Creating Research Questions

When I applied to the NSF Fellowship the first two times, I was just in the midst of switching fields and starting grad school. As such, I didn’t have a research project, nor did I have any real knowledge of what kind of research was going on in my new field. So, when fellowship season came around and I was was asked to write a “novel” research proposal, I just about panicked. How would I ever come up with legitimate research question in a field I was unfamiliar with?

Now, one year later I am being forced to come up with research questions for candidacy–on topics not even related to my research! So, I thought it would be a good time to talk about how I’m planning on approaching this, in hopes that it might help some of you in similar predicaments.

1. Read review articles

Most, if not all, fields publish review articles. These are articles that essentially give a very comprehensive introduction to the topic, talk about all the research that has been done in a particular subject up until that point, and suggest experiments/research that can still be done to answer still unsolved questions. If you have very little knowledge about a field (or even if you need a nice refresher on the background), this is usually the first place I recommend looking to if you’re trying to develop a good research question.

2. Read relevant (and recent) literature

Once you have read your review articles, you should have a better idea of different kinds of topics scientists in your field are interested in. From there, you can narrow down your choices and begin reading relevant (and recent) literature on the subject. I specifically emphasize the word “recent” because those papers will be able to specifically highlight the most up to date research and point to current questions that still remain in your field. If you’re not sure how to go about reading research literature, I have advice on how approach this here and here.

3. Go to seminars

Another way that you can find potential research questions to go to research talks/seminars! Typically, a university will holds weekly seminars for all the various departments so that local and invited scientists can discuss their research. These seminars are typically open to the public, and are usually announced through emails or your department’s website. This is a great way to find out the current research going on in your field and also interact directly with researchers, asking them questions about their current projects and their next steps.

4. Talk to your (potential) advisor

Though this one may seem obvious, your research advisor (or even your potential PI) can most definitely guide you in the right direction. This is especially important if you’re developing a research question for a fellowship such as NSF, because they can make sure that you are writing about a topic that is of current interest in your field. So don’t be shy! Remember that your advisor is a great resource and can guide you not only choosing a research question, but also how to pursue it too!

Do any of you have other advise on how to develop a good research question/topic? Let me know in the comments! I, and many others, can definitely use the advice.

Hope you enjoyed!


3 thoughts on “Creating Research Questions”

  1. Thank you Krystal, I really enjoy readying your posts. I’m starting my journey into a PhD and I always take your advice, it has been really helpful so far. Please keep going!

    Liked by 1 person

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