refining research questions

It is important that you develop your research question and sub-questions well, so that you can thoroughly research and answer it within the scope of the course.

Choosing a topic

Please choose a topic that you personally are interested in writing about. As a student, you have the academic freedom to research whatever you want, provided that it is relevant to the research brief and adheres to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry. Don’t choose a boring topic just because you think your instructor will be interested in it.

Narrowing the Topic

When you have decided on a topic area, try to apply the following limiters to find a sufficiently narrow area of focus:

  • Aspect: choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of your topic
  • Components: determine if your initial variables or unit of analyses can be broken into smaller parts, which can then be analyzed more precisely
  • Type: focus your bibliography on a specific type or class of people, places, or things
  • Time: the shorter the time period to be covered, the more narrow the focus
  • Place: the smaller the region of analysis, the fewer items there are to consider including in your bibliography
  • Sources: your bibliography may focus on specific types of primary materials (USC Library 2016)

For example, we could apply all of these limiters to an example question:

  • General question (too general): Can/should education help societies to achieve equality?
  • Developed question (more specific): To what extent can higher education institutions help to achieve equal opportunities? Should they?
  • Research question (fully specific): To what extent do UK universities seek to increase gender equality in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields? Should they do more?

Developing Sub-Questions

Once you have some idea of your research topic and question, you can start developing sub-questions that will help you to plan your research and writing. When you think of a sub-question, try to also think about how it could be answered, and what kind of sources you will need to consult to answer it.

For example, here are some sub-questions for the research project on UK universities:

Research Question: To what extent do UK universities seek to increase gender equality in STEM fields? Should they do more?


  1. Is greater gender equality in STEM desirable? Why? (gender/business ethics, consequences for companies/economy, examples of integrated workplaces?)
  2. What is the current gender mix of
    • UK women STEM students and academic staff?
    • UK women STEM students receiving scholarships?
    • UK women STEM graduates in leadership roles in STEM? (data from published research)
  3. What obstacles do female students face in STEM fields in the UK? (primary sources – published data/newspaper articles/interviews/memoirs?)
  4. Is there a wider legal framework for encouraging gender equality in STEM in UK universities? (equal opportunities law, published legal sources)
  5. What are some UK universities’ admissions policies and to what extent do they focus on promoting gender diversity/equality? (online mission statements)
  6. What are the debates around “affirmative action” for female STEM students at other universities around the world? (course source about affirmative action, online admissions policy of, e.g., MIT)
  7. Should UK universities missions and admissions policies regarding women in engineering change? (my recommendation on reviewing the published research)

Reviewing your research question(s)

Once you have a clearer idea of your research question(s), ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the research question something you/others care about?
  • Is it arguable?
  • Does it take a new approach to an old idea, or does it solve a current problem?
  • Is it too broad or too narrow?
  • Are any sub-questions irrelevant / missing?
  • What information is needed to answer the question(s)?
  • What sources will have that information (journals, books, Internet
  • resources, government documents, people)?
  • Are there any ethical or practical barriers to you accessing the information?
  • Is the question researchable within the given time frame?


  • There is no set order of operations for developing a good research question: brainstorming, researching, reading, and modifying your question are interconnected stages of the development process. Try to do them all at the same time.


Bilkent University Senate and Board of Trustees. 2005. “Statement on Academic Freedom.” 13 and 26 May. Accessed 13 March 2016.

Thompson Writing Program. 2014. “What Makes a Good Research Question?” February 6. Accessed 13 March 2016.

USC Libraries. 2016. “Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Narrowing a Topic Idea.” March 12. Accessed March 14 2016.