Defining Your PhD Research Question
Research questions need to be precise, tractable and amenable to investigation. We can usefully more an idea from management theory and ask if our research question is SMART. The research question should be
S – specific. Many research questions are not specific enough. If your question is not specific enough you will not meet the other SMART criteria. You can, however, often arrive at a refined question by an iterative process.
M – measurable. If you cannot measure the phenomena, how will you be able to say anything about it? However, the data you gather can be of a wide variety of types. It can be qualitative as well as numerical. If it is numerical, you will need to be able to separate out the effect you wish to measure from other competing or confounding factors. If it is qualitative, how will you manage potential biases, and say something that can inform situations beyond your immediate research context?
A – achievable. Some really interesting studies simply cannot be done. You may not be able to gain access to data or subjects you need. This may be because of ethical reasons or because there are simply not enough cases to investigate or because if you are investigating a real world phenomena it evolves too quickly to evaluate the effect of interventions you wish to study. Or, finally, it may cost too much.
R – relevant. Some PhDs appear to be pursued completely for their own sake. Increasingly though if you wish to attract funding, you need to demonstrate that the PhD has a benefit to the funder. So if you don't want to do a relevant PhD, make sure that you are Rich enough to fund it yourself
T - time-limited. Some research questions would simply take too long to answer. A PhD programme may seem to be a long process, typically 3 years full time or 5 years part time in the UK. However, it will take you up to 6 months (12 months part time) to get up to speed and up to 6 months (12 months part time) to write up at the end, so you only have a maximum of 2 years (3 years part time) to do the work itself. You need to be sure you can get the work done in this time.