis or hypothesis), methods (experimental methods or theoretical approach), and important context (literature review, historical background, etc). For each source, write a paragraph explaining what it has taught you about your area of interest. Keep track of what research has already been completed and what questions scholars have yet to address.
The fifth and final step towards developing your preliminary research question is to describe the space between your three or four main sources’ claims: some question that they do not answer. This unanswered question will be specific enough to offer you some direction as you continue reading. Most researchers go through many versions of their research questions, so don’t be discouraged if you change yours, making it more specific as you continue studying. At this point, I recommend running your question by a teacher or CRI mentor to make sure that it is one that you can feasibly answer and to ask for more specialized secondary sources. Soon enough, you will begin developing your own argument and/or hypothesis in reply to some version of your question—and that’s when your research project will really take off!