Formulating Research Questions Dissertation Help

Research questions indicate what you will help answer through your research and provide structure for your dissertation.

They usually include both a main research question (which is the fundamental question you are exploring) and sub-questions (which assist you in answering the main question).

Types of research questions

Many different kinds of research questions exist. The kind you choose to use in your dissertation determines the type of research you will need to conduct and the research methods you will ultimately employ (e.g., interviews).

While it’s important to give some thought to the kinds of research question you will use, don’t get too hung up on the matter. The categories are often intertwined and it is possible to a question may actually be a combination of two or more.

What types of questions should you use?

You can use all of the above categories of questions in your dissertation. Your decision may be guided by the kind of research you want or are required to do. Nonetheless, bear in mind that not all research question types are suitable for a main research question . For example, a main question should not be evaluative.

It’s also important to remember that while some questions may fall clearly into one particular category, others may represent a combination of question types.

The research questions in a dissertation are divided into a main research question and a series of sub-questions:

  • Main question
  • Sub-question 1
  • Sub-question 2
  • Sub-question 3 etc.

Main research question

The main research question plays a leading role in your dissertation. It usually reflects a variety of research question categories.


Sub-questions are shorter, less complex questions. They generally fall squarely into one research question category.

Descriptive questions

These questions are useful for really getting to know the subject you are investigating. They are usually the starting point of research and will help you to get clear on the topic of your dissertation.

Descriptive questions are about the here and now. Their answers may describe a situation, concept or person based on your own observations or information you have collected.

Examples of descriptive questions

What is the world’s population?

What steps will the government take in the coming year to reduce the tax burden?

What measures are primary schools in the US taking for children with autism?

Comparative questions

Comparative questions are useful if you want to explore the differences and similarities between two or more items.

Examples of comparative questions

What is the difference between sign language and body language?

What are the similarities of the political systems in the Netherlands and Russia?

Defining questions

Defining questions allow you to determine how your topic relates to the larger picture. They are useful for characterizing and classifying a phenomenon.

Examples of defining questions

How can the new subclass that is emerging in Germany be characterized?

How can socialists be classified within this emerging subclass?

Evaluative/normative questions

Evaluative or normative questions are used when you want to determine the value of something (for example, how desirable, good, normal or usable it is), as they enable you to provide an opinion or judgment. They are also sometimes called ethical questions.

Examples of evaluative questions

It is desirable that workers be closely supervised?

What is the value of having a healthy work environment for employees?

Explanatory questions

Explanatory questions are designed to determine the cause of a problem. As a result, they are also called “why” questions (although they may instead use words such as “what” and “how”).

Examples of clarifying questions

What is cause of the high sickness rate at Apple headquarters?

Why is it that every substance melts at a certain temperature?

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

Predictive questions

As the name implies, predictive questions are used to predict something that will occur in the future. You can use them to identify an expected consequence.

Examples of predictive questions

How many mortgages will fail if the economic crisis continues until 2020?

What is the new tax plan’s possible impact on elderly people living alone?

Will public transportation remain affordable in the future?

Framing/problem-solving/advisory questions

Framing questions are used when you want to identify new solutions to existing problems, with a focus on the near future. They are often phrased as “How can we…?”

In many cases, framing questions cannot be tackled until explanatory questions are answered. If your main question is framing, it’s therefore common to use some explanatory sub-questions.

Examples of framing/problem-solving/advisory questions

How can we ensure that the UK will have 50% fewer illiterates within the next three years?

How can we reduce youth unemployment?

One risk of using a framing question is that it may lead you to provide advice about how to solve a particular problem – which is not your job as a researcher. Your goal is instead to provide research that those involved in a problem can use to help solve it.

Advisory plan

Advisory questions are helpful when your research is designed to make recommendations. This kind of research often involves preparing a separate advisory report for a particular client at the end of the dissertation process. In such cases, it can be useful to include at least one advisory sub-question.

Inferential questions

Inferential questions can be used if you want to measure a certain effect and most often give rise to at least one hypothesis. They should be closed questions (e.g., with “yes” and “no” as possible answers).

Because inferential questions are designed to measure an effect, they are answered with the help of experiments. As such they are common in scientific research.

Examples of inferential questions

Do students obtain better exam scores if they take classes online instead of attending lectures in person?

What effect does conducting preventive alcohol checks have on the number of people who drive after drinking?

Types of questions to avoid using as your main question

Some research question categories do not lend themselves well for formulating a main research question.

  • Evaluative questions, because they make it difficult to maintain your objectivity as a research.
  • “Why” questions, as they are usually not specific enough.
  • Inferential questions, given that they are too limited in scope.

If your main research question falls into one of these categories, revisit your problem statement and try to rephrase the question.

Sample Research Questions

Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?
Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook?

The unclear version of this question doesn’t specify which social networking sites or suggest what kind of harm the sites are causing. It also assumes that this “harm” is proven and/or accepted. The clearer version specifies sites (MySpace and Facebook), the type of harm (privacy issues), and whom the issue is harming (users). A strong research question should never leave room for ambiguity or interpretation.

Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?
Focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in the Arctic Circle?

The unfocused research question is so broad that it couldn’t be adequately answered in a book-length piece, let alone a standard college-level paper. The focused version narrows down to a specific cause (glacial melting), a specific place (the Arctic Circle), and a specific group that is affected (penguins). When in doubt, make a research question as narrow and focused as possible.

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately Complex: What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

The simple version of this question can be looked up online and answered in a few factual sentences; it leaves no room for analysis. The more complex version is written in two parts; it is thought provoking and requires both significant investigation and evaluation from the writer. As a general rule of thumb, if a quick Google search can answer a research question, it’s likely not very effective.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *