Once you’ve identified a narrow topic, your next step is to write a research question that explains the topic’s significance. Here, “significant” means that the research is meaningful: both you and your reader will gain new information and/or understanding as a result of your work.
In The Craft of Research, authors Booth, Colomb, and Williams offer the following template for developing and refining significant research question:
I am studying _____ because I want to find out _____ so that readers understand_____.
Planning a research project involves three key steps:
- Identifying your focused topic (“I am studying ___”)
- Naming what you hope to learn yourself (“because I want to find out ___”), and
- Explaining your motivation (“so that readers understand ___”).
Step 1: Identify your focused topic
Let’s start with an example:
I am studying differences in Boston-based and Philadelphia-based abolitionist rhetoric…
Notice how specific this topic is—they are not studying “the American Civil War” or “rhetorical style in general.”
On a blank sheet of paper, begin to draft your own research question, using the examples here as models. Start by identifying your focused topic.
I am studying:
- I am studying the alkylation of 1-benzazepines…
- I am studying the origins of the Glass-Steagall Act…
Step 2: Name what you hope to learn
What question are you asking yourself while you explore your evidence and sources?
For our researcher studying abolitionist rhetoric, the sentence becomes:
I am studying differences in Boston-based and Philadelphia-based abolitionist rhetoric because I want to find out why Boston-based abolitionists emphasized broad themes of social justice…
Note that the writer can’t answer this question just yet! That’s why it’s a significant research question: they have to do more work before they’ll be ready to confidently answer.
Returning to your document, list a few questions you’re hoping to answer in the course of your research.
. . . because I want to find out:
Example research questions:
- I am studying the alkylation of 1-benzazepines because I want to find out how reliably the addition of alkyl groups transforms the molecular shape of these compounds into a more applicable, marketable form…
- I am studying the origins of the Glass-Steagall Act because I want to find out why lawmakers supported its passage…
Step 3: Explain your motivation
Now that you’ve identified what you hope to learn, it’s time to explain what someone else might learn from your efforts:
I am studying differences in Boston-based and Philadelphia-based abolitionist rhetoric because I want to find out why Boston-based abolitionists emphasized broad themes of social justice, so that readers understand how previous scholars may have overlooked the role of free Black Bostonians in shaping anti-slavery ideals.
Note that your motivations might be both short-term and long-term.
Now, think about why this project will matter to others. What motivates you to write? Is there an action you’ll persuade your reader to take, or something you want to teach or share?
. . . so that readers understand:
- I am studying the alkylation of 1-benzazepines because I want to find out how reliably the addition of alkyl groups transforms the molecular shape of these compounds into a more applicable, marketable form. This work will help my reader understand whether previous studies of aklylation are replicable; it will also identify whether synthesizing these compounds can contribute to more efficient manufacture of antiretroviral treatments for HIV.
- I am studying the origins of the Glass-Steagall Act because I want to find out why lawmakers supported its passage, so that readers understand that their motives resulted not from careful economic analysis but rather from ideological preconceptions about the role of commercial banks in society.
Develop your own significant research question
Bring it all together: in a complete sentence or paragraph, write down what you hope you and your readers learn from your research.
This resource from the Baruch College Writing Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You are free to share, adapt, transform, or otherwise use this material in any medium, with attribution.