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Planning a PhD: Getting Your Research aim/question Right

written by: Profacgillies•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 4/16/2010

If you don't get the research question right at the start of your PhD you probably won't enjoy your studies and you will seriously reduce the chance of a successful outcome. You need a SMART research question, and you need to be very clear about what you are trying to do.

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    Introduction

    In The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams claims the answer to Life the Universe and Everything is 42. More importantly for those considering a PhD, he points out that the people posing the question had never really defined the question correctly, and therefore had wasted huge amounts of time money and effort on pointless activity. Sound familiar? If not, find someone who started a PhD and never finished and many of them will tell you they never really worked out what their research question actually was.

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    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.

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    Refining Your PhD Research Question

    Supposing we start with a question like "Are older people less likely to use the Internet than younger people?". There are lots of things that need refining with the question. What is an older person? To a teenager, I will probably seem very old. To me, An older person might be least 65 or 70 years old. So we need to define the groups under investigation.

    Next we need to think about those factors which may conflict with the variable under investigation (age) which could include gender, ethnicity, first language, education level, experience with technology, access to technology, income amongst many others.

    Once that's sorted, we need to check that we can measure the effect, ie Internet usage in a meaningful and robust way.

    Finally, I suggest you might like to think about what answers to this question would actually contribute. Might it not be more useful to investigate what barriers exist to Internet usage to find out why Internet usage may be limited in some cases, and then see which groups are most badly affected by it?

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    Expressing Your PhD Research Question

    Another way of helping to refine a research question is to think in terms of aims and objectives. In this approach,

    • The aim is a single statement that states the purpose of the research succinctly.
    • The objectives describe a series of tasks which, if completed would enable the aim to be met.

    When a PhD student starts, I often ask them to complete the following statement

    "The aim of my PhD project is….."

    in not more than 15 words, much in the manner of a competition tie breaker.

    We will deal with objectives in a subsequent article.