Asking a Research Question

A good research topic isn’t about the answers you find: it’s about the questions you ask. Asking the right research question can help you narrow your topic to a manageable scope for your project, find keywords to look for sources, and eventually find a more nuanced angle on your topic.

How Broad is Too Broad? How Narrow is Too Narrow?
We are often told to narrow our topic early in the research process. While having a narrow research question can be beneficial to making sure the scope of our research process is manageable and will create a workable thesis, we may often make these questions so narrow that we ignore other—sometimes more interesting—approaches to the topic. For example, say your initial research question is: What are the ways women are discriminated against in the workplace? Some initial reading would show that this question is way too broad, yet you may want to keep it a little broad in your initial stages of research.

On the other hand, your initial question could be too narrow, such as How long is maternity leave in New Jersey?

In either case, your background reading on the topic may lead you to a specific profession (STEM fields for example), or a particular issue within the topic (maternity leave). If you are interested in gender and the workplace, you might ultimately ask a question like
one of these:

  • What can colleges do to recruit more women into STEM fields?
  • How does the perception that women will need maternity leave at some point influence inequality in hiring practices?

These questions may lead to narrowing down even further into a specific issue, such as specific types of discrimination in STEM fields.

Changing Your Research Question Throughout the Process
Whether your professor gives you a question to research, or you produce your own research question, you should keep it flexible enough to allow you to change that question throughout your reading process. Your reading should help you think about different approaches to your topic.

Activity: Using a Reading to Choose a Research Topic

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Research Toolkit by Wendy Hayden and Stephanie Margolin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.