Focusing your research question

A good research question guides your research. Your question should be clear and focused. It should use existing literature to present a unique hypothesis. 

Throughout your study, keep asking yourself, “How is my research special? Why should people care?”

A successful research project needs a well-formulated research question. Base your research question on existing knowledge in your field of study. Relate it to a problem that people face daily. Discuss the research question with your colleagues and project supervisors to refine it. 

Focus your question. Make it specific. Will you be able to answer that question within the time and resources you have?

Research question examples: 

  • Bad: What is the relationship between antipsychotics and alcohol? (The kind of relationship being investigated is not clear)
  • Better: How do antipsychotic drugs influence the effects of alcohol consumption? (This is clearer. But it is still unclear what kind of influence is being investigated)
  • Best: Do antipsychotic drugs increase the effects of alcohol consumption on memory? (The kind of influence being investigated is clear)

Example: Business and economics

Economic research/theory and business practice/policy deal with many fields of human inquiry. Every day, people base their political and business decisions on economics. Questions about the right or  wrong of economics appear in the news every day. In short, there are many research questions to be found in business and economics.

Follow your reading. Learn which journals address questions in your specialty. Specialty journals might deal fields like econometrics, organizational ethnography, or ecological modeling.

Here are some key questions:

  • What publications reflect your understanding of the meaning and scope of economics? These journals may be “mainstream” or “heterodox” (non-mainstream).
  • Do you prefer social science or natural science methods for understanding business and economics? Are you an empiricist (such as an experimentalist or statistician) or a theorist?
  • Do you believe mathematics holds the key to economics? If so, which mathematics would you apply?
  • Are you a cheerleader for capitalism, or a critic?
  • Demand is growing for accountability for human, social, and environmental costs. Can you help redefine how economics and business view accounting, and vice versa?
  • Which aspects of economics interest you: practical, scientific, or ethical?
  • Are you a decision theorist? A game theorist? Are you someone who likes the technical details of policy development (a “policy wonk”)? Does supply-side economics interest you?
  • How do you see Big Data? It is a gold mine for research, a social force, or a challenge to the theory of knowledge?

The American Economic Association has many online resources.  There are EconLit and RePEc EconPapers, among others. Such databases and indexes allow you to use Journal of Economic Literature (JEL) codes. These codes can help you to research your area of interest. You can identify both answered and unanswered questions. You can also find books, journals, and “gray” (hard-to-find or unpublished) literature. Using such online tools, there are many ways to approach unanswered questions.

The question you ask should currently be unanswered or only partly answered.  This is true in any academic field. Your answer should increase or improve knowledge within your domain. Also, be sure to use an appropriate methodology. But remember, many of the standard techniques used in economics research are changing. These methods are being criticized or transformed. Economists are struggling with the validity of their own methods. They are also embracing methods from other fields. Also, applied research journals will want to know how your work applies to the real world.

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