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How to use research questions, research problems and hypotheses in undergraduate or postgraduate research

Why research questions, research problems and research hypotheses are important in research

As a student on a research project, you need to have something to research, ie something to guide your reading, data collection and writing. It will therefore help to think in terms of a question or questions to answer, or a problem to solve, or a hypothesis to confirm or refute.

In some subject areas, it is not common practice to state research questions, problems of hypotheses formally, but rather to use terminology such as a 'research focus' or 'theme' or 'topic to investigate or look at'. However in other subject areas it is a definite requirement. However, although you must follow the norms of your discipline and the advice of supervisors*, it will help you to think in these terms of research questions, problems or hypotheses, irrespective of whether or not you ever state them explicitly.

Your supervisor will advise.

How to use research questions, research problems or research hypotheses in your research proposal

For a research proposal, you will need to include the following, although the norms of your discipline may use different terminology:

General information

Research problems are more normal in the natural sciences, although by no means necessarily so, whereas research questions are more normal in the arts and humanities, although again by no means necessarily so. Although in some subject areas, it may be normal to use more general terminology, you would be well advised to rephrase into a research question, research problem or hypothesis in your own mind in order to add direction to your work.

Your department or institution may or may not expect you to break down a larger research question or problem into smaller ones for the research proposal. Your supervisor will advise.

Research proposals passed by the institution merely confirm that it seems in order for students to start work, that they stand a good chance of completing successfully and on time, and that they should learn practicalities of research along the way. It does not set proposals 'in stone' so that they cannot be adapted later - see the next section.

The need for research questions, research problems and research hypotheses throughout a research project

The value of research questions, research problems and research hypotheses is that they keep the mind focussed on a crucially important aspect of research - that no-one should be reading, gathering data or writing for the sake of it. So students on research projects should always be able to couch what they are doing in terms of one or more immediate questions to answer or problems to solve, even if different terminology is to appear in the dissertation or thesis.

Your research questions and problems, etc should be developed primarily to guide your thinking at the various stages of your work. The number and detail is up to you and your supervisor. You will not be tied to them - unless an all-encompassing one is a condition of funding. Research is a journey into the unknown and no-one knows what will be discovered along the way. This may be so significant and interesting that the obvious way forward is to create new research questions etc framed around them.

You will edit your thesis or dissertation in retrospect towards the end of your work: it has to be a report on a self-contained piece of research (although it is expected that it will highlight more work that needs to be done in the area, probably by someone else). Consequently, the thesis or dissertation must be written in terms of the research questions or problems, etc, that it answers or solves - with due deference of course to the norms of terminology of the discipline. It may or may not be appropriate to comment on those that were considered along the way but not answered or solved. A sound case, supported by evidence, for why a question or problem could not be answered or solved can merit a place in a thesis. Your supervisor will advise.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.