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Developing a Research Topic: Writing a Research Question

What is a research question?

A research question is the question that guides your research.


You want a research question that is clear and easy to understand. 


The research question... 

  • defines your topic
  • defines the type of research you will be doing (experimental, descriptive, exploring, explaining)
  • defines the type of questions (what, when, where, why, how) that you'll be answering
  • defines your variables
  • defines the relationship between your variables (O'Leary, 2018, p.12)


Choose a topic that you find interesting and develop a research question that you are curious about. 


The research question should be appropriate for the discipline. For example, genetic engineering is a relevant topic for many fields. A question about genetic engineering for a Philosophy class would be quite different than a question about genetic engineering for a Biology class. Your professor can provide guidance as your develop ideas into a research topic.  

Sample Research Questions

UNCLEAR:  What are the harmful effects of cell phones?

Clear: What impact does mining for metals used in cell phones have on the environment?


The first version of this research question is a little unclear.  The revised version adds additional information that focuses the question.

When writing research questions:

  • Try to avoid assumptions, for example, that something is harmful.
  • Try to avoid ambiguity and be clear in all aspects of your question.


UNFOCUSED: What is the effect of pollution on waterways?  

Focused: How does phosphorus from agricultural industrial pollution impact rural watersheds?


The first version of this research question is a little too broad.  There are entire books written about pollution and various bodies of water. The revised version adds additional information that focuses the question to something that could be answerable in a research paper, by specifying the type of pollutant, pollution, and the specific water feature.


When writing research questions:

  • Try to produce a question that is answerable in one paper.
  • Be specific as possible.


TOO SIMPLE: What is the political party system of the United States?   

Appropriately complex: What role does the two-party system play in gerrymandering?


When writing research questions:

  • Try to produce a question that is complex enough to answer with a paper rather than an internet search.



Writing the question

Choose an interesting topic.

  • Does the topic interest you?
  • Do you want learn more about it?
  • Does it fulfill the requirements for the assignment?


Explore your topic.

Do some preliminary research on your topic.

  • Can you find articles and books on your topic?
  • How are scholars talking about your topic?


Knowing the current information, controversies, and debates can inform your research topic.


Ask questions about your topic.

  • What is your topic?
  • What is the scope for your research?
    • What places, settings, timeframes or populations will be included?
  • What type of question are (what, when, where, why, how,  who) are you asking?
  • What is the type of research you are doing?
    • Does your research explore the topic, explain the topic, or describe the topic?
  • Does your research explore potential relationships?


Compose a research question.

Use the answers to the questions above to compose your research question.


Evaluate your research question.

  • Is it clear and easy to understand?
  • Is it focused and answerable?
  • Is it complex?
    • Avoid simple questions that can be answered with yes or no.


Revise your research question.

Don't be afraid to revise your research question. It is a normal part of the research process.


Time to research!




O'Leary, Zina. 2018. Little Quick Fix : Research Question. London: Sage Publications. 


The Writing Center. How to Write a Research Question. George Mason University, Aug. 2018,